Putin’s Zombie Russian/Slavic Ethnonationalism Is Utterly Banal

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the U.S. Congress, a look at the emptiness of his Russian counterpart’s ideological and revisionist historical underpinnings girding his revanchist, blatantly imperialist war against Ukraine

(Russian/Русский перевод) By Brian E. Frydenborg, March 16, 2022 (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981); (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981); excerpted and slightly adapted from his article The Utter Banality of Putin’s Kabuki Campaign in Ukraine published by Small Wars Journal the morning of February 21 and featured by SOF News on February 26; see related articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:

Also see March 8 follow-up Small Wars Journal piece The Beginning of the End of Putin? Why the Russian Army May (and Should) Revolt (featured on March 9 by Real Clear DefenseThe National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Democracy Digest, and SOF News) and related articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:

Russian state television of Putin’s relevant address from February 21

Great Russia: [i.e., Russia]

Do you know with whom you are speaking, or have you forgotten? I am Russia, after all: do you ignore me?

Little Russia: [i.e., Ukraine]

I know that you are Russia; that is my name as well.

Why do you intimidate me? I myself am trying to put on a brave face.

I did not submit to you but to your sovereign,

Under whose auspices you were born of your ancestors.

Do not think that you are my master:

Your sovereign and mine is our common ruler.

—from A Conversation Between Great Russia and Little Russia, 1762
by Semen Divovych, Ukrainian Cossack scribe and poet

WASHINGTON and SILVER SPRING—Underlying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tired articulation of his rationale for invading Ukraine is the same old, same old in all the bad ways coming from Russia in a totally avoidable crisis wholly manufactured by the Kremlin.

As I noted just before this war’s dramatic late-February escalation, what was then the extremely-likely-to-be-pending invasion of Ukraine by Russia would likely be the largest invasion in Europe in over half a century (since the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and, before that, the final years of World War II) and the largest European war since WWII (since Ukraine’s army today seems quite willing to fight along with many civilians, but the Czechoslovak People’s Army did not resist at all in 1968).  Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing apart from the scale of all this is the predictable, soporific banality of Putin’s game plan, one visible from many miles and many years away.

And perhaps nothing besides Ukrainian icy steeliness better explains the pre-scalation nonchalant, yet defiant refusal of Ukrainians to panic, with others seeming to have been more worried than Ukrainians themselves.  After all, Ukrainians had experienced a smaller Russian troop buildup on their border early last year and this current one has been going on for months, so they shrugged their shoulders and lived their lives, with Ukraine’s government in recent weeks even launching a “Keep calm and visit Ukraine” tourism campaign that hearkens back to the famous domestic British morale campaign from WWII.

At least, that is what we were meant to believe to some degree: in an interview with CNN‘s excellent Matthew Chance, Zelensky made it clear that he had actually accepted U.S. intelligence warning of a Russian invasion but wanted to downplay that so as not to tip off Russia to the fact that Ukrainians were furiously preparing a defense, deliberately trying to throw the Kremlin off so that if/when the invasion came, the Russians would be caught off guard, fall behind schedule, and sustain more casualties from a far more prepared Ukraine than anticipated, a point I have yet to see anyone else make.

Public relations aside, the situation before the escalation was dire, with proxy conventional attacks by rebel separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russian cyberattacks having already been underway (in addition to de facto economic warfare as Russia’s troop buildup and naval “exercises” were already causing major damage to the Ukrainian economy).  I noted at the time that it was incredibly difficult to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin amassing some 150,000-and-growing ground troops along with heavy military equipment, vehicles, and additional air and naval forces just for a failed intimidation campaign that yields no substantial positive results for him; just tucking his tail in between his legs and sending his forces home while losing face after a costly military buildup throughout harsh winter months is simply not in his nature. I wish I was wrong, but that interpretation turned out to be correct.

A Pathetically Predictable Playbook

Also pathetically predictable are both the rationales Putin regularly spews along with his army of propagandists and his methods, containing absolutely nothing new and going back centuries.

In my graduate studies and again in my journalism, I have researched and noted that the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union made it a decided policy to play with, keep simmering under the surface, and manipulate one way or another whenever convenient various nationalisms both within Russia and the Soviet Union and in their peripheries and near-peripheries.  At some times, it would be convenient to heat to a boiling point the majority ethnonationalism, at other instances, the minority ethnonationalisms in any given part of Russia or a (post-)Soviet Republic, sometimes playing one against the other in one era only to switch sides in the future.  As one scholar I quoted in a graduate school paper noted, the

system of ethnic autonomies [in Russia/the Soviet Union] was ostensibly a means of protecting national minorities, but in reality it was a time bomb that Moscow could blow up at its leisure by pushing the “protected” minorities towards separatism. Thus, this situation gave Moscow a means to weaken and destabilize republics whose nationalistic feelings ran high. (Areshidze 2007, 22)

To be absolutely clear, this a tradition in both the Soviet and Russian historical tradition, going back centuries, and is Putin’s favorite playbook among very few.

Within this context, it is just basic reality that many people of many ethnicities all over the world live outside the boundaries of their ethnicity’s nation-state(s) (if that ethnicity is lucky enough to have a full nation state; Kurds, Uighurs, and Palestinians, just to name three, are not).  Therefore, Russia extending Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians and others in regions with ethnic tensions or regions it has occupied in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk, together in eastern Ukraine forming the Donbas area, as well as Crimea) in the cause of ethnonationalist solidarity is absolutely not a legal justification for interference in a sovereign country’s territory, let alone military invasion, occupation, and annexation, regardless of Russia’s and Putin’s longtime policy to award citizenship—complete with Russian passports—to such people in these countries and others, including the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia long wary of Russian schemes to dominate them and undermine their sovereignty.  This Russian policy is part of a longtime strategy to use ethnic Russians and other separatist minorities within the states of the former Soviet Union and that were once part of the Russian Empire at its height to serve the Kremlin’s interests, destabilize any of these states that do not fall in line with Russia’s wishes, and to create a potential fifth column for Putin to incite when convenient for him (just as he is doing with the separatists in Eastern Ukraine). 

While I will not dismiss the idea of genuine concern on the part of Russia and even Putin for their ethnic brethren, it is worth noting that one of Hitler’s main aims in the runup to and also during WWII was to unite ethnic Germans living outside Germany under a “Greater Germany” into which Hitler’s Germany would expand through war, conquest, and annexation (and no, I am not saying Putin is Hitler but it is worth noting what company he keeps in using war for similar ethnonationalist dreams).

Though such tactics have not been very effective in, say, the Baltic states, they have worked extremely well in Georgia and have been key to Putin’s Ukraine policy; indeed, the U.S., UK, Ukraine, and researchers have warned of and called out “false flag” staged or falsely-claimed “attacks” against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine or attacks across the border into Russia as a very possible pretext for a Russian invasion.

But one key difference from the days the czars and Soviets used these tactics is that, in the age of the internet, Russia’s use of hybrid warfare and cyberwarfare enable Putin to use these tactics in an effective and penetrating way far beyond Russia’s periphery in ways of which the czars and Soviets could only dream.  In this way, manipulating nationalism has become Russia’s weapon of choice against the West.  And while this is a multifront war, with cyberwarfare ranging from the U.S. to the UK, Germany, and, indeed, all over Europe, Ukraine is undoubtedly the hottest current front, combining hybrid/cyberwarfare with the kinetic physical warfare of guns, bombs, separatist rebels, and regular Russian forces: the main battlefield of the New Cold War, as I have noted before.

As such, Putin’s current machinations in Ukraine are not only wholly formulaic and predictable, but are so to the tune of a playbook going back hundreds of years, the basic mechanics of which were never terribly original to begin with but quite predictable and hardly unique to Russia (rather common to all nationalistic bullies).  And, to be clear, Ukrainians have endured within living memory such machinations to the degree of a Soviet-made, weaponized famine—the infamous Holodomor (the genocidal nature of which the Kremlin actively and vigorously now denies)—that killed millions of Ukrainians literally by design.  Ukraine also suffered some of the highest casualties of any country both per capita (more than both the Soviet Union overall and Russia specifically) and in absolute numbers during WWII.

Whether the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the intervention in eastern Ukraine, the repeated attempts to corrupt and dominate the Ukrainian political system (to which Ukrainians responded with the 2004-2005 Orange and 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolutions and the subsequent election of two presidents who have refused to bend the knee to the Kremlin), spasmodic cyberattacks (sometimes devastating like NotPetya, the most damaging cyberattack in history), or the current threat of a Russian invasion coupled with very likely further dismemberment of their nation, then, Ukrainians have endured far worse Russian meddling before and essentially live constantly with the prospect and/or the actuality of Russia intervention in one form or another, sometimes in a given period on a daily basis.  Ukraine’s surprising comedian turned president, Volodymyr Zelensky, eloquently said as much in his February 19 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

In fact, Russia’s imperialist and colonialist adventures, whether overt or the more recently sometimes-covert, have rarely waned in the past several centuries, but just because Ukrainians are used to it does not mean they have not also have found ways, even sometimes in the incredibly repressive Soviet era, of also daily asserting their national character and independence, sometimes more symbolically, sometime with rebellions or even, as today, in short eras of Ukraine being independent from an oppressive empire.

Ukrainians know their history, after all, despite the Kremlin’s attempts to rewrite it: as the selection from 1762 poem that introduced this article shows, Ukrainians have been protesting Russia’s trying to have their way with them for centuries and this quarrel is nothing new.

The Western media and leadership class should also know proper history, specifically, Putin’s and Russia’s (as well as their own history of dropping the ball on handling Russia), so while we may be alarmed at Putin’s warmongering towards Ukraine, we should never be surprised.  Rather, we should call out how blatantly banal, predictable, and repetitive it is.  Putin may think his utterly uninteresting, hackneyed callbacks to an antiquated, zombie brand of pan-Slavic and/or aggressive, imposed Russian ethnonationalism are exciting and inspiring, but they are the most overused playbook coming out of Moscow for the past three centuries and find little appeal outside Russia and some ethnic Russians in former Soviet states.

And by far, most Ukrainians are not falling for it.

“Make Russia Great Again” Without Ukraine

Self-determination for a sovereign Ukraine did not have mean war with Russia, and only Russia initiated this war of choice and only it chose to do so.  Its reasoning for war rests upon the most empty, banal, overused tropes from czarist Imperial Russia that claim Russians are an ethnicity above and apart from others, superior and blessed by Orthodox Christian God while destined to rule over the other Slavs and, at the lowest point in the hierarchy, other groups of people that surround the Slavs.  What any of those people want is irrelevant, for it is Russia’s birthright destiny. 

Without the free will and agency of these various peoples who had endured decades, sometimes centuries of oppression under Russian and/or Soviet rule, nothing NATO did would have resulted in countries formerly under Moscow’s sway becoming NATO members.  But those peoples chose for themselves, and, in the case of Ukraine, Ukrainians actually have a say.  And while the West will not die for their right to have that say, it can still support it all the same as they are now by supporting Ukraine in other ways and teaching Putin and Russians that a united West will not let Russia get away with literal murder (among other things) without paying a steeply heavy price, as seriously harmful to Russia as its rationales for its Ukraine mischief are mindlessly tedious.

Either we live in a world where the idea that a democratic nation has a right to freely choose to enter into alliances and partnerships its leaders and people deem desirable without having to face military attacks as a result or sovereignty with the legitimacy of the consent of the governed has no real meaning and war will become an increasingly preferred political tool.

One thing is for certain: Russia’s resoundingly unoriginal appeals to ethnonationalism, whether beyond its borders or within, whether specifically to Russians or more broadly pan-Slavic, have resulted in centuries of bloody war and conquests, most of which have come undone, rendering these struggles mostly pointless.  The people living under the bloody heel of the czarist and Soviet boots were only too eager to throw off Russian and Soviet imperialism the first opportunity they had, sometimes (as in Ukraine’s case) repeatedly, affirming the shallowness of such aggressive Russian ethnonationalism.  The historically blood-soaked lands of Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular—all the way through to today—embody this sad, failed history.  It was such pan-ethnic nationalism that propelled Russia into World War I, to utter disaster and a collapse of the Imperial Russian state along with the deaths of millions.  Unlike then, today, as noted, Russia is facing a united West supporting Eastern Europeans that have resolutely rejected Russian hegemony and influence to align themselves or clearly want to align with the West, choosing freely in democratic systems to do so from an informed position knowing full well what the West offers and what Putin offers.

That man would be far better off focusing on building Russia up at home (its economy is still a relic dependent on fossil fuels), for this misadventure might end up hurting Russia—and even Putin himself—far more than Putin was anticipating and, unlike NATO and the West, his friends are few and far between, chief among the them the dictators Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus (perhaps Xi Jinping of China, too, but I am not so sure they are that close yet: on February 19, at the same Munich Security Conference at which U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met Zelensky and at which Zelensky spoke and was interviewed by Amanpour, China’s foreign minister reaffirmed his country’s longstanding position on respecting the territorial integrity of all nations, then specifically added “Ukraine is no exception.”).

Putin’s effort to revive this repeatedly failed, absurdly outdated ethnonationalist campaign may be laughably banal, then, but we must also take it deadly seriously since the size and power of the military force involved in supporting that campaign and its manifestation in a war of imperialist expansion against Ukraine unfortunately force us to do so.

See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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