Could Putin's Nationalist Crisis Lead Russia to Redraw its Borders?

The Russian leader is struggling to balance some of his country's most powerful social and historic forces.

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A masked activist carries Russia's nationalist flag in Moscow / Reuters

Don't look now, but Vladimir Putin, the man who wants to reclaim the Russian presidency in March, seems to be losing touch with one of his key constituencies - nationalists.

This development has several important implications for Russia, as well as for Russia's neighbors in Eurasia. It may improve the chances that Russia can find a balancing point between republican political ideals and nationalism, thus encouraging the development of a genuinely democratic nation-state. It just as easily may stimulate attempts to change Russia's current state borders, something that could have unpredictable repercussions.

In the aftermath of the November 2011 parliamentary election, which caused unprecedented public protests, Putin's authoritarian political model has lost a lot of its luster. Rampant official corruption and a significant spike in ethnic tension, generated by the presence of labor migrants in Russian cities, have helped fueled a sense of alienation among a broad swath of the population.

Hoping to reinvigorate his base, Putin published a lengthy article January 23 in the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, headlined Russia: The National Question. The piece is, at its core, campaign propaganda designed to persuade voters, especially Russian nationalists, that Putin's brand of nationalism offers the best way forward for Russia. Boiled down, it offers an eclectic mix of dated tenets of what can be called imperial, or civilizational nationalism, as well as a promise to strictly regulate labor migration.

For Putin, Russia is a "unique civilization" to which traditional notions of the nation-state do not apply. While he repeatedly has described Russia as a "multiethnic country," he also has argued that Russians are a "state-forming people" whose "great mission" is to "unite and bind" a unique civilization. While a multitude of ethnic groups may reside in Russia, "we are one people," united by "common culture and common values," according to Putin's vision. He doesn't specify the nature of these binding values.

Putin goes on to make the case that his authoritarian political model is the glue that keeps this unique civilization, in the form of the Russian Federation, together. As such, the prime minister/president-to-be makes it clear that no major policy changes are desirable, and that preserving the status quo provides the best guarantee for the country's long-term stability.

But if Putin believed the Nezavisimaya Gazeta piece would solidify his nationalist credentials, and mobilize nationalists behind him, he was sorely mistaken. Instead of placing Putin in the forefront of the nationalist movement in Russia, the article has shown the Kremlin to be behind the curve when it comes to current trends in nationalist ideology.

Nationalism in Russia has undergone a dramatic shift lately, one that Putin, apparently, has been slow to catch on to. Two competing strains of nationalism have always existed in the country - one that can be described as imperial, or statist nationalism, the other ethno-cultural. The first worshipped the state, its power and international prestige; the second glorified the nation, its culture and faith. Throughout Russian history, statists have tended to hold a pragmatic view of nationalism, seeing it mostly as an instrument to strengthen state institutions and bolster the authority of the ruling class. As such, statists have traditionally favored territorial expansion, followed by efforts to assimilate minority groups.

Radical ethnic nationalists, on the other hand, see no place for non-Russians in the state. This strain of nationalism, naturally, has caused particular problems for imperialists, whether they have been Russian tsars, Soviet commissars or Putinists advocating "managed democracy" and relying on energy policy to expand their influence in the near abroad.

In recent years, economic hardship has boosted the popularity of ethnic nationalism at the expense of the imperial variety. This trend is underscored by the growing popularity of the slogan "Russia for the Russians." Putin, who clearly aligns himself with the imperial school, has been reluctant to acknowledge this trend. Instead, he has tended to oversimplify the rise of ethnic nationalists, casting them as trouble-makers whose ideas could encourage the disintegration of the Russian Federation.

Another factor that Putin has been blind to is that the nationalist movement is more fragmented than ever. Some younger and better-educated imperial-nationalist thinkers have drifted away from worshipping the strong state, and have embraced democratic values. These modernists now are calling for the merger of nationalist and democratic principles, and are advocating the formation of a broad national-democratic movement to fight the ruling authoritarian regime.

Finally, another branch of Russian nationalists, somewhat aligned with ethno-cultural thinking, argues for the need to repudiate residual elements of imperial, messianic and neo-Eurasianist doctrines. They prefer to concentrate, as the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested, on the reconstruction of a Greater Russia.

Of course, what constitutes Greater Russia remains a tricky issue for all types of nationalists. Unlike imperial nationalists of Putin's generation, younger and more liberal-minded nationalists appear ready to accept the idea that the creation of a democratic Russian national state probably entails the redrawing of the country's borders. Some leading nationalist ideologues, such as Valery Solovei, foresee the secession of the Northern Caucasus, Russia's classical imperial possession, as well as the possible loss of other non-Russian territories "during our lifetime."

While Russia may shrink in some places, it could expand in others. Solzhenitsyn, for example, suggested in the early 1990s that Greater Russia should include northern Kazakhstan, an area with a large ethnic Russian population.

It's unlikely the developing split between Putin and a sizable portion of the nationalist movement will cost him the presidency. Despite the rising discontent with his governing style, he remains a virtual shoe-in to win in March. But with Putin doggedly clinging to his traditional imperial-nationalist views, there could be trouble for his administration lurking just over the horizon.

So long as genuine federalism in the Russian Federation remains absent, the state will be, in its essence, an imperial entity. Such a "mini-empire" as some commentators have called it can be ruled only undemocratically, with an unyielding Kremlin needed to keep both Russian ethnic nationalism and other ethnic nationalisms in check.

Putin has lashed out against the slogan "Russia for the Russians" and has warned that any attempts to set up region-based political parties will not be permitted. Such statements indicate that force will be necessary to maintain his vision of a "unique Russian civilization." But how forceful can Putin be, if a large number of nationalists, perhaps a majority, are not behind him?

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.