Damir Marusic sat down with scholar Agnia Grigas to discuss her new book on Putin’s policies. Below is an edited transcript.
Damir Marusic for TAI: Tell us a little bit about the book Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, and what you set out to do in writing it.
Agnia Grigas: I set out to write this book in early 2014 with the aim of shedding light on Putin’s revanchist foreign policy, which was still largely misunderstood. It was before Russia annexed Crimea and before the war in the Donbas, but tensions were already high. Moscow’s rhetoric focused on the need to protect Russian minorities and Russian speakers in Ukraine. And this was very much a rhetoric that I had heard before. I had studied Russia’s efforts to stoke tensions among the Russian minorities in the Baltic states, as well as the Georgian war, which Moscow also justified as protection of minorities.
In this book, I wanted to show how Russia pursued consistent policies towards its “compatriots”—or the some 35 million ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers residing abroad across the post-Soviet space—in order to support its foreign policy aims and territorial ambitions. I sought to examine the origins of these compatriot policies, when they emerged, why, and how they were formulated. I wanted to trace what starts as Moscow’s cultural support for fellow compatriots abroad, when that becomes military “protection,” and when that support results in the seizure of foreign territory.
I traced the emergence of these Russian “compatriot policies” from the early 1990s. Before then, the term “compatriot” never really had that political connotation—it simply meant fellow countryman. I traced how rudimentary compatriot policies evolved under Yeltsin’s regime, from efforts to merely define what a “compatriot” is to the creation of a separate legal category. Later, they were instrumentalized under Putin as a form of foreign policy and of territorial expansion.
By the way, the populations that the Russia deems its compatriots often don’t like the term and want nothing to do with the Kremlin’s political project, or are at least ambivalent towards it. If some do find it appealing, it’s often a generational issue: The older generation still has some sentimental attachments to the Soviet era, and they still see themselves as part of that fading world. Whereas the younger generation is much less likely to. I found in my interview that the younger generation of Russian speakers would often say, “Well, I’m Estonian,” or “I’m Kazakh,” or “I’m Turkmen,” and so on.
TAI: One of the things that struck me in your book is that there appears to be a tension between the structural geopolitical necessities of an empire in recession on the one hand, and, say, something called Putinism on the other. I think at one point you say that you definitely don’t want to describe Russian “compatriot” policies solely as Putinism—it has deep historical roots, going back even to the Russian imperial consciousness and habits. Yet, at the same time, these habits are in a way mobilized and utilized by Putin…
AG: Absolutely. Viewing this solely as Putin’s agenda misses the deeper roots of the compatriot policies, as well as how these diaspora populations came into existence in the first place. The Russian diaspora did not emerge during Putin’s rule, and it even preceded the Soviet era. Russia has been creating minority populations and leveraging ethnic conflict in newly acquired territories since czarist times. This strategy was consistently pursued in the Soviet Union under Stalin as well—one might say he was the master of it. But again, even Stalin was building on Russia’s long history of deporting and relocating minorities and stoking ethnic tensions. The minorities that live today in the Baltic states or in Ukraine or the Caucasus were often products of czarist policies whose positions were solidified under Stalin and later. So yes, Putin inherited a sizable Russian compatriot population abroad, and in a way it’s both a problem and an opportunity for him.
TAI: Looking at Putin’s national policies from 2000 through today, it seems to me that earlier on he was trying to strike a balance between the national ethnic Russian idea and a bigger idea of Russia—Russkie vs Rossiyanin. And with the rhetoric surrounding Crimea, and in general after returning to the Presidency after the Bolotnaya protests in 2011 shook things up, he appears to have largely dispensed with this delicate balancing act in favor of a more full-throated nationalism. In your book, you talk about a sort of “compatriots” toolkit that the Russians use. How might you characterize Putin’s agency in all of this? Is it a strategy unfolding, or is it more opportunism?
AG: Separating out Putin’s agency versus the structural factors in Russia’s policy is not easy to do, because again, there were efforts to conceptualize “compatriots” as a foreign policy tool of the Russian Federation as early as Yeltsin.
For example, in Transnistria in Moldova in 1990, you see Soviet troops getting involved on the side of the so-called compatriots (in truth, militant separatists) in Transnistria, very much under the pretext of “protecting Russians”—even though at that time in the breakaway territory, Russians were maybe a quarter of the population. The rest were Moldovans and Ukrainians. Yeltsin’s rhetoric on the Baltics in the early 1990s was similar; he argued that he could not withdraw the Soviet army because it had to protect the region’s Russian speakers.
These policies became more coherent and more tightly formulated under Putin. At the same time, the structural factors had changed. By the mid-2000s, Russia was in a stronger position due to higher oil prices, which translated into more funding for the military and greater confidence in the state and its international role. These structural factors allowed Putin to take advantage of opportunities such as the conflict in Georgia in 2008 and the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in Ukraine during EuroMaidan in 2013-14. There is an ongoing debate over whether Putin is a strategist or a tactician, but I believe he is both. He has pursued a long-term strategy to regain and retain influence in the near abroad and tactically grasped opportunities for territorial expansion when the circumstances were favorable.
TAI: And the great “successes” of these policies, you might say, are in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. You call it a successful “reimperialization” policy in the book.
AG: Yes, the “successes” have been in challenging the territorial integrity of these states, annexing territory, such as in Crimea, and creating permanent frozen conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Donbas.
TAI: And yet, another way to look at it is to say that all Putin has managed to achieve is to light a series of dumpster fires along the periphery of Russia. He has created a permanent zone of instability. But if it’s to be a successful “reimperialization” policy, isn’t the goal to actually incorporate these territories into some sort of functioning sphere on influence? Isn’t the goal to reintegrate the diaspora, the “compatriots,” back into an imperial Russia? Measured this way, are Putin’s policies actually successful?
AG: Well, it depends how one defines successful “reimperialization.” Does it require direct, physical governance over these territories? Or is it about having the long-term influence over Georgia or Ukraine that the presence of frozen conflicts awards Moscow? In my view the creation of frozen conflicts has been a relatively low-cost tactic for Russia to destabilize uncooperative neighbors. Russia’s interventions prevent its neighboring countries from pursuing an open, pro-Western path. These frozen conflicts thwart their ambitions to join the European Union or NATO. They certainly can’t join the latter until they have sorted out any lingering territorial issues. And thus these conflicts ultimately prevent them from becoming successful and prosperous countries. As many others have pointed out, their prosperity would pose a problem for the Kremlin, because the Russian people would be able to see an alternative model, and could envision a development path away from the autocratic, kleptocratic model they have now.
Likewise, by not absorbing these frozen conflict regions into the Russian Federation, Moscow can avoid taking responsibility for the territories and the costs necessary to rebuild them. For instance, Moldova is still responsible for Transnistria’s gas bill from Gazprom. However, I do agree that this is hardly a winning strategy for the Kremlin in the long term. Control over poor, run-down, and crime-ridden frozen conflict territories is hardly a worthwhile prize. Moreover, it creates long-term if not permanent distrust of Russia among the populations of Ukraine, Georgia, and even among some of Russia’s allies who fear a similar fate.
TAI: There was the funny story earlier this summer, of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev being confronted by pensioners in Crimea, furious about their declining living standards, and angry that Russia had failed to index their pensions to inflation. Crimea is arguably the fullest expression of the policy you outline—full annexation. And yet…
AG: Yes, Russia is now responsible for providing energy, water, and social security. They are trying to build a bridge across the Kerch straits from Russia to the peninsula. However, the Crimean population has hardly seen any benefits from this annexation. At the end of the day, the leaderhip in the Kremlin is most concerned about its short-term interests of staying in power and maintaining the current regime. And these military campaigns have been popular domestically. If we look at the high points of Putin’s popularity in the polls since he came to power, there are three: first during the Chechen War, then during the Georgian War, and most recently following the annexation of Crimea. Arguably, the Syrian campaign follows the same pattern as well, because it demonstrates to the Russian public that the country is now a significant player on the international stage.
TAI: So what about countries that are not as far along on the trajectory, as you put it? You spend a lot of time in the book writing about Kazakhstan.
AG: Yes, I analyze the case of Kazakhstan quite a bit, because it meets what I see as the three conditions that put a country at the greatest risk of Russian territorial meddling. These include 1) a sizable and concentrated population of ethnic Russians or Russian speakers, 2) the location of these populations close to the Russian border, and 3) the receptivity of this minority to Russian influence. Kazakhstan has a sizable Russian diaspora that resides along its border with the Russian Federation—and Kazakhstan has a very long border with Russia. Russia has worked hard since the 1990s to try to woo that population and they are potentially quite receptive to its influence. Among many efforts in the region, Moscow has tried to pursue a policy of dual citizenship and to hand out Russian passports—a policy I call passportization—in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia more broadly.
But Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev drew a red line very early on. The autocratic nature of the regime gave him some advantages. He banned the holding of dual passports. There would be no Russian citizenship for any citizens of Kazakhstan, no matter what their ethnic or linguistic background was. And he didn’t stop there. He has locked up people who agitated for separatism or for Russia’s annexation of the territories along the border.
Russia’s ultimate goals in Kazakhstan are similar to those we discussed earlier: keeping the country “on track” and preventing it from turning away from Russian integrative structures, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Union. Over the past ten years, China has emerged as a real player in Central Asia, predominantly as a customer of Central Asian gas and oil. China has also built and invested in extensive infrastructure in the region, and so Russia now finds itself with real competition in its backyard. And of course the United States is ever-present as well, though more as a military force, due to its engagement in Afghanistan.
So a kind of balance exists. Nazarbayev is resisting the most overt Russian efforts, but at the same time, the Kremlin quietly continues to menace the autocrat with the threat of ethnic unrest. It’s a means of saying, in effect, “If you start making any moves that we don’t like, we have a potentially restive population within your borders that we can start exploiting to destabilize your country.”
The big question is what happens when the balance tips for some reason. What happens when Nazarbayev dies? This September the long-ruling President of neighboring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, passed away. And while Uzbekistan does not have a sizable presence of Russian speakers and does not share a border with Russia, we have seen Moscow step up its diplomatic efforts to transform relations with the country following its regime change. Similarly, we can expect that with a change of leadership in Kazakhstan, Russia would try to strengthen its hand in the country and, if that failed, it could resort to tougher tactics.
TAI: An autocrat has some leeway in how to respond. Let’s talk a little about what non-autocratic governments in Russia’s periphery can do to counteract the Kremlin’s malign influence.
AG: Well, first it’s important to recognize Moscow’s policies for what they are. And for me, part of the goal of writing this book was to try to unpack and categorize some of Russia’s policies—to see what the connections between them are, what’s behind them, and what may be the next, more aggressive steps. This is the first step to try to counteract these policies.
In my book I argue that Russia is pursuing a seven-stage reimperialization trajectory that starts with 1) soft power and continues to 2) humanitarian policies, 3) compatriot policies, 4) information warfare, 5) passportization, 6) protection, and 7) annexation.
Some may be surprised that Russia has any soft power. Indeed, there is too much complacency in the United States regarding the Western model, and too much faith that it holds undisputed sway over societies in Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. Yes, Western liberal democracy appeals to most, but Russia presents its own worldview and tries to appeal to those disaffected by globalization and liberalism. And it is successful in appealing to different segments of the disaffected population—from ultra-nationalists, to socialists, to conservatives that feel snubbed by the mainstream. It paints a picture of creeping Western liberalism and globalization, in which Putin’s Russia is a protector of conservative, Orthodox Christian values and of “sovereign democracy.” So it is important for the United States to continue its own diplomacy and messaging in Europe and beyond and for the elites of the target states to have a dialogue with their societies about the real benefits of market democracy. Indeed, as we have seen from the Brexit vote, this is not just a concern for Central and Eastern Europe but for Europe more broadly.
Russia’s passportization policies are another very effective tool. It’s usually done illegally, without the sanction of the other country, but often little has been done about it. Ukraine, for instance, was aware that it was happening in Crimea, and they took almost no steps to counter it. It’s more difficult for democracies to do this than for autocracies, but countries at risk ignore these issues at their peril. Indeed, when Moscow creates Russian citizens in the near abroad from mere Russian compatriots it then has more standing to “protect” them by various means, including militarily. Thus countries need to invest significantly in integrating their minority populations to ensure that they don’t become willing recipients of Russian passports.
Similarly, it’s important to grasp exactly how Russian propaganda and information warfare actually functions and to work to counter it. Everyone focuses on RT or state-funded Russian language channels—that’s obvious—and they are clearly influential. But there are many more that operate covertly. There is a lot of murky investment in various media groups, websites, and civil society organizations in Europe and the post-Soviet space. And then these organizations work hand-in-glove with the Kremlin and Russian propaganda channels not only to provide complementary ideas but also to sow tensions between Russian speakers and their home countries. The means for addressing this vector of attack is transparency: countries under threat should shine a light on this kind of funding, and perhaps institute limits on how foreign money can be used within their borders. Moreover, the United States and its allies should strengthen Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other independent sources of Russian-language media.
TAI: So let’s look ahead, then: Putin has a formidable toolkit at his disposal. There are ways to counter it, but it’s not exactly easy to do so. After Putin, when that day finally comes, do we still have a problem? Do these political habits, that have been with Russia since czarist times, continue on with the next generation of leaders?
AG: I am not optimistic that a change of leadership in the Kremlin would immediately end these problems. These habits have deeper sources—sources that can go back hundreds of years. I certainly don’t see these tendencies dissipating, or resolving themselves in five, ten, fifteen years’ time. Russia today, in many regards, views its interests, its security, and its foreign policy priorities in the same way as it did in czarist and Soviet times. This imperial mindset—which also recognizes Russia’s geographic reality as a land-based power—leads to a desire for buffer zones. Moreover, as a perennially modernizing but underperforming power, Russia prefers weak, fragmented, and unstable neighbors, rather ones that are prospering. It’s a different way of thinking, and it presents a whole host of challenges to Western policymakers, challenges that will not quietly disappear.