Nationalism: A National Security Threat from Without and Within and one of Putin’s Favorite Weapons

Whatever its origin, nationalism taken too far can instigate violence and destroy democracy, and this is exactly what Putin is trying to do with it

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) September 10, 2020; see related article: Republic of Georgia Shows Trump & His Fans Depressingly Normal: Just Another Ethno-centric Nationalist Movement

White nationalists in Charlottesville
White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith/File Photo

SILVER SPRING—When I was in graduate school, in one class I took at a very difficult time in my life taught by the worst professor I have ever had (and I have had many great ones), I nonetheless had some interesting experiences and produced some interesting papers.  One of these papers involved either picking out of a hat or from a list (my memory is a bit weak on this detail), one person after another, a country that we would have to write about in terms of conflict.  It was the fall of 2009, and I ended up with Georgia, barely a year after the war that had erupted on one level within Georgia between different groups and regions, namely and primarily Abkhaz in Abkhazia and Ossetians in South Ossetia on one side and Georgians and Georgia’s central government on the other.  On another level, it erupted between Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, and Russia, its former overlord. 

This war was Russia’s first foreign military intervention under Vladimir Putin, who had been in power for nearly a decade without intervening militarily outside of the Russian Federation and was hardly viewed as a serious threat to Europe or the West even as he pursued a brutal war against Chechens within the Russian federation.  Yet by 2008, the hope in the West with which Putin had been greeted as someone who could both bring order and prosperity to Russia’s new democracy and be a more competent, stable partner with the West was quickly fading.  But it was the 2008 war, launched by Putin against Georgia amidst its own civil conflict and while the world was focused on the Olympic Games, that would wake the West up to the internationally aggressive tendencies of Putin, for whom the Cold War had never really ended.  In retrospect, the 2008 war with Georgia was a watershed, the beginning under Putin of repeated bold Russian interventionism beyond its borders.  Five-and-a-half years later saw the beginning in 2014 of Russian dismemberment of, and conflict instigation in, Ukraine.  A year-and-half later saw Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian Civil War in 2015.  By 2018, Russian “mercenaries” from the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin (a.k.a. “Putin’s chef) and acting as an extension of the Kremlin, were conducting combat operations in Libya against its Western-backed government, in the Central African Republic, and, in 2019, in in Mozambique

Yet beyond use of military force, Russia would be even bolder with different approaches.  The year 2014 saw Russian “active” hybrid measures support the 2014 Scottish secession campaign in the UK; 2016, the Brexit campaign, a failed coup attempt in Montenegro designed to thwart its entry into NATO, among other aims; the campaign to weaken and destabilize the U.S. by installing Donald Trump as the U.S. president in what I called back in December, 2016, the First Russo-American Cyberwar, which involved major efforts by Prigozhin in one of his other major capacities: helping to run Russia’s cyberwarfare (indeed, as I have written before, he is a real nexus of Russian international aggression).  Since then, Russia has interfered with Catalonia’s secessionist campaign and German, French, Austrian, Italian, British, Dutch, Swedish, (North) Macedonian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Moldovan, and, even now in 2020, American votes.  Also currently, Putin may be prepping for a military intervention in Belarus to crush a democratic uprising there, and we should not forget more general cyberattacks on Finland and the steady stream of cyberattacks against the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

There seem to be even still more countries that have been the target of Russian political interference and cyberwarfare.

With a large portion of these Russian campaigns, Putin has expertly manipulated what czars and comrades alike had often skillfully manipulated throughout Russian and Soviet history both within Russia and throughout is periphery: nationalism.  And many of these campaigns are part, as I have noted before, of a larger Russian war against the West mean to destroy, NATO, European unity, and even Western democracy as we know it.

In his 1931 book Conversations with Oscar Wilde, A. H. Cooper-Prichard presented the following exchange with the book’s namesake: “’How is it,’ I once asked him, ‘that people who are not possessed of a single other virtue should come out at times as patriots?’ ‘Exaggerated patriotism,’ he answered, ‘is the most insincere form of self-conceit.’ And at another time he said, Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.’”  And in his “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell—who would use the term “nationalism” as Wilde used “patriotism,”—wrote that “nationalist thought” could be characterized primarily by “obsession,” “instability,” and “indifference to reality,” that one of the great dangers he saw for nationalism was that it “may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”  Orwell here famously defined nationalism as

first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.

As Putin acts as a maestro conducting an orchestra of nationalism on a global scale to his ends in 2020 in ways most of us could have hardly imagined back in 2008, it is useful to look at how the Georgia war—this first great foreign campaign of Putin’s—can be a window into the world of nationalism, showing how banal and, sadly, normal ethno-nationalism can be.  This is true globally, and I used excerpts from my 2009 graduate school paper that discussed nationalism in Georgian history to shed light—just weeks before his socking victory in the United States—on the rise of the similarly thoroughly unoriginal, bland, and boring nationalism of then-candidate Trump.

That exploration of my older 2009 work—which in important ways was especially enriched by Ronald Grigor Suny’s deconstruction of nationalism as a very much consciously constructed phenomenon with two main sides: inclusion and exclusion—in a 2016 context has only increased in relevance thanks to what President Trump and Trumpism have become: the largest force in American politics since George Wallace to be built so nakedly on inclusion and exclusion.  The president does not even attempt to hide that white ethno-nationalism is what will be included in, and other identities excluded from, the top position in the national hierarchy.  This white, exclusionary ethno-nationalism, which he fanned and flamed into the White House with substantial Russian support, has only gotten more extreme and more powerful since then and today has plenty of sensible people worried about the prospects of both civil war and the death of true American democracy.

That look at how Russians long manipulated various nationalisms in Georgia is only too chillingly relevant to our current situation, in which our domestic divisions exploited by foreign enemies and domestic demagogues alike have brought America, in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has only intensified our divisions, to its knees, leaving it more vulnerable and weaker that at any time since the Civil War.  Ultimately, laws, elections and government reform can only go so far in rescuing us from our current nationalistic disaster: it will take many millions of Americans taking a hard look at their credulity and hardened exclusionary hearts and realizing that it is only a tempered, informed, inclusive nationalism that can save us from ourselves.

See related article: Republic of Georgia Shows Trump & His Fans Depressingly Normal: Just Another Ethno-centric Nationalist Movement

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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