By Josh Gold
Much is said about President Vladimir Putin’s international strategy and tactics, from cyber attacks and information warfare to domestic repression and a campaign of international irredentism to distract from a dismal economy at home. But a major element of his international strategy is rooted in an historic quest to modernise, reify an imagined Russian Greatness, and develop a collective identity among all Russians. To do so, Putin uses ‘patriotism,’ his national idea, to serve as a foundation for an international strategy steeped in so-called ‘Eurasianism.’ Putin’s form of nationalism leads to his aggressive foreign policy and even serves to legitimise it. It is also critical to his ability to stay in power. Furthermore, the Russian identity that Putin fosters is largely inherently incompatible with the interests of the liberal world order. To understand this, it is important to understand Russia’s historical patterns of modernisation and search for identity, as well as Eurasianism and its manifestations in Putin’s tactics.
Putin’s predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin, first leader of today’s Russian Federation, were transformational leaders: Gorbachev by attempting dramatic reforms such as glasnost and perestroika, and Yeltsin through the final destruction of the USSR and efforts to form a democratic and open Russian Federation.
But these were not the first attempts at Russian modernisation. In fact, Russian history—going back to the 16th century—can be seen as a series of modernisation projects, attempting to address the gap between the country’s development and that of Europe. Other than a few fleeting moments in Russia’s history in which it was dominant, Russia has always been a weak great power, marked by soaring ambitions that are unrealistic and impossible given the country’s resources and capabilities.
This has led to a deep-rooted and persistent feeling of ‘relative backwardness’ among Russian élites, whose efforts to catch up to the West have long been divided into two main ideologies: ‘Westernisers’ who seek to emulate Europe, and ‘Slavophiles,’ who emphasise Russian exceptionalism.
This ideological debate is central to Russia’s longstanding national identity question. During Yeltsin’s years, the collapse of communism left an ideological void characterised by widespread corruption, economic chaos and socio-political strife, with no unifying vision to believe in.
Enter Putin, whose strategy was to blame Russia’s problems on the West, while promising to restore stability, economic growth, and an imagined past greatness. After 18 years, Russians are richer (though well behind advanced Western countries), can travel, and can find more consumer goods on in their stores. But this has gone hand in hand with a systematic assault on civil liberties and democracy, with power increasingly centralised and elements of Soviet-style government returning. Nevertheless, Putin has fostered a strong sense of stability, which is extremely important to Russians.
Putin has also reintroduced and reinforced a Slavophile national idea of Russia and its place in the world. This national idea rests on a form of ‘patriotism,’ based heavily on neo-Eurasianist philosophy as promoted by the influential contemporary Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin. Dugin’s (fascist) Eurasianism is the latest manifestation of Russian exceptionalism, and has appropriated Russian nationalism. Eurasianism considers Russia to be culturally closer to Asia than to Europe, and involves a sophisticated method of achieving dominance throughout Eurasia through various aggressive, but non-military means. Presented by its proponents as an alternative to liberal democracy, this Eurasianism embraces totalitarian ideologies and seeks to take perceived positive elements from both Stalinism and Nazi fascism. It also emphasises Russians as a traditional people and puts Orthodox Christianity (with which 70% of Russians identify), at the epicentre of this identity.
Putin’s ‘patriotism’ and its underlying quest to increase Russian influence can help explain many aspects of the Kremlin’s international tactics. Its actions in Ukraine speak not only to a conviction of Western power projection into Russia’s self-perceived ‘spheres of influence,’ but also to a yearning for great power status and ‘protection’ of Russian people everywhere. Following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his popularity skyrocketed to 90%; Russians told pollsters they felt like a superpower again. Military actions in Syria generate similar reaction.
Patriotism and the so-called ‘traditional’ element of Putin’s Russian collective consciousness also manifest themselves internationally in a range of less obvious tactics, all of which help further Putin’s foreign policy strategy. In cyberspace, while actions may be promoted and directed by the Kremlin, a trend of ‘patriotic hacking’ has emerged, in which hundreds of Russians with computer skills hack targets in perceived defence or support of the state. This was seen, for example, in attacks against Estonia in 2007 and those in Georgia the following year.
Russia’s Orthodox Church pushes hard to promote a certain vision of Russky mir (Russian world), which has been broadened to involve a form of ‘spiritual security’ and general conservatism. An example is in Georgia, where the Russian Orthodox Church works through the Georgian Orthodox Church against the western trajectory of the state.
The national identity that Putin has created legitimises and even requires his aggressive international tactics, and these tactics reinforce this national identity. But beneath this tautology lies a much simpler reason for these tactics: they keep Putin in power, giving him popular support and sympathy. In this light, Putin’s strategy has succeeded; he continues to largely deliver on his promises of stability, and his people support him. However, the success is short term, and in the long run, failure to reform his country’s government, legal environment, and economy, will make it increasingly difficult to deliver what his people want most: economic growth and stability.
In dealing with Putin, the West should first and foremost avoid giving Russia the status of a new rival superpower. As George Kennan wrote 70 years ago, much of Moscow’s actions are driven by deep insecurity. The response should be to contain, resist and expose Russian aggression, and to make Putin’s actions expensive. Maintaining or intensifying sanctions is wise. NATO’s readiness should be upgraded, and alliances should be reassured. Conceding to spheres of influence is unacceptable. But cooperation on mutual interests should continue. Ultimately, patience and commitment to maintain our values are most important; after all, the greatest threat to Russia is not NATO or the US, but its own unsustainable regime.
Russia’s nationalism, based on a myth of exceptionalism and insecurity of ‘relative backwardness’ vis-à-vis the West is an important driving factor behind Putin’s international strategy and the tactics he uses. But while his system may seem stable in the short run, it lacks any institutions or sustainable basis for long run success.
Featured image source: CPD Blog
Josh Gold is a student-athlete at the University of Toronto, where he swims competitively while studying global affairs. He is a Canadian of both Jewish and Estonian heritage. Josh is interested in conflict and identity construction, as well as cybersecurity and blockchain technology.