20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, Richard Arnold discusses in The Washington Post the results of a new study of Russian nationalism, arguing that the Kremlin’s embrace of imperial nationalism poses a threat to the regime in the future. In the Russian media, Andrei Baunov, in his article for Carnegie.ru, compares the Greek and Russian Orthodoxy and their respective links to Russian politics. And professor Ivan Kurilla argues in RBC that in Russia, history has become “the language of politics.”


Russian Nationalists' March in Moscow. Photo: Kristina Kormilitsyna / TASS


From the West

Russian Nationalism on the Rise, Explaining Much about Foreign and Domestic Politics

Richard Arnold, The Washington Post 

Richard Arnold, associate professor of political science at Muskingum University, argues that understanding Russian nationalist sentiments may be crucial to understanding Kremlin politics—“from [the] intervention in Syria [to an] unusually large number of hate crimes and the regime’s rush to host sporting mega-events.” Arnold analyzes the results of a study on Russian nationalism based on surveys conducted by the Russian polling agency Romir. The study shows that in Russia, ethnic nationalism has been on the rise along with imperial nationalism, which is tied to the belief that Russia is a unique and great nation. Another finding is that in the 2000s, nationalist sentiment in Russia has turned against “culturally alien” migrants, leading to growing separatism in a multiethnic country and threatening to destabilize the regime. The Kremlin saw imperial nationalism as a middle ground and embraced the opportunity to redirect nationalist sentiment. The regime’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine led to an outflow of radical Russian nationalists to the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Though Russia saw a decline in hate crimes in 2014, the imminent return of radicals coming home is a serious threat to the regime, which will be forced to choose between “allowing the growth of radical forces vehemently opposed to democracy, even its ‘managed’ variety, or yielding to popular demands to create an apartheid state.”


Exposing Russia’s False NATO Narrative

Stephen Blank, Atlantic Council

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow of the American Foreign Policy Council, discusses the Kremlin’s so-called realist narrative regarding NATO, which, he argues, not only undermines the integrity of historical record, but also jeopardizes European security. The Russian government maintains that NATO reneged on its promises not to enlarge after German reunification, and discouraged Russia from integrating with the organization, and that, therefore, Russia “should be appeased by being given a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.” Blank argues that this view is factually wrong: in reality, the issue of NATO enlargement was not discussed during negotiations on German reunification, and Russia never expressed an interest in joining NATO. Blank also points out that Russian elites have always perceived NATO as not only alien to Russia’s unique culture and role, but also as a “corrupt, decadent, and declining” organization posing a threat to Russia. Other major problems are the Kremlin’s belief that Europe is bipolar, either dominated by Washington or Moscow, and Russia’s refusal to grant equal status to post-Soviet or other Eastern European states. Blank concludes that it’s important that NATO not fall prey to Russia’s phony, self-serving narrative, and that it continue defending the integrity of historical record and strengthening the foundations of European security.  


The Secret to Putin’s Survival

Andrei Kolesnikov, Project Syndicate

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, discusses in Project Syndicate Putin’s image and his sky-high approval ratings, linking them to the annexation of Crimea—a move that was overwhelmingly supported by the Russian people. As Kolesnikov puts it, “Putin’s regime was able to create a sense of restored historical justice and revive expectations of a return to ‘great power’ status.” Other aspects of Putin’s success story are the absence of open political competition within Russia and the regime’s practice of opposition crackdowns; and “without oppositional protest, systemic change seems unlikely.” Also, Putin has built a system of checks and balances within his own elite to prevent intrigues and to ensure that no one advocates for reforms or pushes for systemic change. How long the regime will survive is an open question. Kolesnikov predicts that the regime will last until the 2018 presidential election. “Whether it will endure through the subsequent election, in 2024, is a question that Kremlinologists—a quickly recovering species—will soon be debating.”


From Russia

Putin and the Greeks: Different Products of Spiritual Unity

Alexander Baunov, Carnegie.ru

Vladimir Putin’s trip to Greece, and especially his visit to the Russian Orthodox monastic community at Mount Athos, was part of the Kremlin’s attempt to emphasize the spiritual unity of the two Orthodox nations—Russia and Greece. Baunov dissects the specifics of Greek Orthodoxy and concludes that despite common roots, the results of the spiritual, social, and political development of these two countries are in fact quite different. For example, Greek Orthodoxy is ethnocentric, as opposed to the state-centric one in Russia. While in Russia, Orthodoxy retains its place in the famous Uvarov’s Triad (along with Autocracy and Nationality), in Greece, democracy replaces autocracy. As a result, turnover of power in Greece does not result in political turmoil: no one in the Greek government thinks that the people must be “devoted to death” to them just because the leadership is Orthodox. Baunov notes that “without breaking ties with the Orthodox tradition, the Greeks managed to build stable, almost flawlessly functioning modern political institutions, parties, parliament, elections, free press, and rotating government.” He concludes that this means that Russia, too, need not cut ties with its own Orthodox tradition to create democratic institutions.


Russia 2030: A Story of Great Power Dreams and Small Victorious Wars

Frederik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson, Vedomosti

In a Vedomosti article based on a report that authors Frederik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson ((of the European Council on Foreign Relations) released in May 2016,  they present key conclusions of their study, which “considers how Russia and Europe’s eastern neighbors may look 14 years from now.” First, they suggest that in the upcoming decade, Russia’s domestic problems will aggravate, while the Kremlin will continue playing the “conflicts card.” As the country’s economic growth slows, the Russian government will try to find new ways to legitimize the regime; thus, nationalism and foreign policy adventurism will intensify. Second, against this backdrop, Russia will increasingly rely on force, but it will refrain from waging a full-fledged war with the West. One can anticipate that Russia will engage in small, regional conflicts “on a budget,” focusing on the Baltics, the Balkans, and Central Asia. Third, Eastern Europe will remain the Kremlin’s key target, as the regime will try to convert the countries of this region into either friendly regimes or dysfunctional, corrupt states that will eventually depend on Moscow’s will.


“The Return of Stalin”: Understanding the Surge of Historical Politics in Russia  

Ivan Kurilla, РБК

Ivan Kurilla, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, argues that in Russia, history has largely become a tool in the language of politics. Russian political discourse has currently developed two conflicting historical narratives: the Great Patriotic War (a uniting narrative) and the Stalin era (a dividing narrative). Kurilla observes that the Russian government has been increasingly appealing to history to justify the 2014 events—the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. For example, in the first months of the Euromaidan revolution, Kremlin propaganda outlets started to invoke terms closely associated with the Second World War, calling the Ukrainian revolutionaries “Nazis” and “punishers” (karateli), while Russians who fought against them in Ukraine were called “militia” (opolchentsy). The idea was to provoke corresponding negative and positive associations in the Russian consciousness, based on the people’s historical memory. Later, however, the Kremlin changed its tactics and turned to the narratives of the First World War. Kurilla notes that as a result of these actions, mid-level elites began to create a new “official history,” and went as far as to introduce a number of initiatives to restore Stalin’s name as one of Russia’s heroes, despite the fact that Putin himself has condemned Stalin on many occasions. Today, the Kremlin is trying to subdue such initiatives, but, as the author predicts, next year, as Russia celebrates the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, new attempts to apply historical politics to current events are inevitable.


Nini Arshakuni helped compile this week's roundup.