In April, in a four-hour call-in show televised across Russia, Vladimir Putin assigned the name New Russia—Novorossiya—to the lands in Southeastern Ukraine he claimed were and are historically part of Russia. The term Novorossiya had been used only once before in history, during the three decades from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, to describe the territories north of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov that Catherine the Great had wrested from the Ottoman Turks. What’s more, Putin said, the lands of his Novorossiya—Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolaev, and Odessa—had never been part of Ukraine. The contention is nonsensical. There had never been an officially designated piece of territory called Ukraine before the Leninist regime in Moscow created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR came into being in 1922 with four constituent sub-states, the Ukrainian SSR being one of them.
So Putin’s “New Russia” is, to put it mildly, historically dubious, a work of convenient fiction—and a cover for his assault on Ukraine, featuring the annexation of Crimea and the proxy war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Yet Putin has done the world a favor by bringing the word Novorossiya back into circulation. Novorossiya is the perfect word to describe the messianic, autocratic, and increasingly dangerous regime Putin has been engineering over the past three years, following his return to the presidency of Russia after a four-year gap in which his aide Dmitry Medvedev warmed the chair.
The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s military proxy intervention in Ukraine should be considered an epiphenomenon of Russian politics. Putin has been changing his regime from a “softer,” largely nonideological, corrupt “electoral authoritarianism” to a highly personalistic, far more repressive, and ideologically inspired dictatorship. The annexation of Crimea was a portent of “a new Russian revolution from above,” according to the popular website Gazeta.ru.
“The huge iceberg Russia, frozen by the Putin regime, cracked after the events in Crimea; it has split from the European world, and sailed off into the unknown,” wrote the Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books. “No one knows what will happen to the country now, into which seas or swamps it will drift.” The website Slon.ru declared: “Russia is no longer Europe…but another, peculiar civilization.”
Alexander Dugin, one of the organizers of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party, and perhaps Russia’s most prominent advocate of what might be called national-imperial totalitarian socialism, was thrilled by the annexation of Crimea; he sees it as the onset of a “real evolution,” the “end of liberalism and the beginning of patriotism,” and as “Putin’s challenge to the unipolar world, dominated by all the components of the world [that are] evil.”
Why did Putin open this Pandora’s box?
The origin of Novorossiya may be traced to a fateful choice Russia made in the aftermath of the 2008–2009 world financial crisis. That crisis adversely affected Russia more than any other industrial nation: The country’s GDP shrank by almost 8 percent in one year—a direct consequence of the plunging price of oil. This contraction exposed severe structural defects in Russia’s developmental model, which has been centered on oil and gas exports, the growing state control of the economy and its investment in it, and an authoritarian political system. In the wake of the crisis, an expert consensus, to which Putin paid (and still occasionally continues to pay) lip service, called for “diversification,” “modernization,” and a drastic improvement of what is known under the gentle euphemism of the “investment climate.” Such measures would be impossible without deep institutional reforms. Alexei Kudrin, former deputy prime minister and still reportedly Putin’s confidant and economic adviser, has said that such reforms must include independent courts and a legal system that “guarantees property rights”; competitive, free, and fair elections; a substantial, freely operating, and responsible political opposition as a permanent element of national politics; and state accountability to society.
Probably judging such reforms incompatible with the preservation of his political control, Vladimir Putin opted instead for the status quo. As a result, Kudrin later declared, the road to economic and political modernization necessary for sustained economic growth has been blocked by an institutional “wall.”
The failure to change had immediate consequences. Even with oil prices still historically very high, the country’s economic growth declined steadily from 4.5 percent in 2010 to 4.3 percent in 2011 to 3.4 percent in 2012 and to 1.3 percent in 2013. The troubles seem to have accelerated this year; by the most optimistic estimates, the country’s economy is predicted to grow by merely half a percentage point, and a recession looks increasingly likely. Similarly, capital flight, which removed $63 billion from Russia’s economy in 2013, reached $75 billion in just the first two quarters of this year and, in the estimation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it may top out between $100 billion and $150 billion by year’s end.
Virtually in parallel, attitudes toward the authorities—and, most important, to Putin himself, whose popularity is the regime’s central claim to legitimacy—began to sour. Massive middle-class protests in response to rigged parliamentary elections in 80 of the largest Russian cities during the winter of 2011–12 and the following spring were intensely anti-Putin. This trend, too, grew stronger through the beginning of 2014.
Daniel Treisman, a leading U.S. student of Russian political attitudes, concluded after a sophisticated quantitative analysis of public-opinion data that the public’s views of Putin had become linked more closely than ever to how they perceived the regime’s economic performance and are “highly vulnerable to a further deterioration in the economy.”
“Trust in Putin is not just falling—there is not even a bottom in sight,” Mikhail Dmitriev, one of Russia’s leading independent political sociologists, noted in the summer of 2013. By January 2014, only 34 percent of Russians chose Putin as the public figure they trusted most.
In addition to their perennial gripes about corruption, Russians outside the larger cities had become increasingly dissatisfied with the rising prices of food staples and utilities, the low and deteriorating quality of health care and education, and the shortage of affordable housing—problems that, in the words of a leading Russian expert, the Putin regime “did not know how to solve.” In 2012, over 60 percent of the respondents in a national survey told Levada Center pollsters that they were “tired” of waiting for Putin to fulfill his promises, improve the economy, raise the standard of living, and solve social problems. Even though no critics, not to mention critical coverage, of Putin are allowed on national television, by November 2013 his approval rating had fallen to 61 percent, the lowest it had been since 2000. By December 2013 and the following January, only 28 to 32 percent of Russians expected they would be ready to vote for him in the 2018 presidential election.
The regime’s response to the Russian public’s disquiet is Novorossiya. Since Putin’s reelection in the spring of 2012, the Kremlin has systematically and relentlessly broadened and deepened the state’s control—its outright ownership—of the country’s politics, media, and its courts. Additional “filters” have been introduced to make the election of opposition candidates virtually impossible on both national and regional levels.
The opposition has seen the public square shrink to the size of a raindrop. Through a 2012 “foreign agents” law, Putin has staged a systematic assault on the most active part of civil society. This law was designed to intimidate, defund, marginalize, stigmatize, and criminalize nongovernment organizations and their leaders. Harsher sanctions were introduced for “unauthorized” demonstrations, including lengthy pretrial detentions and long sentences for the members of the band Pussy Riot and the “Bolotnaya-12” protesters, who were arrested at a rally on the day of Putin’s inauguration. The most popular opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were brought up on criminal charges, kept under house arrest, tried, and sentenced, respectively, for five years and four-and-a-half years. (Navalny, whose sentence was suspended, is back under house arrest, awaiting another trial on the charges of “fraud and money laundering,” and forbidden to communicate with the outside world via electronic media.) In the provinces, the authorities have revived Soviet-style punitive psychiatry.
The state’s takeover of national television, engineered by Putin in his first term (2000–2004), came into full flower with the broadcasting of monopolistic propaganda enforced by legislation that criminalized “libel” in mass media. Another law was aimed at cable television, some of which is still outside government control, by banning paid advertising and thereby, most likely, forcing many, if not all, operators out of business.
Websites attracting more than 3,000 daily visitors must now register with the government watchdog Roskomnadzor. Sites and search engines such as Facebook, LiveJournal, and Google (and personal blogs) are now held legally liable for the “accuracy” of the information that they post. They are required to keep records of all posted material and provide government agencies with all the information they might have on a particular user. “Every blogger might face threat of criminal prosecution,” said Oleg Kashin, a popular opposition polemicist.
In addition, since February the authorities have had the power to block websites without explanation. Key opposition information and opinion sites such as Grani.ru, Ej.ru, Echo Moskvy, as well as the websites of Navalny and the national hero and chess champion Gary Kasparov have been temporarily blocked or shuttered. Yet another law, reportedly in the works, would force Russian ISPs to use only domain name servers located in Russia and controlled by the government. In May, the head of Roskomnadzor called Twitter an anti-government “political” tool and suggested that his agency might soon block access to the platform. And to silence a few remaining newspapers and magazines unwilling to parrot the Kremlin, Putin signed a law this past October limiting foreign ownership of media outlets to 20 percent—thus all but ensuring the shuttering of such leaders of independent journalism as Vedomosti (co-owned by Dow Jones and the Financial Times) and Forbes Russia.
Evgeny Gontmakher, a leading expert at the Institute for Contemporary Development, has said: “We are witnessing an open attempt of the regime’s political technologists to play on prejudices, myths, and other dark sides of human values. We are seeing a conscious attempt to counter a fairly large and open protest sensibility with the state’s encouragement of nationalism and xenophobia, isolationism and imperial mentality, Stalinism, religion, and other such hideboundness.”
As it did during the Soviet Union, the Kremlin began to equate love of Russia with devotion to the regime, thereby making patriotism synonymous with political loyalty. “Patriotism” and “spirituality” [duhovnost] were leitmotifs of Putin’s December 12, 2012, annual address to the Federal Assembly. He urged “patriotic education” of Russia’s youth to “shape a system of values among young people [and provide the] moral foundation” on which to build political culture. A new agency, the Directorate for Social Projects, was created within the presidential administration to promote and strengthen the “spiritual and moral foundations” of Russian society and to improve government policies in the field of “patriotic upbringing.” The prominent Russian political sociologist Igor Klyamkin called these developments a revival of “militarized patriotism in peacetime.”
Yet the most portentous contribution to the regime’s ideological overhaul has been made by Vladimir Putin himself. In what clearly was intended as a presidential-election campaign manifesto in Nezavisimaya Gazeta in January 2012, he called Russia a “unique civilization.” Since then, in speeches, seemingly off-the-cuff comments, and, most important, state policies, Putin has illuminated the four key elements of this ideological construct, his Novorossiya, which will have profound implications for the regime’s foreign policy for years to come:
Ethnicity: Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, used only the word rossiyane (“citizens of Russia”) to describe the populace. But in the past two years Putin has taken to using the term russkie (“ethnically Russian”). In a March 18 address following the annexation of Crimea, he used this term 27 times. In an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he used the word in a context unseen since Stalin’s post–World War II dithyrambs to the ethnic Russians as the “leading people” of the Soviet Union. Putin has declared the russkie the “core,” the “binding fabric,” the “cultural nucleus” whose “great mission” is to continue to “unite and bind this civilization.” Upping the ante in April, Putin concluded his annual, nationally televised call-in show by extolling the “Russian soul” as well as the “heroism and self-sacrifice” that allegedly sets his people apart from “the other peoples.” The definition of Russian patriotism as “ethnic Russian patriotism,” as the prominent political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya has written, became a “distinct [political] phenomenon, the explicators of which define the agenda in the mass media and lead legislation initiatives.”
Religion: Putin’s new ideological design gives the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) pride of place. Headed since 2009 by Patriarch Kirill, who is very conservative even by ROC standards, the church’s hierarchy has been vocal in both its increasingly antimodern stance and its unreserved support for the regime. When Putin campaigned for reelection in February 2012, Kirill called Putin’s first two terms in office a “miracle from God.” Putin has personally advocated for the church to have a greater say in family life, education, and the armed forces, and he has insisted that the ROC “anchor the moral framework of public life and national statehood.” An anti-gay law criminalizing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” was enacted to curry favor with the ROC—as were the harsh sentences for the members of Pussy Riot. Although both the law and verdict caused an uproar abroad, including calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the regime apparently considered the damage to Russia’s international image an acceptable price for bolstering a central element of its new ideological makeup.
Rejecting ‘Western values’: Defining Russia as a unique civilization with an exclusive predestination meant shifting from accepting, however reluctantly, “Western values” to openly breaking from them. In the words of Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, the “profession of universal values or common European norms and principles has stopped.” The “European choice,” which Russia’s leaders, from Gorbachev to Putin, had repeatedly affirmed as the country’s strategic direction, has now been abandoned. This past April, the Ministry of Culture declared Russia’s “cultural and civilizational identity” just as incompatible with the “liberal Western” path as it was with the Communist one.
Indeed, the Novorossiya credo calls for an active fight against Western values. According to the Ministry of Culture’s draft of the “state cultural policy,” there is a struggle between Russia and the West in every sphere—economic, political, and cultural—and Russia’s “key trump in this confrontation is its unique civilizational identity.” According to Putin, the purpose of Russia Today, the state-owned 24-hour international news channel better known as RT, was “not only to provide objective information about what happens in our country but also [to] try to break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon mass media on the world informational flows.” Russia’s moral superiority over the West has become a propaganda staple, and anti-Westernism a pillar of the “new political culture,” wrote the Gaidar Institute’s leading scholar, Kirill Rogov.
Russia the Victim: Another central aspect of the Novorossiya worldview is Russia’s victimization by the West. In the March 18 speech, Putin declared that the West prefers “to be guided not by international law in its practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” and wishes to “drive Russia into a corner.” He traced this hostility as far back as the 18th century. In the post-Soviet era, too, Putin averred, Russia “has always been deceived, has always been [confronted with] decisions made behind its back.”
As with the other elements of the Novorossiya ideological makeup, the translation of ideology into policy has come quickly. The unchallenged propaganda barrage has created a widespread public perception summarized by a Levada Center principal, Alexei Levinson, as “everything is hostile to us…we live in a besieged fortress, everyone is abusing us.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, who is chairman of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, wrote in May that Ukraine is just an instance of a “larger game” for the Kremlin. A “confrontation” with the West is inevitable, he continued, and its “psychology” would be similar (albeit not in every way) to that of the Cold War.
All these policy shifts, particularly when it comes to the West and its supposedly unfair treatment of Russia, provide the regime not only with vitally needed legitimacy but also with a powerful way to mobilize public opinion. Aggressive foreign policy is therefore a domestic political imperative. Following the annexation of Crimea and the proxy war on Ukraine, the steady decline in Putin’s personal popularity and the support for his presidency beyond 2018 all have bounced back to almost record levels.
When Russians are asked today by pollsters in which areas Putin has been successful, they typically reply that his achievements in improving the economy, fighting crime, and stopping terrorism have been “very modest”; that the standard of living has not met their expectations; that corruption is growing; and that health care, education, public transportation, and the utilities infrastructure are continuing to worsen. But there is one area of his activity that everyone finds very successful: He has, they say, “restored the respect for Russia in the West.”
As the Levada Center’s Lev Gudkov wrote in June: “The rhetoric of the ‘renaissance of Russia as a great power,’ which today ‘restores its [possession] of lands,’ and does not lose them as it did after the disintegration of the USSR; which defends Russians in Ukraine, where they are threatened by nationalists, banderovites, and ‘the Kiev junta,’ and which resists pressure from the West—all this occasioned mass support for the actions of the authorities.”
But in thecase of Novorossiya, the regime seems to be aiming well beyond the pragmatic need for a temporary boost in popularity. The conceit’s roots extend deeply into the national political culture and consciousness of a country that had an empire and then lost it.
The modern Russian state began in the 16th century under Ivan the Terrible with the conquest of the Khanate of Kazan, and Russian nation-building has been largely inseparable from imperial expansion ever since. “The doctrine of the Third Rome,” wrote the great Russian émigré religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, “became the basic idea on which the Muscovite state was formed.”
The four years of ideological de-Stalinization under Gorbachev’s glasnost (1987–1991) and an erratic and ambivalent effort under Yeltsin (1991–1999) to transcend Russia’s imperial past failed to displace the centuries-old identification of glory and greatness with imperial sway and successful opposition to the West. It is this vein in the bedrock of the national consciousness that Putin so successfully tapped in 2012 and has mined ever since.
The key to Putin’s popularity, according to Alexei Levinson, is that he has managed to become the symbol of the resurrection of a great power. The public’s widespread support for the annexation of Crimea indicates their support for Russia’s acting as a great power. This has come at a time when identification with the great power of the Soviet Union remains a “very important mechanism of individual and collective compensation for the chronic sense of indignity and humiliation in everyday life,” the arbitrariness of authorities, and “social helplessness.”
Of Ivan the Terrible, whom he called a “remarkable theoretician of absolute monarchy,” Berdyaev wrote, “[he] had taught that a Tsar must not only govern a state, but also save souls.” In declaring Moscow’s right and duty to protect co-religionists and Russian speakers and ethnic brethren abroad, Putin has embarked on the same mission. He became, in the words of his spokesman, “the guarantor of the security of the Russian world.” In 1500, the grandfather of Ivan the Terrible, Ivan III, went to war on Catholic Lithuania under the pretext of the latter’s mistreatment of the Orthodox believers. Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry was shocked and perplexed, saying that Russia was behaving like “a 19th-century power.” He was three centuries off.
If these ideological and policy tendencies do indeed coalesce, Novorossiya will present an unprecedented geopolitical challenge for the West: an aggressive, explicitly anti-Western, and increasingly unpredictable messianic autocracy with 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads and 489 strategic launchers.
The job of confronting and perhaps containing Novorossiya is all the more challenging because of a $770 billion, 10-year rearmament and modernization program made public by Putin in February 2012 during his reelection campaign. Among other goals, the program is to equip Russia’s Strategic Missile Force with new fifth-generation strategic missiles by 2021. These are designed to evade “current or planned” U.S. missile defenses. The new weapons include the Yars-M intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry up to 10 independently targeted warheads. Another new missile is a single-warhead Topol-M ICBM, with a range of 7,000 miles. In June, Russia deployed the first of its fourth-generation nuclear submarines, Yasen K-560, equipped with supersonic cruise missiles. Between 2008 and 2013, Russia’s defense spending is estimated to grow by 31 percent; it increased by 18 percent this year; and the Russian Federal Treasury anticipates a 33 percent hike in 2015–16.
Yet massive rearmament may not be the most formidable challenge to the West’s attempts to shape Novorossiya’s policy choices. Putin has effectively assumed a presidency-for-life from which there is no exit other than natural or violent death or a coup. Add to that the blending of his notions of Russian identity and destiny with those of his own, and the regime could prove nearly impervious to economic sanctions, no matter how biting. The proxy war on Ukraine stems directly from the core vision of the regime’s purpose. Retreat is no longer an option.
There are moments in a nation’s life when its people are guided by fear, hatred, glory, pride, or anger far more than they are by “practical” (particularly economic) considerations. These moments may be prolonged and the sentiment intensified if a leader emerges to embody goals and ideals worth sacrificing for. To outsiders, these ideals, fears, and hatreds, these solemn dreams of glory, might seem bizarre, self-defeating, and wrong—but such a leader may nevertheless succeed in advancing his agenda, especially with the assistance of terror and monopolistic propaganda. This may be Putin’s moment. If it is, taming Novorossiya is bound to be a long, difficult, and often frustrating task.