In a recent interview, Igor Strelkov, a former FSB colonel turned military commander of the pro-Russian separatist militia in East Ukraine, claimed he posed a danger to the Kremlin “by virtue of [his] existence”.
This claim is likely an exaggeration, given that Strelkov has been cut loose by the government since his return to Moscow in August 2014 and does not appear to have any considerable influence or connections. However, his current status as a nationalist hero exposes potential for a major backlash against the Kremlin from those like Strelkov who feel they have been betrayed by the Kremlin's backing of – and then sudden withdrawal from – the Novorossiya project. Last summer, Russian commentators warned that Russian volunteers fighting in Ukraine could become a major problem for Russia as they came back, especially if they felt dissatisfied with the results of the conflict. A year on, that is becoming more of a reality, with Russia's Border Guards Service revealing in May that some 100 km of trenches had been dug along Russia's southwestern border with Ukraine to keep weapons and armed men from seeping back into Russia.
This threat has underscored the balancing act the Kremlin has been forced to perform for the last year between apparent commitments to a solution for the Ukraine conflict and avoidance of what could easily be interpreted as betrayal of the nationalist lobby it has leaned on for the last three years.
Well over a year before the Ukrainian crisis unfurled in spring 2014, Vladimir Putin's return to the presidential seat heralded a rather sudden pivot towards a deep-seated domestic nationalism. The general outlines of this “nationalist” domestic policy were visible from the start and not lost on the outside world, especially ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: the trial over the Pussy Riot protest punk band as a symbolic attempt to cement a closer relationship between the Church and the State, the return to “traditional values” by lashing out against perceived Western “contaminants” such as homosexuality, the crackdown on what was virulently presented on state TV as the “foreign-funded opposition.”
Yet nationalism as a state policy and identity, initially implemented to shore up Kremlin power, now has the Kremlin itself trapped and threatened by forces that it initially nurtured, but can no longer fully control.
To understand how and why this happened, one must move away from the dominating idea of an authoritarian leader having an “iron grip” on power. While not exactly untrue, this ignores the fragile nature of how decisions are made in an authoritarian system and along Russia's power vertical in particular. Most of all, they ignore the Kremlin's penchant for leaning on and co-opting a whole plethora of already existing strategies associated with various government clans, political movements and business groups.
The Kremlin, both during Putin's first two presidential terms and his hiatus as prime minister during Dmitry Medvedev's regency, has demonstrated a track record of manipulating and co-opting both nationalist and liberal groups and movements.
Russian nationalism has manifested in a number of facets and disparate groups since the breakup of the Soviet Union, with many of them in staunch opposition to the Kremlin. It is worth remembering, for instance, that in President Boris Yeltsin's violent confrontation with his own parliament in 1993, a generally reform-minded government was pitted against a communist-nationalist opposition which was ultimately reined in with tanks and a new constitution giving enormous powers to the presidency. To this day, a make-shift memorial near the White House to those who died in the standoff features newspaper clippings and pamphlets whose nationalist, often anti-Semitic rhetoric echoes statements made by the likes of Strelkov, and other nationalist heroes from the security services, such as former Spetznaz colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, jailed in 2009 for plotting a coup (and whose book, in a similar vein to Strelkov's comments, is titled “Dangerous by Loyalty to Russia”)
The “nationalisms” of the 1990s and 2000s veered from outright racism to more traditionalist, left-leaning nostalgia for the Soviet Union; a central theme among many nationalist groups, whether mainstream or radical, was advocacy for Russians “stuck” in former Soviet republics – something that groups ranging from Eduard Limonov's National Bolsheviks to the Movement Against Illegal Immigration deemed a major injustice. Limonov, it should be noted, was arrested in 2001 for plotting to invade Kazakhstan to foment a separatist rebellion there (though he denied the charges).
Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin sought to assuage the threat from nationalist groups by infiltrating, co-opting and absorbing them.
In an example of the absorption of nationalist views into mainstream politics, the Kremlin helped create a faction uniting patriotic, nationalist and left-leaning forces under the Rodina (Fatherland) party, headed by moderate Kremlin-affiliated nationalists Dmitry Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev. By 2006, the party, facing pressure from the Kremlin following widespread allegations of racism, was disbanded. Glazyev left politics, criticizing the Kremlin for stifling opposition. Rogozin, however, was given a relatively neutral post in 2008 as Russia's envoy to NATO.
With Russia's pivot towards nationalism, figures such as Rogozin have seen their influence rebound. Rogozin was appointed deputy prime minister in charge of the defense sector in 2011, and is widely reported to be behind efforts to revive Russia's military industrial complex through bigger spending on domestic weapons production. Calls for increased defense spending were coupled with firebrand statements from Rogozin on an “overt threat” posed by the United States and NATO, even at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Glazyev, meanwhile, was reabsorbed into mainstream politics despite his “oppositionist” statements, with an appointment as presidential adviser in July 2012.
But strategies of co-option and infiltration have proved trickier and more volatile, especially in the context of the current crisis in Ukraine.
Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, in his post as first deputy chief of staff, was widely reported to have “curated” radical nationalist groups in an effort to tame and manage them. He was reported to have played a role in facilitating the initial organization of the far-right group Russian March in 2005, but as some nationalist leaders told this author in 2010, their relationship with him soured after they refused to kowtow to Kremlin demands.
More interesting in the context of Russia's involvement in Ukraine is the case of Ilya Goryachev, the founder of the far-right group Russky Obraz, who is currently on trial in Russia for his involvement in an ultra-nationalist militant group known under its Russian acronym, BORN. While a number of nationalist and patriotic groups with or without Kremlin connections – such as the Eurasian Union of Youth – have sent volunteers to fight alongside pro-Russian rebels in East Ukraine, BORN is reported to have activists fighting on both sides of the conflict, while some reports link it to the Donetsk-based pro-Russian movement, Donetskaya Respublika, which was instrumental in the formation of the initial leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. During Goryachov's trial, meanwhile, a number of nationalist leaders and activists identified Goryachov as a curator from the Presidential Administration.
A similar pattern of Kremlin co-option and then alleged betrayal has played out regularly among a whole slew of political movements, some larger than others. One of the most high-profile cases involved billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who in June 2011 was elected to head another Kremlin-managed party, the liberal Right Cause. When Prokhorov was ousted from the party in September 2011, he lashed out at Vladislav Surkov, accusing him of engineering the ouster and calling him a “puppet master.” Prokhorov, an oligarch with business in Russia, and, hence, with much to lose, proved relatively easy to manage and went on to take part in a Kremlin-sanctioned presidential campaign in 2012.
Managing rebel leaders in East Ukraine has proven far more difficult. Russian media reported last week that Surkov travelled to Donetsk with an apparent mission to replace DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko with someone more manageable. While no such replacement has been confirmed, if it were to happen it would not be the first (meetings between DNR leadership and Surkov took place last summer before a notable reshuffle), and it evidences the Kremlin's fragile position in swaying the rebels to do its bidding.
Taken together, the patterns above illustrate a disparate marketplace of ideas around the Kremlin rather than a centralised decision-making process oriented around policies. The Kremlin's pivot to nationalism looks like domestic policy, but examined closer it, too, is an attempt to lean on and co-opt existing lobbies. Such attempts are not always successful, and even when they are, they have been known to backfire.
The dangers of this policy outsourcing have become apparent over the past twelve months and go beyond the current stalemate over Ukraine. In fact, the liberal protests of 2011-2012 in many ways represented a backlash against the Kremlin's betrayal of a liberal lobby it had leaned on in the previous years. Given the higher prevalence of nationalist views – especially among members of the security services (and Strelkov is a good representation of that contingent) – a sense of betrayal could have much bigger consequences for the Kremlin than simply mass protests.
Anna Arutunyanis a Moscow-based writer and journalist, formerly of @themoscownews. She is the author of The Putin Mystique and contributed two fiction pieces to ECFR’s 2014 publication“Russia’s Pivot to Eurasia”.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.