On the genesis of a geopolitical concept and its effects on Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin justified the annexation of Crimea by evoking the concept of a “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir). He spoke of Russians as living in a “divided nation” and highlighted the “aspiration of the Russian world, of historic Russia, for the restoration of unity.” He also stressed the existence of a “broad Russian civilization,” which has to be protected from external forces (particularly from the West) and which he defines as the sphere of Russian interests.
A Deliberate Development since the late 1990s
According to the DGAP’s Ukraine expert Wilfried Jilge, Putin’s intensive evocation of the idea of Russkiy Mir in 2014 was by no means a momentary manifestation during the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The concept was devised by intellectuals, academics, and journalists close to the Kremlin around 1995–2000 and publicly introduced into political discourse by Putin in 2001. In the years that followed, pro-Kremlin policy makers systematically connected the concept to their efforts to legitimize domestic and foreign policy. They applied it to a range of dimensions: ideological, political, identity-based, and geopolitical. With the establishment of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, the term was securely entrenched in Russia’s public discourse.
Via its cultural centers abroad, the foundation ostensibly serves to promote Russian language and culture and help foster cultural dialogue with foreign countries, building a foundation for Russian cultural policy. Jilge pointed out, however, that the foundation soon emphasized the idea of an “imagined community” – a “Russian world” – that defined itself in national and cultural terms to include both Russians in Russia and their “Russian-speaking compatriots” abroad.
An “Empire of Diaspora”
The concept consciously relativizes the borders between nations states and is used to justify the “protective” role of the Russian Federation toward Russian-speaking minorities abroad, especially in the states of the former Soviet Union. By setting itself off clearly from “the West” and cloaking its version of Russian nationalism in a “civilizing” form, Russkiy Mir claims to be based not primarily on ethnicity but rather on an essentialist, mythical ideal of Russian language and culture. According to Jilge, “speaking Russian” is thereby equated with “acting like a Russian” and “thinking like a Russian,” which goes hand in hand with tendencies to exclude in nationalist terms.
Geopolitically Russkiy Mir was conceived as a Russian “diaspora empire,” with particular importance continually placed on the “Russian enclaves” in its “near abroad” – that is, on the European countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova (and those areas with large Russian-speaking populations, such as Crimea, the Donbas, and Transnistria).
Novorossiya: The Concept of "New Russia"
Jilge reported that the idea of Russkiy Mir has been and remains colored by Russian-orthodox and Slavophile tendencies, as distinct from the strictly geopolitical notion of “neo-Eurasianism.” Certainly, the Russian Orthodox Church has played a significant role. Closely cooperating with the state government, it has established itself as an important dispenser of Russkiy Mir ideology, focusing its rhetoric on the “sacred” East Slavic orthodox community of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians and evoking the old idea of Holy Russia. In doing so, it deliberately conveys the impression that Russians and Ukrainians are basically the same nation – that Ukrainians do not really form an independent nation.
The idea of Russkiy Mir, Jilge said, was politically radicalized with the appearance of the term Novorossiya (New Russia), popularized by the Kremlin durings the annexation of Crimea. While it would hardly be possible at the moment to establish a “New Russian” state in Eastern Ukraine – a state connected to Russia or incorporated into it directly – the idea of a “Russian world” will continue to inform Russian foreign policy and provide it with ideological orientation. Certainly, the existence in the Donbas of pro-Russian networks sympathetic to the concept of Russkiy Mir – and connected to Viktor Yanukovych’s former Ukrainian Party of Regions – can be used by Russia for political leverage and to promote its policy of destabilizing Ukraine.
Stefan Meister, head of the DGAP’s program on Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, moderated the discussion.
The event was organized by the DGAP’s Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.