I feel that I have a responsibility to warn you that this piece is very dry, I probably wouldn’t recommend it for bed time reading however if you are interested in Russian policy in Europe and Putin’s role in influencing European politics (particularly Brexit and the Eurosceptic movement) then hopefully you will enjoy this. Needless to say this is all my own opinion, while I have used sources to support some of my opinions I would definitely recommend reading what the experts have to say as well.
THE BEAR AWAKENS
On December 25th 1991 the hammer and sickle flag that flew from the Kremlin was lowered and Mikhail Gorbachev became known to history as the last president of the Soviet Union. The communist revolution that had set a match to the established political order in 1917 was finally over, taking with it not solely a political system but a way of life for the 293 million individuals who lived within the Soviet republics as well as those who had lived in nations occupied by the Soviet Union since the Second World War. This collapse, that appeared to be sudden, created uncertainty for the future in many of those who had spent the majority, and in most cases the entirety, of their lives under the Soviet regime. This uncertainty is still felt by many Russians today.
In recent years nostalgia for the Soviet Union has increased. In May the Levada Center carried out a poll amongst 1,616 civilians across 50 regions in order to survey opinion on the Soviet Union. 59 percent of those polled believe that the defining trait of the Soviet Union was that it took care of its citizens. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union reached a 14 year high in December and approval of Stalin’s role in Russia’s history reached an all time high this spring. However Karina Pipiya, a sociologist at Levada, clarified that the increasing idealization of the Soviet Union doesn’t mean that most Russians would prefer to live under the Soviet system. The reason that I bring this poll to your attention is because it connects to a policy championed by Putin, that of encouraging pride in the Soviet Union, a pride that can be witnessed in Russian foreign policy, but we will explore this aspect more later.
When Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000 he sought to create an element of continuity with the past. He has famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century” and Putin’s rehabilitation of the Soviet Union can be seen in the readoption of the old Soviet national anthem in 2001 (though with changed lyrics) as well as the approach that Putin’s regime has taken regarding teaching on Russian history. Putin has sought to create a single vision of history, a vision that forbids any established facts that may deter from Russia’s image as the saviour of Europe, and thereby their moral right to determine the fate of other nations in eastern Europe (an important point for this article). Therefore the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Treaty that established an alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (as well as establishing spheres of influence in soon to be conquered Poland), is sidelined. The mention of this alliance is considered to be a part of a process of the rehabilitation of Nazism and therefore contradicts the verdicts established at the Nuremberg trials.
The event that is seen as the defining moment of the Soviet Union, and the event that has helped to shape the modern Russian State, is the Great Patriotic War. The importance of this event has also led to the rehabilitation of Stalin as a great strategist, the victor of the Second World War and the man who built the Soviet Union. Dagmara Moskwa in her article Rewriting Russian history explains that the emphasis on Stalin’s pragmatism is being used to justify the atrocities that he carried out and that knowledge of the repressions and terror under Stalin are limited in Russia. A survey in 2017 showed that between 13 and 25 percent of those polled believed that the repressions were a politically justified necessity and 36 percent believe that the number of victims were justified by his achievements during this period. These achievements being the transformation of the Soviet Union into a global superpower, something that many Russians feel nostalgic about.
The reason that I mention the Russian perception of its own history, and the role that has been passed down to the country, is because I believe it can explain Russia’s endorsement of Eurosceptism and their foreign policy in Europe and the Middle East. We will now explore Russia’s foreign policy under Putin and how it affects Europe.
THE BEAR LOOKS WEST
Russia’s foreign policy in Europe can be explained by Putin’s desire to both regain some of the influence that Russia once enjoyed in the Soviet Union and to protect Russia’s right to determine the future of eastern European states. Both I believe are connected to the nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the global superpower status that they earned and both can be seen as factors in Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Crimea. The Republic of Georgia announced its independence in 1991, a war soon broke out between Georgia and separatists which left parts of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast under the de-facto control of Russian backed separatists. When Putin came to power in 2000 and a pro-western power change occurred in Georgia in 2003, relations between the two countries deteriorated and by April 2008 it was considered a diplomatic crisis. In August South Ossetian separatists began to shell Georgian villages and the conflict soon escalated. Russian troops invaded South Ossetia on the 7th August and by the 12th a ceasefire was negotiated. The conflict ended in Georgia losing control of parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In breach of the negotiated ceasefire Russia has occupied this territory ever since, establishing military bases in the region.
This conflict is an example of Russia wishing to assert their dominance. Russia has been disturbed by the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU. The conflict in Georgia can be seen as Russia attempting to off-set that expansion by showing the Western countries that they still believe their sphere of influence to be very much intact in the region. Another example of Russia wishing to halt the expansion of the EU and western interests in the region is the 2014 invasion of Crimea. The invasion was a result of the deposition of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin’s ally in the country. Yanukoych was deposed as a result of the Euromaidan protests, sparked by the government suspending the signing of an association agreement with the EU and choosing closer ties with Russia. Putin used the unrest caused by these protests, as well as the unrest across southern and eastern Ukraine, to launch an invasion of the Crimea.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the question of Ukrainian alignment has been left open. The political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that the loss of Ukraine was the most difficult for Russia to accept and that it was only a matter of time before Russia sought to take it back. I believe that this is further evidence that in many ways Russia seeks to establish a sphere of influence along the same lines as the Soviet Union. When Russian militias crossed the Russian border into the Donbass they carried neo-Soviet flags with them. Putin’s domestic policy has sought to reinvigorate admiration for the achievements of the Soviet Union, to encourage a desire to see Russia achieve similar feats. I believe that Russia would prefer to achieve these goals through diplomatic means, or through the use of soft power. However he has also shown his willingness to use force if he believes it to be the only means left open to achieve his aims. The invasion of Crimea served the purpose of reclaiming old territory as well as preventing further expansion of the EU, an institution that he appears to hold in contempt and has sought to undermine by methods that we shall now discuss.
THE BEAR MAKES FRIENDS
Over the past few years Euroscepticism has exploded across Europe. Whether it be Brexit in Britain, the electoral achievements of Marine Le Pens’ National Rally party in France, or Matteo Salvini and his Northern League in Italy, the eurosceptic movement is growing across Europe. They all seem to share the same values: contemptuous of multiculturalism, sceptical of liberalism, opposed to the social justice movement and desirous of a diminishment (if not the break up of) the EU and the authority that it possesses. All of these values are equally shared by Vladimir Putin. Putin is known to be supportive of this populist eurosceptic wave and many in this movement have expressed their admiration for Putin and are generally pro-Russian in their outlook.
Russian support for the eurosceptic parties varies. Marine Le Pen recieved a 9 million euro loan from a Moscow backed bank and in December Russia’s ruling party signed a 5 year agreement with the Austrian anti-immigrant Freedom Party. We also know that Putin enjoys close ties with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; both share the same views on western liberalism and the European Union. There are also accusations (investigations still ongoing) that Russian money played a role in the Brexit campaign led by Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, and evidence that Russia used social media to push anti-EU messages as well as providing one sided coverage on their state funded news channel Russia Today.
The reason that Putin desires a British withdrawal from the European Union is because that it weakens both Britain and the EU. Britain served as the prime mover regarding sanctions against Russia after their invasion of Ukraine and they acted as the nation that could tip the balance in EU policy on Russia. Now, with Britain removed and the influence of figures such as Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini, the tables may have turned in Russia’s favour. If Brexit does indeed weaken the EU it will also leave a splintered Europe that would leave Russia as a major power on the continent. While Russia doesn’t have the economic capacity to compete with the USA and China as global powers, it can exert significant influence in Europe. A weakened Europe and the rise of nationalist populist movements may also see more of the eastern European countries align their interests closer with Russia and Putin, with whom they arguably share more in common with than the liberal democracies of eastern Europe.
I personally don’t believe that the Eurosceptics are working with the intention of furthering Russian interests at the expense of the western liberal democracies. For many it’s a means to an end, their focus is on furthering their nationalist interests and cooperating with any like-minded groups who are capable of helping them to achieve their objectives. However I do believe that it is irresponsible to ignore the expansion of Russian influence and the part that Russia has played in undermining the EU. Eurosceptics should make no mistake, although they are sceptical of liberal democracies the rights and privileges that they hold dear have been gained through liberal democracy. Putin and his regime stand for the suppression of dissent and the elimination of problematic journalists, the diminution of the rights of minorities and a hatred for the west that would not align with the interests of even the most ardent eurosceptics. Europe stands on a precipice and the values that many of us hold most dear are at stake. Europe has to stand as a bastion for liberal democracy, Owen Jones in The Guardian has made the argument that liberal democracy is obsolete, I disagree. Liberal democracy is going through a crisis. This isn’t new and it isn’t the most severe crisis of which it has faced, however, it does require that people fight for the principle and what it represents. Putin has shown that his values are not our values, the expansion of his influence can only be halted while NATO and the EU remain united. Proponents of liberal democracy have to assess the flaws and listen to those who feel left behind. It must adapt for the modern world and seek to become even more inclusive or it will be sidelined by those who seek to attack the values that many have fought for continuously for over a century.
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