by Scott Sharon
When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings soared, Russia’s economy was strong, and it seemed like the big bear was back. Feeling he could do no wrong in the eyes of the Russian people, Putin then proceeded to fan the flames of a deadly insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. Russia pitted the Donbass region against Kiev, smuggled military hardware under the guise of humanitarian aid to separatists, and sent in its own troops cloaked in deceit as volunteers looking to assist proponents of Novorossiya, or “The New Russia.” Putin succeeded in convincing his population that they needed him to survive and that he was the only one who could return Russia to its glory of a bygone era. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine may loom large at the moment, but underneath the surface lurks something potentially more dangerous and even harder to contain: resurgent Russian nationalism.
Throughout its history, Russia has prided itself on greatness. Moscow was once even referred to as “The Third Rome” as far back as the 1500s. In the 19th century, Emperor Nicholas I adopted the motto “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” as official ideology, which provided the basis for guarding Slavic culture, and protecting it against what it viewed as the detrimental influences of Western Europe. The motto “Russia for Russians” dates back to the 1905 Russian Revolution and was a potent battle cry for emerging nationalist parties headed by powerful aristocrats. Pan-Slavism played an integral role in the start of World War 1, when Russia almost immediately backed Serbia against threats of conflict by Austria-Hungary and Germany. Though very different in ideology, the Soviet era saw an even bigger outpouring of patriotism, whether it was during the fight against Nazi Germany or the Cold War against the United States.
The weight of Russian nationalism was perhaps best exemplified during Napoleon’s march toward Moscow in 1812 and Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, when Stalin’s order of “Not one step back” became a powerful symbol of Soviet resistance. Accordingly, in Russia these two conflicts are referred to as “The Patriotic War of 1812” and “The Great Patriotic War,” respectively. Both saw foreign invaders cut large swaths into Russian territory, and both were ultimately turned back at extremely high costs. These two wars help explain Russia’s fundamental sense of insecurity and its desire to maintain buffer zones to keep the West out. The subsequent Cold War then cemented this mindset for many Russians.
But even after the Berlin Wall fell, the continued existence and expansion of NATO has provided cause enough for distrust of the West to persist. Within this larger context, the current crisis in Ukraine is viewed in Russia as started by a Western-backed, fascist coup overthrowing Moscow’s partner in Kiev. Moreover, Moscow fears this coup is just one part of a Western strategy to draw the remaining former Soviet republics out of its sphere of influence, leaving Russian soil vulnerable to Western (i.e., NATO) forces.
This constant fear is what motivated Putin to jump on the nationalist bandwagon and declare that he has an obligation to protect all Russian-speaking peoples. He will not abate until it becomes clear that Ukraine will never join either NATO or the European Union. The first ceasefire, on September 5th, the Minsk Agreement, was doomed from the start as daily violations, which both sides blamed on each other, marred any chance for progress. Attempts to revive the agreement in December looked promising when Kiev and the separatists began swapping prisoners, but renewed fighting has plagued any hopes for a quick and decisive end to the conflict. With massive shelling in Donetsk, and the Ukrainian forces’ surrender of the airport, a highly symbolic target, it is fair to say that neither side is any closer to victory than they were a month ago.
A December 2014 BBC article entitled, “The Russians Fighting a ‘Holy War’ in Ukraine,” describes the fanaticism of some of the separatists and their Russian allies. A term that has been widely used to describe the fighting spirit of Muslim extremists has now been adopted by the most fanatical of a new generation of Russian nationalists who “share the Kremlin’s distaste for Western liberal values.” One such nationalist and pro-Russian rebel interviewed in the article, Pavel Rasta, referred to Donetsk as Jerusalem and described a war for the Russian people, their future, their ideals, and their children. Pavel went on to blame the West for instigating the conflict in Ukraine, and spoke of his fear that if his side loses, the war will cross over into Russia (i.e., The West will really encroach on its borders).
“To many outsiders this looks like paranoia. But the idea that Russia – and the wider Orthodox, Slav world – are surrounded by steadily encroaching enemies has been a powerful current in Russian thought for at least 200 years. And the tradition of volunteers travelling to defend it goes back a long way.”
The problem with the nationalism Putin has tapped into is that it will likely be very difficult to tame, especially since that it is what drives support for the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. At this juncture, the separatists will not stop until Kiev forces withdraw to the West of the country. But even if this conflict draws to a conclusion on favorable terms, Russian nationalist may urge Putin to do more, and this is where the danger lies. Even if oil prices sink to $20 a barrel, and Western sanctions pull the ruble even further down, will Putin be able to withstand the pressure when he is asked to stir up trouble in a neighboring Baltic State? He has tapped into the dark side of Russian nationalism, convinced his population that they need him to survive, and inspired the separatists in Eastern Ukraine to continue their fight against Kiev. But while Putin may accrue short-term benefits by drumming up national pride, he may very well reach a point where even he has no control over what he unleashed.
Scott Sharon is an independent Foreign Policy Analyst currently interning at the Hudson Institute, assisting at the National Security Archive, and writing for a European startup, Hozint. He is also a volunteer staff member for YPFP, serving as Manager of the Job Link Team.