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Putin Has a Grimly Absolute Vision of the ‘Russian World’

The Ukraine war is fueled by a delusion of civilizational necessity.

By , an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin during an Orthodox Easter ceremony in Moscow, early on April 8, 2018.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin during an Orthodox Easter ceremony in Moscow, early on April 8, 2018.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin during an Orthodox Easter ceremony in Moscow, early on April 8, 2018. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

On Feb. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed that a Ukrainian “genocide” of Russian-speakers was happening in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. He repeated that lie in his speech announcing the “special military operation” on Feb. 24 as his troops invaded Ukraine.

Putin believes an invasion of Ukraine is a righteous cause and necessary for the dignity of the Russian civilization, which he sees as being genetically and historically superior to other Eastern European identities. The idea of protecting Russian-speakers in Eurasia has been a key part of Putin’s “Russkiy Mir” worldview and 21st-century Russian identity. Under the rubric of Russkiy Mir (Russian World), Putin’s government promotes the idea that Russia is not a mere nation-state but a civilization-state that has an important role to play in world history.

Beginning in 2012, Putin began to refer to a distinct Russian civilizational identity and explained that “the self-definition of the Russian people is that of a multiethnic civilization.” Included within this civilizational framework are ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in former Soviet republics that extend beyond Russia’s national borders. In 2020, Putin appeared on state television and said that Russia’s unique civilizational identity needed to be protected via genetics and technological sophistication. This ideology positions contemporary Russia as a global bastion of traditional values and national conservatism. Most of all, it argues that the Kremlin has a duty and right to defend the interests and culture of Russian-speakers all over the world. Putin rejects the Westphalian state system for an irredentist vision of an expansionist Russian civilization.

On Feb. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed that a Ukrainian “genocide” of Russian-speakers was happening in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. He repeated that lie in his speech announcing the “special military operation” on Feb. 24 as his troops invaded Ukraine.

Putin believes an invasion of Ukraine is a righteous cause and necessary for the dignity of the Russian civilization, which he sees as being genetically and historically superior to other Eastern European identities. The idea of protecting Russian-speakers in Eurasia has been a key part of Putin’s “Russkiy Mir” worldview and 21st-century Russian identity. Under the rubric of Russkiy Mir (Russian World), Putin’s government promotes the idea that Russia is not a mere nation-state but a civilization-state that has an important role to play in world history.

Beginning in 2012, Putin began to refer to a distinct Russian civilizational identity and explained that “the self-definition of the Russian people is that of a multiethnic civilization.” Included within this civilizational framework are ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in former Soviet republics that extend beyond Russia’s national borders. In 2020, Putin appeared on state television and said that Russia’s unique civilizational identity needed to be protected via genetics and technological sophistication. This ideology positions contemporary Russia as a global bastion of traditional values and national conservatism. Most of all, it argues that the Kremlin has a duty and right to defend the interests and culture of Russian-speakers all over the world. Putin rejects the Westphalian state system for an irredentist vision of an expansionist Russian civilization.

While the Kremlin refers to the Ukrainian government as “Nazis,” the actual neo-fascist ideologues in this conflict are those in the Russian leadership. Beginning as far back as 1994, Russian political elites started talking about a uniquely Eurasianist Russian civilization. In 1997, Russian post-liberal, neo-fascist philosopher Alexander Dugin, later an advisor to Putin, published his foundational book, Foundations of Geopolitics. Referred to as Putin’s Rasputin, Dugin argues that the world order is shaped by competition between Sea Powers (Atlanticists), such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU countries, and Land Powers (Eurasianists), such as Russia.

Dugin argues that Russia’s geopolitical position weakened after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that invasions of Georgia and Ukraine were necessary for tilting the world system back in Moscow’s favor. For Dugin, an invasion of Ukraine was the most important part of this civilizational battle between the sea-faring Atlanticists and the land power Eurasianists. “Ukraine, as an independent state with some territorial ambitions, poses a huge danger to the whole of Eurasia, and without solving the Ukrainian problem, it makes no sense to talk about continental geopolitics,” Dugin explained in his 1997 book. While Dugin’s closeness to Putin’s inner circle has varied throughout time, his ideas have permeated within elite Russian political and military circles. The recent invasion of Ukraine is a continuation of a Dugin-promoted strategy for weakening the international liberal order.

Along with Duginism, the Kremlin has circulated the ideas of Russkiy Mir within Russian media and civic society. Putin first publicly mentioned the term Russkiy Mir in 2001 at the first World Congress of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad. He said, “The notion of the Russian World extends far from Russia’s geographical borders and even far from the borders of the Russian ethnicity.” Revanchism and a belief in the sacred role of the Russian civilization in world history have become the defining element of 21st-century Russian identity.

Since 2001, Putin has institutionalized the ideology of Russkiy Mir in Russian government structures. For example, by presidential decree and in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin established the government-funded Russkiy Mir Foundation in 2007. The foundation’s stated mission is to increase the study and learning of Russian language, culture, and history—but it has largely served as a way to push a Russian-centric agenda in former Soviet states. It set up 20 Russian cultural centers in Ukraine, mostly in the southeastern regions. On its website, the foundation states, “The stability achieved only recently in Russia itself has allowed for a refocusing of attention on the importance and value of the Russian world, and not only to those who consider themselves participants of this world but also to modern civilization at large.”

In 2008, the Russian government established Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), which promotes Russian culture and language in the post-Soviet world. This agency was meant to be the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Agency for International Development, but its actual activities seem to be disseminating Russian misinformation in former Soviet republics.

For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was an ideological calamity not because he holds any torch for communism itself but because it spiritually distanced Russian-speakers from their motherland. The Soviet collapse in 1991 suddenly created the world’s largest Russian diaspora, with “25 million ethnic Russians living outside the borders of their nominal homeland,” according to the Pew Research Center.” For a patriotic ideologue such as Putin, this separation of Russophones from their motherland was an existential threat to the survival of the great Russian civilization.

For the last 20 years, Putin has sought closer ties with Russophone “compatriots” in former Soviet republics and has occasionally used the concept of Russkiy Mir to justify the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. In the Russkiy Mir worldview, Ukraine plays a special role. It is the cornerstone of Russian civilization and culture. For example, both governments in Kyiv and Moscow claim to be the rightful descendants of Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic Orthodox state, and its ruler Volodymyr the Great. The history wars between Russia and Ukraine heated up in 2016 after the installation of a statue of Volodymyr the Great in Moscow, which angered Kyiv. In his recent speech, Putin explained, “Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.” For the Kremlin, without a Russophone Ukraine, there is no Russian World.

Putin’s deep engagement with history is in many ways a backlash to Soviet-era historiography. Putin’s revisionist account of Russian history is a jingoistic criticism of Soviet-era historiography. Under communist rule, Russian historians interpreted nationalism under the lens of Leninist ideology. Despite Karl Marx’s emphasis on class struggle, Lenin said that nationalities had to be respected in the Soviet Union, and he accepted the reality of “national rights” in the multiethnic Soviet project.

Under Lenin, the Soviet regime emphasized national self-determination. Putin’s desire to cement his place in Russian history is a backlash to the Leninist historiography of the Soviet period, which promoted ethnic particularism. Putin’s fondness for Russian history is not a mere hobby but an important part of the way he sees himself and the role that Russian civilization will play in the 21st century. Putin wants to right the wrongs of the Soviet experiment, which he believes ripped away the ideological core of the Russian civilization—Ukraine. As Putin said in his July 2021 article, “The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. … It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.”

While security concerns regarding NATO expansion are certainly important to the Kremlin, the politico-cultural role that Ukraine plays in contemporary Russian ideology is of greater value to Putin’s long-term vision of a rejuvenated Russian World. In February 2021, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov named Ukraine as a part of Russkiy Mir.

Simply put, Putin and his circle genuinely do not believe Ukraine is a real country. To them, Ukraine has become too linguistically, culturally, and spiritually separated from Russian civilization. In the paranoid and Manichaean worldview of the Kremlin, the renegade region known in the West as “Ukraine” needs to be reconnected with its motherland, Russia. Russian history and civilization demand it.

Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World.

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