20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russian nationalism has deeps roots and manifests itself through various political brands—often with anti-government undertones. As nationalist sentiment gained momentum in the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin, a cautious and calculating politician, decided to adopt the trappings of the nationalist agenda without actually following through with relevant policies. So far, it has worked in undermining his opposition, but, as history has shown, by playing with a nationalistic and bellicose rhetoric, Putin risks losing the game, which could then follow its own logic with unpredictable results.


In a 2018 speech at the Valdai Club, Vladimir Putin described himself the “most effective and right nationalist.” Photo: kremlin.ru.


Russia’s claims on northern Kazakhstan

Last December, Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of the eminent Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, known for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany,  caused a great stir when he claimed that Kazakhstan’s territory was a “big gift from Russia.” He also implied that Kazakhstan’s northern part is definitely Russian land and should be returned to Russia.

Nikonov is not alone in his views. His claims were seconded by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another Duma deputy and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), known for its explicitly nationalist rhetoric. Though Zhirinovsky is often presented as a political buffoon, his statements should not be dismissed lightly. Despite his bizarre and often offensive behavior, as well as his appearance of a revolutionary iconoclast, Zhirinovsky is a shrewd politician who survived both the Yeltsin and the Putin eras not only because he faithfully followed the “party line” but because he has served as an occasional mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Playing the court jester allows him to make statements that the “king” himself would not dare to utter publicly.

Clearly, Nikonov’s and Zhirinovsky’s views are implicitly supported by the Kremlin, whose goal is to send a signal by proxy. Who is the receiver? Kazakhstan’s government would be the obvious guess. Yet this is only one part of the story. The signal is also meant for Russia’s domestic audience, which is arguably even more important than threatening Astana. The purpose of this signaling could be Vladimir Putin’s desire to present himself as a defender of ethnic Russians, whom he wants to rally around the Kremlin. But his increasingly nationalistic rhetoric now risks triggering a major war, possibly against his wishes.


Putin as a Renaissance ruler 

Putin’s approach to different brands of Russian nationalism has changed over time, and the explanation for this fluidity can be found in the way the Putin regime operates. The Renaissance rulers’ model, especially its Italian iteration, describes Putin’s modus operandi best. Lacking charisma, Putin rules through Machiavellian manipulation; he is a master of maneuvers. One of his tactics is hijacking the opposition’s agenda and adopting its slogans when they become too popular, without actually following through with the policies. In this context, the Kremlin’s territorial claims on Kazakhstan and other slogans loaded with aggressive nationalism might not be Putin’s preferred strategy. In fact, Putin has normally tried to avoid inciting nationalistic passions for a very simple reason—they could undermine the regime’s stability. In the past, it was not the Kremlin, but the radical opposition to both the Russian and Kazakh regimes that played with ethnically-focused Russian nationalism. 

In 1999, a Russian resident of northern Kazakhstan adopted the alias of Viktor Pugachev and tried to stage a coup to establish the autonomous entity of Russian Altai. In 2001, the late Eduard Limonov, a controversial Russian writer and politician, tried to rally Russian residents in northern Kazakhstan, where he intended to launch a revolution that would eventually overthrow the Putin regime. In 2015, Russian right-wing nationalistic activist Alexander Potkin (Belov) was charged with extremism and an attempted coup against the Nursultan Nazarbaev regime in Kazakhstan. Both Limonov and Potkin were arrested by Russian authorities and put in jail. None of these actions had been approved by Moscow.


Putin’s nationalism is different from Hitler’s

It is often assumed by Russia observers and Putin critics that the Russian president is obsessed with the idea of “gathering the Russian lands” or willing to use ethnic Russians in various post-Soviet countries the same way that Hitler used pro-Nazi Germans in the Sudetenland to promote unification with Germany. Some Russian nationalists and Putin admirers would like to believe so, but this assumption is essentially wrong. Putin would likely grab certain pieces of land if they were crucially important to him (like Crimea) and little opposition were expected. But imperial expansion is hardly his idée fixe. Even the “Russian world,” his recent pet project, is more of an abstraction than an actual plan, especially given how selective it is.

When observers draw parallels between Putin and Hitler or other authoritarian leaders, they often ignore the different natures of the two regimes. The Nazi regime is usually associated with unspeakable brutality and totalitarian power, while the fact that it was supported by the vast majority of the German population is discounted. Even if the latter fact is acknowledged, it is explained by Hitler’s charisma and promises to make Germany great again. Still, the real reason for Hitler’s popularity was not the highly nationalistic nature of his regime in its Social Darwinian (“survival of the fittest”) form, but rather the fact that is was “socialist.”

While the Nazis did not nationalize German factories or “collectivize” German farms, as the Soviets did, they actively engaged in redistributing wealth and control over Germany’s industries to benefit not just the regime, as it was preparing for war, but also the majority of the country’s population, implying that the elites shared with the masses. The Nazi drive against the Jews, who were scapegoated as aliens exploiting average Germans, went hand in hand with the regime’s successful social policies: unemployment disappeared, medical services and housing arrangements for average ethnic Germans expanded. Elements of a social and economic safety net had been introduced to Germany by Bismarck generations earlier, but it was Hitler who expanded them, thus ensuring popular support for his rule and military exploits.

This is not the case in present-day Russia. In fact, radical nationalists of various political hues often oppose the Russian government for what they see as a dismissive attitude to ethnic Russians. They argue that it is not Russians but minorities—Jews, people of “Caucasian nationality” (residents of the Caucasus are labelled this way regardless of their ethnicity, religion or citizenship) and others—who control the country. In their view, Russia needs to be liberated from this minority rule, its wealth should be redistributed and the social safety net expanded. This racially defined nationalism has a clear “socialist” or even “national-socialist” tinge, which threatens the power of Putin’s oligarchs, many of whom actually represent ethnic minorities. Radical nationalists also regard only ethnic Russians as true Russians, which further menaces the stability of the Russian Federation, a multiethnic state.

All of this explains why Putin has not been eager to play with Russian nationalism in its pure racial and “national-socialist” forms—and, more recently, why he has not offered support for ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. In fact, the Kremlin is known to take the side of minorities in ethnic clashes in Russia, e.g. in Kondopoga in 2006 and Stavropol in 2007, while also trying to take advantage of the social discontent.

The Kremlin’s policy is more similar to that of the tsarist government than of Nazi Germany. It is often erroneously assumed that the tsarist government instigated anti-Jewish pogroms, but ethnic violence was not to its advantage—it was certain revolutionary forces that benefited from pogroms. For example, some Narodniks (Populists) believed in the grassroots nature of Russian revolution and that pogroms would trigger popular uprisings against the tsarist regime.

To keep Russia’s nationalistic animus under control, Putin has even claimed that Russians are not an ethnic category, and anyone who speaks Russian and was raised in Russia should be regarded as Russian. Still, the Russian president occasionally employs nationalistic rhetoric to avoid social conflicts, boost his popularity, or to reduce the appeal of the broader opposition to his regime.


The increasing appeal of nationalism among Russians

In the past, racist nationalism in Russia and ethnic violence against peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia were relatively marginal occurrences inherent to socially and politically disenfranchised groups of the lower class, whose members participated in the so-called Russian Marches, launched in 2005—the first legal rally of Russian nationalists in the country’s modern history. The event has been since taken over by ultra-right nationalists, acquiring anti-government overtones in the process.

Following Putin’s rise to power and the degree of political, social, and economic stabilization that ensued, Russia saw the emergence of a middle class affluent enough able to travel to the West where it got exposed to Western culture and values, including tolerance to minorities. More recently, these cultural achievements have stalled, if not been reversed. Due to the economic slowdown, the sense of alienation between the government and the Russian people, including the middle class, has started to grow. At the same time, Russians’ attitudes to the West became increasingly contradictory, even as exposure to the West expanded and incorporation of Russians into the Western finance and education systems as well as job markets continued. One of the problems was that their exposure to Western capitalism did not necessarily make them accepting of the entire Western political and ideological order. Moreover, Russians became more supportive of the views gaining traction both in Europe and in the United States that somehow the West’s growing economic and social problems were caused by an influx of immigrants. Some Russians started to question key Western values, concluding that obligatory “multiculturalism” with its catering to minorities has debilitated Europe and deprived it of its essence and cultural fiber.

Against this backdrop, the Kremlin has positioned Russia as the only real European country, the protector of old European values and traditions, rejecting the notion of multiculturalism. As a result of these complex processes, the Russian middle class became more tolerant to nationalist and implicitly racist views. They were adopted by some members of the opposition, including Alexei Navalny, who emerged as the leading figure of dissatisfied segments of the Russian middle class.

The rise of the opposition under nationalistic slogans bothered the Kremlin. To address this problem, Putin followed his usual Machiavellian tactics. He adopted, albeit superficially, the nationalistic trappings of the opposition and presented himself as a true Russian patriot, a man who cared about Russians living not only inside, but also outside Russia. Through this optics, the Kremlin’s recent messaging to Kazakhstan should be seen as a calculating move by the Kremlin aimed at pleasing certain factions of the Russian public, including Navalny’s base. While these signals would hardly result in direct conflict with Kazakhstan, playing the nationalistic card can, in fact, lead to open confrontation with Ukraine.


Zelensky playing Putin’s game

A calculating and cautious leader, Putin normally tries to avoid reckless actions. But his flirting with nationalism and increasingly bellicose rhetoric might inadvertently throw the Kremlin into a major conflict with unpredictable consequences. World War I was arguably the result of a combination of events that, at a certain juncture, acquired their own logic. The same thing could happen between Russia and Ukraine, as tensions in Donbass have recently reached a dangerous point. Paradoxically enough, Ukraine’s president, Vladimir (Volodymyr) Zelensky, has also adopted nationalistic slogans and started to play the same game as Moscow. 

Over the last 30 years, Ukraine has seen more presidents than most countries in the post-Soviet space, but not necessarily due to its democratic culture. Like most republics of the former USSR, Ukraine had great expectations for independence, and most of its citizens believed that liberation from the Soviet Union—or actually Russia—would lead to a better life and higher standards of living. That, however, did not happen, as the country’s growth has been stalled by rampant corruption resulting in low living standards and the erosion of the social safety net. Ukrainians’ desperation could be seen in their most recent presidential choice. Not only was Zelensky a standup comedian, he is also a Jew—another paradox, given the historic anti-Semitism seen in Ukraine. Even as the new generations of Ukrainians have become more tolerant than their parents and grandparents, Zelensky’s election is not a sign that the old prejudices have disappeared, but rather that people are desperate.

But it looks like Ukrainians’ hopes could be thwarted again. As Zelensky started to encourage nationalistic feeling and vowed to recapture Eastern Ukraine from the de facto Russian occupation by any means necessary, he was presumably betting on nationalistic rhetoric to rally the Ukrainian people around the flag, distract them from economic problems, and solidify his position. Russians have been long familiar with similar strategies used by Putin.

Both Zelensky and Putin are now playing with fire, as their rhetoric could trigger a major war, possibly against their wishes. Bellicose nationalism is a slippery slope, and in an atmosphere of rising Russia-Ukraine tensions, the West should be careful not to contribute to the potentiality of an open conflict.