On the eve of Moscow’s incursion into Crimea, the Kremlin mouthpiece Izvestia ran a headline declaring “A Majority of Russians Consider Crimea Russian Territory”. Curiously, though, the article that followed was not about Russia needing to grab territory, but rather about its struggle to hold the territory it has. According to a recent poll, the paper wrote, while 56 percent believe Crimea is Russian land, only about 40 percent consider Russia’s predominantly Muslim regions of Chechnya and Dagestan to be such. Existing state borders, it seems, mean little to Russians’ ideas of what constitutes Russia.This fact may embolden the country’s leaders to occupy foreign territory, but it also scares them. Izvestia called this failure to accept ethnic minorities as countrymen the “single greatest danger to the Russian state’s integrity”. In this, it echoed Vladimir Putin’s recent campaign to promote a civic national identity as opposed to one based on ethnicity. “Nationalists must remember that by calling into question our multi-ethnic character… we will begin to destroy ourselves” he warned recently. “In order to maintain the nation’s unity, people must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values.”
In justifying his intervention in Crimea with a duty to defend Russians or Russian-speakers abroad, though, Putin has fueled the destructive fire of nationalism that his civic-identity campaign is meant to combat. If Russians conceive of their country in ethnic terms, why should minorities and the regions they dominate be part of that country? And why should predominantly ethnic Russian regions in other countries not be part of that state? A Russia that defines itself in ethnic terms will be unable to integrate territories in the North Caucasus peacefully and will be more likely to look at lands beyond its borders as rightfully its own.Many have dismissed both Putin’s civic-identity campaign and his commitment to Russians abroad as cynical ploys meant only to serve immediate political needs. Indeed, Putin until now has shown little interest in ethnicity, ideology or identity, largely ignoring Russians abroad and dismissing the search for a national idea that many pundits and politicians engage in as an “ancient Russian game”. But Putin’s motivations and sincerity are beside the point. The dangerous nationalist tendencies he claims to combat at home are real even if he does not recognize or care how his actions abroad exacerbate those tendencies.An Old ProblemRussia’s worsening interethnic relations do seem to have captured Putin’s attention before his latest adventures in Ukraine. According to the Levada polling firm the number of people who support the idea that “Russia is for [ethnic] Russians” – a favorite slogan among right-wing groups – grew from 55 percent to 66 percent between 2002 and 2013, while the proportion who oppose the phrase as “true fascism” declined from 28 percent to 19 percent. Similarly, over that period the number of people who said they “felt hostility toward people of different nationalities” grew from 12 percent to 20 percent. As a 2013 government report noted, “post-Soviet Russia has a crisis of civic identity, ethnic intolerance, separatism and terrorism, as a result of which there is a danger of society disintegrating.” To combat this, the report proposes a $186-million, 6-year program to “strengthen the unity of the Russian Federation’s multinational people”. Putin has devoted considerable attention to this problem, making it the focus of his 2013-state of the-nation address.The problem of forming a common identity out of myriad ethnicities and managing ethnic Russian nationalism is, of course, not new for Russia. The Soviet Union faced the same challenge and it was ultimately a resurgence of ethnic nationalisms that broke that country apart. Putin’s civic-identity campaign, in fact, borrows heavily from Soviet nationalities policy: It is based largely on opposition to Western liberalism; it seeks to preserve and promote the country’s various ethnic cultures while uniting them in a larger community; it emphasizes protecting the state and the ethnic group and deemphasizes the rights of the individual; and it seeks simultaneously to temper ethnic Russian nationalism and harness it as a uniting force. “For centuries, Russia developed as a multi-ethnic nation” Putin said in his 2012 state-of-the-nation address, “a civilization-state bonded by the [ethnic] Russian people, Russian language and Russian culture native for all of us, uniting us and preventing us from dissolving in this diverse world.”Whereas the Soviet Union could build an identity around Marxism-Leninism, Putin’s Russia lacks any such unifying ideas. He has offered as ideology a brand of conservatism that emphasizes defending “traditional values” against Western political and cultural encroachment, with opposition to same-sex partnerships and efforts to promote democracy around the world featuring prominently. He presents this conservatism as a philosophy of national salvation from forces that would overturn the traditional order, explaining it by quoting the twentieth-century anti-revolutionary philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev: “The point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.” But while the Kremlin has assigned reading and organized seminars for government officials in an effort to develop this ideology, it still largely lacks positive values and is primarily reactive. Putin is far longer on what he opposes than what he is for.Can’t Have It Both WaysThe crisis in Ukraine has shown the promise, limits and dangers of Putin’s ideology. On the one hand, the idea of defending the beleaguered people of Crimea from Western encroachment has been a powerful and popular message within Russia. On the other hand, official language on the subject veers quickly into ethnic Russian nationalism, with no real appeal to common values. Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine is, in fact, another attempt to harness ethnic Russian nationalism without embracing it. He has tried to avoid mention of ethnic Russians when discussing motivations for intervening, instead pointing to a duty to protect “Russian-speaking populations”. Russian language, something common to all Russia’s citizens, seems like safer ground than ethnicity for building support for military action abroad. Further down the Kremlin’s propaganda vertical, though, this distinction becomes muddled.The country’s main television channel this week, for example, described a large protest in Stavropol as being in “defense of [ethnic] Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine”. That a protest in Stavropol, a city in the diverse and restive North Caucasus, would focus on protecting ethnic Russians is notable and troubling. Interethnic tensions have been most destructive in this part of the country and checking separatist movements there is a primary objective of the civic-identity campaign. If, encouraged by Moscow, people in the North Caucasus are taking to the streets to defend the rights of ethnic Russians, what chance do efforts to build peace and unity through common civic values have? In his drive for Crimea, Putin is undermining one of the great projects of his presidency: keeping regions such as Chechnya and Dagestan within Russia.Moscow’s expansion of power in Ukraine weakens its power in the North Caucasus not only because of the separatist precedent it sets, but because of what it says about how the country sees itself: as “Russia for Russians” and not a multinational people. Putin has kept the North Caucasus under control through force and massive spending, a policy that has spawned one of Russian nationalists’ favorite slogans: “Enough Feeding the Caucasus!” Money and lives spent in the North Caucasus alienates the rest of Russia from that part of the country, necessitating that more lives and resources be spent to hold on to it. Failure to build a real sense of national unity means that Russia’s colonial project within its own borders will have to continue until the will and means to fight are exhausted. The idea of Russia ultimately paying a high price at home for its actions in Ukraine may well please American politicians and pundits eager to see Putin punished. But Russia losing control of the North Caucasus would likely be disastrous for the outside world.