Russia’s conduct toward Ukraine and other formerly Soviet states in Eurasia reflects the lack of a cohesive grand strategy on the Kremlin’s part. A critical flaw is that the logic of confrontation inherent in its doctrine of protecting Russian-speakers living abroad contradicts President Vladimir Putin’s intention to forge Eurasia’s economic integration.
Ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russian policymakers have wrestled with the question of where does Russia (as a national community and as a state) begin and where does it end? In all of Putin’s recent speeches, especially those related to the Ukraine crisis, a murky notion of a Russkii Mir (Russian World) has figured prominently.
“We will always defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine,” said Putin in early July at a gathering of Russian ambassadors. He added that Moscow’s protection will be extended to “that part of the Ukrainian people who feels linked by unbreakable ties to Russia – not only by ethnic, but also cultural and linguistic ties; who regard themselves as part of a broader Russian World.”
Trying to comprehend what defines “the Russian world” begins with an examination of Putin’s efforts to bring about a Eurasian Union. According to the Kremlin’s geopolitical outlook, the Eurasian Union is the fundamental building block of a strategy to maintain Russia as a global power. For Russia to compete globally with the United States, China or the European Union, it needs to have a regional bloc behind it, Russian leaders believe.
Viewed through this strategic prism, Russia’s move against Ukraine is rooted in the Kremlin’s determination to bring Kyiv into the Eurasian fold and prevent the West from gaining a “strategic bridgehead” on the territory of Russkii Mir.
Ultimately, Russkii Mir is designed to be the ethno-cultural component of Putin’s Eurasian Union plan. Here, however, Kremlin ideology hits a speed bump: Russkii Mir, as some astute analysts argue, is not so much a transnational “community of ethnic Russians or societies committed to Russian culture,” it is more of a specific “civilization” – an “unwesternizable” and “unmodernizable” one that is based, in the words of Anton Shekhovtsov, on distinctly “un-Western” principles, including “disdain for liberal democracy, suppression of human rights, and undermining the rule of law.”
Regardless of ethnicity, then, whoever shares the philosophical outlook of Russkii Mir belongs in it, and, automatically, should be considered a prospective member of the “Eurasian Union” because the group represents, in the words of Aleksandr Lukin, a pro-Kremlin analyst, an explicitly “non-Western model.”
A significant problem for Putin is that the drive toward Eurasian integration is counterbalanced by a domestic trend toward disengagement, which is the byproduct of a profound shift in Russian public attitudes. In the minds of a growing number of Russians, the millions of labor migrants now working in Russia (mostly from the Caucasus and Central Asia), are associated with drug smuggling, violence and criminality.
Migration is a complex phenomenon across the board, and it plays a particularly controversial role in relations between Russia and ex-Soviet nations. On the one hand, labor migrants constitute one of the strongest links connecting Russia to post-Soviet Eurasia. But on the other, it acts as a major irritant, fostering alienation and enmity among ethnic communities and spurring xenophobia among Russian nationalists. It is noteworthy that the segment of Russian society that is critical of labor migration is far broader than just pockets of skinheads. In fact, migration-related issues are becoming an important element in the discourses on Russian foreign policy and on Russian identity.
When it comes to the Ukraine crisis, Russian nationalists have exhibited contradictory reactions – something that may be prompting Putin to think twice about how far to push things. The reality is most Russian ethnic and civic nationalists share a rather dim view of “Eurasian integration.” The general consensus among them is that preventing what they see as the social degradation of Central Asian societies is futile, thus it is folly to seek an alliance with them. Simply stated, Russian nationalists believe Central Asia will drag Russia down.
Believing the concept of a “Russian World” to be slightly disguised neo-imperialism, liberal nationalists are advocating a different approach: Instead of trying to “integrate” formerly Soviet states economically, or strive to control them by employing the tactic of “managed instability,” Russia should craft a smart repatriation policy, they contend.
The mass resettlement of ethnic Russians now living in other formerly Soviet republics, in addition to attracting skilled workers among other nationalities who share an affinity for Russian culture, would be beneficial to Russia both economically and politically, liberal nationalist thinking goes. So the guiding principle of the liberal-nationalist version of a Russkii Mir is this: rather than gathering “Russian lands,” Moscow should gather “Russian” people.
Under Putin’s notion of a Russkii Mir, he is playing a dangerous game of trying to push Russia’s borders outward. A much more efficient and less risky strategy would be to encourage Russians to return home. Russia already has more than enough territory to suit its needs.
This commentary was first published at Eurasianet and was reprinted here with permission.