Moscow’s efforts to strengthen its influence in Eurasia continue to cause anxiety in the states along Russia’s periphery, in Europe, and in the United States. Russia’s capacity to engage Russian compatriots is widely perceived as one of the main instruments of Moscow’s influence in the region and a tool to recreate Russia’s great power status. A closer investigation of Russia’s policy reveals, however, that short-term tactical gains are offset by serious, damaging long-term costs, not the least of which is a diminishment of the efficacy of the compatriots’ policy as a foreign policy tool. Yet the narrative of a Russian World has become a major factor in the development of Russia’s post-Soviet national identity and its engagement with the Eurasian geopolitical landscape.
The concepts of “compatriots abroad” and the “Russian World” have evolved within two different yet overlapping discourses. Each of these concepts has its own intellectual history. However, these ideas have something in common. Basically they both reflect the tension between actual Russian Federation state borders and the mental maps of “Russianness” that exist in the minds of many Russians.
In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s first foreign minister, introduced the term “compatriots abroad” into the political lexicon. The term refers to individuals who live outside the borders of the Russian Federation itself yet feel that they have a historical, cultural, and linguistic linkage with Russia. These people want to preserve these ties no matter the present status of their citizenship. Since 1994, the concept has developed into a concrete state policy, manifesting itself in a series of laws and state programs, as well as through some foreign policy decisions.
Although it had previously been articulated by President Vladimir Putin, the concept of the “Russian World” only began to penetrate the political discourse in 2007. This concept has broad philosophical connotations and is much more expansive than the term “compatriots.” While the latter is based on legal norms and definitions, the “Russian World” is an idea defined purely on the basis of self-identification. In 2014, these terms practically converged within Russian political vocabulary, forming a nationalist narrative about the necessity of Russia’s revival as a great power and its revanche in the post-Soviet space.
Despite its newfound prominence, this articulation and the fundamental question the concept of the Russian World raises are not entirely new issues. For at least the last 300 years, confusion over the boundaries that define the Russian people has been a major factor in Eurasia’s historical development. In that time, there have been no clear nor historically consistent criteria for distinguishing “us” from “them” in the collective Russian national consciousness. Political, historical, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, as well as the entirely subjective mental maps that guide the thinking of most Russians today, share no congruence, and the definitions of these boundaries are in constant motion and open to persistent debate. This phenomenon has enormous and contradictory implications for the prospects for stability, security, and peace in the region. Hardly ever has a modern nation, as an “imagined community,” been so uncertain of its borders and the mechanisms through which to institutionalize its relationships with its neighbors.
The crux of the debates over the present-day boundaries in Eurasia is the ongoing uncertainty of the relationship between the Russian Federation and the adjacent countries populated by ethnic Russians and other Eastern Slavs. After the fall of the Soviet Union, millions of former Soviet citizens found themselves divided up according to new political borders, and many of those who considered themselves to be “Russian” became citizens (or stateless persons) of the newly independent states that now neighbor Russia. This is the fundamental, or “objective,” reality, and it is the choice of Russia’s national elite whether or not to raise the issue of these territories and populations to the level of the official domestic or foreign policy agendas—and in what context.
For Russian nationalists, the question has always been not if, but when, by what means, and to what geographic limit areas populated by ethnic Russians should be reunified with the historic homeland. Through 2013, the government of the Russian Federation did not pursue such an agenda. Instead, Moscow sought to enhance its economic and political influence over the governments of the Eurasian states. Meaningful engagement of compatriots in this context was limited, in part by their low level of political mobilization (with a few exceptions, Crimea among them). In 2014, following a period of dramatic change in Ukraine, Moscow effectively pivoted to the pursuit of the radical nationalist agenda in the annexation of Crimea and the initiation of the Novorossiya project that sought to dismember Ukraine. More recently, following failure in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has tried to return to business as usual in its relations with the Russian World; however, a return to the policy course of 1992 to 2013 has become nearly impossible due to the high level of awareness and heightened sensitivity toward the new “Russian question” among the governments of neighboring states.
A Period of Restraint and Moderation
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there came to be two main approaches to the new “Russian question.” The first was a nationalistic discourse about a “divided people.” In post-Soviet Russia, significant figures within the intellectual and political opposition, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Gennady Zyuganov, argued that Russia’s greatest downfall was the discrepancy between the newly developed state borders and so-called national ones (understood in ethnic terms). The second was the sluggish and ineffective policy toward Russian compatriots abroad that was being enacted by the government. Moscow pursued a moderate policy in this regard until 2014.
In the first chaotic years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, several high-ranking members of the Russian executive leadership were in agreement with members of the opposition on issues concerning relations with the Russian diaspora. This was especially noticeable in the period that extended from December 1991 until the adoption of the new constitution in December 1993. Vice President Alexander Rutskoy and presidential adviser Sergey Stankevich insisted that Russia recognize Crimea and Transnistria as sovereign entities on the basis that the plurality of the population residing there was Russian or at least Russian speaking. President Boris Yeltsin thought otherwise. During the 1990s, Russia did not support irredentist sentiments in Crimea, Northern Kazakhstan, or any other places with a substantial ethnic Russian community. There was plenty of tough rhetoric, particularly about the treatment of Russian minorities on issues of citizenship in Latvia and Estonia, but the gap between words and deeds was evident. The largest Russian military operation during these years took place in North Ossetia and Abkhazia, the areas without big Russian communities. The measured nature of Russia’s actual policy in relation to Russians living in the “near abroad” was the most important factor in ensuring peace in the rest of the post-Soviet space over the course of this quarter century.
Revolutionary Changes and New Challenges
The events in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014 were interpreted in Moscow as a coup fomented by the West on the territory of the Russian World. In President Putin’s words: “And with Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed the line… After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea.” On March 7, 2014, President Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov, commenting on the events in Crimea, announced that Putin was the guarantor of security in the Russian World. This claim reflected a fundamental change in the Kremlin’s official narrative regarding Russia’s status and international obligations—a shift from the articulation of a nation-state to a larger entity with uncertain boundaries. In this way, the concept of the Russian World has become “securitized” and the post-Soviet state borders were defined as purely conditional. The Kremlin’s satisfaction with the well-being of ethnic Russians in the neighboring states became the most important condition of those borders’ inviolability. The Kremlin also began to actively support the small but vocal segments of the Russian diaspora that self-identified as the political representatives of the Russian World looking toward Moscow for guidance.
Concurrent with this shift in official policy, the Kremlin propaganda machine claimed that for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the interests of Russians outside Russia were being decisively and effectively defended by Moscow. In November 2015, President Putin announced at the fifth World Congress of Compatriots Living Abroad that the reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia had become an important factor in the consolidation of the Russians abroad and of the entire Russian World.
In fact, Russia—having achieved what was portrayed as a great success—had actually weakened its strategic position in Eurasia. Today, the Russian World is perceived by the governments of all the neighboring states with suspicion or outright animosity as an instrument of Moscow’s political influence and—in the worst-case scenario—a collection of proxies in a potential Russian invasion as is happening in Eastern Ukraine. The initially cultural project of the Russian World, at the heart of which was the advancement of the Russian language, has been discredited in the eyes of both government and public in many neighboring states.
Russians in neighboring nations face new challenges. As such, the new interpretation of the Russian World complicated the status of the diaspora communities, and especially of its successful and well-integrated members. In Latvia and Estonia, reaching out to Russian-speakers by simplifying naturalization procedures, or advocating the status of Russian a second language in the regions with Russian majorities, or addressing their concerns regarding education issues have become more difficult politically than before 2014. The Russian speakers have become the objects of propaganda campaigns and found themselves under the close watch of various intelligence agencies in Russia’s neighborhood.
The Kremlin’s rhetoric about the Russian World has been toned down during 2015 and into 2016, with Moscow also attempting to revive its pre-2014 compatriot policies. The government approved a moderate Program of Work with the Compatriots in 2015–2017. The Foreign Ministry, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), and government-funded nongovernmental organizations continue to refer to the Russian World and support of the compatriots as a legitimate endeavor of “soft power,” public diplomacy, human rights, and cultural relations. Despite such efforts, this is decidedly not the prevailing image of the Russian World outside Russia. The view of the Russian World as an active network of fringe, potentially dangerous, groups directly supported (or directed) by Moscow has become commonplace, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Impacts on Eurasia
Of the Russian communities abroad, none faces a greater challenge than that in Ukraine. Today, Ukraine is effectively a lost cause within the context of the Russian World. For much of the Ukrainian population and for the entire political class, the idea of the Russian World has become synonymous with war. Additionally, Russia’s influence on Ukraine has been significantly reduced, in part because it is now unlikely that a Russia-friendly candidate from eastern Ukraine will win a national poll without the support of the Crimean population. Many ethnic Russians have begun to identify more strongly with their Ukrainian citizenship, while those whose loyalties are multiple, dynamic, and often uncertain have seen the war in the Donbass and shy away from a similar ordeal in their home territories. Moscow’s potential to mobilize Russians outside small areas in the Donbass has thus significantly diminished.
Beyond Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan are the key states where the “Russian question” will be crucial to security, political stability, success of the nationalization process, and construction of viable nation-states when political succession takes place. The Russian World narrative’s usefulness in relations with Belarus is already significantly reduced and in many ways it has become counterproductive. President Alexander Lukashenko has traditionally drawn upon enthusiasts of close integration with Russia for political support. In 2015, however, he pivoted, coming forward multiple times with harsh criticism for claims that Belarus is a part of the Russian World. In view of the elections in September 2016, Lukashenko has effectively introduced filters to prevent active supporters of the Russian World from making it into the parliament. He has also been resistant to Russian air force basing in Belarus and further strengthening of economic ties.
In Kazakhstan, where both the absolute number of ethnic Russians and their size as a percentage of the overall population have decreased significantly since early 1990s, the authorities are determined to define and strengthen a new national identity. Putin’s remarks about Kazakhstan staying “within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization” in August 2014 were not welcomed by the Kazakh elite. The implementation of a program to transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet announced in February 2016 is part of the effort to distance the country as much as possible from the concept of the Russian World.
From the Euro-Atlantic security perspective, the “Russian question” in Estonia and Latvia is of paramount importance. After the annexation of Crimea, any legitimate demands for the defense of the cultural or linguistic rights of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states are met with an unparalleled level of suspicion. This undermines local efforts to improve the situation of those populations. Russians in Estonia and Latvia living in Narva and Daugavpils (areas with a high concentration of Russian speakers but less integrated and prosperous than in Riga or Tallinn) could potentially present some opportunities to the ideologues and enactors of the “Russian spring.” Many Russians in Latvia and Estonia tend to take Moscow’s view of the conflict in Ukraine. However, the countermeasures undertaken by the Estonian and Latvian security and intelligence agencies directed against attempts to support local activists from Russia appear to be very serious, and there has also been movement, as yet insufficient, to improve the integration of these communities, helping to eliminate the appeal of such ideas, as well. NATO’s military buildup in the region also reduces the chances for any kind of Russian Crimea-style or Donbas-style intervention. The alliance’s decision to strengthen its forward presence in the Baltic states by deploying combat-ready battalions is the most significant reinforcement of collective defense since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s potential leverage in Lithuania, where the Russian population is small and dispersed, was always much more limited than in Estonia or Latvia.
The suspicion toward Russia held by many members of the Moldovan elite has also intensified. At the time when the idea of the Novorossiya project was being circulated in 2014, the possibility of adding Transnistria to the orbit of the Russian World and to the process of redrawing borders rose to prominence. However, that issue has since been taken off the agenda.
The “Russian question” is not as internationally important in other countries of the former Soviet Union. The situation in Central Asia and the South Caucasus from the perspective of the position and interests of Russian and Russian-speaking people has gone essentially unchanged after 2014. The Russian diaspora there is relatively small, aging, and continues to shrink. It is not mobilized and thus cannot become an instrument of Russian foreign policy.
The policy toward compatriots and the concept of the Russian World were conceived as tools to allow Moscow to simultaneously honor post-Soviet borders and address the concerns of those who did not perceive them as fully legitimate. In 2014, this rhetoric and policies were put to different purposes, namely the justification for the annexation of sovereign territory and support for separatists in a neighboring country. The Russian World became the conceptual framework that both stimulated and justified Russia’s new approach. Having annexed Crimea, Putin demonstrated that the present-day political divisions of the post-Soviet landscape are not the incontrovertible result of the Belavezha Accords, the agreement that declared the Soviet Union dissolved, but rather a starting point for a complex and unpredictable process that began in 1991 and continues to this day. The concept of the Russian World allows Moscow to keep boundaries vague, at least rhetorically, with uncertain consequences for regional security. However, in 2015 and 2016, it became increasingly difficult and counterproductive for Moscow to engage the concept in its foreign policy.
Within Russia, there is a consensus that Moscow has some responsibility to those people who identify themselves as Russians or Russian speakers and who live in the successor states of the former Soviet Union. Outside Russia, alarm bells ring when Moscow talks about protecting compatriots or the Russian World, after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The instrument once used as hard power cannot be easily converted back into a soft power tool.
Igor Zevelev is a visiting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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