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"Russia is playing a high-stakes game"

What is the war in Ukraine about? Russia’s security, or the restoration of an “eternal Russian civilization”? How ideologically charged is this military conflict? To what extent have attitudes hardened? The editorial team at Ethics and Armed Forces asked Ukrainian political scientist and Eastern Europe expert Dr. Tatiana Zhurzhenko for her assessment. In this interview, she explains key historical and political concepts and their ideological background.

Dr. Zhurzhenko, an astonishing variety of justifications have been offered for the Russian war of aggression. It has been legitimized ethnically (protecting the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine), historically (unification of Ukrainians and Russians), morally (Nazi regime in Ukraine), and on grounds of national security (encirclement by NATO). What is this all about?

Firstly, there are some advantages to this at first glance heterogeneous variety of justifications. Depending on the situation and context, the Kremlin can choose suitable rationales to appeal to different audiences – within the country or internationally – and also respond flexibly to new developments.

Secondly, these justifications can be understood as elements of one narrative. According to this narrative, Russia is more than a state; it is a civilization that transcends national borders. This civilization is eternal; it has been fighting its enemies since time immemorial and always rises anew. In a speech at this year’s Valdai Club conference, Putin invoked a “symphony of human civilizations” built on societies with traditional values. This vision is directed against the West, which supposedly wants to impose a unipolar order on the world. Russia is defending itself against these hegemonic intentions, and sees itself as an advocate of the non-Western world.

And Ukraine is regarded as part of this world?

Ukraine is the theater in which the struggle against the West is being enacted. It plays an important role in this narrative, because – according to the narrative – it has always been part of eternal Russia and has now been captured by the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed during the Cold War, the Russian people were divided by new borders. From the Russian point of view, these borders are artificial. Accordingly, Russia is obligated to protect those Russians and Russian speakers who live beyond the new borders. (Putin used this argument when he annexed Crimea.) Ukrainians are really Russians, and anyone among them who insists on a separate Ukrainian identity is a nationalist or Nazi who must be fought in order to bring the Ukrainian people back home, into the Russian empire. This rhetoric echoes the key role of the Great Patriotic War and the victory over Nazi Germany.

As for the alleged encirclement by NATO, which is part of the threat scenario you mentioned, the weak response to the Swedish-Finnish accession process shows that Russia is concerned about Ukraine’s neutrality not so much for security reasons, but rather because it represents a symbolic boundary of Russian civilization.

These justifications tie into different conceptions of Russia and its role in the world. Can you briefly explain the most important ones, such as Russkiy mir and Novorossiya?

These terms overlap and are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have different origins and connotations.

Russkiy mir or “Russian world” is an ambiguous concept that has geopolitical, cultural and religious aspects, and is used by various political actors. It came into circulation in the early 1990s and refers to the transnational community of carriers of Russian culture and language. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the “old” Russian émigrés were joined by the new Russian-speaking diaspora in the post-Soviet countries. To this day, Moscow regards itself as their protector. In addition, the promotion of Russian culture abroad functions as an instrument of Russian soft power.

As the Russian regime evolved toward authoritarianism, the concept of Russkiy mir became increasingly conservative and developed into an alternative to Western civilization. So it shifted from something purely cultural to the geopolitical realm. Finally, with Russia’s war against Ukraine, Russkiy mir has become almost synonymous with Moscow’s neo-imperial territorial claims.

The term Novorossiya has historical origins. It was the collective name for the territories of the northern Black Sea coast from present-day Odessa to Dnipro, which Imperial Russia had conquered and colonized in multiple wars against the Ottomans. These territories were repopulated by various peoples, especially ethnic Ukrainians. After the disintegration of Imperial Russia, they became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In the spring of 2014, Russia resurrected the concept, still hoping that the protests against Kiev and the pro-Russian mobilization would lead to a split in Ukraine.

Besides that, there are also more or less religiously charged concepts like Neo-Eurasianism or the “Holy Rus” …

The idea of “Neo-Eurasianism” goes back to a group of intellectuals among the Russian émigrés of the 1920s and ’30s. For them, Russia was more than just a European country – they understood it as Eurasia, that is, a distinct civilization combining elements of the West with those of the East.

In the 1990s, the Eurasian discourse was rediscovered in several post-Soviet countries that were seeking their place between East and West, for example in Kazakhstan. In Russia, Alexander Dugin most notably developed a particularly aggressive form. For him, it is less about the coexistence of European and Asian cultures than about a struggle that Russia-Eurasia is waging against “Atlanticism” (by which he means primarily the United States and their allies in Europe). Many experts see Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism as a far-right ideology that imagines a totalitarian, Russia-dominated Eurasian empire as an alternative to Western liberalism.

The idea of “Holy Rus”, in turn, has its roots deep in Russian history. It comes from a tradition of Russian religious thought that saw Moscow as the Third Rome, that is, as the successor to Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire), and the center of the Orthodox world. From this perspective, the 1,000-year history of Russian Orthodoxy goes back to the early medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, which is viewed as the cradle of Russian civilization. The fact that Kiev/Kyiv is now the capital of Ukraine, which also claims Kievan Rus heritage, is a challenge for the Russian Orthodox church. That is why Patriarch Kirill deplores the splitting of Holy Rus by Moscow’s opponents.

In any case, the Russian Orthodox church is playing an important role in legitimizing the war?

The Russian Orthodox church, as represented by Patriarch Kirill, has not distanced itself from Putin’s “special operation”, but rather fully supports it. While Kirill expresses regret at the bloodshed in Ukraine, he blessed the Russian military before the operation began. This puts the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in a difficult position, and they are often regarded as a Russian fifth column in Ukraine. As I mentioned just now, for the Russian Orthodox church Ukraine and Belarus are inseparably part of Holy Rus. So this discourse plays into Putin’s hands.

Although the Russian Orthodox church is an important ally of Putin’s regime and has contributed to the conservative shift, that does not make Russia an Orthodox theocracy. It is true that Putin likes to be seen praying in church, and that businessmen loyal to the regime are expected to make donations for new churches and statues of saints. But one must not forget the Soviet socialization and KGB origins of Putin and his people. Their religiosity is not genuine; they see themselves as the new elite of the Russian empire, and the Orthodox faith is simply a part of that. Russian society has remained basically secular, and the church does not interfere in private life.

You referred to the anti-Western factor. Russia presents itself as the preserver of traditional values and institutions, such as the classical family; Western countries by contrast are caricatured as decadent and libertarian “Gayrope”. Where does this perspective come from?

This thinking is the result of the conservative turn in Russia, the beginning of which can be dated back to the 2012 performance by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The ensuing court case sparked a culture war, and deeply divided Russian society. In 2013, the law banning “LGBT propaganda” toward minors came into force. A new law is currently being debated in the Duma that represents a further tightening. According to it, the “promotion of non-traditional sexual orientations” among adults and the “denial of family values” shall be criminalized.

Where does this conservatism come from? It is a useful tool for dividing Russian society into conservatives and liberals, in order to weaken it. Moreover, it is a way to shackle and marginalize the liberal opposition with the LGBT issue. At the same time, this policy helps to demonize the West in the eyes of the Russian people and alienate them from it.

How much do Russian elites, and ultimately President Putin himself, believe their narratives? Is it all just cynical propaganda to secure their own power?

Perhaps not everyone in Russia is convinced that LGBT is a threat to the nation (although there is certainly a lot of homophobia). At least until recently, many Russians owned real estate in the West, and sent their children to Western schools. So from that angle they hardly subscribe to the idea of the West as an enemy, which is put out for the masses, and they cannot be happy about the war that has cut them off from Europe. But as far as Ukraine goes, for example, I think that most of Putin’s elite and he himself are convinced that it is not a nation but an artificial construct, and has no right to national sovereignty.

You have also talked about a quasi-ideology made up of various secular and religious elements. Where do you see the contrast with a genuine, coherent ideology?

Today’s Russian ideology is not comparable to the Soviet one. The latter was genuine inasmuch as it claimed to be an alternative to the capitalist West, and promised a better future – that is what made it attractive at one time. It was based on Party texts and canonical authors – Marx, Engels, Lenin – and was codified as a dogma. Today’s ideology, on the other hand, serves only to legitimize the regime. It is fluid, “postmodern”, eclectic – it seems no-one values coherence anymore or is bothered by internal contradictions.

How do you explain the fact that all of these elements, which link in with ideas from the pre-Soviet period, have somehow survived the Soviet Union? Was the Soviet Union nothing more than a Russia-dominated empire 2.0 for the Russians?

The October Revolution radically did away with the imperial tradition, partly because of the belief in internationalism and an imminent world revolution. The core of communist ideology was to create a new culture of the working class, to grant women equal rights, and to give peoples a right to self-determination and national development. The federal structure of the Soviet Union was a response to the challenge of how to deal with the diversity of ethnic groups in a non-imperial way, and even affirmatively strengthen them.

However, as early as the late 1930s, when the Soviet regime was gearing up for war, certain symbolic figures and narratives were reclaimed from history, such as Alexander Nevsky.1 This tendency then became even stronger during the war, when the Russian Orthodox church was partially rehabilitated. In the post-war period, Soviet internationalism remained a sacred cow, but Russian language and culture were given increasing weight. In addition, Russian imperial history was popularized in the late Soviet period, and the Russian émigrés were rehabilitated and portrayed positively.

Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union and disappearance of communist ideology removed the last obstacles to a renaissance of ideas from the pre-Soviet period.

On the other hand, President Putin famously said that the end of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. Did he strike a nerve with that?

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not happen overnight; it was the result of a permanent crisis. For the people, the last few years were marked by economic problems and everyday worries. In many republics, but also in Russia itself, the dissolution was an emancipatory moment. Yeltsin embodied the democratic alternative, a new beginning for Russia. Then the hopes associated with that quickly evaporated in the face of economic recession and unemployment resulting from privatization in the 1990s, the Chechen war, and the emergence of the oligarchic system that strangled the young democracy.

Putin projected this chain of crises and defeats (and the negative experiences associated with them) onto the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, in the early 2000s, he claimed credit for an economic recovery and rising prosperity. Paradoxically, as soon as people were better off, they developed a nostalgia for the Soviet Union. They easily forgot the hardships and absurdities of the system, and longed for the respect that the Soviet Union had enjoyed as a great power.

When the borders between the former Soviet republics were redrawn after the end of the Soviet Union, people at the time hardly noticed it in their everyday lives because they had other worries. Now, in recent times, it seems that these borders have become too narrow for the new Russian consciousness.

 

Why does such reminiscing about “former greatness” play such a big role, and why is it still going on? After all, no-one gains anything from it, one might say.

Especially in Russia’s case it is indeed possible to ask whether the country isn’t already big enough. Before 2014, millions of Russians vacationed in Crimea. They didn’t need a visa for that and they could communicate in their own language everywhere. Hardly anyone missed Crimea as a part of Russia. So why annex Crimea?

Putin took this decision in a small circle or even alone. But there is no denying that it met with widespread popular support and even enthusiasm. Propaganda had prepared the way for the decision with the argument that Russians living in Crimea must be saved from the alleged fascist coup in Kiev, and that this piece of land, which played such a big role in Russia’s imperial history, would finally be brought home. Above all, it was the fact that Crimea fell so easily into Russia’s hands, without war and bloodshed, that generated enthusiasm and popular support. As we know today, the annexation of Crimea was not an exception. It set a precedent that led to the belief that Russia has the right to redraw its borders as it sees fit. But the annexation of the newly occupied territories was met with less enthusiasm because of the disproportionately higher costs to the country, and because the war has hit home. Only time will tell whether this shock will help heal the imperial complex, or further increase resentment.

The Russian intellectual and cultural elite has not seriously engaged with the country’s imperial past, and is partly responsible for the policy of territorial expansion. Many cultural figures have actually contributed to the glorification of this history.

Is the banning of organizations like Memorial, which kept the memory of Stalinist crimes alive, related to this?

Yes. Memorial was the most important institution for coming to terms with the past. It played a significant role in educating the general population. It did the work that the Russian state neglected to do. The trauma of the Stalinist past affects most families in Russia. There is a great demand for information in society – the 2019 gulag documentary by Yury Dud, a popular Russian blogger, was viewed 27 million times.2 Dud has found a language that makes the subject accessible also to young people.

Did we in the West underestimate the importance and enduring nature of these sensitivities and resulting needs? Should we have been more responsive to them?

My view is that Russia was internationally integrated and well-represented on many levels – political, economic, and so on. For thirty years, the West worked to make Russia an integral part of Europe and the international security architecture. Even after the annexation of Crimea, many in Europe tried to continue working with Russia – think of Nord Stream 2, for example. Of course, you can always claim that certain Russian interests were not taken into account. But does this justify war?

Russia’s behavior now is destroying the basis of trust built up over thirty years. One wonders what it gains from this war, and from its hostility toward the West.

What lessons can be learned from this for Ukraine, which is now defending itself against Russian aggression, and for the countries supporting Ukraine?

From Ukraine’s point of view, this war is not only about its sovereignty and territorial integrity, its existence as a nation. It is also about the struggle of democracy against authoritarianism. It is democracy – however imperfect – that distinguishes Ukraine from most other post-Soviet countries. The eight months of this war have demonstrated the value of democracy, that it works even under the most difficult conditions, and has made the country more resilient. What we can observe is trust in the elected representatives of the people, and an active civil society that not only supports the army but works successfully in many other areas too. The fact that the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian society are now showing much more resilience than in 2014 is also the fruit of the reforms of recent years, especially the decentralization reform. So from Ukraine’s perspective, it is only natural to expect support from the West, because we share the same values. This is all the more important as on the other side, the authoritarian regimes are forming coalitions – Russia with Belarus and recently with Iran … The ambivalent position of China is also part of that.

And what is your assessment of Russia’s willingness to compromise?

This war really does seem to be motivated by Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions. There is little rationality on the Russian side. Russia is not only weakened economically by sanctions, it is isolating itself internationally. Moreover, the remnants of independent civil society, media and cultural institutions are being destroyed. There is a dramatic brain drain. All of this is setting Russia back decades. It is playing a high-stakes game. Russia is betting that the West will eventually give up and it can establish a new world order. It is sacrificing everything for this goal.

While Russia constantly asserts its willingness to compromise, it is not willing to discuss the status of the newly annexed territories. Negotiations under these conditions would be a capitulation for Ukraine, which no-one is prepared to accept. Even if both sides were to agree on a ceasefire, it could not last. A situation in which, for example, Kherson becomes part of Russia but Mykolaiv and Odessa remain in Ukraine cannot be stabilized.

In this context, how do you view recent commemorative and cultural measures in Ukraine such as renaming streets or the possible removal of Russian literature from curricula?

The decolonization of Ukrainian culture and the public space has become a hot topic since the war started. Previously, the question of the extent to which Ukrainians perceive themselves through the lens of hegemonic Russian culture tended to be something that was discussed only in intellectual circles. The war has turned this discussion into a culture war, which is now being fought in the streets as well. Of course, one would hope that the accompanying change in thinking would not take the form of destroying cultural objects associated with Russian imperial history, such as the demolition of monuments to Alexander Pushkin. In an ideal world, these objects would perhaps be placed under protection until a consensus is reached on their fate. But we are in the midst of a cruel war, in which countless people are being killed and Ukrainian cultural heritage is being destroyed.

We don’t know which Ukraine will emerge from this war. Ever since the country became independent, it has been argued that Ukraine should be a political nation that does not define itself in a narrow ethnic and cultural sense and in which the Russian language and culture of course have a place. Especially since the Maidan, a nation has emerged that increasingly defines itself in terms of shared values – national sovereignty, democracy, protest culture. The Ukrainian language is therefore not a marker of cultural identity, but an important symbol of these overarching values, including for Russian speakers, Crimean Tatars, and others. This war could give rise to a political nation in which Russian culture loses its historical place, and Russian identity becomes problematic.

Dr. Zhurzhenko, thank you for the in-depth interview!

Questions by Rüdiger Frank and Kristina Tonn (in writing).

1 The Russian national hero and saint of the Russian Orthodox church lived in the 13th century. He served as Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Vladimir. See https://www.owep.de/artikel/alexander-newski-russlands-unsterblicher-held (accessed November 2, 2022).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo1WouI38rQ (accessed November 2, 2022).

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Tatiana Zhurzhenko is a researcher at ZOiS (Centre for East European and International Studies), Berlin, where she works on the project "The Liberal Script in Ukraine's Contested Border Regions" (Cluster of Excellence Contestations of the Liberal Script - SCRIPTS). Her academic interests include memory politics as well as borders and borderland identities, with a focus on the post-Soviet space. Her most recent publication is „Terror, Kollaboration und Widerstand. Russlands Herrschaft in den neu besetzten Gebieten der Ukraine“, in: Osteuropa, issue 6-8 (2022).