Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reshape the security landscape in Eastern Europe have ultimately led to a devastating war that is likely to be Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.
However, this is a result of the Kremlin’s broader goal of restoring Russia’s status as a leading world power. And at the center of everything is a term that has become an ideological and cultural pillar of militant Russian nationalism.
“Russian world” (Русский мир or Pax Russica) is essentially a term around which a strongly irredentist cultural-political narrative is formed about the need for Russia to retake its rightful place on the international stage, offering its own alternative to Western liberal democracies .
Historically, the Russian world parallels the ancient Roman Pax Romana or the more modern examples of Pax Britannica or Pax Americana.
However, all of them are associated with long eras of prosperity and relative peace – for Rome this is the time of the 200-year period of greatest power of the empire, while for the second two examples it means the long periods without wars in the Western Hemisphere, when, respectively, Great Britain and the US were dominant powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, it is difficult to say that “Russian Peace” actually brings “peace” and prosperity, if we look at all the “frozen” and “hot” conflicts in the post-Soviet space, where Moscow is involved in one way or another – from Transnistria, through Ukraine , to South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Sometime in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, the concept of “Russians abroad” (“русское зарубежье”) appeared, or all those people who feel connected to Russia culturally, linguistically or historically, but have remained outside it – in the political borders of the newly emerging states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In the following years, it acquired the form of specific policies expressed in legislative acts and state programs aimed at the Russian minorities in the region, and they became an occasion for interference in one way or another in the internal affairs of other countries.
However, this is not enough.
For at least three centuries, the Russian people have faced the fundamental question of the boundaries that separate “us” from “them” and define what a “Russian” is. Something that has always been a major factor in the historical development of Eurasia and has been the cause of various conflicts.
For all time, clear and historically consistent criteria for distinguishing from “others” have never emerged in the collective Russian national consciousness, and political, historical, cultural and ethnic boundaries, as well as entirely subjective mental ones, are in constant flux and open to debate .
Europeans or Asians? Christians or Atheists? Nationalists or internationalists? There is hardly any other nation that has been so uncertain about the boundaries of its identity.
It is this uncertainty that provokes the systematic paranoia, prompting Russia to be aggressive towards its neighbors, acting on the principle of “attack is the best defense”. It is no coincidence that Catherine the Great also said that the only way to protect her borders is by constantly expanding them.
That thinking hasn’t changed much since then. It reflects an imperial thought that remains immutable across eras and political regimes, but at the same time it shows an inability to discover mechanisms by which to adequately define relations with neighbors without the need to subjugate or absorb them.
The concept of the “Russian world” appears somewhere here. It should build on the one for “Russians abroad”, which is nothing more than an institutional tool.
“Russian World” is something more. It is an ideology based on irredentism and revanchism. Christianity, Slavophile patriotism and Eurasianism became the cornerstones around which the Russian people should be united with the idea that Russia occupies a special and irreplaceable historical and cultural place.
It was born as early as the mid-1990s, and for extreme nationalists in Russia the question has always been not if, but when, by what means and to what geographical limits, the areas inhabited by ethnic Russians should be united with the historical homeland.
Not that Putin invented it, but he took advantage of it and decided he could impose it as a basis to create a common sense of identity, shared values and, above all, purpose after the uncertain and tumultuous decade that followed the end of the USSR.
The enemy, of course, is the West in the form of the US and Europe, which have taken advantage of Russia’s weakness to take away its rightful place. Like any nationalist ideology, there must be an enemy here, according to the classic and well-tested logic that personalizing an external threat and looking for foreign culprits is the best way to unite a community and steer it in a certain direction.
That is why the emphasis of everything is on the differences – authoritarianism versus democracy, free market versus state capitalism, liberal values versus conservative values.
It is no coincidence that in recent years, Russia has presented itself as a more isolated and increasingly surrounded state by NATO and the EU, which place puppet regimes on its periphery.
That is why the events in Ukraine at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 were interpreted in Moscow as a coup orchestrated by Washington on the territory of the Russian world. Then, in Putin’s words, the West has “crossed the line” with regard to Ukraine.
“After all, they were fully aware that millions of Russians live there and in Crimea,” says the Russian president, presenting himself as the sole guarantor of the security of the “Russian World”.
That is, from this moment on, the borders in the region are already purely conditional and can be changed depending on the Kremlin’s satisfaction with the well-being of ethnic Russians in neighboring countries.
Thus, Crimea is annexed in absolute violation of international law. The “Novorusia” project also appears in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which have seceded from Ukraine. In fact, the current war was declared after a speech by Putin with a pseudo-historical narrative in which he defined Ukraine as an integral part of Russia that had been forcibly torn off, and the Ukrainian nation itself as artificially created by Lenin and later by the West.
In doing so, Putin stepped on the footholds that the Russian propaganda machine in the form of official government media and unofficial troll armies in the digital space has been building for years.
All of them portray Ukraine as a quasi-fascist state that commits genocide, while at the same time rejecting the identity and language of Ukrainians without taking into account the rich and indeed complex history of the region.
After all, the ideology “Russian Peace” is used to destroy civil democracy, to educate new militarized generations in the Russian Federation, support separatist movements and legitimize external aggression.
This is Putin’s ideology, turned by him into a tool for promoting war.