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Putin, Crimea and the legitimacy trap

The Kremlin sees events in Ukraine through the prism of its own domestic politics and is anxious to prevent the type of democrats-and-nationalists alliance that brought down Yanukovych. Its actions in Crimea may be shoring up its nationalist credentials at home but the fall-out could be more dangerous than they anticipate.

If Vladimir Putin appears, in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to be ‘out of touch with reality,’ it might be that he views events in Ukraine through the lens of Russia’s domestic politics. Nationalism is, indeed, meaningful for Putin, but not for any sense of primordial or mystical attachment to ethnic Russians in Crimea. More that it has been a key element of the political toolkit used by the Kremlin to legitimise the status quo. The presidential administration has invested a great deal of effort and resources into replacing electoral legitimacy with nationalist legitimacy. If one wants to understand the decision to intervene in Crimea, one needs to understand the tactical uses of nationalism in sustaining the Putin regime.

The collapse of the Orange coalition and election of Viktor Yanukovych was hailed by the Kremlin as validation of its worldview.

In Russia’s domestic politics, nationalist politics are bound up with the establishment and survival of the regime.  Kremlin-backed nationalism is socially conservative and politically delegative. It justifies the existing hierarchy in Russia and places a premium on citizens’ loyalty rather than action. There is a circular relationship between Putin’s political domination and his claim to legitimacy: by ensuring electoral dominance, Putin claims a popular mandate, which validates his articulation of national values and definition of patriotic obligations on behalf of all Russians. The equation is then easily reversed and it becomes one’s patriotic duty to support Putin, especially against those who would disrupt the image of domestic political tranquility. This strategy has long been successful, both guaranteeing broad popular support for Moscow’s renewed self-assertiveness, and in shaping a consensual national identity. Indeed, like all nationalisms, it represents Russian values in terms of universal values and defines national membership in broadly inclusive terms. The cultural distinctiveness underpinning it is at the same time bound up with the historical arc of Russian statehood.

Politics as the Kremlin sees it

The former Soviet states play a unique role in this nationalist legitimation. Despite the claim to cultural and historical exception, the shared history of Soviet rule turns Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours into a series of distorting mirrors that serve both as instructive lessons and cautionary tales. Among Russia’s neighbours, no other state is as important as Ukraine in its connection to the way Russians imagine their past, present, and future: Ukraine is still part of Russians’ ‘mental atlas.’ In Putin’s Russia, protests in Kyiv since the Orange Revolution in 2004 have served as a cautionary tale in the state media about the excesses of democracy and Western interference in post-Soviet states. The collapse of the Orange coalition and election of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president in 2010 was hailed by the Kremlin as validation of its worldview.

The collapse of the Orange coalition was hailed by the Kremlin as validation of its worldview. Photo: CC alex_e

Certainly, the parallels between Russian and Ukrainian politics are difficult to escape despite the vast differences in population, ethnic cleavages, and resources. Both Yanukovych’s Ukraine and Putin’s Russia could be classed as ‘electoral autocracies’ — a kind of semi-authoritarian government possessing all the formal trappings of democracy while constantly subverting them. Putin does not perceive either Ukraine or Russia’s political opposition as an independent, organised, and peaceful movement working towards free elections and the rule of law. Rather, he views it as a vocal, aggrieved minority, lacking a clear platform, and funded by the West through a shadowy network of nongovernmental organisations. Russia’s fractious political opposition traditionally has proven to be its own worst enemy at the ballot box and so the Kremlin reasons that the opposition could only muster a challenge with external sponsorship. Hence, it must be operating on behalf of shadowy forces in the West. As Putin is fond of saying, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’

Тhe Kremlin reasons that the opposition could only muster a challenge with external sponsorship.

Liberal oppositionists + nationalists = Russian maidan?

Some of Russia’s more prominent nationalist organisations began to work together with the weak and divided political opposition, making it stronger and more credible. This uneasy alliance was embodied by opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s participation in the annual Russian March on November 4 2011. Held on the outskirts of Moscow on the new ‘National Unity Day’ instituted by the regime, the Russian March brings together nationalist, racist, and xenophobic elements to parade (in masks) shouting slogans of ‘Russia for Russians,’ and ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus.’ Nationalists also joined in the large-scale opposition protests of 2011-2012. 

Actors like Navalny (above) have arguably more legitimacy than the Kremlin when it comes to issues such as immigration.

While the protests and the ‘Russian Marches’ were peaceful, Russia has witnessed a series of pogroms targeting both migrant workers and corrupt local governments, from Kondopoga in 2006, to Birуulуovo just last October. During a harrowing three days in December 2010, ultranationalists attacked foreigners, controlled metro stations, and effectively shut down central Moscow. Xenophobia is just the tip of the iceberg of a larger social malaise linked to socioeconomic transformations, a diffuse feeling that living standards are no longer on the rise, and a growing resentment against the state’ s systemic inefficiency, especially its endemic corruption.

A crucial similarity with the (former) opposition protests in Ukraine is the convergence of nationalists and political opposition in Russia on a common complaint: corruption and the lack of democracy. Broadly speaking, nationalists charge the Kremlin with failing to protect the ethnic Russian people at home and the lack of fair elections only sustains (and indicts) a corrupt regime. By contrast, the political opposition accuses Putin of subverting the constitution and denying Russian citizens the democracy they allegedly won by overthrowing the USSR in 1991. Both nationalists and political opposition believe they would have a legitimate stake in the running of the country if elections were free and fair. As long as they remain divided, they pose little threat to the Kremlin. However, a genuine alliance of nationalists and opposition could threaten the Kremlin’s base of support, especially among its youth, working class, and provincial constituencies. 

Putin personally experienced just how quickly the ground could shift under his feet when he made an impromptu appearance at a Mixed Martial Arts match in November 2011 and was booed relentlessly by a crowd that ought to have been filled with typical supporters. The moment went viral on social media even as state television edited out the boos when re-broadcasting the event. In the wake of mass protests following the parliamentary elections in December 2011, the Kremlin briefly retreated, firing top Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov, restoring gubernatorial elections, and easing party registration requirements. 

А genuine alliance of nationalists and opposition could threaten the Kremlin’s base of support.

In the face of such a challenge, Putin’s re-election campaign in 2012 was never really about winning. The field of candidates lacked a single credible challenger. Rather, it was about recapturing legitimacy. Anti-westernism and especially anti-Americanism became staples of Putin’s repertoire, particularly the intimation that the political opposition was on the US State Department’s payroll. The revival of this anti-Western narrative is balanced with the Kremlin’s insistence on Russia’s European mission. The recent ‘morality turn’, which has been notable since the anti-Putin protests of 2011-12 (epitomised by Putin’s speech at Valdai on 20 September, 2013) did not call exclusively for Russia to find itself an identity, but rather to make itself the herald of ‘authentic’ European values, meaning family-oriented values and moral conservatism. 

The Kremlin has invested a great deal of effort to secure its nationalist legitimacy. Photo CC Ri Markin

National in form, Putinist in content

In a series of newspaper articles published in advance of the 2012 presidential election, Putin further elaborated a vision of Russian national identity in which all Russian citizens are Russian regardless of their ethnicity, but the Russian state is identified with ethnic Russian culture and language. This blurry vision of identity aims to be both inclusive and exclusive: exclusive of those who disturb Russian conventional identity (North Caucasians, labour migrants) but inclusive of all the others, whose integration depends on the occasion (those who are not ethnically Russian but who speak the language or heavily identify with Soviet or Russian culture). This identity is promoted by the Kremlin as a ‘Russian world’ (Russkii mir), which puts forward a concentric vision of Russian identity: ethnic and Orthodox Russians reside at the heart of it, but other types of identification with Russianness are welcomed, whether though language, history, religion, or territory. It featured prominently in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, where the Russian language took centre stage, followed by celebrations of Orthodoxy, traditional Russian culture, and Soviet-era economic development.

If Putin’s re-election validated his definition of the nation and claim to legitimacy, the post-election crackdown on protest, NGOs, and civil society signaled an end to the Kremlin’s patience with contentious politics. Yet the attempt to send Navalny to prison and remove him from the ballot for the Moscow mayor’s race in summer 2013 produced renewed protests in Moscow. The Kremlin once again backed down, granting a suspended sentence and allowing Navalny to campaign. Navalny fell well short of winning, though he proved more capable than expected. The incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, narrowly secured a majority vote (which Navalny disputes), in part by appropriating the opposition’s complaints about corruption and migrant labor through a clever series of viral ads packaged under the slogan, Anyone but Sobyanin. 

However, the Kremlin’s hope to appear in tune with the xenophobic mood of the population is probably destined for failure. Anti-Putin political forces—whether classic nationalists or ‘national-democrats’ like Aleksey Navalny—have at least as much legitimacy, if not more, from their condemnation of migration. Moreover, the authorities will fail in changing the negative role played by a corrupt administration, which prevents any normalisation of migratory flows.

The idea of the 'Russian World' featured heavily in the opening ceremony of the Sochi olympics. Photo CC Atos International

In Ukraine’s descent into chaos over the last few months, the Kremlin saw the realisation of its own worst case scenario.

In Ukraine’s descent into chaos over the last few months, the Kremlin saw the realisation of its own worst case scenario: opposition and nationalists combined forces to overthrow a regime structurally and culturally similar to Russia, albeit significantly more divided from within. Hence, the Kremlin’s depiction of today’s Ukraine as overrun by armed and violent ultranationalists has a certain self-referential quality about it: if such a turn of events is possible in Ukraine, it becomes conceivable (though not necessarily plausible) for Russia. Moreover, Russians do not have to imagine what Moscow would look like if roving bands of ultranationalist bandits were to seize power as long as the memory of the Manezh Square events of December 2010 remains available.

The Crimean gambit

When placed in the context of Russia’s domestic politics, the intervention in Crimea serves an important purpose in confirming Putin’s claims about Ukraine’s new government and deterring defections from the Kremlin—a kind of inoculation against the form of regime change unfolding in Kyiv. Even in democratic states, deploying the military abroad compels social and elite unity and significantly raises the costs of dissent. If the intervention turns Russia into a pariah state, then Russia’s elite have nowhere else to turn precisely when opposing Putin is politically impossible. Moreover, the occupation of Crimea validates Putin’s inclusive and historical definition of the nation, as well as the use of force to defend its blurry borders.

If the intervention turns Russia into a pariah state, then Russia’s elite have nowhere else to turn.

The Russian intervention in Crimea drastically raised the stakes for both Ukraine and Russia. For Putin the issue is not just securing his regime domestically and avoiding Yanukovych’s failure. If the referendum is for Russian annexation of Crimea, he will have to legitimate the intervention and implement legal changes to integrate a new region in the Russian Federation. What does that tell us about the use of nationalism in Russia’s domestic and international policy? 

Putin may have decided to intervene in Crimea to be sure Russia would remain the unavoidable stakeholder without whom the future of Ukraine cannot be decided (of course, it would have played a crucial role, regardless, given Ukraine’s geography, history, demographics and economy). His argument that Russia intervened to defend Russian citizens living in Ukraine is not necessarily a nationalist claim, as citizenship is not synonymous with nationality. But Russian citizens were not at risk in Crimea: even if the parliament in Kyiv was short-sighted in depriving Russian language of its official status in the country (a move which was later vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov), ethnic Russians—some with passports from both Ukraine and Russia—were not physically threatened by the interim government. Russia equally could have argued that it needs the lease of Sevastopol to remain unchallenged, or it could have called for an evacuation of Russian citizens if an actual threat was present. 

State television in Russia assails viewers with a narrative justifying Putin’s actions on behalf of Crimean Russians.

Instead, by insisting on the relationship with Russian citizens abroad, Moscow created a subtext that implicitly bases itself on national identity and is understood by the Russian (and the Ukrainian) constituencies in both countries as a cultural argument for Crimea being legitimately Russian. This makes real the debate about the future of Ukraine and the role of Russia in it, especially as state television in Russia assails viewers with a narrative justifying Putin’s actions on behalf of Crimean Russians and questioning the historical basis of Ukraine as a state. It also authorises political entrepreneurs in Russia and Crimea to develop and extend Putin’s justifications for intervention. In Crimea, such entrepreneurship potentially involves moves on the ground that are not monitored or planned by the Kremlin, including uncontrollable local political groups, or militias and crowds that can create more problems than Russia would like to see. Such challenges only add to the costs of sustaining the Crimean burden. 

If the intervention in Crimea authorises the use of force to patrol the boundaries of citizenship, it also serves as an opportunity for political entrepreneurs within Russia to justify violence or repression of non-Russia migrants and minorities. Some are already pushing for greater restrictions on foreign contacts for Russian NGOs and academics. In such an environment, political entrepreneurs may become ‘ethnopreneurs’ and seek to activate anti-migrant sentiment in ways that threaten Russia’s labour force. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that Putin’s intervention in Crimea will exacerbate the Crimean Tatar issue. Crimea’s Muslim Tatars make up 12% of the population and generally are wary of integration with Russia. This opens the door to renewed secessionism in the North Caucasus. To stave off concerns from both Russian and Crimean Tatars, Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov was rushed to Crimea to sign an ambiguous cooperation agreement, television from Tatarstan has been broadcast in Crimea, and a role in Crimea’s government promised to Crimean Tatars.  

Having sent in troops on the grounds of defending ethnic Russians abroad, the intervention in Crimea puts Putin’s domestic claims to legitimacy on the line. Given the similarities between Yanukovych’s and Putin’s political systems, Russia’s characterisation of the new government in Kyiv as dominated entirely by Western puppets and radical nationalists (and its denial of civil society’s role) reflects both its own worst fears about threats to its rule at home as well as a challenge to its expansive definition of the nation. 

A rally in Yaroslavl supporting the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. Photo Oleg Smyslov via RIA

Allowing local actors to push the boundaries of the crisis means sacrificing Putin’s leading role in defining the nation.

The intervention creates a perverse set of incentives for pro-Kremlin actors in Crimea and in Russia to push for deepening the crisis, so reining in ethnopreneurs risks confirming the nationalist complaint that Putin fails to protect ethnic Russians. Yet allowing local actors to push the boundaries of the crisis means sacrificing Putin’s leading role in defining the nation. Meanwhile, continuing the present course confirms the opposition complaint that Putin denies democracy to Russian citizens, now likely to be tested with the forced choice referendum in Crimea on March 16. 

Unfortunately, linking the tactical uses of nationalism in Russia’s domestic politics with intervention in Crimea yields a rather grim outlook: de-escalation of the crisis will only succeed if it can be de-coupled from a discourse of Russian national identity, but for Putin this would mean sacrificing nationalism as a source of legitimacy. 

Image two credit: Photo CC: Person behind the scenes
About the authors

J.Paul Goode is director of the Center for the Study of Nationalism at the University of Oklahoma

Marlene Laruelle is professor of international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University