Analysis, Top Story

Defense of Ethnic Russians Complicates Putin’s Eurasia Agenda

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

Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013
Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013 (Kremlin)

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

Although Putin has denied sending troops into 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 and their “compatriots.”

This emphasis on ethnic Russians, who constitute the majority population of the Black Sea peninsula, defies Putin’s earlier warning that nationalism would weaken Russian society.

“Infected”

In 2012, Putin praised Russian culture, which he argued at the time was “the glue holding together the unique fabric of this civilization,” but he also warned:

If a multiethnic society is infected by nationalism, it loses its strength and durability.

It seemed Putin was trying 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.

What changed?

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, argues 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 come to the forefront.

Where anti-Westernism used to be a means to an end — to rally public support for Putin’s policies — it is now an end in itself “as it is just the flip side,” to Putin, “of preserving and exalting Russian civilization.”

Illiberal turn

The shift became apparent early last year, when Putin, after winning a third presidential term, removed 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 give 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.

Shoring up support

The nationalist revival that is propagated by the Kremlin is in part an attempt to shore up Putin’s working-class support.

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 designed to woo those constituencies.

Demographics

Another reason is Russia’s demographic challenge.

The Russian population shrunk for two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union 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.

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 far-fetched. 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.