Defense of Ethnic Russians Complicates Putin’s Eurasia Agenda

The Russian leader’s justification for annexing the Crimea defies his earlier warnings against ethnic nationalism.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s justification for annexing the Crimea seems at odds with his stated ideology which was closer to Eurasianism than Russian nationalism.

While Putin has denied sending troops into the Crimea, a peninsula Russia formally annexed from Ukraine this week, he did vow to protect Russian speakers and Russian interests in the region. The Russian senate also gave him permission to use force in order to protect the lives of Russian citizens in the former Soviet republic as well as their “compatriots.”

This emphasis on ethnic Russians, who constitute the majority population of the Crimea, defies Putin’s earlier warnings that nationalism could weaken Russia’s society.

In 2012, Putin praised Russian culture which he argued at the time was “the glue holding together the unique fabric of this civilization” but warned, “If a multiethnic society is infected by nationalism, it loses its strength and durability.” Putin was aiming instead to foster an Eurasian sense of identity, pulling former Soviet satellite states in Central Asia and Eastern Europe into an economic and political union with Russia.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, recognizes that Putin’s “self-image of himself as Russia’s savior, as well as a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilization has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenizing Western influence,” has now come to the forefront. Where anti-Westernism was previously a means to an end — to rally public support for Putin’s policies — it is becoming an end in itself for the Russian leader “as it is just the flip side — to him — of preserving and exalting Russian civilization.”

The shift became apparent early last year when Putin, after winning his third presidential term, began removing liberals from his inner circle in favor of conservative veterans of the nation’s security and spy services known as the siloviki. Economic reforms stalled, Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports increased and Putin appeared to have given up hope of closer relations with the European Union and the United States, retreating instead into the former Soviet sphere with his attempt to build an Eurasian Union.

The nationalist revival that is propagated by the Kremlin is in part an attempt to shore up Putin’s working-class support. Especially urban and middle-class Russians, whose economic prospects improved during the last decade in large part because of the liberal economic reforms Putin enacted, are increasingly dissatisfied with corruption and nepotism at the top as well as the president’s authoritarian tendencies. Rural and working-class voters, by contrast, have seen little economic improvement in recent years and are turning to communist and nationalist rather than leftist opposition parties. Putin’s appeals to Russian patriotism and tradition, including an infamous ban on gay “propaganda,” are apparently designed to charm these constituencies.

Another reason is Russia’s demographic challenge. The Russian population shrunk for twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 — which left more than twenty million Russians stranded on the “wrong” side of the border in former Soviet republics. That is why Putin once described the event as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century and it might be why he now seems bent on recovering such territories.

Putin’s agenda, then, is still Eurasian in scope but no longer Eurasian in a cultural sense. That makes his proposed Eurasian Union seem even more farfetched. Non-Russian peoples will be all the more likely to see Putin’s attempt to draw their countries into an association with Russia as one to reconstruct the Soviet Union if they believe they would be treated as second-class citizens under it. The price of a prouder, stronger Russia may well be the defeat of Putin’s imperial ambitions.

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