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Authors: Two Brands of Russian Nationalism Drive Kremlin Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin Photo

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin Photo

Two forms of nationalism — one seeing Moscow as the centerpiece of a Eurasian civilization, different from the West and the other defining itself as ethnically Russian — are shaping political discussion inside and outside the Kremlin and influencing actions far away from its borders, two experts on Russia said Wednesday.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, Charles Clover, former Moscow Bureau chief of the Financial Times, said when Russia views itself as a Eurasian power it appears as “an aggressive militaristic power” capable of “sealing itself off from the West.”

In his new book, Black Wind, White Snow, The Rise of Russia of Russia’s New Nationalism, Clover describes how a number of modern Russian writers have seized upon the Eurasian idea to re-define the Kremlin’s role in the world. They were drawing on principles advanced by the White Russians fighting the Communists in the 1920s and Soviet writers in the 1970s, he said.

“I don’t think [President Vladimir] Putin believes in terms like ‘Eurasianism’,” but is “willing to use them as political tools.”

Igor Zevelel, a visiting fellow at CSIS, said in that imperialistic view the goal is to maintain and strengthen a strong state.

If anything, Putin — as a former mayor of St. Petersburg — leans toward the imperialistic view of Russia and not one of ethnic Russian nationalism.

Clover and Zevelel pointed to the differences of Putin’s and Russia’s behavior to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004 that toppled a pro-Russian government and the reaction 10 years later when another pro-Russian government collapsed as examples of how the two forms of nationalism can be in conflict with each other.

In the Eurasian view of Russia and Ukraine, Clover said the writers would draw a line from Murmansk to the western edge of the Black Sea as being in Russia’s strategic interest, leaving out the Baltic nations and western Ukraine.

In 2004, Moscow viewed the Orange Revolution in economic terms, grumbled about the change in government but militarily did nothing — probably a pragmatic view of an ethnically-concerned Russia. “Ten years later, having Crimea and a foothold in eastern Ukraine” was worth the risk, Clover said.

“Putin [who was president in each instance] reacted pragmatically,” he said, but the “definition of pragmatism changed so dramatically” in that time.

As an example of imperialistic reach, Zevelev pointed the Kremlin’s public approval of ethnic Chechens fighting alongside Russians in the separatist struggles in Ukraine. Moscow fought two bloody civil wars to put down Chechens rebelling against Russian control after the fall of the Soviet Union. He also mentioned Russia’s deployment of aircraft, maintainers and security guards to Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as another case in point.

Many Russians today, he added, wouldn’t call this view “nationalistic,” but a patriotic outlook from “a large strong super-ethnic state.” It also “seemed to become an official ideology” when Putin returned to the presidency in 2014.

Zevelev added that even back with “the spiritual ancestors of Russian ethnic” nationalism, such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who were anti-Communist and environmentally concerned, saw its borders as encompassing most of Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan. It was and is a view of “Russian people divided by borders.”

Clover noted that a rising sense of nationalism isn’t confined to Putin and his opponents in Russia, but “is happening everywhere.” He cited the United Kingdom with the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union and the rise of Donald Trump to become the Republic Party’s presidential nominee in the United States as other closer-in examples.

“Nationalism is very easy to whip up, [but] not very easy to whip down,” he said.

  • Bo

    I think a far more dangerous worldview than Nationalism is that of an Internationalist. An Internationalist will look to a supernumerary power or bureaucracy (UN or EU) to “solve” countries’ problems. If any UN blue helmet ever showed up on the soil of these United States in an effort to impose that supernumerary’s will on our lands, I would be one of the first guys behind a precision rifle or the clacker of a roadside mine. Nationalism – love of country and its ideals – is worthy of fighting over. Not some dream of the Star Trek generation. I am sick to death of strategy and policy wonks using Nationalism as a pejorative.

    • scarlet pimpernel

      The author muddled in Brexit & Trump to be an apologist for Putin & Russian aggression.
      Brexit & Trump is about our open borders destroying a nation; Crimea is about making a nation larger; I know this is simplistic, but it is to show the difference.

  • James Bowen

    Russian nationalism historically includes Ukrainians and Belarussians as well.

    • scarlet pimpernel

      Historically? This is not about a history lesson; this is about Putin the Mad & his evil ambitions.

      • James Bowen

        What are you talking about? Ukraine and Belarus have historically been part of Russia. The idea of distinctly separate Ukrainian and Belarussian nations is something that did not really exist before 1991. From a Russian perspective, it is absolutely vital both economically and strategically that Ukraine remain close to Russia.

        If an anti-American mob overthrew the Canadian government and tried to make an alliance with China, I think it is a foregone conclusion that our response would be very similar to Putin’s 2014 response to what happened in Ukraine.

        • scarlet pimpernel

          Russian apologist! Ukraine has its own language & culture. Being enslaved by other countries for most of its history does not mean that it is “a part of” any other country. I guess you want Poland to go back to Russia, too. A stupid historic game you are playing.

          • James Bowen

            I am not a speaker of Slavic languages, but I have been told by Ukrainians that Ukrainian and Russian are mutually intelligible and from what I have read it would appear that they are two dialects of the same language.

            Enslaved–what are you talking about? Russian civilization began in what is now Ukraine. Following the decline of the Kievan Rus and the subsequent Mongol invasion, Russia was divided amongst different rulers. The area that Moscow is in was ruled by Mongol overlords (known as the Golden Horde, I think), while parts of what is now Ukraine came under the rule of several different states, including Poland/Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire. The Russian nations, including Ukraine, were re-unified by the tsars (who originally rose to power in Moscow) over a 250 year period from the 1400’s until the early 1700’s.

            Like I said, the idea of a Ukrainian nation as distinct from that of Russia is something that was largely non-existent before 1991. Even today, the idea is very controversial and Ukraine is bitterly and violently divided on the issue. Those in the western part of the country see themselves as separate and those in the east see themselves as part of a greater Russian culture. The narrative in western Ukraine is largely driven by those who want to align with Europe instead of Russia, but it flies in the face of history and reality.

            Whatever one thinks of Putin and whatever kind of man he is, it is a sure bet that any Russian Federation president is going to take the same position on Ukraine that he is. There are a number of things the Russians might compromise on, but they will under no circumstances let Ukraine drift away from Russia. If it came down to it, they would dismemeber Ukraine to prevent it from aligning with the West, though Putin’s actions indicate he would rather it not come down to that.

          • scarlet pimpernel

            Could you also read Hitler’s or Stalin’s mind? You do not know what these mad men are capable of doing. I know the history of Russia & Ukraine; but the Ukrainian People do not consider themselves part of Russia; that is what is important.
            Also the Western Ukrainians have closer attachments to the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Maybe that Empire should be restored. I could care less about Russia’s desires.

          • James Bowen

            Half of the Ukrainian people do in fact consider themselves part of a greater Russian nation (i.e. culture and ethnicity). The other half have subscribed to a convenient but largely unfounded narrative that they are completely separate from the Russian nation. It just so happens that the half that considers themselves Russians or at least members of the Russian extended family controls all of the prime agricultural land and most of the industrial plant in Ukraine. Those in eastern Ukraine have both Russia on their side and the bulk of the country’s resources under their control, while those in the western part of the country have a strong but unrealistic desire of joining the EU (even before their current struggle for survival, the EU was in no mood to admit Ukraine). Those who want to join the EU might currently control the government in Ukraine, but they have little else going for them. If they tried to join the EU and NATO and in the unlikely event that they were accepted, Russia and pro-Russian Ukrainians would quickly move to dismember the country. The resource-rich eastern part of Ukraine, as well as most of the Black Sea coast, would go to Russia while an impoverished rump state would be all that is left to join the EU and NATO.

            You may not care about Russia’s desires, but the reality is that Russia exists, it is a large powerful nation, and like the U.S. it has vital interests that it is going to zealously guard. You may not like it, but it is reality and it is not going away just because you don’t care.

          • scarlet pimpernel

            You are just an apologist for Putin the mad man; so I will just end this conversation. Russia is a demographically dying drunk country & this is its last hurrah.

          • James Bowen

            Russia is not dying anytime soon. Their public health situation has improved dramatically in the last decade. Their industrial output, at least in terms of anything potentially of military value, is roughly equal to that of the U.S. Ukraine is in a part of the world where they have a geostrategic advantage. Whatever you think of Russia and whatever you think of Putin, their view on this matter counts, and frankly speaking counts more than ours does.

          • Chittwood2

            Mr. Pimpernel,

            You, sir, don’t know what you’re talking about. All you offer is ridiculous accusations without fact.

            The Crimea has been part of Russia more than three times longer than California has been part of the United States. The ONLY reason it became part of Ukraine is because of the power struggle among the communist leaders (Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov) after the death of Stalin in March 1953. Khrushchev offered it to the Politburo members of the Ukrainian S.S.R and with it the revenue from Russia’s only ice-free port of Sevastopol in exchange for their votes. This allowed him to push aside his rivals and attain the greatest power in the soviet state. But prior to this it had been part of the Russian S.S.R and Imperial Russia for almost 500 years.

            The Orange Revolution was incited and partly funded by the US Government and international agitator and criminal enabler, George Soros. WE are far more to blame for the problems in Crimea than Vladimir Putin.

            I am a Paleoconservative and an enemy of communism in any form, and have been for over fifty years. But only a mule-faced idiot like John Kerry and a corrupt ignoramus like Hillary Clinton would ever think ANY leader of Russia would allow their only year-round ice free port to fall under the control of a power they deemed adversarial (NATO).

            Putin is what he is and can be that from now on, but that poses no threat to the United States in Ukraine or Crimea. The earth could open up and swallow them and it would cause no loss or threat to the United States.

          • AmPatriotSmith

            Very good assessment. I can’t see us getting into a confrontation over Ukraine. I think the people should decide.

          • James Bowen

            Thank you.

  • Dave_TX

    How much of Russia’s and Putin’s behavior is driven by the low price of energy causing economic problems in the country, plus the the aging of the Russian population? A few years ago it was posited that Russia had to assert itself before its population declined too much. Are the confrontations we see in the news a way for Putin to look tough so he can pose as the protector of people and Mother Russia against the assaults of the West?