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From Belgrade to Kiev: The Hard-Line Nationalism and Russia’s Foreign Policy

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From Belgrade to Kiev:

The Hard-Line Nationalism and Russia’s Foreign Policy
By Andrei P. Tsygankov
In Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion in Russia, edited by Marlene Laruelle. London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 187-202.
Word count: 7,300

Throughout the post-Soviet era, a number of scholars and politicians predicted the rise of hard-line nationalism in Russia, which would then be reflected in radical changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. Despite multiple political crises in Russia, those predictions are yet to come true. Changes in leadership have not led to a fundamental revision of Russia’s national identity and interests, and various groups of hard-line opposition—from Gennadi Zyuganov’s Communist Party to Dmitri Rogozin’s Rodina—have remained marginalized in the national discourse.

This paper concentrates on attempts by hard-line nationalist (HLN) opposition to influence Russia’s foreign policy, and it asks why HLN has failed in to change the official course. The HLNs, or those who advocated restoration of an empire and international alliances against Western nations, have been active participants in foreign policy discussions and, indeed, have been successful in introducing and circulating a number of concepts, such as “geopolitics,” “Eurasia,” and “Athlanticism,” within the elite circles. Yet the practical impact of hard-liners has been rather modest. This could be explained by a combined effect of three forces that have undermined the appeal of the HLNs—Russia’s leadership, the general public, and policies of Western governments. The former two have found the hard-line initiatives to be financially costly and politically confrontational, and the latter remained engaged with Moscow thereby restraining aggressive nationalist reaction inside Russia.

The paper selects three foreign policy crises—Yugloslavia/ Kosovo in 1999, September 11, 2001, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, 2004—to investigate manifestation and causes of the HLN’s failure to challenge the official foreign policy course. These cases are sufficiently diverse and range in Russia’s material strength, interests of ruling coalition in power, and a nature of Russia-West interaction. Obviously, three cases are not sufficient to allow wide-ranging causal generalizations, but they are suggestive as to the proposed explanation and further investigation of the issue. The paper first sets a theoretical framework for understanding relationships between the HLN and foreign policy in Russia. It then explores the three selected cases in greater details and concludes by summarizing the argument and some of its implications.


National Identity, Coalition-Building, and Foreign Policy

What is the mechanism, through which nations develop their foreign policies? The key variable this paper emphasizes is national interpretation of the world challenges and its formulation into a dominant ideology. Adopted by the state, such ideology eventually becomes specified as a concept of national interest and guides policy makers in their practical decisions. Before it happens, however, a society goes through a process of contestation of various ideologies. At this stage, various ideologies compete for achieving hegemonic status or ability to shape public discourse. These ideologies hold different images regarding nation’s identity, nature of external world, and appropriate policy response. Promoted by various politico-economic coalitions in both public and private spaces, ideological contestation is especially intense until one of the available ideologies becomes predominant. Activities of political entrepreneurs, appropriate material and ideational resources, institutional arrangements and historical practices can considerably facilitate this process of persuading the general public and elites. When this persuasion part of the process is complete, the state appropriates dominant national ideology as a guide in policy making.1 Although many other factors and influences may interfere with a decision-making process, others being equal, one can expect a reasonable degree of policy consistency based on an adopted image of national identity.

The Soviet collapse of 1991 presented Russia’s new liberal leadership with an opportunity to fashion a pro-Western foreign policy course. President Boris Yelstin and his foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev pursued policies of strategic partnership and integration with the West and its institutions. Externally, they were inspired by the Western promises of support, and they expected to “join” the West within a few years. They saw the West’s victory in the Cold War as the promise and the opportunity of the new liberal era. Domestically, the Westernizing coalition included—in addition to liberal-minded leadership—intellectuals, human rights activists, and new pro-capitalist elites particularly those with export interests in the West. The new identity coalition pursued a revolutionary agenda of transforming the old Soviet institutions into those of a pro-Western nation-state. It seemed as if the new liberal identity was finally to be established in Russia.

Yet the new post-Soviet identity became deeply contested, and the liberal momentum did not last. Soon the pro-Western policies were met with a formidable opposition and replaced with promotion of state identity and interests. The new Statists acknowledged the necessity to build market economy and democratic institutions, but saw those as subjected to the main objective of strengthening the state. The new Statist coalition included military industrialists, the army, and the security services—those who only saw marginal benefits in adopting the “Western” model. Led by presidential advisor Sergei Stankevich and then the Chief of Foreign Intelligence Yevgeni Primakov, the new Statists insisted that the national interest had not changed in a principal way and still had to do with defending Russia’s great power status. Over time, this reasoning proved to win the support of elites and masses, and the state had to adopt the Statist concept of national identity. Primakov—now Russia’s newly-appointed foreign minister—argued for more restrained relations with the West and for a more “balanced” and “diverse” foreign policy. Primakov believed that Russia’s new liberal values did not abolish the need to maintain a status of a distinct Eurasianist great power, and he proposed that Russia develop a strategic alliance with China and India.

The arrival of Vladimir Putin as the new president signaled yet another change in policies and a renewed interest to engaging the West. Although Putin insisted on Russia’s priority to preserve great power status, his strategy of achieving this objective differed from that of Primakov considerably. Instead of continuing the policy of balancing against the West, Putin explicitly sided with Europe and the United States and insisted that Russia was a country of European and Western, rather than Asian, identity.

Therefore, Westernizers lost their battle, but not to ideologies of the hard-line orientation. The HLN advocated a full-fledged imperial restoration and Soviet-like security alliances (see below for elaboration); instead, relatively moderate Statists came to dominate in the national discourse and shape the country’s international policies. Statists were able to defeat alternative ideologies because of the historic power of the Statist identity and several domestic and external developments that played to strengthen the new discourse. Domestically, Statists benefited politically from the failure of Westernist radical economic reform. Externally, newly emerged instabilities and conflicts in the former Soviet republics and inside the country (Chechnya) in the early-mid 1990s made it extremely difficult for Westernizers to sustain their policies of disengagement from the periphery. Importantly, the West—Russia’s significant Other—greatly strengthened the Statist discourse by making a decision to expand NATO eastward and excluding Russia from the process. This strengthened the sense that Russia was not being accepted by the West as one of its own, and Westernizers lost public support in order to reduce the power of Statists.

On the other hand, the HLN ideas did not come as particularly attractive to the elites or larger society. The mainstream political class typically viewed these ideas as dangerous and extravagant to be implemented. The society, too, had little faith in the imperialist policies. The HLN therefore remained relatively marginalized in the Russian discourse.
The HLN and Its Foreign Policy Beliefs

A broad group that united communists and supporters of a more ethnically homogenous Russia, or the so called alliance of “red” and “white” nationalists, the HLNs differed from both Westernizers and Statists in their core beliefs. In particular, the HLN groups consistently advocated restoration of a West-independent empire through international alliances against Western nations. Neither Westernizers, nor Statists were committed to a similar zero-sum vision. The former supported integration into Western politico-economic institutions, and the latter were planning a limited cooperation with Western nations for the sake of rebuilding Russia’s economy and material capabilities (please see table 1 for comparison of the groups’ views).


The end of the USSR did not change the HLNs, who still refused to part with the core principles of the Soviet society. One group—National Communists—was merging some old communist ideas with those of nationalism and was particularly influenced by Joseph Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country,” which acknowledged the need for Russia to focus on developing military and economic capabilities within the Soviet boundaries. The most active promoter of this group’ ideas was Gennadi Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party of Russian Federation.2 Another HLN group referred to itself as Eurasianists, and viewed the world in terms of geopolitical struggle between land-based and sea-based powers. Unlike National Communists who portrayed themselves as adherents to conservative beliefs such as religion and social stability, Eurasianists argued that conservatism was not enough and advocated the notion of a “conservative revolution” and geopolitical expansion.3 While National Communists had no ambitions beyond restoring the Soviet Union, Eurasianists wanted to build a larger geopolitical axis of allies—such as Germany, Iran, and Japan—in order to resist the American influences. They attracted some support from hard-line military and nationalist political movements, such as Vladimir Zhirinovski’s Liberal Democratic Party. Other less influential hard-line groups insisted on Russia’s imperial restoration based on principles of Orthodoxy and Slavic unity.4

The HLN groups attacked official foreign policy course as serving the interests of the West at the expense of Russia. To them, Russia’s national interest was, almost by definition, anti-Western. They had no regard for market economy and political democracy and viewed Russia’s institutions as diametrically opposed to those of the West. The West’s liberalism, they argued, was nothing more than U.S.-based unipolarity in making. Russia’s adequate response should include rebuilding military capabilities, reforming the economy following the Chinese gradual state-oriented style, and preserving control over Eurasia or the post-Soviet world. In the words of the conservative periodical Molodaya gvardiya, “The historical task before Russia and other nations of the world is not to allow for the 21st century to becoming the American century.”5

When Statists defeated Westernizers, the HLN groups welcomed the new course and the second Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov’s concept of multipolar world. Yet they challenged Primakov to go farther in resisting Western influences and to adopt a more radical notion of multipolarity. The new minister planned to pursue a moderate course and consolidate Russia’s position by cooperating with the West, where possible, and by avoiding confrontation, where such cooperation was not an option. Aware of the scarcity of available resources, he saw a multipolar world as a desired objective, rather than a fact of life. To the HLNs, on the other hand, the notion of great power implied restoration of the Soviet Union, and multipolarity meant isolation from and competition with the West.6 To them, Russia was a unique civilization that must be isolated from the West to survive and preserve its uniqueness. For example, Zyuganov never made his peace with the dissolution of the Soviet empire insisting that the Soviet Union was a “natural” geopolitical form of “historic” Russia, whereas the current political boundaries of the country are “artificial” and imposed by the West through covert actions. To “return” to the world politics and build a genuinely multipolar world, Russia must accomplish politico-economic autarchy (samodostatochnost’) and enter a strategic alliance with China.7 What Statists saw as Russia’s special geographical and ethnic features, the HLNs developed into the principal line of cultural confrontation with the West.


Throughout the post-Soviet era, the HLN groups sought to challenge existing foreign policy course. This section considers in greater details how nationalist opposition attempted to influence Moscow’s handling of three foreign policy crises—Yugloslavia/ Kosovo in 1999, September 11, 2001, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, 2004. In each of the identified cases, hard-liners had their distinct foreign policy preferences, which differed sharply from those of other political groups. In Kosovo case, nationalists wanted Russia to provide military assistance to Serbia, rather than limit its role to negotiations. In the post-9/11 context, their preference was for building a strong alliance with China and SCO at the expense of relationships with the United States. Finally, in case of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the HLN groups favored severing all official contacts and supporting separatist trends inside Ukraine with the idea of making its leadership to comply with Russia’s demands (please see table 2 for a comparative summary of their positions).


Three factors are helpful in understanding why the HLN groups proved unable to challenge either Westernist or Statist official foreign policies. First, the general public was preoccupied with issues of economy and domestic security and unwilling to support any foreign policy adventures at the expense of domestic reconstruction. Second, and related, a generally pragmatic Russia’s leadership was well aware of the country’s limited resources and needs to cooperate with Western nations. Finally, the West itself, despite a number of steps perceived by Russians as containing their influence, generally abstained from hard-line actions toward Russia. Over time, this helped to keep the HLN groups at bay and limited their potential appeal in Russia.

Yugoslavia / Kosovo, 1999

As soon as NATO had launched its air strike on Yugoslavia, it became the central issue of Russian foreign policy. Despite a number of important disagreements between Russia and the West about ways of handling Balkan affairs, the decision to intervene militarily came as a shock to Russia’s mainstream foreign policy community. This is illustrated by Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov’s decision to cancel the upcoming negotiations with the US and the IMF in Washington on March 24, 1999. Although his airplane had already approaching the US, he ordered it to return back home. Russia’s official policy toward the resolution of the conflict in Yugoslavia was to insist that the war to be stopped as soon as possible and a settlement with Yugoslavia to be reached by political, and not by military means. Yeltsin’s government was ready to contribute to the peace negotiations by serving as a mediator between NATO and Yugoslavia. It empowered Yevgeni Primakov and, later, Victor Chernomyrdin to serve as Russia’s envoys in the search for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

The HLN position was strikingly different. In their view, the efforts of the West in Yugoslavia had nothing to do with human rights and a “humanitarian catastrophe” but merely a rhetorical device for covering up the intentions to establish a US-led global dictatorship. Zyuganov argued that NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia was not accidental and that “Serbia down on its knees [had to] signify the final triumph of the Pax Americana, the American model of a unipolar world.”8 He went on to identify four major goals of the West in the Balkans: dismemberment of Yugoslavia into several independent states along ethnic and religious lines; suppression of Serbian attempts to reintegrate Yugoslavia; establishment of a pro-NATO and pro-American regime in Yugoslavia; and imposition of liberal, pro-American values on Yugoslavian people. The Pax Americana, as portrayed by the HLN groups, has sever consequences for Russia, namely the end of sovereignty as an international institution, and therefore of Russia as a sovereign state. Under such conditions, Russia was presented as having no choice by to get involved on the Serbian side. According to this line of reasoning, Serbia is viewed as a western pillar of a great Eurasian continent, traditionally controlled by Russia. By attacking Serbia, the West had therefore attacked Russia. Russia’s involvement, this school acknowledged, may have meant the beginning of world war three, but Russia was not the one to start it: Russia simply exhausted all other options in the attempt to survive in this increasingly Western-dominated world.9

The so-called Munich analogy served as a foundation for arguing the HLN case for Russia’s military involvement in the conflict. Various nationalist writers drew a historical parallel with the beginning of world war two in 1939. At that time, it was argued, Western European countries made a deal with Hitler and gave up Czechoslovakia only to open the way to an invasion of Poland. And when Hitler did invade Poland, the allies chose to appease by declining any real assistance to the Polish government and hoping that this would stop the aggressor. The Munich analogy has been brought up in the Western press and by Western politicians as well, implying the need to punish Milosevic’s hegemonic ambitions.10 According to Russia’s hard-liners, however, NATO’s actions were equated with those of Hitler, not those of Serbia. In their view, NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia was comparable with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which implied that the “small victorious war on the Balkans” had a strong likelihood to develop into a worldwide war, as did the 1939 attack on Poland. The lesson here, they argue, is that for Russia the only way to stop a world war (and the eventual invasion of Russia itself) would be to demonstrate the strength and readiness to go to war with an aggressor, and not to appease him.

With such an attitude, it is not surprising that the HLNs came out strongly in favor of establishing a union between Russia and Yugoslavia11 and against Chernomyrdin’s efforts to mediate the crisis. To them, Chernomyrdin was not merely someone who had been “deceived” by the West; he was a “traitor” who was purposefully selling out Russia to the West.12 Whereas more moderates observers emphasized a need not to demonize or punish members of NATO, but rather to help them to correct the “Yugoslavia mistake,”13 the hard-liners insisted on punishing NATO as the “aggressor.” They proposed reparations to the “victims of the aggression”, indicting NATO as an international criminal, posing the question of outlawing and disbanding NATO at the U.N., and condemning NATO’s ideology of Atlanticism as the one serving the purpose of an aggression.

None of the HLN demands had materialized. In practice, despite repeated failures to negotiate a cease-fire by Primakov and Chernomyrdin, Moscow seemed determined to carry on with its mediation efforts and insisted that staying closely involved, rather than isolating itself from resolution of the conflict was the most appropriate policy. Russia continued its peace-making efforts even when in late May the international court issued an indictment against Milosevic and de facto refused to negotiate with an “international criminal,” thereby delivering what was domestically perceived as a major blow to the Chernomyrdin’s peace efforts. At the time, the widespread perception in Russia was that the West was getting ready for sending ground troops to Yugoslavia. Chernomyrdin issued a warning that Russia may stop its mediating efforts, should NATO do so.14 The allies, however, stopped short of sending troops. The Russian peace efforts continued and in early June, with Chernomyrdin’s pressure, Serbia finally accepted the Kosovo plan. The war was over.

Despite the HLN pressures, Moscow managed the crisis successfully and on its own terms. One reason for that was that it had the necessary public support for negotiations as the appropriate strategy. The public simply had no stomach for foreign policy adventurism. Despite the ninety percent opposition to NATO bombings of Belgrade and the overwhelming sense of threat by the alliance actions,15 Russia had a firm sense that domestic priorities of economic and social recovery were too important to ignore. Russia’s pragmatic leadership generally reflected those public feelings. Yelstin had no plans of throwing his support for Serbia’s side. Using the West’s interest in Russia’s involvement, he dispatched Primakov to formulate tough conditions for ending the war, which included guarantees for Yugoslavia’s preserved sovereignty, a broad autonomy for Kosovo, and the U.N. assuming leadership in the post-war settlement. The fact that it was the Statist-minded Primakov, and not a Westernizer, empowered to mediate the conflict also contributed to ameliorating the HLN-promoted sentiments of national betrayal.

The Western role in Russia’s successful management of the conflict and bringing it to an end was hardly a significant one. If anything, the Western intervention in Yugoslavia and unwillingness to accept a number of Russia’s negotiating positions made it more difficult for Russia’s leadership to resist the HLN pressures. Ultimately, the peace was reached more on Western than Russia’s terms. Out of fear of further Russia-West political escalation, Yeltsin dismissed Primakov as the key negotiator and replaced him with former Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, who was much too pro-Western and inexperienced in foreign affairs to negotiate the peace that Primakov had in mind. In early June, with Chernomyrdin’s pressures, Serbia finally accepted the conditions for peace, but Russia’s initial conditions had not been honored. As one Russian observer described the outcomes of the war, “Russia took part in Yugoslavia’s acceptance of the same NATO conditions that it had previously called unacceptable.”16 By the time of Yeltsin’s dismissal of Primakov, it was already too late for HLN opposition to do anything about it.

September 11, 2001

Immediately after September 11, President Putin offered the United States broad support for antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan. The measures included intelligence sharing, opening Russian airspace to relief missions, taking part in search-and-rescue operations, rallying Central Asian countries to the American cause, and arming anti-Taliban forces inside Afghanistan.17 At the same time, Putin emphasized the significance of the United Nations in defeating terrorism worldwide, maintaining that he would not commit Russian troops to operations inside Afghanistan because the Russian Constitution proscribed such operations and the United Nations had yet to authorize them.18 Despite the risks involved,19 Putin became far more active in promoting Russia’s relationships with the United States and Europe, and more passive on the Eastern or Asian orientation. His support for the concept of multipolarity became more muted; instead, the emphasis was on pragmatism and self-concentration in foreign policy.

The HLN groups sought to issue a strong challenge to what they saw as a new pro-American liberal course. Consistently with their critique of Western actions in Yugoslavia, they insisted that the West’s role in the world was primarily destructive, and that was why the tragedy of September 11 took place. Even though the United States was attacked, the broader responsibility for the terrorist attacks lied on the West and forces of a transnational economic and military nature, rather than those the Third World.20 9/11 was therefore indicative of nothing less than a part of an epical struggle for liberation from the unipolar/unicultural ambitions of the Western civilizations, a world in which Russia had a duty to side overtly with anti-Western and especially anti-American forces. Much like President Bush, the HLNs viewed the post-September 11 world in terms of struggle between “good” and “evil,” except they found themselves on the other side of the barricade. Alexandr Panarin summarized the views of the school:

“We are at war. This war cannot disappear and will be repeated tomorrow, because the spiritual situation of the time remains the same. The new language of the West is a language of war … Therefore, by providing military bases for attacks on Afghanistan, Russia in fact attacked its own cultural identity and its own people, who had no desire to be “democratized” otherwise, without an American intervention.”21

To win in this struggle, the HLN recommended building a broad coalition of anti-American cultures and civilizations. Among these cultures and civilizations, some saw an alliance of Russia and Muslim countries as having the strongest potential of successfully resisting Western modernity and hegemonic policies. Others added to the alliance China and even, potentially, Germany.

The domestic context for the HLN arguments seemed somewhat favorable. The country’s most traumatic post-communist experience and the failure of Gorbachev’s and the early Yeltsin’s attempts to develop a strategic partnership with the West made the Russian political class, military, media, and general public skeptical of the new efforts at rapprochement. At least three major issues drew public attention. First, many politicians and military officers pointed to the unilateral U.S. decision to develop a national missile defense system and abandon the ABM treaty, which they continued to view as a cornerstone of strategic stability. Second, there was still the issue of NATO’s expansion, often perceived as an essentially anti-Russian process. In addition, there was a concern over U.S. and NATO troops’ presence in the Central Asian states, which are in the immediate geographic proximity to Russia. Because all these issues were in the spotlight of attention, few factions in the Russian Duma initially supported Putin’s decision to side with the United States after 9/11. Russia’s Muslim leaders reacted critically to the American military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of special importance was a series of published “open letters” signed by retired generals, including one of Yeltsin’s former defense ministers, accusing Putin of “selling out” the country and “betraying” the nation’s vital interests.22

The HLN opposition, however, did not prevail in imposing on Putin an essentially anti-Western foreign policy. The President sought to engage Western nations in project of common significance, such as cooperation in energy and counter-terrorism, and to frame Russia’s interests as consistent with strategic commitments to Western values, such as international law, personal freedoms, and market economy. Putin’s Russia wanted to be a normal great power or the one recognized by the outside world. Despite existence of important disagreements with Western nations, the new leadership managed to capitalize on growing world oil prices and to considerably improve relations with the United States and Europe. Russia also worked hard to strengthen its ties in the East and developed a number of ambitious projects with China, India, Iran, and other nations outside the West. However, against the HLN hopes, European and Western priorities remained most powerfully represented in Russia’s foreign policy.

The three above-suggested factors help to understand the failure of HLN groups to challenge Russia’s post-9/11 course. First, there the general public was hardly supportive of issuing an explicit challenge to the West. After the terrorist attacks on the United States, Russians, in fact, felt a strong sympathy toward Americans partly because Russians too had experienced a number of terrorist attacks. In general, as most polls indicate, the mood was largely against foreign policy grandeur and in favor of Putin’s pragmatism and focus on economic modernization.

This leads us to the second crucial factor—Putin’s foreign policy vision—which was consistent with the public perception. Putin picked up where Primakov left off and remained focused on the objective of preserving great power status. Yet, the new leader abandoned the old strategy of achieving the objective. Multipolar world and post-Soviet integration—key tenets of Primakov’s thinking—were replaced with more pragmatic means of asserting Russia’s interests in global politics. For Putin, the most important national interest was Russia’s modernization and economic growth, not balancing American influences in the world. Such perspective implied that Russia had to economize its resources and not overstretch itself in world political affairs. Balancing, therefore, needed to yield to pragmatism. That, too, corresponded with the public views, which included preservation of Russia as a strong power. For instance, in November 2001—immediately after the terrorist attacks on the United States and at the time when Russians felt a strong sympathy toward Americans—only thirty percent agreed with the statement that cooperation with the West was the main condition of Russia’s economic prosperity. At the same time, sixty-one percent supported the idea that it first was necessary to develop the economy and only then to improve ties with the West.23

Finally, Putin’s popularity and ability to isolate the HLN groups became possible due to changes that had taken place on the international arena and the West’s grown support for Russia’s actions. One critical development had to do with the relative recovery of Russian economy after the August 1998 financial crisis and new opportunities that the recovery was promising for the country. In addition, it was not only Russians who felt a greater sympathy for Americans because of the terrorist attacks on the United States; America and the West, too, developed a greater appreciation for Russia’s struggle with terrorism in Chechnya. The 9/11 attacks created a principally different social and political atmosphere inside the country. President George W. Bush proclaimed terrorism to be “pure evil” directed at freedom-loving people throughout the world and argued the necessity to launch the strategy of preemption. In Russia, these developments provided Putin with a formidable opportunity to bolster his domestic and international posture and to vindicate his conception of foreign policy. The new Russia’s president wasted no time in taking advantage of September 11 for reshaping Russia’s relations with the United States and redefining the threats to Russia as those of global terrorism in nature.

The Orange Revolution, 2004

In November 2004 under pressure from both Ukrainian opposition and the West, the results of rigged presidential elections were renounced. In the course of the so-called Orange revolution, Kremlin’s favored candidate, Victor Yanukovich, was subsequently defeated, and Russia lost his sought-after political influence.

The HLNs believed that Russia had a considerable leverage over Ukraine and that, in order for Moscow to rebuild its political and economic dominance in the region, such leverage had to be exercised aggressively. Since the hard-liners perceived Russia to be destined to oppose the West’s influences across the globe, they saw few things off limits when it came to restoring Russia’s power. The HLN groups insisted, in particular, on applying power in a coercive manner against politically “disloyal” states, such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Applying economic sanctions, supplying arms to secessionist territories, recognizing their claims to independence, granting citizenships to those supporting the idea of re-unification with Russia, and cracking down on labor migrants from the ex-republics are some of the tools recommended by the group to the Kremlin for keeping American influences at bay.24 Some supporters of the view, such as Stanislav Belkovski proposed revising the Russian Constitution and transforming Russia from a “nation-state” into a “nation-civilization.”25

In line with their policy vision, the HLNs recommend that Putin apply economic sanctions or support separatism in Ukraine after the Orange revolution. After the nullification of Yanukovich’s victory in the first presidential election, the eastern regions of Ukraine, particularly Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea, vowed to pursue greater autonomy from Kiev, and Russia’s nationalist State Duma members and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov visited eastern Ukraine to express their support for Yanukovich and for regional autonomy. Such autonomy claims could be manipulated to become a factor in Russian-Ukrainian high politics. Soon after the arrival of Yushchenko to power, Russia’s hard-line nationalists recommended backing all political movements aimed at decentralization and federalization of Ukraine, pressuring Kiev into making Russian a second state language, and providing greater support to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is canonically subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate.26

However, the Kremlin did not follow the advice of the hard-liners in handling the crisis and developing relationships with new Ukrainian leadership. Moscow sought an asymmetrical response. Immediately before the anticipated victory of Victor Yushchenko, Putin issued a statement welcoming any winner in Ukraine’s re-run of its presidential election and asserted that Russia had no objections to Ukraine’s joining the European Union. Rather than coercing and applying pressures, the Kremlin planned to co-opt Yushchenko by mobilizing Russia’s soft power and the two nations’ economic, cultural, and institutional interdependence.27 At no point, has Russia tried to support separatist trends in the Eastern Ukraine. Sanctions, too, were excluded from the Kremlin’s arsenal. The Russia-Ukraine gas dispute can hardly qualify as an example of sanctions on Russia’s part. Rather, it was a dispute about correcting a heavily-distorted price structure, with Moscow working to reduce the amount of subsidies to the Ukrainian economy and Kiev, understandably, resisting the effort. The results of negotiations satisfied both sides, which also suggests that Russia had no intention of “punishing Orange Ukraine,” let alone destroying its economy.

In his further response to the challenge of new democratic revolutions in the former Soviet world, he put forward the doctrine of “continuing the civilizational role of the Russian nation in Eurasia.”28 Without ever mentioning the word “Ukraine” in his entire speech delivered to the Federation Council in March 2005, Putin called for promoting freedom in the region, “Russia, traditionally linked with the former Soviet republics, and now newly independent states, by history, the Russian language and great culture, cannot stay away from the common striving for freedom.”29 According to the president, what Russia seeks, is not the post-Soviet states’ territory or natural resources, but the human dignity and the quality of life of its citizens, whom Russia regards as its own cultural compatriots.30

What helps to account for Putin’s cautious, non-confrontational response as a way of responding to the HLN pressures is a combination of the domestic public attitude, the President’s personal convictions, and the West’s relatively muted, non-antagonizing behavior after the Orange revolution. Although the general public in Russia overwhelmingly supported Yanukovich,31 breaking economic and cultural ties with Ukraine by applying political pressures was not the dominant mood. Ukraine occupies a very special place in hearts of many Russians, who continue to believe that brothers will find a common language without resorting to coercion and blackmail.

Putin’s pragmatism was particularly important in resolving the crisis. His preferences for a winner in Ukrainian elections were similar to those of the HLN groups, which helped to defuse their public appeal. Putin supported a candidate whom he perceived as pro-Russian, and he challenged Western leaders not to “meddle” in Ukrainian elections. He attributed the crisis to the West’s heavy involvement in the elections and he was eager to continue to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine, having to do with the presence of the Russian fleet in Crimea, conditions for ethnic Russians and for Russian business. This type of connection with the nationalist public remained an important part of Putin’s Statist foreign policy.

Yet it was mainly his pragmatic attitude and high public ratings that helped him to ignore the HLN’s advise in pushing through his vision of dealing with Ukraine. His support for Yanukovich never amounted to an effort to build a new empire or to incorporate Ukraine into Russia. Kremlin did not seek to incorporate Ukraine, just as previously he had not sought to incorporate Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Belarus, countries that had held similarly flawed elections. Although the Russian president badly miscalculated Yanukovich’s chances of winning, and although he provided strong support for his election,32 Putin was never willing to sacrifice his relations with the West over the crisis in Ukraine, and he did not let his readiness to stand for Russia’s strategic interests to be turned into confrontation. The fact that the Western officials abstained from publicly accusing Moscow of “imperialism”, let alone taking practical steps to contain Russia, also assisted Putin in preserving his generally cautious approach to Ukraine.

In all the three cases, the HLN groups failed to change the official course because of a critical role played by Russia’s leadership. In case of NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia, Yelstin’s initial choice of the Statist-minded and the West-critical Primakov as Russia’s official mediator between Belgrade and the West helped to diffuse the appeal of the hard-line opposition. After the 9/11 the leadership’s role was different, and it was to engage the United States in projects of common significance, such as fighting terrorism and developing energy cooperation. Here, at least initially, Putin was successful in framing his support for the United States as consistent with Russia’s own national priorities. Finally, the Statist-minded Putin was cautious and non-confrontational in responding to defeat of his favorite candidate in Ukraine, and he disappointed the HLNs by not severing contacts with Kiev’s new leadership and not encouraging separatist trends inside Ukraine. Although Yelstin’s and Putin’s visions of national identity differed, they each demonstrated sufficient prudence and exercised restrain in their policies.

Two additional factors—public support and role of the West—played different yet important role in assisting Russia’s leadership in its at times difficult job of restraining the HLNs. While the domestic public was generally behind the leadership’s unwillingness to get involved in any policy grandeur, much less of an anti-Western nature, the West’s role was a more complicated one. In general, Western leaders demonstrated their commitment to engaging, rather than isolating, Russia and attempted to assist Moscow in its difficult transition from the communist system. Yet such engagement has been modest. The majority of political class in Western nations continued to mistrust Russia well after the Soviet disintegration and showed interest mainly in reducing nuclear threats coming from the region.

This helps to understand why the West never introduced anything remotely similar to the Marshall plan after the Second World War and, instead, decided to expand NATO to Russia’s borders and acted as if Moscow was no longer as important to consult on vital world politics issues. Western nations’ decision to intervene in Yugoslavia was especially damaging to credibility of Russia’s leadership at home because it provided HLNs with the sought ammunition against the “hegemonic” West. During the Orange Revolution, Western nations sought to prevent Russia’s meddling in Ukrainian domestic politics yet their own role in supporting Victor Yushchenko through State Department statements about “unacceptability of the elections’ results” and involvement of various non-governmental organizations could hardly be described as a position of neutral observers. However, Western leaders abstained from harsh rhetoric toward Russia, and they sought to re-engage Moscow in resolving the crisis in Ukraine. The West’s role was most helpful in the post-9/11 context, when the United States began to treat Russia as an important member of an international anti-terrorist coalition.

The last point reinforces the wisdom that the West ought to devise a strategy of a more consistent and robust engagement with the Kremlin if the key objective is to deprive the HLN groups of any opportunity to control Russia’s policy agenda. The West remains a key reference point for Russia, and any attempts to ignore it or perceptions of Moscow’s actions as threatening are likely to lead to a more defiant, not a more cooperative, Russia. Despite efforts of pragmatic leadership in Moscow, such attempts may get Russia off track politically by improving the position of authoritarian nationalist forces and providing a “proof” that the West is really interested to strip Russia of its international status, not to strengthen its currently weak democratic institutions. Against best intentions, lack of engagement strengthens anti-Western nationalism and pushes Russia further away from the Western nations.
7,253 words

Table 1. Foreign Policy Images of Russia’s Elites




Foreign policy



with the West


Great power status

Cultural independence

Foreign policy methods


with the West

Flexible alliances

Alliances against

the West

Table 2. Foreign Policy Expectations of Russia’s Elites: Specific Issues




Yugoslavia intervention

Negotiations on

behalf of the West

Negotiations on

Russia’s terms

Military assistance for Yugoslavia


Partnership with

the West

Pragmatic cooperation

with the West

Alliance with China and SCO

No cooperation with the United States

The Orange Revolution


No support

Cooperation by necessity

No support

No cooperation
Economic sanctions
Support for separatism


1 I build here on my previous work. See especially, Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

2 See especially Gennadi Zyuganov, Drama vlasti (Moskva: Paleya, 1993), Rossiya i sovremennyi mir (Moskva: “Obozrevatel’”, 1995), and Geografiya pobedy (Moskva, 1998).

3 Aleksandr Dugin, Konservativnaya revolyutsiya (Moskva: Arktogeya, 1994) and Osnovy geopolitiki (Moskva: Arktogeya, 1997).

4 For important classifications of Russia’s nationalism, see Peter J. Duncan, Russian Messianism: Third Rome, Holy Revolution, Communism and After (London: Routledge, 2000); Astrid S. Tuminez, Russian Nationalism since 1856: Ideology and the Making of Foreign Policy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

5 Nikolay Fon Kreitor, “Stoletiye novogo mira,” Molodaya gvardiya 6, 1998. See also Natalya Narochnitskaya, “Natsional’nyi interes Rossiyi,” Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn’ 3-4, 1992; Aleksandr Khatsankov, “Gorchakov—koshmar Kozyreva,” Den’ August 8-14, 1992; El’giz Pozdnyakov, “Geopoliticheski kollaps i Rossiya,” Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn’ 8-9, 1992.

6 For instance, the Ministry of Defense officials, such as General Leonid Ivashov, for quite some time dreamed of restoring Russia’s superpower status (“Rossiya mozhet snova stat’ sverkhderzhavoi,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 7, 1995).

7 Gennadi Zyuganov, Geografiya pobedy (Moskva: Unknown publisher, 1998).

8 This section relies heavily on my “Final Trimph of the Pax Americana? Western Intervention in Yugoslavia and Russia’s Debate On the Post-Cold War Order,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 33, 3, 2001.

9 In fact many national communists and expansionists would argue that the West has already launched such a war, and in this war, new information (rather than military) technologies are being used against Russia in order to demoralize and eliminate it as an independent civilization (See, for example, Shamil’ Sultanov, “Tretiya mirovaya voina,” Zavtra, February 1996).

10 In the West, the Yugoslav president and Serbs were implicitly identified with Hitler and Nazi Germans.

11 Communist-minded deputies of Russian Duma Gennadi Seleznev, Nikolai Rizhkov, Sergei Baburin and others went to Belgrade and signed an agreement with Milosevic supporting establishment of a common union.

12 In the early June, after Chernomyrdin’s efforts had resulted in the peace agreement, communist-minded politicians and State Duma deputies Gennadi Zyuganov, Nikolai Ryzhkov and Nikolai Kharitonov issued a public statement, in which they condemned Chernomyrdin for what they perceived as a unilateral acceptance of NATO conditions. They also demanded to investigate Chernomyrdin’s “treacherous” activities.

13 Sovet po Vneshnei i Oboronnoi politike, “Statement on Yugoslavia,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 12, 1999.

14 Nezavisimaia gazeta, May 28, 1999.

15 Oksana Antonenko, “Russia, NATO and European Security after Kosovo,” Survival 41, 4, 1999/2000, 143.

16 Aleksei Pushkov, “Sindrom Chernomyrdina,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 11, 1999.

17 Putin, “Zayavleniye Prezidenta Rossiyskoi Federatsiyi.” September 24, 2001.

18 Michael Wines, “Putin Offers Support to U.S. for Its Antiterrorist Efforts,” New York Times, September 25, 2001.

19 Domestically, only fifteen percent of the membership of the Russian Duma supported Putin’s move, and it was equally controversial in the army (“Putin policy shift is bold but risky,” Financial Times Survey, April 15, 2002).

20 See, for example, Aleksandr Panarin, “Ontologiya terrora,” in: Geopolitika terrora (Moskva: «Arktogeya» tsentr, 2002), 46; Aleksandr Prokhanov, “Ameriku potseloval angel smerti,” Zavtra, September 18, 2001; Dugin, “Terakty 11 Sentyabrya: economicheski smysl,” in: Geopolitika terrora.

21 Panarin, “Ontologiya terrora,” 48-49.

22 Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen, “Endangering US Security,” Nation, April 15, 2002.

23 Vladimir A. Kolossov and Natalya A. Borodullina, “Rossiya i Zapad: mneniye rossiyan,” Russia in Global Affairs 1, 2003.

24 See, for example, Stanislav Belkovski, “Posle imperiyi,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, May 18, 2004; Igor Torbakov, “Moscow Analysts Mull Proper Strategy Toward Post-Revolutionary Ukraine,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 11, 2005

25 “Kremlin Said to Be Working on New Constitution,” RFE/RL Newsline, February 9, 2005.

26 Torbakov, Op. Cit.

27 Russian-Ukranian interdependence has been well documented. See, for instance, Paul J. D’Anieri, Economic Interdependence in Ukrainian-Russian Relations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999); Andrei P. Tsygankov, Pathways after Empire: National Identity and Foreign Economic Policy in the Post-Soviet World (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); Mikhail A. Molchanov, Political Culture and National Identity in Russian-Ukrainian Relations (Austin: Texas University Press, 2002).

28 Vladimir Putin, “Address to the Federation Council,” March 2005

29 Ibid.

30 In this same speech, Putin also called for granting Russian citizenship to legal aliens from the FSU. The newly appointed head of the Kremlin’s special department for Interregional and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries Modest Kolerov elaborated on the last point in his interview (See Modest Kolerov, “Vse byvshiye grazhdane SSSR—nashi sootechestvenniki,” Politicheski klass, No. 10, 2005)

31 Levada-Tsentr, “Ukrainskiye sobytiya glazami rossiyan,” December 16, 2004 .

32 Europe and the United States, in their turn, did not limit themselves to political statements about the “unacceptability” of the election’s results—a step in itself unprecedented in the light of their previously much calmer reaction to considerably less fair elections in Central Asia and Caucasus. Through activities of various NGOs, the West also provided considerable financial assistance for Yushchenko’s campaign.

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