On November 12, 2014, at the Academy’s 2012th Stated Meeting, Valerie Bunce (Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University), George W. Breslauer (Professor of the Graduate School and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley), and Timothy J. Colton (Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies and Chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University) discussed the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Russia. The following is an edited transcript of their presentation. A group of Fellows and guests gathered in New York City to watch the live stream of these presentations. Stephen Holmes (Walker E. Meyer Professor of Law and Faculty Co-director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law) led a discussion following the video presentations. This was the first time the Academy merged remote presentations with in-person discussions.
Valerie Bunce is the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2010.
Due to current events, we will all speak this evening in some fashion about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. I will present four observations on the situation. The first is that the crisis in Ukraine is in my view best understood as an interstate war, not an intrastate war. I am implying here that Russia has committed aggression against Ukraine in two ways: by invading and annexing Crimea in February and March of this year, and by aiding and abetting popular unrest in Eastern Ukraine. My second point is in reaction to many of the analyses of Russia’s motivations for taking such actions: most of them have focused on international influences, but domestic influences are extremely important as well. I think a critical and largely overlooked factor in Putin’s decision-making was his fear that the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine could inspire similar dissent in Russia and thereby challenge his power and destabilize his regime.
Putin had good reasons to be fearful of the possibility of the diffusion of popular unrest from Ukraine to Russia. The issues driving the protests that began last November in Ukraine – corruption, the abysmal state of the Ukrainian economy, and the authoritarian rule of then-president Viktor Yanukovych – could easily resonate with Russian publics, especially since Russians identify closely with Ukrainians. Indeed, Russia had experienced its own significant protests in 2011 in connection to many of the same issues raised in the Euromaidan protests. Finally, and most significantly, Putin had watched one post-communist authoritarian ruler after another lose power in the Color Revolutions, which began in Eastern and Central Europe in the second half of the 1990s (in Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia) and then moved to the post-Soviet space (Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan). In these election-based revolutions, an unprecedented coalition between opposition parties and civil society groups surprised the regime, most citizens, and even itself by defeating authoritarian incumbents or their anointed successors and thereafter taking national office. Opposition groups were able to win despite the regime’s reliance (as usual) on electoral fraud, because they deployed sophisticated campaign techniques that increased voter turnout, convinced voters that the opposition could and should win, and exposed electoral fraud. In many cases, moreover, the opposition orchestrated large-scale popular protests when the regime refused to abide by the results of the election. The Ukrainian Color Revolution in 2004 was particularly upsetting to Putin, because of the close ties between the two countries and the fact that his regime had bankrolled the candidate who, in the face of popular protests, was finally forced to admit defeat. This admission, moreover, came after Putin had congratulated his candidate on his victory – even before the original votes had been counted! Thus, for Putin, the Color Revolutions were threatening in a number of ways. They demonstrated that authoritarian rulers in neighboring countries could be quickly toppled, and that these processes of political change could travel quickly across state borders. Because these regimes were similar to Russia, moreover, it was easy for Putin to assume that Russia would be the next target.
This leads to my third point about the crisis in Ukraine. On the face of it, Putin’s actions in Ukraine seem puzzling, if not very risky. For example, why seize Crimea, violating international law and inviting Western reprisals, and why destabilize Eastern Ukraine and thereby expose Russia to more instability on its borders? A closer look at Russian actions, however, suggests that Putin’s repertoire of intervention in Ukraine was carefully designed to accomplish several objectives simultaneously. For one, Russian actions in Ukraine played to Russian nationalism and boosted Putin’s popularity – by demonstrating Russian power in the international system, by returning Crimea to Russia (its “historical” home), and by winning back extreme nationalists that had been dissatisfied with Putin’s politics. For another, because of the purported threats posed by the “dangerous” developments in Ukraine, Putin provided a rationale for introducing more repressive measures at home. The intervention was also designed to limit the West’s capacity to respond forcefully to Putin’s aggression by denying Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine, by reminding Europe of its energy dependence, and by appealing to international norms. Finally, Putin aimed to destabilize Ukraine, making it easier for Russia to exert continued influence there while simultaneously making it more difficult for Ukraine to argue credibly for its entry into the European Union and NATO.
Let me provide one example of Putin’s “toolkit of intervention.” By portraying the Ukrainian protestors on the Maidan as fascists and, by extension, as threats to Russian security, Putin tapped into various historical tropes in both Russia and Ukraine and, in the process, rallied Russians around the flag. This allowed him to build a stronger case for annexing Crimea, to speak and act on behalf of the purportedly endangered Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine, and to expand his control over the Russian media. In addition, by coding the protestors as fascists, Putin was able to claim that Russia was merely embracing certain international norms, such as the responsibility to protect and the right of nations to self-determination. He also emphasized the international standard of respect for the will of the voters when the deeply flawed referendum held in Crimea led to widespread popular support for joining Russia.
Putin’s game of invoking certain norms essentially diverted attention away from his violation of the international norm of state sovereignty – a norm that is widely understood as the foundation of international peace. This manipulation of international norms made it harder for the West to coalesce around a strong response to Russian aggression, and it guaranteed Russia a role in the peace process. This meant, in effect, that Russia would serve as a coarchitect of the new Ukrainian state and regime; it also held open the possibility that Putin would be able to create a statelet in Eastern Ukraine, which would weaken the Ukrainian state as a result of its loss of territorial control, while at the same time preserving Russia’s influence in Eastern Ukraine.
Finally, it is clear that there have been short-term benefits to Putin’s strategy in Ukraine, but the long-term picture of his accomplishment is much more problematic. First, NATO has in response moved to redefine its mission and expand its capabilities. How far it will go in that endeavor remains to be seen. Second, other important allies that border Russia and have significant Russian minorities, such as Kazakhstan, are now distancing themselves from Russia, worrying that they could be the next Ukraine. Third, the economic burdens of Crimea, coupled with the costs of the economic sanctions of the West, a huge increase in the Russian defense budget, and a sharp decline in global energy prices, mean that the Russian economy is in serious trouble. Strong economic performance, it is important to note, has served as the foundation for Putin’s power since 2000. Fourth, Europe is rethinking its energy dependence on Russia and focusing attention on (among other things) making greater use of alternative pipelines, which is technically possible right now.
Finally and most important, Russian actions have allowed Ukraine to accomplish something it had not been able to accomplish in twenty-three years of independence. In the recent parliamentary elections, both Russia-friendly and right-wing extremist parties did very badly and a consensus emerged supporting democratic change, an end to corruption, economic reforms, and integration with Europe. So ironically, because of Russian aggression, Ukraine is better positioned today than ever before to move out of Russia’s zone of influence and to fully embrace Europe.
George W. Breslauer
George W. Breslauer is Professor of the Graduate School and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.
I have never been a part of the chorus that is quick to blame the United States when something goes wrong internationally. But in the case of Russia, I think we brought the current problems upon ourselves.
There are two basic perspectives in the public media on how the situation in Russia and Ukraine came about. The first, which Professor Bunce has argued quite brilliantly in her recent work, situates Putin as the prime mover. A number of characterizations of Putin account for this position: either he is a neoimperialist who finally felt strong enough to impose his will on Ukraine, a thug by inclination, an authoritarian leader seeking to avoid political loss; or he wants the political-economic regime in Ukraine to resemble that of Russia. A second perspective in the Western media is more international and views Putin in this case as not a particularly likeable or benevolent fellow, but nevertheless as a leader responding to an intolerable international provocation: namely, U.S.-led efforts to guide Ukraine into the European Union and ultimately into NATO. One could dodge the issue and say that it is something of both, but one then falls into the trap of over-determination, where it is impossible to say which factor is decisive.
I believe that the international factor was decisive. That is not to say that I necessarily buy into all of the secondary arguments made by advocates of this view. For example, before Russia stoked nationalism and revanchism in Eastern Ukraine, relations between Ukrainians and Russians in that region were not especially problematic. I neither idealize nor demonize either side; there are no saints in the conflict, but it was avoidable. At root, this is about the history of NATO’s expansion eastward, accompanied by U.S. insistence on installation of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as well as actions in Southern Europe (Serbia, Kosovo), Northern Africa (Libya), and the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, and Syria). This pattern of behavior was perceived in Moscow, perhaps not all that inaccurately, as consistent with the notion that the United States views itself as the actor dictating the terms of the post–Cold War international order. Putin has said as much in his public comments; his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said as much at the United Nations recently. If you read what they had to say, I would challenge you to ask yourself, “Is that really so incredible? Is it so difficult to believe that the Russians actually believe what they are saying?” In light of what has happened over the last twenty-five years, my response is no, it is not difficult to imagine.
To understand why Ukraine is so sensitive to Moscow, look at the nature of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. These were contiguous, not overseas empires. This meant that managing the loss of empire was not only a matter of neo-imperial nostalgia (of which there has been a great deal in Russia, predating this crisis), but it would also be defined as a national security issue precisely because of the geographic proximity or contiguity of Russia to the former satellite states. Recall that “Ukraine” means “borderland” in Russian. Boris Yeltsin, who, in the 1990s, was trying to integrate Russia into the West, nonetheless referred to the former Soviet republics as the “near-abroad.” (This is perhaps analogous to the folksy American habit of referring to Central and South America as “our backyard.”)
Another point I would like to make is that NATO expansion has had a dual effect of emboldening target governments and angering Moscow at the same time, which is a potentially incendiary combination. For example, in 2008, when Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was deploying troops against the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he spoke with Putin on the telephone and warned him that the West would punish him if he resisted. Putin’s response was essentially to tell the Georgian president where he could stuff the West.
This anger in Moscow is not a sudden phenomenon; it has developed gradually over time. In the 1990s, Russia almost simultaneously lost its empire, its status as a global and regional power, and its leadership of the so-called World Communist Movement – all of which was hugely disorienting. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, in their disorientation, proceeded on the premise that they had to convince the United States to help them engineer a soft landing from this free-fall: integration into the U.S.-led international order. Dismay and disillusion set in when they realized that the United States was more inclined to treat Russia as either a vassal or a rival. Putin came to power in the year 2000, and subsequent trends turned disillusionment into anger, and more recently, anger into indignation.
Ironically, Putin was not initially predisposed to succumb to worst-case thinking about the United States’ intentions. Rather, he had a very strong pragmatic streak in his approach to international relations; recall that he was the first foreign leader to call President Bush after 9/11, and he initially sought a U.S.-Russian alliance against Islamic terrorism. He (as well as Yeltsin) had even publicly hinted at the idea of Russia joining NATO. Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008, called for a new East-West security policy after the Georgian War. Russia helped the United States in Afghanistan and in Syria and currently may be assisting in negotiations with Iran. The United States uses Russia when necessary, but otherwise ignores their pleas. As Andrei Tsygankov of San Francisco State University revealed, the Russian foreign minister said in June 2006 – two years before the war with Georgia – that Ukraine or Georgia joining NATO would constitute a “colossal” shift in global geopolitics. We ignored that, but it seems prudent to pay attention when a foreign minister publicly uses the word “colossal.”
Another point is that the United States and Russia appear to have the ironic misfortune of being out of phase in their foreign policy cycles. The Soviet Union envisioned itself a global missionary. That self-conception was jettisoned by Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and later Putin. Putin sought collaboration with the United States on militant Islamic fundamentalism, which he thought was the main enemy, and did not embrace a “global missionary” ideology. But just then, the “global missionary” strain in U.S. foreign policy came back to the fore with a vengeance under George W. Bush. That is, just as the Russians were transitioning from a “missionary” foreign policy to a more pragmatic one, we were swinging from pragmatic to missionary, and that complicated the relationship enormously.
What was the turning point in Ukraine? I place it at February 21, 2014. Before that date, nothing had been predetermined in terms of how this would turn out. A deal had been struck among representatives of the European Union, Russia, and the Ukrainian government to slow down this revolution and make for a more gradual transition. The protestors in Maidan Square did not accept the deal. They stormed the parliament and chased out the president, but the United States then embraced this new reality rather than bemoan it, despite the fact that this deal had been struck just a day earlier. Our reaction led Moscow to again assume the worst about our intentions.
Further, escalation can create dynamics of its own, regardless of original intentions. After taking Crimea, Putin found himself in need of a retroactive justification for the act, which he found in romantic nationalism. Previously, the type of nationalism that Putin had espoused publicly was primarily oriented toward national security and pride: he emphasized having pride in one’s country and pride in one’s status. Then, with the seizure of Crimea, Putin’s brand of nationalism changed considerably. He embraced the notion of Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” the name given by Russian nationalists to an imagined empire of Russian-speaking and Russian-identified regions, including Crimea and the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. He reminded Russians that Ukraine’s relationship with Russia goes back one thousand years to when Kiev was the seat of Kievan Rus’. Putin also upped the rhetorical ante by greatly emphasizing the ethnic descriptor Russkiy at the expense of the more civic and non-ethnic Rossiyskiy.
When the Ukrainian government was first planning to send troops into Eastern Ukraine to crush the insurgency stoked by the Russians, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called it “a colossal mistake.” Once again, politicians and diplomats typically do not use such strong language in public, and we should have realized this meant that the Russians were not going to let the insurgency in the East lose. It did not mean that they were going to try to crush or occupy all of Ukraine, but they were going to do whatever was necessary to prevent loss. Through this we gain the deeper insight that a state’s behavior during a spiral of escalation is not necessarily indicative of its original intentions. Ambitions may escalate as well during the spiral. To solve this foreign-relations problem, I believe it will be necessary to reframe the rhetoric on both sides, because as things currently stand, any deal that is struck may be difficult to sell both in Washington and in Moscow. We must reframe the rhetoric so that if a compromise is made, it does not appear that we are abandoning Ukraine; nor will it appear to Russians that their leaders have abandoned Ukraine to a government populated by what Moscow is calling “fascists.”
I want to end with a pair of strong counterfactual claims that cannot be proven, but are logically consistent with the argument that I have been making; claims that I therefore think have the virtue of highlighting your assumptions. First, had there been no U.S.-led effort to prepare Ukraine for NATO membership, had we listened to France and Germany’s advice against it, had there also therefore been no U.S. involvement in the Maidan protest (however secondary it was, it was nonetheless associative), I believe that Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and there would be no military insurgency in the East. My second counterfactual claim is that, were Putin not the President of Russia but had U.S. policies remained the same, Russian military intervention in Ukraine would have happened anyway.
Timothy J. Colton
Timothy J. Colton is the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies and Chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2011.
In my remarks tonight I wish to discuss nationalism, or perhaps more appropriately, nationalisms. Nationalism is a slippery thing. It is about identity, about who you are and who you think you are. Scholars nowadays are inclined to say that at its core are “imagined communities”: it is contingent; it is not biologically determined or primordial. Consider the 1990s, when the Wall had just fallen, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and communism was being superseded by something new. Some of the very best analysts, Valerie Bunce among them, observed that at such a time, one should not really expect politics to revolve around considerations of interest. Why? In communist societies, natural processes that form socioeconomic interests (processes that we take for granted in our society) are largely absent, or are at least very weak. For example, there was no right to private property, or at least to productive private property, and income distribution was egalitarian. For these and other reasons, analysts claimed twenty or twenty-five years ago that interest politics may come along eventually, but not just yet. It would take a while for these former Soviet countries to develop the advanced market economies and modern societal structures that would support interest-based politics. In the meantime, these analysts predicted, identity politics would dominate the conversation.
This model fits the experience of many countries in East Central Europe fairly well. In Russia, however, what we have seen in the last ten years or so is a curious inversion of the expected sequence. When Putin first came to power in 2000, he was very much an interest politician. He dwelt on the fact that Russia had fallen behind its peers, that it must catch up with the rest in order to survive.
The so-called Millennium Manifesto is a long essay written and published online in Putin’s name in December 1999, just before he became president. That document contains very little in the way of identity politics. In fact, in it, Putin explicitly claims that Russia does not need a national idea. “Let’s not worry about that,” he suggests, “Let’s try and catch up and become more like the others, while still preserving the things about ourselves that we value.” He did not propose that Russia become exactly like Germany or France, but he did suggest a move in that direction. One could argue that the politics of his first two terms in office, from 2000 to 2008, were largely about interest. Putin also had the good fortune to be leader of the country when it was experiencing a remarkable economic boom. I think that boom, which made the state stronger, which gave it money to spend and money to reward people with, was largely responsible for the very high levels of authority and popularity that he enjoyed, as well as the interest-based politics that he pursued. Now, this is not to say Putin ignored identity issues completely, but they certainly did not consume him. If we look at the politics of the last six months or so, however, and at the propaganda and information wars that have taken place on television and in other media, we see a very different Putin.
This leads me to my discussion about nationalisms. For reasons that I do not fully understand – that I do not think any of us fully understand – nationalism has become more relevant to the politics of Russia in the last eight years or so. To some extent, this was surely a conscious choice on the part of the people who lead the country, but I think there is more to the story than that. Because of Russia’s history and the unique way the country has developed, this story is probably more complicated than anything we would come up with for American or French nationalism. To get at this story, and to begin to parse out the various threads of nationalism we see in Russia, I would like to pose two questions.
The first question is whether we are talking about civic nationalism or ethnic nationalism. This is a distinction that one has to make in Russia, because there is a majority ethnic group called the ethnic Russians, or Russkie; and then there is the country, which is 80 percent Russian, but 20 percent minority. Twenty percent of 150 million is a considerable population. That is the first question.
The second question is, exactly what geographic sphere or ambit are we talking about? Which Russia? Today’s Russia or something larger? The geographic reference of standard-fare Russian nationalism is the small Russia: Russia’s borders as they currently exist, perhaps now including Crimea. This brand of nationalism includes things that we probably associate with patriotism or national feeling in many countries, ranging from patriotic pride to anti-globalism and anti-Americanism. National unity, which was very important in Russia given its secessionist history in the 1990s, is involved here, as is “great-powerism” and the insistence that others not interfere in its internal affairs.
There is then a second school of nationalism that makes reference to some imagined “big Russia,” whose boundaries extend beyond those of the current state. This can be defined in a variety of ways, including a civilizational approach, which looks far back in history to medieval times and usually makes some association with Russian Orthodoxy. The concept of spheres of influence, which is very dear to Putin’s heart, is also at play here: this theory suggests that the small Russia should be surrounded by a buffer zone of regions under its control. The Russian Empire of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries; the Soviet Union; Eurasia, which is not quite the same as any of those previously existing categories; and pan-Slavism, which is probably the least relevant, are all other models of expansive Russian nationalism.
I will now return to the first question and the distinction between civic and ethnic Russianness – both of which find their place in Russia’s various nationalisms. The first President of Russia was Boris Yeltsin, who served in the 1990s. His thoughts were mostly on economic development; he wanted to keep the country together and was willing to use force to do so, so national unity was important. He wanted Russia to be a great power and took patriotic pride in his country. He was interested in spheres of influence, but did not obsess over them, because they were fairly easy to maintain in the 1990s. The West was not as present in the post-Soviet space, so strong anti-American and anti-globalist tendencies had not much taken hold. Yeltsin was also utterly unconcerned with ideas of ethnic Russian nationalism.
Flash forward to Putin, and of course, things become more complicated. We see Putin not only embracing the full spectrum of small-Russia nationalism (as Yeltsin probably knew Putin would when he selected Putin as his successor), but also many aspects of big-Russia nationalism and at least a few aspects of the third idea of “ethnic-Russian” nationalism. Putin has shown himself willing to make foreign policy choices that privilege the big-Russia vision to some extent, and is often accused of being nostalgic for the USSR. That is probably not exactly right, but he is at least wedded to the idea of some kind of Eurasian unit that largely corresponds to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, of which Russia would be the core; he wants this to develop as an alternative to the European Union. As far as ethnic Russians are concerned, the phrase Russkiy mir (“Russian world”) has now become a kind of slogan for those rallying around the idea of ethnic Russianness. It is also the name of an organization started up by Putin that projects Russian soft power and cultural influence both in its immediate neighborhood and abroad. Irredentism has also arrived on the agenda, which has surprised most foreign observers. Now we wonder: will Crimea be the exception to the rule, or is its seizure just the first in a long string of irredentist actions?
To be fair to Putin, there are certainly also aspects of nationalism that do not interest him. I do not think he is willing to give up too much for the fraternal Serbs in the Balkans, first of all. He is also not anti-minority, anti-migrant, or anti-Semitic; he does not have any apparent racial biases. Furthermore, he is rarely accused of harboring these feelings, even by his harshest critics. However, the nationalisms now espoused by both Putin and various other representatives of the Russian government pull the country in a number of different directions, and every now and then, Putin is willing to address this.
I want to note here that in the Russian language, the word nationalist is and always has been something of a bad word. Patriot is just fine; in the Soviet days, you could be a Soviet patriot; today, you can be an Estonian patriot or a Russian patriot, of course. But being an Estonian or a Russian nationalist in Soviet days was not tolerated, largely because there really was no Soviet nation to speak of.
Recently, at the annual Valdai Discussion Club, the Russian-American analyst Nikolai Zlobin said to Putin, “It looks to me like your patriotism is morphing into something more menacing, which I would call nationalism, and that you are using it to silence dissent.” Putin’s reply was quite complex and maybe a bit confused. He first acknowledges that patriotism can turn into nationalism and that this can be dangerous (which is probably his Soviet education speaking). Then, however, right in the middle of his answer, he adds, “the biggest nationalist in Russia is me.” Then he qualifies this statement somewhat by saying that nationalism is only appropriate when it benefits the people. Finally, in keeping with a tendency on his part to think of worst-case scenarios, he notes that if nationalism (which he has now admitted into the range of licit behaviors) comes to mingle with intolerance, it would destroy Russia. Why is this? It is because Russia is a multiethnic, a multilingual, multi-confessional state.
Clearly, he is flipping here from one meaning of nationalism to another, and he is not the only one. Putin is not really an original thinker when it comes to these categories. He largely mimics and absorbs the categories of others. There is an extensive discourse and debate about these things. Many of the theorists of Russian nationalism, whom I call nationalist entrepreneurs, have been on the scene since the 1990s. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example, is a well-known Russian nationalist and populist. Dmitry Rogozin, who is now probably the third or fourth most powerful person in Russia, was the cofounder of a nationalist party in the mid-1990s. Vyacheslav Nikonov is a theorist of Russian soft power and president of the organization Russkiy Mir. Aleksandr Dugin is Russia’s best known Eurasianist intellectual. Aleksandr Belov is the founder of an organization called Movement Against Illegal Immigration; his anti-immigration stance has very strong racial overtones. As you can see, nationalist thinkers are quite prominent, but there is a lot of diversity within that spectrum of views.
There is a mass aspect to Russia’s nationalisms: there are showings of popular nationalist sentiment. Some are heavily staged and scripted, though others are more like spontaneous acts of protest. The annual Russkiy Marsh, or ethnic Russian March, has taken place every fourth of November since 2005. Part of its purpose is to celebrate Russia’s virtues, but it is also very distinctly anti-immigrant. Since about 2008 or 2009, there has been a violent undercurrent in Russia with respect to ethnic issues. The best-known event, and the one that scared the leadership the most, was the so-called Manezh Pogrom of 2010. Following an incident in which a Russian soccer fan was stabbed to death in a fight with young men from the North Caucasus, a spontaneous flash mob of tens of thousands of people formed in Manezh Square, right under the Kremlin towers. Individuals who did not appear to be ethnically Russian were beaten at this protest; fortunately, no one was killed, but it easily could have happened. This actually led to growing concern among the country’s leaders, who had previously been inclined to take a tolerant “boys will be boys” attitude toward these events. For example, this year’s Russian March looked very different from that of previous years: the protestor’s signs are not about ethnic Russians and immigrants, but about supporting Putin, the people, and Russia.
We also have a lot of polling information on how Russians feel about these various facets of nationalism. The annexation of Crimea, in particular, which is termed a “reunification” in official rhetoric, enjoys a uniquely high level of popular support: 85 percent of Russians currently think this was a good thing. It has almost no mainstream critics at the moment. There are people who say it was done with undue haste and regard for the consequences, but for the most part that is as far as the criticism has gone.
However, popular support for the conflict in the Donbass is actually much thinner. To return to the subject of Professor Bunce’s remarks, it is not clear why Russia would intervene in a situation like this when it seems that actually very few Russians are in favor of going too far in this direction. Now, their opinions may change, of course, but as things currently stand, only about 11 percent of Russians favor the annexation of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (or the DNR and LNR): the areas controlled by the rebels. However, 52 percent of Russians polled do believe that Ukraine is an American puppet.
Given all this, is there further trouble ahead? If this stew of ethnic and national feelings and grievances is in any way associated with what has happened in Russia since the past winter (which I would argue it is), can this policy be sustained? We may not have a good basis for making a prediction, but there are certainly signals that things may soon not be so readily manageable. First of all, if Russia is going to go down the path of irredentism and privileging ethnic Russians, this could spell a lot of trouble in some other post-Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, their closest ally. Second, individuals on the political fringes are increasingly visible. Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, is one of the heroes of the resistance to the Ukrainian military in Eastern Ukraine. He is a Russian citizen who volunteered in the conflict in the Donbass. After being wounded in combat, he is now seen by many as a real hero and somebody who might have a political future. One can imagine Putin would be less than enthusiastic about that. How will he manage these people? There are actually thousands of them and they have NGOs, social networks, and other resources with which they can push their politics.
Then there is the falling ruble, which could definitely spell big trouble. This is caused in part by Western sanctions, as well as by the falling price of oil. Finally, there is the issue of Russian casualties in the fighting, which has been highlighted by the case of Russian paratroopers who died in one of the battles this past August. The government is now classifying information about these men as a state secret, but they will not be able to cover these and future casualties up. If the Kremlin extends its adventure in Eastern Ukraine and finds itself fighting again with heavy loss of life, there are going to be political consequences. These are some of the things that we should keep a very close eye on.
© 2015 by Valerie Bunce, George W. Breslauer, and Timothy J. Colton, respectively.
To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/russiacrossroads.