Putin’s dilemma is that he is using non-Russian troops to suppress a Ukraine that he says is part of Mother Russia. According to a study Of the names of Russians killed or captured at the start of the war, about 30% belonged to non-Russian groups. Chechens and Dagestanis are dying, but it’s not their fight – unless Putin can raise an imperial Eurasian banner.
That’s exactly what Putin attempted to do on March 3, when he awarded the title “Hero of Russia” to a Dagestani officer who died in Ukraine. “I am a Russian” says Putin. “But when I see such examples of heroism… I am Dagestani, I am Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew. … I am proud to be part of this world, to be part of the strong and powerful multi-ethnic people from Russia.
The irony of this war is that Putin is mired in the same kind of destabilizing, dead-end conflict for which he has often derided the United States. Moreover, he justifies his “special military operation” with the same passion for regime change he has mocked in American foreign policy.
The echoes are striking when we think back to Putin 2013 editorial in the New York Times, in which he blasted US military interventions in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem, Putin said, was that America thought it could play by its own rules. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to think of themselves as exceptional,” he wrote.
Putin took up this theme in his 9 May Victory Day speech in Moscow. “The United States of America, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, began to speak of its exceptionalism, thus humiliating not only the whole world, but also its satellites, which must pretend not to notice anything and swallow everything obediently. ”
This is what psychiatrists call “projection”. Putin was attacking the United States for the very behavior that led to its ruinous war in Ukraine.
In this speech, Putin expressed his version of Russian-Eurasian exceptionalism. “We remember how the enemies of Russia…tried to sow inter-ethnic and religious strife in order to weaken us from within and divide us. They completely failed. Today, our warriors of different ethnicities fight together, shielding each other from bullets and shrapnel like brothers. Therein lies the power of Russia, an invincible great power of our united multi-ethnic nation.
Russian nationalism has always been a double-edged sword for Putin: he loves the raw passion of his patriotism, but he seems wary of his sometimes uncontrollable ethnic extremism, which could threaten his authoritarian rule over a disparate nation.
Recent Russian history illustrates this tension. Anti-immigrant riots broke out in Moscow in December 2010 after a migrant from the North Caucasus shot a Russian football fan. Thirty people were injured in the chaos, as the crowd chanted “Russia to the Russians”. The police suppressed the demonstration.
Similar riots broke out in October 2013 in the Moscow neighborhood of Biriulevo, after an Azerbaijani immigrant killed a Russian; police arrested nearly 400 rioters. An evaluation by intelligence analysts from the Polish Center for Oriental Studies explained: “The authorities’ reaction to the incident in Biriulevo indicates that they are aware of the extent of social tensions regarding immigration in the city and that they want to prevent the spread of social unrest.
Putin’s regime also suppressed an extreme Russian nationalist named Alexander Potkin, known to his supporters as “Belov”. He led an ultranationalist group called the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which was banned in 2011. Potkin was condemned for extremism by a Moscow court in 2016.
One of the inspirations for Putin’s dream of a one-off Eurasian empire is the late Russian historian Lev Gumilev, according to the US official. In Putin’s 2016 annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly, he praised what Gumilev called passionarnost, which could be translated as “passionism”. Rather than trying to become Western and bourgeois, according to Gumilev, Russia should recognize that it “owes more of its heritage to the fierce nomads and steppe tribes of Eurasia.” The Financial Times explained in a 2016 essay on the Russian historian.
It would be comforting to think that the Ukraine war and its assault on the European order are simply figments of Putin’s fevered imagination. But they have deep roots in the history and culture of the sprawling Russian Federation. It’s really a battle of East versus West – and two versions of exceptionalism.