Russia’s Changing Identity: In Search of a Role in the 21st Century
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Russia’s position in the global system has changed dramatically in the last five years, along with its key international relationships. These changes have made an impact on Russia’s identity, altered its borders, redefined its sense of nationhood, and produced a worldview wholly different from the tradition of the past three centuries. Understanding the import of these changes is essential for all those who need to deal with Russia, which is a growing part of the global community.
The Russian Federation emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Russia is a very old state. Over the 1,250 years or so of its “official” statehood, it has changed not only its name but also its identity many times, while retaining key features. That process is likely to continue in the future.
The early Russian state—ancient Rus, or Kievan Rus, after its capital city—was an Eastern European country of multiple Slavic tribes ruled by an extended family of Viking princes. It became the easternmost bulwark of the European Christian world after adopting Christianity in 988 from the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This “first” Russia was Slavic, Christian, and European.
From the twelfth century, Kievan Rus became fragmented, with no single political center. In the early thirteenth century, it was overrun and devastated by the Mongols. The invasion led to a split within Russia. While its western and southwestern principalities (now Belarus and Ukraine, respectively) lost their independence and were absorbed by the neighboring countries of Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary, the northeastern principalities became tributaries of the Mongol Empire. For a long period of time, there was no Russia in the political sense.
It was in the northeast that the Russian state reemerged. The small town of Moscow, which from the fourteenth century became the seat of the Orthodox metropolitans of All Russia, began gathering Russian lands around itself. It first established itself as a junior partner of the Golden Horde, and then stood up to it. Finally, in 1480, it shook off the “Mongol yoke” altogether. The centralized Russian state that emerged after a quarter of a millennium in submission to an Asian empire was strongly Orthodox, autocratic in an Oriental way, and essentially isolated, wedged between Muslim khanates to the east and south, and Catholic kingdoms to the west.
As this Russia grew and became stronger, it developed its own unique brand, even exceptionalism. As the only independent Orthodox state, it saw itself as the rightful heir to the Byzantine Empire, a “Third Rome”: the true center of Christianity, following Rome itself and Constantinople-turned-Istanbul. In the sixteenth century, its rulers adopted the title of czar (caesar), and its church leaders became patriarchs, on a par with other top clerics of the Orthodox world. Thus the czars and the patriarchs accepted no higher authority on earth, either temporal or spiritual. The czardom of Muscovy was essentially a self-sustained polity with limited contact with the outside world.
At the start of the seventeenth century, the end of the 700-year Rurik dynasty and resultant domestic instability prompted neighboring foreign powers, Poland and Sweden, to invade and try to dominate Russia. The “Time of Troubles,” as the decade-long period is known, was a great trauma, but the Russian people managed to liberate themselves and found a new indigenous dynasty. Yet some also realized how far their country lagged behind its neighbors in Europe. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) set Russia on a path toward radical modernization.
The Russian Empire proclaimed by Peter had a Western appearance, symbolized by its new capital, St. Petersburg. It soon became part of the European system of states as a great power, and after defeating Napoleon in 1812–1815, an indispensable part of the Concert of Europe. It reintegrated the lands populated by Ukrainians and Belarusians and “made Russia whole again.” The empire stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific, and from the Hindu Kush to the Arctic. It owned Finland, Poland, and Alaska, and extended its sphere of influence to Persia, Mongolia, and China. In the international arena, St. Petersburg was a staunch supporter of conservative values and the legitimacy of monarchy.
Yet beneath the layers of Europeanized monarchy, aristocracy, and bureaucracy, Russia remained a peasant country clinging on to age-old traditions. The gulf between the elite and the bulk of the population was enormous. Initially, capitalism developed very slowly. After serfdom was abolished in 1861, however, economic and social development accelerated hard, undermining traditional ways and exacerbating conflicts. In 1917, during World War I, the old order was overturned by revolution. After the takeover by Bolshevik radicals led by Vladimir Lenin, Russia became a communist atheist state that saw itself as the vanguard of the world proletarian revolution. The word “Russia” was replaced by a new name: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, conceived as the nucleus of a world communist state: the Third (Communist) International.
When hopes for a world revolution faded, the Soviet Union became focused on building socialism in one country, in opposition to the rest of the world, which remained capitalist. The vanguard of revolution turned into a besieged fortress ruled in a ruthlessly totalitarian way by Joseph Stalin. The fortress withstood and defeated the assault of Nazi Germany. Victory in World War II transformed the USSR into a world superpower, with a powerful nuclear-armed military, vast industry, an impressive technological capacity, and high-quality culture. Moscow commanded the allegiance of dozens of countries and scores of political parties and movements on all continents. Its socialist system and communist ideology rivaled liberal capitalism led by the United States for global primacy.
The post-World War II USSR was the pinnacle of Russia’s global power. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had run into its first comprehensive crisis. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the system failed. Moreover, he lost control of the forces unleashed by the reform effort. In 1991, the Soviet people brought down the communist system. Soon, the Soviet Union itself was dissolved. The main impetus had actually come from its core Russian republic, which believed it was giving more to the other parts of the union than it was getting in return. The seventy-four-year-old Communist system and 500-year-old imperial legacy were discarded simultaneously.
The Russian Federation, the current incarnation of the Russian state, started as a country that longed to join the democratic liberal order led by the United States. It aspired to Western integration, which meant becoming part of the Atlantic system centered on NATO, and part of a Greater Europe built around the European Union. This effort failed, however, mainly due to the refusal of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian elites to recognize U.S. leadership and give up their country’s great-power status and global ambitions.
After the Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014, Russia pivoted away from its already frayed agenda of Western integration, as well as the nostalgic desire to reintegrate the former imperial/Soviet borderlands around Russia. Instead, Russia once again redefined itself as a self-standing and essentially self-sufficient post-imperial nation in the middle of the macro-continent of Eurasia. Today, Russia is “just” Russia, neither Western nor Asian; a large country promoting and defending its national interests as the Kremlin leadership sees them, and advocating diversity in the globalized environment.
For a country with such geopolitical and geostrategic position and ambitions as Russia, status has always been exceedingly important. The key and absolutely indispensable element of Russia’s status has been independence. The modern Russian state emerged following the trauma of the Mongol invasion and the 250-year struggle to liberate itself from the oppressors’ “yoke.” Russians put up massive resistance to European invaders in the wars on Russian territory of 1812 and 1941–1945, which led to the defeat of Napoleon and Hitler, and brought Russian forces to Paris and Berlin.
National independence implies a sovereign foreign policy. Russia has a long record of standing up to the mightiest powers of the world, including France, Germany, and Britain. Moscow’s current confrontation with the United States is rooted in the clash between Russian views on what constitutes the Russian national interest and on how the world should be organized, and the U.S. ambition of global leadership and the principles and rules of the U.S.-led world order.
Essentially, Russia seeks a status that is equal to that of any other major world power. This comes naturally to a country whose fifteenth-century ruler refused an offer from the Holy Roman Emperor to make him a king, and who instead proclaimed himself an heir to the Byzantine emperors. Russia could never rely on outsiders to protect its security, and its relationships with allies in the many wars it fought were based at least on sovereign equality. It was content to be a great power among other leading players in Europe, and later in the world. If there is one thing that Russia treasures most in the United Nations system, that is its position as a permanent veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council.
In Russian history, the Soviet period stands out for two aberrations resulting from the communist ideology that the country’s leaders embraced and served. One—the more short-lived of the two—was turning the state into a revolutionary vehicle for a global ideology-driven upheaval. The other was seeking global dominance in a match with its rival superpower, the United States. Neither infatuation with a revolutionary ideology nor a yearning for world supremacy has roots in Russian history; both were products of unique circumstances and are unlikely to make a comeback.
Russia’s brand of exceptionalism is not messianic. It is rooted in the isolation of an Orthodox country and its belief that it possesses the gift of a true religious faith. It has been strengthened by Russia’s successful—if very costly—defense of its state sovereignty. Finally, it has been confirmed by Russia’s status as a major global player that refuses to take orders from anyone.
Borders and Neighbors
Even as Russia’s key features as a state transcended the multiple identities of the country, its borders have constantly been changing. This is not the place to discuss those changes in detail, but what stands out from the two cases of imperial breakup—in 1917 and 1991—is that on both occasions, borderlands separated themselves from the core territory that roughly coincides with the present-day Russian Federation. In the first instance, the transformed Soviet empire managed to recover most of the lands lost. In the second, the borderlands-turned-new-states survived, even if some of them forfeited part of their Soviet-era territory.
The core territory that has virtually never seceded from the center includes lands populated by ethnic Russians and mostly Turkic, Finno-Ugric, and Mongol peoples: Tatars, Bashkirs, Yakuts, Buryats, and many other smaller groups. The current borders of the Russian Federation are strikingly similar—though with some important exceptions like Kaliningrad, Crimea, the North Caucasus and the Far East—to the borders of the czardom of Muscovy in 1650, before the incorporation of Ukraine. This core territory was surrounded by buffer zones separating Russia from—or linking it to—neighboring civilizations, both Western European and Muslim.1 China is the only major civilization on which Russia has bordered directly.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in 1991, Moscow recognized all former Soviet republics-turned-independent-states in their Soviet-era administrative borders, which had often been drawn arbitrarily by Communist leaders to suit their political needs. As a result, some 25 million ethnic Russians—compared with the country’s then population of 147 million—were left outside Russia’s new international borders. This included about 2 million people who formed the bulk of the population of Crimea, a peninsula that had been transferred by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 from the Russian republic to the Ukrainian one.
The most important consequence of the 1991 state collapse was the splitting of the core of the ancient Russian state and the emergence, virtually for the first time in modern history, of independent Ukrainian and Belarusian states.2 The process of Russo-Ukrainian separation has been particularly painful. Essentially, Russia finds it intolerable that a Ukrainian state whose sovereignty it immediately recognized in 1991 could have a government seeking integration into NATO and the European Union, limit the use of the Russian language, and actively promote the “nationalization” of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The arrival of just such a regime in 2014 as the result of revolution in Ukraine led to Russia seizing the Crimean Peninsula and materially supporting separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.3 This was the first case since 1945 of Russia annexing territory, and it sent shock waves across the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the world.
The Ukraine crisis led to a new confrontation between Russia and the United States, and its alienation from the European Union. The ceasefire in Donbas agreed in 2015 is routinely violated, but large-scale fighting has not resumed so far. The European-brokered Minsk Agreement, which provides for the de-escalation of the conflict, has not been implemented and is unlikely ever to be fulfilled. The main reason for this is that its terms are more favorable to Russia. Ukraine has no intention of carrying out its obligations under the accord, which are anathema to Ukrainian nationalists. Kiev’s Western backers, led by the United States, will not, of course, lean on Ukraine so that it makes concessions to the U.S. adversary Russia.
The Ukraine crisis reignited fear of Russia in the three small Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These former provinces of the Russian Empire annexed by Stalin in 1940 and turned into Soviet republics were allowed to leave the Soviet Union, no strings attached, three months before the formal dissolution of the USSR. Their Soviet-era borders have been confirmed in treaties signed by Moscow. The main irritant in Estonia and Latvia’s relations with Russia since the end of the USSR has been the status of sizeable local ethnic Russian populations who did not automatically receive citizenship rights when those republics were granted independence.4 Current Baltic and Polish fears of a Russian invasion and occupation reflect their troubled history rather than existing realities, but “Russian aggression against the Baltic States” has become a popular narrative and a rallying cry within NATO.
Belarus, which is closest to Russia ethnically and culturally, and since 1999 has formed a “union state” with it, has gradually been moving toward a more independent stance vis-à-vis Moscow. The Belarusian leadership and much of the elite view their country as essentially European, and a sort of middleman between the European Union and Russia. The Belarusian leadership also maintains friendly relations with now virulently anti-Russian Ukraine. Minsk’s balancing act, however, has to be very careful and delicate. Strategically, Belarus lies on the main historical route for Western invaders attacking Russia. In the current atmosphere of confrontation between Russia on one hand and the United States and NATO on the other, Moscow takes a dim view of any sign of neutrality on the part of its nominal Belarusian ally.
Several years before the strife in Ukraine, Georgia came into military conflict with Russia. Even as the former Soviet republic broke away from the Soviet Union, its two autonomous and ethnically distinct provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, seceded from Georgia. Tbilisi’s desire to join NATO, and official U.S. support for this intention, exacerbated tensions with Moscow, which had been backing Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists. In 2008, an attempt by the Georgian president to restore Tbilisi’s sovereignty over South Ossetia by force led to a brief war with Russia, which defeated the Georgian forces and formally recognized Ossetian and Abkhaz independence. This was Russia’s first war against an ex-Soviet neighbor, and its first recognition of a border change in the post-Soviet space. In the decade that followed, Georgia’s policies of Western integration have been reaffirmed, its political relations with Russia have remained frozen, but trade and human contacts between the two now flourish again, and the situation along the de facto borders between Georgia and Russia, including the Russian-patrolled lines in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has remained calm.
Moldova, like Georgia, has experienced its own share of post-Soviet separatism. As the republic left the Soviet Union, part of it with a mixed Moldovan-Ukrainian-Russian population formed its own statelet in Transnistria. Since 1992, Russia has had a small military contingent there to keep peace in the region, and has financially supported the breakaway territory, while formally recognizing the unity of Moldova and periodically engaging in a dialogue on its reunification. Successive Moldovan governments, for their part, have pursued a policy aimed at integration with the European Union, and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Transnistria. Meanwhile, public opinion in Moldova remains more or less equally divided between those who lean toward Europe—including kindred Romania—and toward Russia.
Russia’s longest border—about 7,000 kilometers—is with Kazakhstan, the largest former Soviet country after Russia. The border is twice as long as the Russia-China frontier, and is also the world’s longest. Kazakhstan is Russia’s partner in the Eurasian Economic Union and a security ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The relationship between the two has been stable since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet given the fact that their country has a significant ethnic Russian population, mostly in cities along the Russian border, and that Putin made an offhand remark about Kazakhstan having no history of its own statehood prior to 1991, the Kazakh leadership became concerned in the wake of Crimea about the potential for Russian irredentism. Relations between Moscow and Astana (now Nursultan) have, however, generally been calm and cooperative since then. Majority-Muslim but eminently secular Kazakhstan serves as a buffer for Russia, shielding it from the Soviet republics in Central Asia where radical Islam is more influential.
That said, Moscow’s attempts to reintegrate the former republics—first within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),5 then the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO),6 and now the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)7—have had only limited success. The CIS turned into a mechanism for post-imperial dissolution and nation-building; the CSTO is essentially a security cooperation agreement, not a political-military alliance; and the EEU is basically a customs union. Putin’s plan, announced in 2011, to create a political-economic-military compact—a full-fledged Eurasian Union uniting most of the former USSR—turned out to be a failure. It is unlikely that a similar attempt would be undertaken in the future: the former borderlands continue to drift away, while Russia is discovering its own version of post-imperial nationalism.
From at least the mid-sixteenth century when the Turkic-Muslim Kazan khanate was conquered and annexed to the Russian state, Russians have evolved as an imperial community. The populations added to the Moscow czardom and the Russian Empire, not to mention the Soviet Union, were usually treated as part of the expanding imperial polity. The differences that existed related mostly to class and status rather than ethnicity or even religion. The local elites became part of the imperial elite; the underclasses joined the Russian underclass; but all were equal before the czar, the emperor, and later the party. There were important exceptions to this general policy. Under the empire, the Jews were confined to their towns within the Pale. The Muslims were largely exempt from military service. The Finns had their own constitution and effective home rule. The Poles, who initially had similar privileges, had them withdrawn as punishment for their anti-Russian uprisings. In Stalin’s time, many ethnic groups including the Chechens and Crimean Tatars were sent into external exile for the disloyalty of some of their members during World War II.
The imperial nature of the Russian state did not emphasize the ethnic Russian element. Russians—a term that until 1917 embraced all eastern Slavs: Belarusians (literally, White Russians), Ukrainians (then called Little Russians), and Russians proper (officially referred to as Great Russians)—were in the absolute majority in the empire and did not feel threatened. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union initially practiced a version of affirmative action, prioritizing ethnic languages and cultures in the borderlands-turned-republics, while in its anti-imperialist quest de-emphasizing the Russian heritage that was seen as potentially threatening to the new communist ideology. Lenin and then Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) viewed Russian nationalism with grave suspicion. Seeing a separate Russian statehood, even a nominal one, within the USSR as potentially undermining the centrality of the Communist system, Stalin did not allow a Russian republican communist party organization (others, from Ukraine to Uzbekistan, had such organizations). Russia was not proposed for founding membership in the UN, unlike Ukraine and Belarus, and so on. Eventually, however, the Russian elites’ unhappiness about the terms of their relationship with the rest of the Soviet Union emerged as the single most important factor leading to the demise of the USSR.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians have constituted about 80 percent of the country’s population, which gives them a sense of security. Russia’s Muslim population is indigenous, unlike Muslim communities in Western Europe. Kazan, Astrakhan, western Siberia, and Crimea used to be Muslim khanates that were progressively annexed by the Russian state. Their inhabitants were integrated, but not completely Russified. They retained their religion, languages, customs, and ways of life. They stayed in the territory that remained their ethnic homeland, but of course had to live side by side with newly arriving ethnic Russian settlers. The Soviet Union gave them territorial autonomy.
Russia’s nineteenth-century conquest of the North Caucasus extended imperial rule to dozens of small groups whose integration turned out to be more difficult. After the Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s, most ethnic Russians left the region, leaving the indigenous people virtually alone in their homelands, which have the status of republics within Russia. Of course, the Russian Federation is in ultimate control of the region, which it has to heavily subsidize and police, with a particular view to combatting terrorism and extremism.
Russian law regards Islam, alongside Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism, as one of the indigenous religions of the country, and guarantees its rights and privileges. Muslim-majority republics designate Muslim holidays as days off, Russian Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca, and religious teaching and development of Islamic theology have been officially supported, in order not to depend on Middle Eastern centers of learning and education. Secular Muslim leaders of various Russian republics, such as Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, have become Russian envoys to the wider Muslim world, where Russia has joined the Organization of Islamic Cooperation as an observer. Even Russia’s wars in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and now Syria have not turned the bulk of the country’s Muslims against Moscow. Yet even after the pacification, restoration, and rehabilitation of Chechnya, the issue of Islamist radicalism, extremism, and terrorism has not vanished. Thousands of Russian Muslims joined the Islamic State terrorist organization, which was one of the reasons for Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015.
Non-indigenous Muslims coming to Russia as labor migrants are a different story. These are mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and, somewhat separately, Azeris. As citizens of CIS countries, they enjoy visa-free entry to Russia. However, many stay longer than legally permitted, and are treated as illegal immigrants.8 They are largely employed as unqualified workers and in various menial jobs. This situation creates tensions. Many ethnic Russians and other Russian nationals are unhappy with the influx of people whose culture is strikingly different, who often speak only rudimentary Russian, and who are sometimes feared as terrorists’ helpers. The migrants, on the other hand, are often mistreated by their employers, live in extremely squalid conditions, have practically no rights, and are constantly fearful of deportation. Yet so far, Russia has managed to avoid major disturbances related to the migrant issue. Immigrants who want to stay seek integration, and are usually welcomed into multi-ethnic Russian society.
What is emerging almost three decades since the end of the USSR is a Russia that for the first time is largely Russian, not only ethnically and religiously, but also geopolitically. It has no empire to maintain or win back. It no longer seeks to become “part of Europe,” and is not accepted by Europeans as such. Europe is now Russia’s western neighbor, rather than a model, as it had been since the time of Peter the Great, or a mentor, as the European Union tried to be more recently. Placed under Western sanctions, Russia is not embracing political isolation or economic autarky, but is redefining its position and role in the world.
Russia is neither a western country, nor an eastern one. It is northern, largely occupying the northern areas of the mega-continent of Greater Eurasia that extends from the Iberian Peninsula to Chukotka. There it is not a core or central power, but the country with the most physical connections. Indeed, it shares borders with both Norway and North Korea. Next to Europe in the west, it has a long border with China in the southeast, an even longer interface with the Muslim world in the south, and the longest section of the Arctic shoreline in the north. Across relatively narrow straits, Russia is neighbors with the United States and Japan. The Black Sea connects it to Turkey, and the Caspian to Iran. India is not very far either.
This not only allows but actually compels Russian leaders to develop 360-degree vision. Rather than standing, as before, facing Europe and America while turning its back on Asia, Russia may imagine itself sitting in a swivel chair, addressing the opportunities and challenges as they emerge along its 60,000 km perimeter of borders and shoreline. In a world which, to Russia, offers only integration at the global level (which is also the only one that Russia feels ready to accept), Russia is free to pursue interests as a world-class independent player, a true Global Russia.
Moscow’s policies in the Middle East may become a crucible for the emerging pattern of Russia’s twenty-first-century foreign policy. Moscow does not have formal permanent allies there, but is ready to cooperate with those whose interests in a given area and for a given period of time coincide with those of the Russian Federation. None of the allies—Damascus, Ankara, Tehran, Hezbollah—is given Russia’s 100 percent commitment, or gives that itself. All relationships are transactional and interest-based. A similar attitude exists toward most adversaries, with the obvious exception of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia and Qatar were on the other side of the Syrian war, but this did not prevent Russia from developing and deepening relations with Riyadh and Doha. Ankara was first a partner, then an adversary after its fighter jet shot down a Russian bomber. Ultimately, repentant and forgiven, it became an even closer partner to Moscow. Even more stunning is Russia’s ability to deal effectively and simultaneously with actors that regard each other as sworn enemies: Israel and Iran; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia and Qatar; Turkey and the Kurds; Hezbollah and Israel. This capability should serve Moscow well as it becomes more deeply involved in complex relationships across Asia: Japan and China; China and India; India and Pakistan; and so on. Probably the most important task for Moscow’s foreign policy is to successfully manage, in the long term, the increasingly asymmetrical relationship with Beijing.
By contrast, the western dimension of Russia’s foreign policy is likely to remain fundamentally strained. The hybrid war confrontation with the United States is likely to continue and intensify. The only real item on the U.S.-Russia agenda for the foreseeable future is preventing a direct military collision between the two powers, and an escalation of conflicts in which they are backing opposing sides, e.g., in Ukraine and Syria. Alienation from Europe is another long-term factor. There is currently little business between the EU and Russia, other than business itself. Closer to home, the adversity with Ukraine is likely to persist for decades, if not generations. The future positioning of Belarus as an intermediary between Russia and Europe is a coming challenge to the wisdom of Moscow’s foreign policy. This will not be easy, given that virtually the entire western border of Russia, from Norway to Ukraine, has turned into a new line in the military standoff between Russia and NATO countries and their partners and wards.
This article was originally published in Spanish as “La cambiante identidad de Rusia: en busca de un papel en el siglo XXI,” in Revista Mexicana de Política Exterior, no. 115, Jan-April 2019, 27–43.
Source: Carnegie Moscow Center