“Vitality, intelligence, brute force,” proclaims Lana, the beautiful blonde with the sexy Russian accent, as the camera zooms out to reveal the hulking, muscle-bound giant by her side. “He is the super-athlete, Alexander Rusev.” Rusev, the “Bulgarian Brute,” utters a string of ominous-sounding words in a foreign tongue. A graphic appears with his name spelled out in Cyrillic characters beside an image of the Bulgarian flag. Despite the assurances of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) that Rusev hails from Bulgaria, this video package evokes a too-familiar message: the Russians are coming.
It’s a message that has been circulating since January, when the former Soviet nation of Ukraine started coming apart at the seams. The crisis in the Ukraine began for economic reasons, as public protest erupted over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to accept financial aid from Russia instead of the European Union. Since then, the situation has escalated at a rate that can be accurately described as exponential. Police began attacking protesters, after which protests quickly turned into riots. The anti-government opposition refused all attempts to negotiate, Yanukovych fled the country for Russia and opposition leaders assumed power. Now, it appears that Russian forces have invaded the Crimea, an autonomous part of eastern Ukraine, an act the new Ukrainian government calls “a declaration of war.”
All of this adds up to a very simple media narrative: the plucky Ukrainians are rising up in peaceful democratic fashion against a corrupt dictator seeking to ally their nation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They wanted help from the West, but Yanukovych turned to the East. He paid the price for that mistake, and the Ukrainian people, newly freed from the yolk of authoritarianism, now move to combat the retributive aggression of the evil empire.
As always, things are more complicated than that. Yanukovych is undoubtedly corrupt (newly-revealed pictures of his unfinished presidential palace display a level of extravagance and greed rarely seen outside 18th century Versailles) but he was also democratically elected. Technically, Ukraine has undergone a coup. One of the driving forces in this coup seems to have been Ukraine’s right-wing fascist movement, which is worrisome. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the explicit favorite of the US to take control in Ukraine, quickly became the interim prime minister, which is suspicious. Of course, the difference between “a flourishing of democracy” and a violent, undemocratic takeover is all in where US interests lie. We supported al-Qaeda in Syria because they were anti-Assad, as well as the recent Egyptian military coup because we didn’t like their election results. Ukraine is no different.
As for the media, their interests were blatantly revealed by Washington Post columnist George Will, who came right out and asked if we were witnessing what he called “the final episode of the Cold War.” That’s clearly where the media wants this to go. Putin is the perfect villain, and his demonization has been heavily increased during the Olympic Games in Sochi. Between his disdain for human rights, his alliance with China and his granting asylum to Edward Snowden, it’s easy (and profitable) to build a new Cold War around Putin, with a divided Ukraine as the battleground.
Except, unfortunately, that the Cold War never really went away. The US has spent the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall expanding NATO until it brushes against the borders of Russia and bringing one eastern European nation after another under Western influence. Putin has good reason to feel threatened, and his reaction – invasion – was painfully predictable.
Last Thursday, Alexander Rusev used a submission hold once known as “the Camel Clutch.” It was used in the 1980s by the villainous Iron Sheik, and again in the mid-2000s by the fiendish Muhammad Hassan. The Shiek and Hassan were pop culture reactions to anti-Arab sentiment in their respective time periods, but that sentiment, like the “war on terror” itself, was just a stop-gap, a fill-in conflict that let us catch our breath and gather resources in preparation for the main event. WWE, it seems, is just as excited as everyone else about the return of the Cold War.
Originally published in The Lumberjack.