The news that the infamous Igor Strelkov had set up an All-Russian Nationalist Movement (OND) calling for the gathering of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus “and other Russian lands” into a single state and making the former Soviet Eurasia “an unquestioned Russian zone of influence” predictably created feverish speculation about the nationalist backlash against Vladimir Putin. Is this the start of a serious challenge, the beginning of the end for his regime, the harbinger of a “brown” coup? The honest answer is that it is none of these things. However, it does illustrate the emergence of a nationalist critique of Putinism that may well prove significant in the future.
The ungrateful nationalists
Just as he has never apparently managed to understand democratic politics and polities – real democracy, not Russia’s curated, stage-managed, stunted, and discredited version – so too Putin appears not to appreciate that the various movements and individuals he creates and unleashes acquire life and agency of their own. The toys will not meekly troop back into the toy box when the game has lost its sparkle for young Vladimir.
Strelkov is not unique in biting the hand that once fed him. Nonetheless, as point man for Moscow’s arm’s-length destabilisation campaign in south-eastern Ukraine, he believed in all the talk of a “Novorossiya” – a province of Russians ready to be returned to the loving embrace of the Motherland (whether they liked it or not.) Yet this was actually just the handy rationalisation of the moment for a piece of naked and heavy-handed realpolitik. Moscow was not willing to, as it saw it, let Ukraine slide from its sphere of influence into the West’s. Stirring up unrest in the Donbas was simply a means of causing trouble for Kyiv, creating a bargaining chip that the Kremlin thought could be traded in short order for a return to a Russia-centric status quo. Of course – again, not understanding democratic politics, even those as imperfect as Ukraine’s – Putin had miscalculated, and Ukraine is frankly lost now, even while the troublesome and expensive Donbas will be hard to shed.
Nonetheless, each time Putin intrudes into a new conflict and activates some adventurers and ideologues, there is a price. Strelkov is just the most famous of the angry ex-fighters coming back from Ukraine. The Kremlin may be able to control how these conflicts are reported on TV, but no amount of spin can prevent the slow growth of a constituency of former believers who now see themselves as betrayed.
The irony is that they have a point, even if not in the way they think. Reading the opening manifesto of Strelkov’s OND, beyond rabble-rousing appeals to “defend the natural and historic right of the Russian nation to decide its own destiny”, at times it sounds almost liberal. There is a strong commitment to property rights, to freedom of speech and the media, protected by a genuinely independent judiciary. More generally: “There can be no glory, no prosperity, no freedom, while citizens’ rights may be violated at any time and depend on the whim of the ruler.”
This should hardly surprise, not only because in Russia there is a nationalist dimension to most liberal politics – witness concerns about anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny’s views on race – but because there is also a strong nationalist critique of Putin struggling to be articulated.
Putin clearly regards himself as the indispensible instrument of Russia’s national destiny. This is 19th-century destiny, though, defined primarily in geopolitical, even imperial terms: a say in world affairs, a sphere of influence, military might, a place in the sun. It does not primarily mean a happy, prosperous and healthy population, a dynamic and globalised economy, legitimacy, soft power manifested in the esteem and respect of the global community.
Kremlin policy has been quite effective in the short term in its tactical aims of weakening, dividing and dismaying those who, in its eyes, have been trying to constrain and defy it. Ukraine is in turmoil; divisions within the West are evident. But is Russia any stronger? Nato has been galvanised, and Sweden and Finland are considering membership. Respect for Russia around the world is lower than ever. Even countries such as China and Iran, which hold congruent views over aspects of the global order, consider Moscow an erratic and temporary ally, not a friend.
Greater than one man
Tsar Alexander III apocryphally said that Russia had just two allies, its army and its navy. Even here, for all the vast sums already spent and those meant still to be lavished on the military, Russia is making at best limited progress and is dangerously overstretched. It is bogged down in the Donbas, and needs to maintain ready forces able to block any Ukrainian offensives. It is mired in Syria. It is talking about recreating divisions along its western borders, even as the population able and willing to serve is shrinking. It fears chaos and jihadism in Central Asia, has security interests in the Caucasus, and a long, largely undefended land border with China.
To put it bluntly, it lacks the troops and the firepower to be a true military hegemon, and this is a challenge likely to get harder, not easier, as the population shrinks, reserve funds dry up and leading-edge weapons get more and more expensive.
So the nationalist critique of Putin centres on several lines of attack. First, that Putin talks about Russia’s destiny and interests but – beyond Crimea – has proven a weak, vacillating advocate of those interests.
Part of the reason is that too great a proportion of national resources has been stolen by the elite in general and Putin’s cronies in particular. This has hit spending on the army and also the economic base so crucial not just for military but also soft power.
Why could this happen? Because, its rhetoric notwithstanding, today’s Putinism is not about the Motherland but one man, his whims, friends and gratification, and the institutions of the state have been hollowed out until they cannot constrain him.
This is an interesting critique of Putin and his regime. It combines populist anger about corruption – an issue capable of mobilising across regional, class and ethnic divides – with a telling analysis of the system’s failings that sees its remedy in the creation of the kind of institutions taken for granted in the West. Furthermore, it fuels this with a nationalist appeal that competes with Putin’s own legitimating myth.
Does any of this matter, though? We have seen a stream of wannabe nationalist firebrands grumble and posture on the sidelines before being marginalised or co-opted. The OND is not going to feature in this year’s Duma elections, nor is it going to pose a challenge to Putin’s re-election in 2018. Instead, its emergence speaks to the disillusion of the nationalists who had seen Putin as their champion after Crimea.
It may not be the warhorses of the OND who eventually get to articulate their case, combining nationalism and institutionalism, and it is likely to be after Putin has left the Kremlin. But nonetheless, a combined commitment to nationalism and the rule of law is a powerful potential platform. Ironically enough, these days Strelkov and Navalny, for all their massive political and stylistic differences, have more in common than either might want to admit. That is an extraordinary and unwanted achievement of Putin’s that might well come to haunt him.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/) and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.