What kind of nationalism? Dimensions of the Putinist Ideology
Ghia Nodia - Founder of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development; Professor at Ilia State University; Former Minister of Education and Science of Georgia.
There is a broadly shared assumption that the ideology behind 2022 Putin's invasion of Ukraine, as well as more limited invasions in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, is Russian nationalism. However, “nationalism” is a rather broad term, and there is no definition that encompasses all of its expressions. There is no agreement among analysts on what variety of nationalism Putin represents – or is it right to classify him as a “nationalist” at all?
I don’t have a simple answer to this question, and I don’t think there exists one. Putin’s ideology does not fully fit into any type of nationalism that we know, but it has affinities with more than one type. One may call it hybrid but using this word will not solve the issue: one has to describe a peculiar blend of different elements in this hybrid.
Some considerations in the importance of ideology and the nature of nationalism
I will start with a couple of preliminary general points. The first refers to the relative importance of ideology for Putin’s political choices and actions. Foreign-political behavior of any political leader, including his use of such a radical instrument as military invasion, can also be explained by domestic politics. Machiavelli advised his prince that there is no better way to boost his popularity than a successful military campaign; this might have been Putin’s chief calculus. Most analysts agree that he had initially counted on a “little victorious war” that would bring him nothing but glory and help to win the next elections upcoming in 2024. Others say that he invaded Ukraine because he felt endangered by “democracy diffusion” in his neighborhood: Ukraine could serve as a model for Russia.
If we believe that, any ideological constructs that Putin uses to justify the invasion should be seen as exercises in manipulation, public relations spin. I will not generally contest that domestic factors are important for explaining his foreign policy decisions (including this one) or that his ideological constructs may be cynical instruments of manipulation. However, I also think it is reductionist to explain everything by the raw thirst for power. Legitimacy is no less important factor in politics, however autocratic the ruler may be. In modern politics, legitimacy is largely provided by ideology. Hitler and Stalin were morally depraved monsters with marked talents for the technology of power; but this hardly made them unique. It was the combination of mentioned qualities with the distinct ideologies they espoused that made them special.
In the specific case of the invasion of Ukraine, there are no indicators that Putin’s domestic position prior to it was in any way shaky. He appeared poised to easily win the 2024 elections as he did all the previous ones, without starting a major war. Even provided he expected an easy victory, a decision to invade a fairly large country and risk a head-on collision with the West was too momentous one to be explained away by the need to prevent domestic unrest that had been hardly in the making in the first place.
This was Putin’s personal war if there had ever been any – even his close circle was not aware of his specific plans. However, provided that, he had to mobilize support for the war effort, both within power elites and the broad public. So far, on the balance, the scale of such support has proven sufficient. Expectations of an elite revolt or large-scale popular protests have not materialized. This suggests some level of genuine enthusiasm, or at least general support for the war, even if it may be impossible to reliably quantify its level. This has to be explained.
The second general point that is relevant to what I am going to say is that nationalism is a sentiment first, and a rational construction second. It is an especially powerful mobilizing force not because it is good at making a rationally convincing case for certain political behavior (in this case, war), but because it can rouse strong sentiments. Putin has been fairly successful in waging this war (if not achieving its aims) because sentiments roused by his ideology were shared by many Russians. Having said that, we cannot deny that nationalism is still a doctrine, a political program, and a narrative: it has to penetrate both hearts and minds. We can properly understand the mobilizing power of Putin’s version of nationalism if we consider its both rational and emotive components.
Putin’s Imperial nationalism
What is perplexing about Putin’s ideological constructs used to justify the invasion is that they unify different and often mutually contradictory strands of nationalism in a broad sense of this word. It does not make much sense to speculate which of them he truly believes in. It is this peculiar combination that describes Putin’s ideology.
I will distinguish between three such ideological strands. The most salient of them is an imperial one. Putin's war is a war of conquest against a sovereign state, he openly refers to the Russian imperial past as a source of his inspiration: The conquest of Ukraine is justified because it used to be part of the Russian empire. Interestingly, Putin increasingly prefers to appeal to the legacy of Tsarist Russia, which was proud and confident in its imperial identity, rather than the Soviet Union that disguised its imperial nature under slogans of “proletarian internationalism”. Understanding the character of Putin's invasion as an imperial or colonial war has become the predominant assumption in the Western commentary.
If this is true, however, why call Putin’s ideology “nationalism” at all? In Ernest Gellner’s definition, which is not the only but probably the most widely accepted one, nationalism is a political program that demands a congruence between nation and state: every nation should have its own state, and every state should be that of a nation. In practice, this implies that nationalism is anti-imperialism. Historically, nationalist movements that emerged first in Europe and later spread to the rest of the world intended to replace empires with nation-states. In this war, it is Ukrainians who fight for the nationalist cause, for their right to determine their own fate as a nation; Putin, on the other hand, is a neo-imperialist trying to recover the lost glory of the Russian empire.
This is correct. However, Putin‘s policies may be a case of imperial nationalism, a hybrid form of nationalism that emerged in the 19th century. For premodern empires, linkage to ethnically and culturally defined nations could be demeaning. They were based on great dynasties, but also presented themselves as guardians of universalist civilization or great religions such as “true Christianity” or “true Islam”. The messianic dimension was a core element of their legitimacy. A formula of Russia as the "Third Rome" fit into this pattern: Russia was the guardian of the "true", that is, Orthodox Christianity. As Berdyaev famously noted, Soviet Russia reformulated this messianic vision into that of Russia leading the world towards the progressive Communist utopia.
However, in the 19th century, with the rise of a new nationalist spirit, imperialism also developed a nationalist dimension. Empires became status symbols for the nation, expressions of true national greatness. For instance, France’s quest for an overseas Empire served as compensation for the national humiliation of the defeat in a war with Prussia in 1871: unable to recover Alsace and Lorraine from the Germans, it could still confirm its national greatness by exercising its “mission civilatrice” in Africa and the Far East. On the other hand, existing multinational empires tried to “nationalize” themselves: the policy of "Russification" at the end of the 19th century was a case in point.
Historically, Russia’s great-power status was linked to being a multinational empire. The loss of this status was the chief (though not the only) part of the perceived “national humiliation” of the 1990s; Putin made overcoming this “humiliation” his political mission, as first expressed in his famous 2007 Munich speech. However, even before that, claiming a privileged role in its “near abroad”, that is with regards to its former imperial subjects, has been a central political ambition of post-Soviet Russia, while the denial of this privileged status by the West had been the new Russia’s most vocal grievance.
However, even this nationalized neo-imperialism is not and cannot be purely ethnic. Putin’s quest for national aggrandizement is based not on the concept of race, but on the idea of Russkii Mir or a unique Russian civilization, in contrast to simply “cultures” of lesser nations doomed to be politically dominated by great civilizational powers. This civilization cannot have fixed borders, which is an idea that is fully concomitant with the traditional imperial mindset. Narrowly ethnic Russian nationalists have been ruthlessly repressed by the regime. The great Russian civilization is bound to be multiethnic and multinational, albeit under firm great-Russian leadership. The lesser nations cannot have the luxury of determining their own fate, or even choosing whose satellites they prefer to be.
The Russian irredenta
Paradoxically enough, however, Putin also tried to justify his invasion in a more traditional ethnonationalist irredentist idiom: he claimed that the territory of Ukraine is “historically Russian” not only in the sense of the past multinational Russian empire but as a homeland of the Russian (ethnic) nation. Respectively, he explicitly denied the existence of the separate Ukrainian nationhood (he would not have the same claim regarding Georgians, Estonians, or Uzbeks): Allegedly, the Ukrainian nation was a fully artificial project created by Lenin.
People who lived through the Soviet demise could compare Putin’s irredentist project to the idea of the Armenian miatsum (the movement for the unification of Nagorny Karabakh with Armenia that started at the end of the 1980s), or Slobodan Milosevic’s and Franjo Tudjman’s efforts to carve out, respectively, a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia from the debris of Yugoslavia. The objective of such irredentist projects is to build nation-states, not empires, by bringing their borders in concordance with imagined patterns based on certain interpretations of history or current ethno-demographic realities.
In Russia’s case, that would amount to following Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s program of "Rebuilding Russia" on the debris of the Soviet Empire drafted as early as 1990. Solzhenitsyn’s core idea was that Russia should reconcile itself to losing its imperial status and rebuild itself as a nation-state. In doing so, however, it should not accept borders of the Russian Federation within the USSR; a true Russian state (“the Russian Union”) had to also include Ukraine and Belarus (because in fact, the Ukrainians and Belarusians are Russians) as well as northern Kazakhstan with its Russian majority. As Ukrainians might still insist on their independence, he would reluctantly advise letting them go, but at least keep Crimea and Donbas. Such Russia would still include some ethnic minorities, but not nations aspiring to full independence.
Can one say that Putin now follows Solzhenitsyn’s program, as some analysts suggested back in 2014? Not quite: Solzhenitsyn was fairly unequivocal (though not happy) in saying that Russia should give up on its imperial past and let go of non-Russian Republics; unlike that, the sum total of Putin’s rhetoric and activities suggests that he is not prepared to accept that. His usage of the language of ethno-nationalist irredentism may appear tactical: when justifying Russian claims to a special privileged status in the South Caucasus or Central Asia, he would opt for a different (more “imperial” language). This is not to deny, though, that refusal to accept the separate nationality of Ukrainians may resonate with many Russians more powerfully than any efforts to preserve Russia's dominant status in culturally non-Russian parts of its former empire.
The main generic problem with irredentist nationalist projects is that there are no strict ethno-demographic or historical criteria for determining fair borders between nations; hence bloody wars to sort out the outstanding issues. However, in cases like that of Nagorny Karabakh, it was at least clear that the majority of the region’s population indeed considered itself Armenian and welcomed the prospect of unification with the mother country. Putin’s projected miatsum, however, is obviously against the wishes of the vast majority of Ukrainians. Even in the relatively more Russia-leaning provinces of Donbas, the true level of support for such a prospect is uncertain, and it would not lead to any political action without direct Russian involvement. This makes Putin’s irredentist project less than convincing on its own terms.
The Russian anti-colonialism
Last but not least, Putin’s propaganda rationalizes the invasion of Ukraine as part of the resistance against Western imperialism: in reality, Russia fights NATO, not Ukraine. Such a view also implies the denial of Ukraine’s agency – not being a nation, Ukraine also cannot have its own political will. Its refusal to follow its “natural” path of unity with Mother Russia is not its own choice: it is taken hostage by alien forces, such as the collective West that fights Russia through Ukraine.
In this narrative, Russia becomes a champion of the traditional nationalist cause of sovereignty and self-determination: not only does it defend its sovereignty from Western infringements, but it also upholds the rights of vulnerable nations like Ukraine or Georgia, and many others, from infringements of Western imperialism.  In particular, “color revolutions” are presented as a preferred repertoire of Western imperialism: by "staging" such events, the West not only undermines Russia's legitimate interests but also violates Ukraine's or Georgia’s sovereignty. This makes Putin a paradoxical champion of the "postcolonial" or "neocolonial" theory whose main point is that actors of the collective West, having forsaken their formal claims to colonial possessions, in reality, continue their policies of global domination through subtler means.
In this narrative, Putin’s claims become so obviously divorced from reality that it is natural to describe them as an especially cynical case of an ideological spin. Which is true, of course. However, this narrative has also been relatively successful with both domestic and international audiences. Presenting oneself as the leader of the fight against "Western imperialism" has been one of the core topics of Soviet propaganda; it supplied a clear enemy image for Russian/Soviet patriotism, but it also helped alliances with nations of the “Third World” who saw their enemy in the West. This pattern is still fully valid. A morally black-and-white vision of Russian aggression has not taken root beyond the West; interpreting the war as an attempt of the collective West to further project its power helps justify this morally opportunistic stance outside Russia.
Such ideological spin would not be even partially successful unless it had some kernel of truth. Without the West's military, financial and political support, Ukraine would have had a much harder time fighting the war. However, the causal link also works in the opposite direction – without Ukraine’s success in repelling the first wave of Russia’s attack and its people’s persistent determination to defend their country, there would be no Western support forthcoming. It was not the West who pushed Ukrainians to cherish their separate national identity in the first place; conversely, in his famous "Chicken Kyev" speech, US President, George H. Bush publicly discouraged Ukrainians from trying to break up the Soviet Union. It was Ukrainians who made the ultimate choice, something that the West ultimately came to recognize but Russia still does not.
There is also a broader sense in which the myth of Russia’s “anti-colonial” war has some linkage to reality, however distorted its Putinist presentation might be. The West does really project to the world its normative power, that based on the values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. This projection is more successful in some parts of the world than in others; Ukrainians share these values and base their national cause on it; western resolve to support Ukraine is based not only on the pragmatic principle of inviolability of international borders but on seeing that Ukraine fights for these, universal but historically also “western” values as well. It is also true that the projection of this normative power, if successful, wields mortal danger to Putin’s political regime. This makes it rational for Putin and his supporters, as well as his international allies, to resist the Western normative power. Attacking Ukraine may be understood as part of that resistance, however wise or unwise this decision may be for advancing Putin's interests.
The Unifying Theme: Russia’s Anti-Western Ressentiment
We could see that Putin’s ideology combines different and mutually contradictory constructs that can only be unified by the term “nationalism” in a very loose sense. An obvious way to explain this lack of coherence would be that Putin’s propaganda uses its ideological constructs in a cynical way, based on their instrumental propaganda value. This allows him to wage an imperial war of conquest while at the same time borrowing categories of postcolonial theory; to speak of a great empire without borders while using the ethnocultural narrative of Ukrainians being true Russians.
However, there is also a clear unifying theme in all these narratives, and it is anti-Westernism. Allegedly, the West led by America is Russia’s principal foe responsible for its humiliation and keen to deprive it of its greatness, if not destroy it altogether. Everything that the West does in Russia and its neighborhood, especially its efforts to promote democracy and human rights, as well as its defense of the sovereignty of small nations, are parts of this anti-Russian conspiracy. Russia should stand up to it by all means available.
I believe that this interpretation of Western motives is obviously groundless and does not deserve serious criticism. However, whatever its intellectual value, Putin has made this narrative central to his political vision, and it has apparently resonated among a large part of the Russian elites and the public. It became the main legitimating ground for Putin’s policies such as his military incursions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, 2014, and 2022.
Putin’s propagandists tend to present Russian policies as based on pragmatic Realpolitik. If this is so, what is he trying to achieve? While this has never been spelled out clearly, it might be a “grand bargain” with the West, a new version of Yalta agreements, whereby a division of zones of influence between major powers is determined. Wherever the dividing lines are drawn, this would imply Western recognition of Russia’s great power status.
If this has been the plan, it has evidently failed. Whatever the military results of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are, it is hard to expect them to enhance Russia’s international status and bring greater recognition from the West. Persistence on this failing strategy may push one to look for some deeper and less rational motives for Putin's obsessive antiwesternism.
A way to describe it is ressentiment. Different ideological constructs that I described above may be interpreted as different expressions or rationalizations of this sentiment that is at the center of Putin’s mindset.
The phenomenon of ressentiment is famously analyzed by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler, and applied to studies of nationalism by Liah Greenfeld, a Russian-born American scholar. While discussing five major modern nationalisms (English, French, American, German, and Russian), she ascribed the sentiment of ressentiment as constitutive to the latter two versions. This emotion or attitude is based on the deficit of national recognition, and the perception of inferiority with regard to more advanced nations of the West. What among other things affects the complexity of ressentiment is that it includes the stage (or element) of fascination with its target (the West) and an urge to emulate it, followed by the feeling of humiliation allegedly caused by Western refusal to recognize what these nations considered their true worth.
The Western claim to serve as the source of the "normative power", the rule-giving authority, may be one of the greatest sources of ressentiment. For instance, it was on this topic that Putin spent a large part of his Valdai speech that he gave in October 2022, when the war was in full swing. Putin, as well as many Russians, perceive (nor without reason) the Western "normative power" as a claim to moral superiority; for somebody driven by ressentiment, this is an insult that may be even more difficult to tolerate than actual “injuries” coming from limitations of power. It becomes imperative to undermine this normative power by exposing the inconsistency, double standards, and hypocrisy of the West. Whether such denunciations are fair or not, is of secondary importance; as we know from Nietzsche, dishonoring somebody who is believed to be of higher status is the chief passion of ressentiment.
The centrality of anti-western ressentiment may be the main feature that makes it legitimate to compare Putin’s Weltanschauung to fascism, especially in its Nazi variety. Such comparisons often become a ground of debates between analysts: while some insist on a fundamental affinity between Putin's regime and Italian or German fascism of the 1930s, others say that brutal and nasty as it is, Putin's regime lacks main characteristics that we ascribe to them. I generally tend towards a skeptical camp. To start with, it is very difficult to precisely define what the essence of fascism is; hence any comparisons depend on more or less arbitrary definitions of the core of “fascist-ness”. Putin’s regime clearly lacks some key traits of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. However, legitimate parallels may still be drawn. The centrality of obsessive anti-western ressentiment (I think, more obvious in Hitler’s case than Mussolini’s) based on perceived “national humiliation” suffered at the West’s hands may be the most important common feature that is at the root of all other similarities.
In the German case, the national catastrophe inflicted by Hitler’s defeat led to a truly deep German Zeitenwende, to the genuine overcoming of the destructive ressentiment-based nationalism in favor of embracing Germany’s European identity. For Russia (as well as its neighbors) this would certainly be the best possible outcome of Putin's misguided military adventure. This being so, it may still be too much to hope for.
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