Russia: Pondering Putin’s Policy Contradiction

by Eurasianet

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.

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  1. While this article is well crafted, and addresses important issues facing Russia, I think its diagnosis and and recommendation are flawed.

    No one can deny that many competing forces in Russia with differing agendas are vying to influence its foreign policy, but it would be a mistake to overstate the influence of the ‘Atlanticists’, or to misread or underestimate the advice to, or actions taken by, President Putin, and thereby conclude that he lacks a coherent foreign policy or world view. If anything, his policy has been balanced and consistent, and it has been articulated time and time again in President Putin’s and Foreign Minister Lavrov’s speeches and press conferences- where, for example, in the face of almost daily slings and arrows from the US, NATO and EU, they have reiterated (sometimes with frustration) Russia’s desire to work with Europe AND Asia in the larger Eurasian space and beyond- rather than exclusively with the one or the other. Perhaps more tellingly, it has been reflected in the actions Putin has taken in furtherance of those goals, as with the BRICS, SCO, and Third World non-aligned countries, and in his measured and restrained response to crises not of his making, such as: (1) the US-EU sanctions against Russia, or: (2) the US-EU-NATO violation of Ukrainian sovereignty in the engineering of a coup and installing a junta government in Kiev, or: (3) the terrible human rights violations and humanitarian crisis that have been perpetrated by that same junta, or: (4) the national security threat that a hostile Ukraine directed by a hostile US and NATO now pose to Russia on borders only a few hundred miles from Moscow. (Just consider how much worse this could have been had the junta also seized and turned over to the US and NATO the Crimea and its Sevastopol naval base, and what THAT would have meant to Russia’s security with a belligerent US basing its ships there armed with nuclear missiles pointed at the heart of Russia- something arguably not even covered by the 500 mile limitation for land based missiles under its existing nuclear arms agreement with the US.)

    At the very least, it seems disingenuous to suggest that Russia should be turning inward when or because its national security and business opportunities are being threatened or sabotaged. Its strategy is designed to meet those threats and strengthen its domestic economy and military, yet also to develop business and cultural relationships all over the world. Ultimately, it is looking to produce a civilizational change in the paradigm of global relations a polycentric multipolar approach that hears and respects the voice of every nation state in the community of nations and to produce an architecture than guarantees and enhances mutual security- in contrast to ours that has sponsored what has become never ending war, chaos and hell, whether or in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or over thirty other hotspots, in furtherance of some utopian US ruled ‘world order’ and ‘security’ far into the future.

    Theirs is a policy without military coercion, and I fear our nation will lose out if, in pursuit of hegemony, we try to destroy Russia, (or China), instead of engaging them in cooperative action and constructive competition. There are too many problems in the world to solve if we want our children and grandchildren to survive and prosper.

  2. I too have seen Russian intervention in Ukraine as working against Russia’s programme of creating a rival to the EU.

  3. Interesting post, and comments too. So I’ll add mine too, as I usually do. When ever someone writes as if they know the reactions to others meddling into the affairs by persons who live far away, – the U.S. – for instance in it’s war on terror, as well as the many other engagements throughout the world with Military forces, at this period in time, is the equal of choosing sides in the schoolyard antics during the growing stage of puberty. I believe it’s beyond the pale today, as there are just too many over the top actions, as if to say that every bodies wish list will be granted. That is, the politicians giving to the special interests, for those bags of money, which everyone knows is quid pro quo, but that only pertains to those with the money. So as the politicians exit the arena to tell the voters how valuable they are for each one of these issues that face each taxpayer and their family, today and tomorrow. Just vote to elect-reelect these recipients of those bags full of money, but it wont be in your favor.

  4. The Ukraine is very different than any of the other old Soviet states. It is the traditional entryway for military aggression against Russia.

    The author also failed to note that what happened first was that Washington putsched Kiev, setting it up to be a NATO asset aimed with hostile intent against Moscow.

    When the Soviet Union fell there was as de facto agreement that the Ukraine would remain neutral. Putin did not really believe that Washington would dare break that neutrality because he thought that his control of energy to Europe was his trump card.

    While Putin was enjoying himself at the Winter Olympics at Sochi he found out how wrong he was.

    Since then he has been playing catch up trying to prevent Empire from taking all of the Ukraine.

    Before the Kiev putsch Putin had not really thought that Empire’s de facto declaration of Cold War 2 against China would really effect Russia. He thought his country would fulfill its geographical destiny and be a go- between.

    After Kiev, Putin learned how wrong he had been. He had failed to read his Brzezinski. or he failed to take him seriously.

    Now Putin knows as does Xi that they have been pushed into a shotgun marriage by Washington. Both China and Russia will hang together or hang alone.

    Both are quickly building an axes of resistance against Empire (the Anglo 5 + Western Europe + Japan). The best place for them to center this resistance will be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And that will be the best vehicle to bring in all of the Central Asian “Stans”, as well as others of the past Soviet republics as partners.

    It will also avoid any sloppy and unnecessary reintegration of them into Russia proper.

  5. Chances of admission of Ukraine to Nato were very low, as a practical matter. Zero need for Russia to intervene in Ukraine, to ensure this does not happen.

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