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Can Russia Ever Become a ‘Normal’ European Nation?

Ironically, a defeat by Ukraine could trigger Russians to reexamine their national identity.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.
A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice near Zolote, Ukraine, on Jan. 21, 2022.
A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice near Zolote, Ukraine, on Jan. 21, 2022.
A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice near Zolote, Ukraine, on Jan. 21, 2022. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Can Russia become a normal nation-state following the pattern of other European countries and former empires—and abandon half a millennium of imperial conquest and propaganda? Because the imperial mindset has been intertwined with the Russian sense of nationhood for so long, such a change is unlikely to come from within. Ironically, it is the Ukrainians, who, by handing the imperial center a decisive defeat, can trigger a reexamination of Russia’s national identity. Only in defeat will Russians have a chance to refocus their country’s priorities away from empire and toward a domestic agenda of economic, social, and democratic development.

Can Russia become a normal nation-state following the pattern of other European countries and former empires—and abandon half a millennium of imperial conquest and propaganda? Because the imperial mindset has been intertwined with the Russian sense of nationhood for so long, such a change is unlikely to come from within. Ironically, it is the Ukrainians, who, by handing the imperial center a decisive defeat, can trigger a reexamination of Russia’s national identity. Only in defeat will Russians have a chance to refocus their country’s priorities away from empire and toward a domestic agenda of economic, social, and democratic development.

A Russian sense of nationhood focused on reform at home instead of domination over non-Russians had a brief shining moment in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Around 1990, a group of reformist politicians in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and other major Russian cities organized around a liberal, patriotic agenda in the Democratic Russia movement. The movement’s leaders—such as the human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, the civic activist Mikhail Astafyev, the Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin, and soon-to-be-Moscow-Mayor Gavriil Popov—articulated an agenda of domestic reform that sought to repair the damage that 70 years of communist dictatorship had inflicted on the Russian people. Leaders of this nascent movement were the first to unfurl the Russian tricolor at the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR), one of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics. Most people have forgotten it, but the modern Russian flag actually started as a symbol of liberalism and resistance—led by Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the newly formed Russian republic—to the August 1991 coup attempt by military hard-liners seeking to quash reforms and restore the Soviet dictatorship.

The Democratic Russia movement’s moderate agenda coincided with Yeltsin’s political ambitions—including his desire to undermine the central Soviet apparatus and transfer power to the Russian republic he was leading at the time. Yeltsin’s inner circle included influential anti-imperial patriots, such as Gennady Burbulis, one of the drafters of the accords that dissolved the Soviet Union, and Galina Starovoitova, a former dissident. Liberal nationalists, led by economic reformer Yegor Gaidar, then went on to found the Democratic Choice of Russia party, which won 18 percent of the seats in the Russian parliamentary elections of 1993 and became a key part of Yeltsin’s coalition.

In the first years of the country’s post-Soviet independence, Yeltsin promoted the idea of Russia as the homeland of the Russian people. Although he hoped to bind all 15 independent post-Soviet states to each other in a confederation, Yeltsin worked constructively with neighboring non-Russian states, ultimately recognizing their sovereignty. With the exception of Russian support for separatist movements in newly independent Georgia and Moldova, Yeltsin generally avoided destabilizing territorial disputes outside Russia’s borders. Soviet symbols and references to the Russian Empire were jettisoned. In their place came a focus on building state and civic institutions, including political parties, trade unions, veterans organizations, environmental groups, and cultural associations. Instead of the Soviet national anthem, Russsia used the “Patriotic Song,” a melody by the classical composer Mikhail Glinka, without any accompanying lyrics.

But powerful revanchist and chauvinist imperial forces never went away. Their most prominent public voice was a powerful conservative opposition in the Russian Duma that nearly toppled Yeltsin in a bid to replace him with his own vice president, Alexander Rutskoy. Imperialist ideas also retained strength in the security services, whose influence grew amid political ferment among Russia’s many ethnic minorities. Amid the economic hardships of a difficult transition from Soviet rule—and as Chechnya’s drive for independence pitted Russians against non-Russians—the influence and popularity of the liberal nationalists eroded. In their place, Yeltsin gradually allowed hard-liners with imperial ideas to return to positions of influence. These hard-liners convinced Yeltsin that Chechnya’s secessionists should be crushed by force.

The imperial hard-liners’ total victory came in 1999 with the appointment of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s prime minister and designated successor as president. Putin moved quickly to redefine Russia and reawaken its sense of imperial grandeur. In 2000, he jettisoned Yeltsin’s national anthem, restored the melody of the Soviet anthem, and added new lyrics with an imperial twist, celebrating Russia as the “age-old union of fraternal peoples.”

Today, there is little impetus for a Russian patriotic movement focused on domestic development. Even among what’s left of the opposition, there are few voices trying to convince Russians to build a future within the country’s recognized borders. Even the imprisoned opposition activist Alexey Navalny, while he has spoken out against the war, argues that Crimea belongs to Russia and is unapologetic for having used ethnic slurs against Russia’s national minorities. He has also spoken with regret about the separation of the Orthodox Ukrainians from Moscow and blames Putin for destroying the prospects for a “Russian world”—Russkiy mir—that reaches far beyond Russia’s borders, an ideological construct promoted by far-right Russian nationalists and used by Putin and his media mouthpieces to justify Russia’s genocidal denial of Ukrainian nationhood. Navalny and most other Russian opposition figures focus their attention on the state’s authoritarian rule and rampant corruption rather than the fundamental values—such as respect for sovereign countries’ borders and choices—that could lay the foundation of a post-imperial national identity.

Only a clear, unambiguous triumph by Ukrainians asserting their distinct national identity could help Russians transition to a post-imperial civic identity. By forcefully demonstrating that Ukrainians are in no way part of the Russian nation, they are already having important effects on many Russians’ understanding of their relationship to the nations beyond their border. Ukrainian resistance and unity has created impossible challenges for Russian propaganda about the so-called Russian world. Their solution has been to frame the war as Russia’s fight against NATO and the imaginary cabal of Nazis that have supposedly taken over Ukraine, but every battlefield defeat at the hands of better-organized and better-motivated Ukrainians pokes another hole in the Kremlin’s false narrative.

By compelling Russians to embrace a national narrative stripped of imperialism, a Ukrainian victory can help ensure a better future for Russia as well.There are precedents for Russians changing their view of who belongs to the imperial Russian world. In the 19th century, when much of Poland was part of the Russian Empire, the Kremlin viewed Poles as a nation that was to undergo cultural, educational, and religious Russification. Count Sergei Uvarov, the Russian Empire’s education minister from 1833 to 1849, believed Poles could be transformed into Russians within one generation. But a series of Polish rebellions taught Russia that the forced assimilation of Poles would not work. Russians learned, as they are being taught by the Ukrainians today, that Poles were indeed a separate nation unwilling to lose its culture and identity.

Ukrainians, too, have rebelled against the Russians throughout their history—including under a succession of Cossack Ukrainian hetmans in the 17th and 18th centuries. The story of Ukrainians’ resistance to Russian rule—and ultimately independence—has to do with the fact that their nation has had a separate, Western-influenced history and identity from Russia’s for many centuries. But unlike the Poles’ fierce resistance to Russia, Ukrainian resistance was of insufficient duration and intensity to rid Russians of their illusions that Ukrainians—first called “little Russians” in the tsarist era as a way to erase their nationhood—were indeed a separate people with a separate language and culture. Only by winning this war will Ukrainians finally be able to drive home to Russians what is clear to Ukrainians and just about everyone else: Ukraine is not Russia.

Discussions of Russia’s future have focused primarily on two scenarios—the removal of Putin and his replacement with a more pragmatic leadership, and Russia’s collapse into several states as its internal fractures can no longer be papered over by a common enemy and an authoritarian regime. Neither scenario, however, ensures long-lasting security for Ukraine and other countries formerly in the Soviet sphere. There is no security against Russia if the country and its people do not shed their imperial mindset and become a “normal” European nation-state. Ukrainians desperately want to live next to a normal Russia whose elite and citizenry accept their country’s borders and Ukraine’s right to statehood as a distinct nation.

Even if Ukraine prevails with Western help, Russia’s imperial instincts are unlikely to vanish completely. Imperial collapse usually leaves a long trail of resentment—just look at France’s loss of Algeria in 1962, which remains a point of contestation in the national memory and a source of mobilization for the far right. Still, imperial nations usually—even if only gradually—reconcile with the sovereignty of their former colonies. If Russia is stopped in Ukraine, there is ample reason to believe it will eventually follow this well-trodden path. But the abandonment of empire has almost always required defeat.

There is one glaring issue, however, that makes Russian imperialism different: It is really two imperialisms—the former external empire beyond its borders and Moscow’s internal empire consisting of dozens, if not hundreds, of conquered and colonized non-Russian peoples. Russia includes numerous subnational republics and other political units where a non-Russian ethnic group forms a clear—or even overwhelming—majority, including Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetiya, Kalmykia, Sakha, and Tatarstan. While a complete dissolution of Russia is unlikely, many of these regions—some with vast natural resources—have the potential for national mobilization, especially in cases where ethnic Russians are only a small minority. This, in turn, can reinforce chauvinist trends inside the Russian Federation for years to come and withdraw support from moderates, liberals, and anti-imperialists.

Putin has long argued that Ukraine is an essential part of Russian history and identity. In ways he did not anticipate, events may soon prove him right: A victory in which Ukraine reclaims control over its territories and successfully defends its national and European identity can become a crucial factor in pushing Russians onto a path of normal development previously trod by other European peoples and post-colonial states. By compelling Russians to embrace a national narrative stripped of imperialism—a narrative that seeks to build a civic state rooted in a clear national identity within its sovereign boundaries—Ukrainians can help ensure not only their own and the region’s security, but a better future for Russia as well.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.

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