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Post-communist Russia’s wars and Eurasianism

Russia’s resurgence on the global stage has been motivated by desires to influence all the post-Soviet space. This is clear with regards to various political and military moves, such as those concerning Ukraine. Yet, actions of this type have not been replicated along any part of Russia’s Asian border.

January 26, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

General rehersal ahead of the 72nd Victory Day military parade in 2017 in Alabino, Russia. Photo: Andrey Degtyaryov / Shutterstock

The rulers of today’s Russia have not yet come to terms with the decolonisation of the Soviet empire. They see the West’s respect for democracy and human rights as a serious political flaw. The economically and militarily weaker Kremlin intends to use this seeming vulnerability to destabilise the European Union and regain its Soviet empire. To this end, Moscow has instigated conflicts, waged never-ending border wars and supported internationally unrecognised de facto states in Europe’s post-Soviet zone throughout the past three decades. The West’s response has been muted, designed to make Moscow see reason, but to no avail. At the same time, in the much larger Asian section of the post-Soviet space, Russia remains a “good citizen”. The Kremlin realises that Beijing would not hesitate to use naked force and the full brunt of the Chinese economy to challenge Russia. As a result, Central Asia’s post-Soviet states are left alone to act as they wish, with no direct Russian interference. Russia did not intervene even when Turkmenistan decided to expel ethnic Russians and suppress Russian language and culture. Moscow continues to do little to stop Asia’s post-Soviet states turning towards China. From this geopolitical perspective, Russia is a European country. Despite this, Moscow remains paradoxically at odds with its European origins and culture.

Early post-Soviet wars

Vladimir Putin’s long rule has seen Russia experience a neo-imperial resurgence. Western observers and Russian democrats quickly parted with their early hopes, oft-repeated during the tumultuous 1990s, that Russia would soon become a “normal European country”. Instead, constant challenges directed at neighbouring states and unending wars have become the post-communist Kremlin’s regular course of action. In contrast to the Soviet Union’s decade-long disastrous involvement in Afghanistan, however, today’s Russian hawks exclusively look toward Europe. In 1992, the Soviet-turned-Russian army units stationed in Moldova launched an attack on the country, leading to the de-facto independence of the easternmost region of Transnistria. Later, faced with an economy in free fall and the threat of social unrest, the Kremlin turned inward to fight two civil wars against Chechnya between 1994 and 2000. The briefly independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was eventually subdued following a genocidal-scale loss of life.

This war’s murderous success gave Putin’s rule a boost of legitimacy right at its inception. The event also drew an important red line in post-Soviet politics. The decolonisation effect that resulted in the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 yielded 15 new states, including Russia. However, no such developments would be permitted in the case of the Russian Federation’s 21 autonomous republics, with their own ethnically non-Russian titular nations. In the early 1990s, the new Russian phrase “new/near abroad” (novoe/blizhnee zarubezh’e) appeared in order to describe the new 14 post-Soviet states as observed from Moscow. In the popular Russian understanding, this near abroad is not truly foreign and largely remains “significantly Russian”, if at this moment no longer belonging to Russia. In 2005, Putin supported this understanding of the post-Soviet space in a political statement, proclaiming that the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century”.

Russian world and Lebensraum

On this basis, the Kremlin developed the doctrine of the “Russian world” (Russkii mir) two years later in 2007. Initially, the soft power doctrine focused on Russian-speaking communities in the near abroad and promoted the seemingly “natural” unity of Russian language and culture. But soon afterward, this ideological concept of Russkii mir was transformed into support for post-communist Russia’s standing claim to all the territories that used to belong not only to the Soviet Union, but also to its predecessor, the Russian Empire. From Moscow’s perspective, such a combined historical area is or should become Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. Similarly, the zone must be protected against the influence of any foreign powers. This is exemplified by Russian propaganda that discusses NATO, the United States and the European Union as unwelcome intruders in this zone.

This neo-imperial understanding of an exclusive sphere of influence is combined with the Kremlin’s recent adoption of the typically Central European ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism. Proponents of this ideology maintain that all speakers of a language (speech community) “naturally” constitute a nation in its own right. The area inhabited by this language’s speakers should subsequently be turned into a linguistic nation’s true nation-state. Often, as a nod to tradition, religion is also factored into this equation as an additional means of legitimisation. The language and the territorial spread of the speech community are seen as intended or given by god. That is supposedly why no human force has the right to stand between the nation and its true homeland. Putin, as Russia’s undisputed ruler (autocrat), co-opted the Russian Orthodox Church to support his decisions, as if his views were approved by god. In this way, the Russian Empire’s 19th century slogan of “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality” (Pravoslavie, samoderzhavie, narodnost’) was revived for the new age of the Russkii mir.

From the perspective of this ideology of the Russian world, Russia subsequently extends to wherever Russian is spoken as a leading language of everyday communication (The future Germany was defined in a similar manner in 1813). All Russian speakers are thought of as members of the Russian nation. Moscow allegedly retains the right to intervene outside its current frontiers, in places where the interests of such Russian-speaking groups are endangered in the eyes of Moscow. However, the ideal goal of the Russkii mir is to extend Russia’s current territory so that it will fully overlap with the areas where Russian speakers now live. Hand in hand, the expansion of the Russian Orthodox Church should follow. At present, the majority of the Russian nation supposedly finds itself in a country that is too small for it. In this view, many Russian (Russian-speaking) communities “suffer under foreign rule”, carelessly abandoned by their motherland in the near abroad.

The juxtaposition of a small Russia and true Russia (that is, the Russian world), as defined in terms of ethnic Russians (or Russian speakers) reminds one of the German concept of Lebensraum, or “living space”. In the early 20th century prior to the Second World War, the German nation (or all speakers of the German language) was often believed to be unjustifiably constricted in its development by Germany’s “diminutive” territory. The subsequent global war that was fought to secure all of Central and Eastern Europe for the German nation was meant to ensure its supposedly natural growth.

The Soviet Union’s ideology of communism proposed building a new communist civilisation of classless people for the entire world. As a result, this global Soviet people would replace “backward and exploitative” capitalism and the world’s numerous and fractious nations with a new centrally-planned economy and a single classless society. The people would be united by the single Soviet culture, channelled through the shared communist language of Russian. In contrast, Putin’s doctrine of the Russian world supports going back to the past as a way forward. The Kremlin’s vision of a brilliant future is steeped in more ethnolinguistic nationalism and imperialism, which were typical of the early 20th century. What is more, this supposed future golden age is limited to Russia and Europe. Asia is largely left alone to its own devices, though whichever Asian post-Soviet polity wants the Kremlin’s support or protection, it must join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (founded in 2015). Perhaps this self-limitation to Europe’s post-Soviet space is a way in which Moscow tacitly acknowledges China as Asia’s hegemon (as long as Beijing keeps clear of Russia’s Siberia and from Mongolia, where the Soviet influence remains in the use of Cyrillic for writing and publishing in Mongolian).

New wars and post-Helsinki Europe

Following the “successful” bloodbath of the Chechen Wars, Russia’s subsequent military conflicts continue to be fought in Europe. However, these have all occurred outside Russian territory in the European section of the near abroad. It should be remembered that it was Russian actions that ultimately led to all the wars under analysis (perhaps, with the qualified exception of the war in Transnistria). In 2008, Russian troops attacked Georgia in order to prevent Tbilisi from reaffirming its rule over the autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Following this, the two regions’ claims to statehood were officially supported by the Kremlin. Six years later, the Kremlin launched its largest operation in the post-Soviet period and this was aimed against Ukraine. Russia annexed Crimea and founded two more de facto polities in eastern Ukraine, namely, the two “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. In 2022, a “hot war” still continues, unlike the “frozen” conflicts in Moldova or Georgia.

What happened in 2014 constitutes a historic watershed in the post-communist history of Europe. Russia’s war on Ukraine ended the previous period, and opened a new – as yet – nameless age, which seems to be much darker and less predictable. For the first time in the history of post-Soviet Russia, instead of founding an unrecognised de facto state, the Kremlin resorted to the outright annexation of a foreign territory. This unilateral move breached the basic post-war principle of international relations in Europe, namely the inviolability of borders. This was enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. For almost four decades, this act remained the pillar of political stability and security in Cold War and post-communist Europe. This all changed in 2014, when Moscow binned the rules of the game overnight.

Furthermore, the Russian attack on Ukraine also broke the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In order to prevent the proliferation of states with nuclear weapons, Ukraine agreed to give its stockpiles of nuclear warheads to Moscow in return for a legally binding guarantee of territorial integrity from Russia, the United States and Britain. Similar terms were extended to and accepted by Belarus and Kazakhstan. Having acted in contravention of both treaties, Russia proved ready to behave as a rogue state. For the time being, the Kremlin enjoys relative impunity thanks to the state’s nuclear arsenal and permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

Political analysts continue to discuss what may come next and what compels Russia’s leadership to pursue all these wars and annexations. In the case of the last war against Ukraine, the Kremlin’s belligerent policy has proven extremely popular among the Russian population at large. Yet, to my knowledge, no one seems to be asking the rather obvious question of why Moscow remains solely focused on Europe.

Power and legitimacy

One answer could involve the post-Soviet decolonisation that stopped half way. Initially, the Kremlin accepted the de facto decolonisation of the Soviet Union but denied this to various areas within the Russian Federation. To this end, Moscow prevented Chechnya from becoming an independent nation-state. With the formulation of the Russian world ideology in 2007, the Kremlin has increasingly questioned the legitimacy of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the entailed decolonisation, which took place three decades ago. Ominously, President Putin has repeatedly hinted at the need to reverse this process.

Furthermore, the hopes of a normal democratic and European path for post-Soviet Russia were quickly derailed, when President Boris Yeltsin used the army to resolve his conflict with the Russian parliament (Duma) in 1993. The country’s new constitution subsequently made Russia into a presidential republic, priming the country for authoritarian rule. Besides curbing democratisation, Yeltsin suddenly halted economic reforms. This subsequently plunged much of the population into poverty by failing to deliver a viable economy that would provide equitably for all. The 1998 global economic crisis hit Russia’s mainly extractive economy harder than other countries. This series of socio-economic disasters made the prospect of near-dictatorial powers centralised in a strongman’s hands attractive for many Russians. Yeltsin followed the public’s wish for Soviet-style stability even at the expense of democracy. In turn, this popular desire legitimised and strengthened his extralegal (if not illegal) seizure of power.

Post-Soviet Russia’s politics and economy stabilised under Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Putin. The system can be understood as an authoritarian pyramid with a single (invariably) male dictator at the top. He is above the law and can use power in an arbitrary fashion. This is the famous Russian “vertical” of power. For a while, oligarchs who managed to seize lucrative parts of Russia’s hastily privatised economy thought that they would effectively wield power in the country. However, this would not turn out to be true. In 2000, oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who sought to unseat Putin, fled for his life to London. Three years later, a tougher competitor in the form of Mikhail Khodorkovsky was imprisoned and his industrial empire broken up and repossessed. After a decade, Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky in an attempt to improve Russia’s international image prior to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (2014). By then, no one doubted that the Russian president controlled the oligarchs. Putin is not only the undisputed dictator of Russia but also its top kleptocrat.

Putin’s popularity sometimes shifts but he is a perennially popular leader. The president continues to make sure that the economy works, meaning that pensioners and, state sector employees (especially the army and security forces) receive their pay packets on time, while other workers’ financial situations remain stable. Yet, when a crisis strikes, as in 2008, Putin falls back on patriotic jingoism. The suddenly impoverished populace are happy to support the president, as long as the perceived greatness of Russia is defended again through another victorious war or annexation. Imperialism is alive and well in today’s Russia.

Whilst critics are silenced, political competitors are either assassinated or imprisoned on trumped up charges. Politics in Russia is personal and vertical. There is no fair play or equality before the law. Putin is the tsar, despite his modest denials. The top dog controls all the state machinery and is more powerful than anyone else in Russia. Elections are a show of loyalty, or even a homage to the president and his party. At the same time, the Russian Central Election Committee makes sure to return a required high result that “proves” the dictator’s popularity. Fraud is the norm, so why bother with elections at all? The real results allow the dictator to assess the overall situation, allowing him to decide where a splash of public funding or a bout of repression may be needed.

Gaming the West

In 1997, the West’s seven biggest economies (G7) invited Moscow to join, creating a new Group of Eight (G8) that used to involve all of the world’s most important industrialised states, alongside Russia. Facing the West’s stern criticism in the wake of its attack on Georgia, the Kremlin went on a charm offensive to ensure full attendance at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The games were held in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, which was modernised and glamorised for this purpose. The West did nothing about the Circassian protests. These protesters were outraged by the fact that this global sporting event was taking place in their ethnic homeland exactly 150 years after the tsarist genocide of the Circassians in 1864.

Now we know that Putin just decided to bide his time. When the games came to an end in late February, the Russian president immediately ordered the invasion and annexation of Crimea. The UN condemned this annexation and most of the world’s states continue to not recognise it. The planned 2014 G8 meeting in Sochi was cancelled, and Russia was excluded from this body, which once again became known as the G7. In autumn 2021, Putin was shunned during the G20 gathering held in the Australian city of Brisbane. Humiliated, the Russian president left early.

On the other hand, the West moved to support Ukraine. The Kremlin was faced with isolation and a barrage of sanctions. In addition, with Saudi Arabia’s help, the price of oil fell, further hurting the Russian economy. Yet, most Russians and the Russian elite sided with Putin, despite these economic difficulties. Imperialism worked well as compensation for the loss in earnings and value of salaries, alongside shortages of affordable goods in shops. Russian patriotism expressed through anti-Western rhetoric also let the Kremlin deal with public outrage, which was caused in 2017 by the EU’s decision to allow Ukrainians to travel to the bloc without a visa. This coveted visa waver continues to be withheld from Russia’s citizens.

The Kremlin paid the West in kind by supporting far right extremists across the EU and US. Moscow also subverted democratic voting through online attacks and propaganda, such as in the case of the Brexit referendum in 2016 or the American presidential election in the same year. In terms of GDP, Russia is a middling economy comparable to that of South Korea or Australia. Obviously, the population of the Russian Federation is several times larger than the number of inhabitants in either of these two countries, meaning that Russian GDP per capita is comparatively uncompetitive. According to this measure, Russia ranks 74th among the world’s 226 states and territories, alongside states such as Malaysia and Kazakhstan. In comparison, Australia is 29th and South Korea 40th in this ranking.

US and EU GDP is more than 13 and nine times larger than Russia’s respectively. In a similar fashion, Russia’s military budget is dwarfed by what all the NATO countries spend on their militaries. However, it is the Kremlin that has had the last laugh. The Russian government has proven more adept at deploying the novel online techniques of hybrid warfare in order to achieve its military and political objectives. As a result, Moscow still manages to pursue its goals even with a tiny fraction of the West’s economy and military budget. Going by the West’s combined GDP only, it appears that Russia’s hybrid military attacks against the West are 23 times more cost-effective than any of NATO’s replies. Worryingly, it appears nothing is going to change quickly in this highly unfavourable equation, as the West remains preoccupied with a restive China’s growing economic and military might. Russia is not simply a geopolitical nuisance, as it could destabilise the West if not tackled timely and firmly.

European degeneration and Asian values

The West has the means and capacity to reply to Russia in kind many times over. But democratic decision-making takes time, while the values of transparency and free trade preclude any immediate tit-for-tat retaliation. Furthermore, after the Second World War, the EU has been committed to maintaining peace on the continent, even at the cost of its political stature and economy. That is why Brussels and NATO prefer diplomacy to the use of naked military force for as long as possible. Yet, the Kremlin is spoiling for an armed conflict, with the current deployment of a large amount of troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine and long-range bombers in Belarus.

Putin is playing with fire, assuming that the West will do his bidding. The Western mass media are ablaze with heated discussions on what the Russian president may or may not do next. But the West’s resolve seems to be hardening. Putin keeps proposing a “new Yalta” agreement with the US, Germany, Britain and France. He wants to divide Europe into spheres of influence, with the continent’s post-Soviet area (including Ukraine) earmarked for Russia. Furthermore, the Russian president actively presses for the weakening of NATO’s presence in the post-communist countries that used to be part of the Soviet bloc. However, none of the Western powers will talk to the Kremlin unilaterally, over the heads of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The possibility of a new Munich is far-fetched.

Putin is increasingly active at the moment as he knows that any Western acceptance of his red lines would let Russia regain the Soviet Union’s superpower status without the need for Soviet-style military and economic parity with the US. In such a case, the unity of the EU would be shattered and Brussels could be written off as the continent’s main political force. It should also be remembered that the risk of war and casualties is now more acceptable to Russian society than to the EU. After the two decades of pro-Putin propaganda, most Russians are enamoured by their country’s resurgent imperialism. As the Russian president stated in 2018, Russia would always win in a nuclear confrontation, and dead Russians would go straight to “heaven”. In reality, Russia is more vulnerable to a NATO attack should the alliance start acting like Russia. For instance, the Kremlin would be unable to stop any invasion of Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. But Putin bets on NATO’s continued defensive character, which would prevent the alliance from taking any military initiative of this kind.

No one knows how Russia’s confrontation with the West will end. What curiously remains unexplored is the overarching question of why post-Soviet Russia has constantly embarked on military adventurism in Europe but carefully shied away from similarly aggressive moves in Asia. In the Manichean vision of the world pushed by Russian propaganda, the West must lose because it is degenerate, which is proven by its respect for LGBT rights. Troll farms, China-style internet control, and the recent silencing of the country’s last independent mass media outlets are the ultimate litmus test when it comes to Russia’s supposedly true values. This outlook increasingly resembles what is known as “Asian values”.

The Kremlin’s promotion of the vague doctrine of Eurasianism not only allows it to present Russia as both a European and Asian power. Indeed, it also allows Russia’s autocrats to pick from various Asian (anti-Western) values and policies when it suits. The doctrine of Eurasianism, first formulated in the 1930s by White Russian émigrés, underpins the present-day Kremlin’s current Russian world ideology. Russia’s Asian section accounts for four fifths of the country’s total area. Only a quarter of the Russian population live in this vast territory of 13 million square kilometres. Faced with Siberia’s harsh climate and inhospitable nature, they can be mostly found near the country’s southern border with China and Mongolia. In central and northern Siberia, members of the indigenous ethnic groups are decisively more numerous than ethnic Russians. For instance, in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), ethnic Sakhas (Yakuts) account for two-thirds of the inhabitants.

Should the West wish so, it could easily ramp up anti-Russian propaganda in the Sakha language and channel funds to those who may want further autonomy, or full decolonisation, complete with independence. Maybe the Tuvans, their republic squeezed between Russia and Mongolia, would be even more responsive to such support. Ethnic Tuvans account for over 80 per cent of Tuva’s population. They remember that their country was an ally of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In return for their help, Moscow stealthily annexed Tuva in 1944, while the West was preoccupied with fighting against Germany and Japan.

Russia’s Asian section: caution!

Most of Asian Russia remains ethnically non-Russian. The area’s inhabitants do not fit into the Kremlin’s Russian world and some might even consider independence. Their co-ethnics can often be found beyond Russia’s borders. These ethnically non-Russian citizens have a better claim to Asian values than Moscow and ethnic Russians. The Kremlin’s decrees and the Duma’s legislation hardly impact their lives. Although it is illegal according to Russian law, Siberians drive cars imported from Japan, not from European Russia. Close to two million traders from China already run many sectors of the Siberian economy. Much of southern Siberia, alongside today’s Mongolia, used to belong to the Chinese Empire. So, Beijing has a better historical claim to this area than the Kremlin. Parts of Siberia have belonged to the Chinese world for over a millennium! Unlike today’s Russia, China has the economic and demographic clout to develop Siberia if it so chose.

With a population ten times larger than Russia, China has a much better chance of surviving any confrontation with Moscow. If respect for individualism, human life and human rights is lower in Russia than in Europe, then it is even lower in China. Russia’s population is predominantly concentrated in Europe and thinly spread out in Siberia. This is why the Kremlin is careful not to challenge the status quo in Asia. Putin is happy that Xi Jinping’s resurgent China has its own neo-imperial sights aimed at Southeast Asia, far from Siberia. In return, the Kremlin does not pressure post-Soviet Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan to join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. It also appears that Moscow leans on the post-Soviet state of Kazakhstan not to criticise Beijing for the cultural genocide of the Uyghurs in western China.

NATO and the EU need to realise that Russia is a paper tiger compared to China or the West. As long as the country remains an arbitrarily-ruled autocracy with neo-imperial pretensions, Europe and the US should stand up to the dictator in the Kremlin. Concessions would only embolden the autocrat, leaving Europe in disarray. Putin knows that Russia’s bargaining hand weakens by the year. This is due to the country’s waning population and the world’s general resolve to move away from coal and oil. In the West, this shift may happen as soon as the mid-2030s. Russia’s future is in Europe, at least for three quarters of the country’s inhabitants. Military adventurism focused on the area will only hurt these Russian citizens most.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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