The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major formative event for the modern Russian outlook. At the same time as Russians experienced economic collapse, loss of power and influence, and reduced quality of life, the population also witnessed the international commodification of its natural resources, its consumer market and real estate, and even its brides. Since Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russia has demonstrated an intense rise in nationalism at home and aggressive actions on its borders as the population vies to reassert control over its prospects. The source of Russian power lies in its autocratic leadership, cultural resurgence, and resource wealth, which Putin is aggressively reorienting toward new economic and geographic frontiers. While the current Ukrainian conflict is largely political and, thus, more difficult to predict, the real battleground in this era of globalization will be the energy market, and this fight lies to the East.
A history of broken promises has fueled Russia’s disillusionment with the West and has partly enabled Putin’s current actions in Ukraine. Under Gorbachev, hopes of an international olive branch in the form of restricted NATO expansion were crushed as the West reabsorbed East Germany and, later, parts of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, attempts at reform under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, followed by Gorbachev’s glasnost, and perestroika movements in the 1980s, fell far short of their targets. Rather than heralding greater freedom and higher quality of living as intended, bureaucratic purges left many jobless, while the elite nomenklatura benefitted from exploiting the financial chaos of the collapse.
The 1990s saw the average Russian struggle for survival as inflation and employment crises peaked garnered by failed reforms and market crashes. Moreover, years of notoriously weak and drunken leadership had chipped away at national pride and image. The once expansive territory of the Soviet Union was rapidly broken down into poorly functioning republics and seemingly devoured by foreign companies hungry for oil and other resources, not to mention competing neighboring economic and security unions. As the country’s infrastructure disintegrated and the riches of its territory were sold off, Russians began to see their homeland in a new light, with many questioning why Russian territorial integrity had ever been willingly compromised, e.g., by signing away Alaska and Crimea.
Vladimir Putin’s assent to power signaled the beginning of a new era in Russian national identity. In 1999, his presidency was kickstarted by apartment bombings in Moscow that led to the Second Chechen War. Despite the extensive bloodshed he caused in Chechnya, many Russians recall the violent sieges on their country and tend to view themselves, not as aggressors, but as victims of Chechen aggression. More importantly, they view their nation as a fatherland, betrayed and abandoned by ungrateful breakaway states.
The Russian concept of fatherland, which is rooted in the patriarchal role of strong government, preexists its modern usage; however, Putin’s style of autocratic leadership has reinvigorated the idea. Following ruthless modernization under Stalin’s regime, along with the repressive politics of the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia before it, the concept of political engagement in modern Russia differs starkly from what its Western peers might assume. Rather than focusing on nuances of policy and legal decisions and accountability to voters, many Russians instead speak of their need for a strong leader truly in line with national prestige, rather than a member of the greedy nomenklatura seizing Russian power for the sake of his own luxury and wealth.
After years of chaos and decay, there is ardent nostalgia for a time when the Russian territory was powerful and covered vast expanses of land. In a culture where literary heroes oscillate between suicide and spiritual epiphany and the most brutal leaders can become figureheads of progress, romanticism and fatalism feed into this sense, yielding a broadly defined but deeply felt national idealism that, for some, holds precedence above of individual engagement in governance. So long as a sense of rising power and greatness emanates from Putin’s actions, people may find it easier to cope with current economic strife and the lack of certain freedoms, and instead look to bolder acts of reclaiming territory and history in Ukraine. Certainly his bold presentation lends itself easily to a culture well adapted to cults of personality. He walks the tough-guy line well, alternating between press- and fan-friendly shirtless horseback poses and Siberian tiger photoshoots and fiercely defensive patriotic posturing, employing bloody and brutal tactics in the Caucasus and Ukraine and at times crude, violent language in the press—in 2001, he vowed he would “Мочить террористов в сортире,” i.e., to ‘wet’ terrorists in the outhouse, employing a prison slang term meaning to execute someone at close range, leaving them soaked in blood.
Of course this is not to say that there is no opposition to Putin’s leadership in Russia. However, this arena is where his liberal authoritarian style of governance is best observed. Given the highly visible murders of journalists and politicians, most recently Boris Nemtsov, Putin seemingly has no interest in disguising his intent to maintain total control over the political landscape. However, it should be noted that Putin exercises important limits to his authoritarian rule that help him retain a certain level of favorability.
Unlike some other authoritarian states, access to the Internet and social media in Russia is unrestricted. In fact, as the technological and communications revolution occurred largely in the years since Putin took office, many Russians may connect this new freedom with positive impressions of their president. Moreover, contemporary Russians have more choices in their everyday lives, not only in access to new products, but also in the ability to travel more freely throughout the world. Importantly, the visibility of Russians participating in these new frontiers contributes to an increased impression of opportunity at home, even if much of the population remains unable to afford many of the new luxuries. Finally, Putin has also proved adept at channeling the rise in nationalism into a source of power, rather than a challenge to it. Taking a lesson from the youth mobilization that drove the color revolutions, the Kremlin has generated its own highly visible and viciously right-wing youth group, Nashi, to support its political platform and address social maladies, such as depopulation and health risks.
Changes in the Russian mentality have been shaped and guided by Putin’s strong hand. Dangerously, the current population, with an average age of 39, has not only a history of progress under his leadership, but also a history of having survived under much worse. Moreover, many Russians were already struggling under Putin, notably pensioners, single mothers, and alcoholics, who receive little to no support from the state. The prospects for these people are likely not much worse off now than in recent years, and to expect an abrupt and substantive change from recent events may prove short-sighted. While current sanctions may appear devastating to the Russian economy, the population’s individual survival instinct is strong and the supporting idealism persists, especially in light of the relatively minimal opposition Russia has experienced from the West as the conflict in Ukraine has prolonged and grown.
So long as Russia retains its strong leader, resource dominance, and economic partnership with Asia, political influence in the West will remain only one aspect of Russian expansion. With China as Russia’s leading economic and political ally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that any strengthening of Russia’s global position is likely to come at some cost to China. Based on its history, as well as its current patterns, however, Russia has never been a country to settle for a mediocre status quo in terms of world position. It is likely, then, that Putin will continue to maneuver for stronger standing, and will likely do so along the edges of China’s frontiers, i.e., by hedging its relationship with Iran as it rejoins the world market and political forum; by reengaging in Central Asia and and upping the stakes in the Caspian and Caucasus as Europe and turn to this historical heartland for their natural-gas supply; and by seeking to establish a competitive presence in the Indian Ocean as China’s One Belt, One Road initiative grows, the AIIB expands, and India and China grow to be among the world’s largest oil, coal, and natural gas consumers. All of this, combined with recent experiences in Ukraine suggest that there may yet be years of possible political and military conflicts to come, the most significant of which will likely lie far outside the boundaries of Europe.