The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s Ukraine war draws on his vision of nationalism, exceptionalism

Pro-Russian troops stand in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 21. (Chingis Kondarov/Reuters)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine represents his version of what a U.S. official calls “Russian exceptionalism” — the idea that Russia is a unique Eurasian imperial system, historically sprawled across two continents, that can play by its own rules.

The official, who specializes in Russia, says Putin is riding the tiger — unleashing an extreme brand of Russian nationalism in taking his nation to war while simultaneously trying to unite the scores of non-Russian ethnic groups that make up the Russian Federation. Some analysts describe his approach as “Russian fascism.” The U.S. official noted that Putin has embraced the militarism of European fascist states of the 1930s, but not the ethnic hatred.

Putin’s dilemma is that he’s using non-Russian troops to suppress a Ukraine that he claims is part of Mother Russia. According to a study of the names of dead or captured Russians early in the war, about 30 percent were from non-Russian groups. Chechens and Dagestanis are dying, but it’s not their fight — unless Putin can wave a Eurasian imperial banner.

Putin tried to do just that on March 3, when he awarded a “Hero of Russia” title to an officer from Dagestan who had died in Ukraine. “I am a Russian person,” Putin said. “But when I see such examples of heroism … I am Dagestani, I am Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew. … I am proud of being part of this world, part of the strong, powerful multi-ethnic people of Russia.”

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One irony of this war is that Putin is mired in the same sort of destabilizing, no-win conflict for which he has often derided the United States. What’s more, he is justifying his “special military operation” with the same passion for regime change that he has mocked in U.S. foreign policy.

The echoes are striking when you look back to Putin’s 2013 op-ed in the New York Times, in which he blasted American military interventions in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem, Putin said, was that America thought it could play by its own rules. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” he wrote.

Putin revisited this theme in his May 9 Victory Day speech in Moscow. “The United States of America, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, started talking about its exceptionalism, thereby humiliating not only the whole world, but also its satellites, who have to pretend that they do not notice anything and meekly swallow everything.”

This is what psychiatrists call “projection.” Putin was attacking the United States for the very behavior that has led to his ruinous war in Ukraine.

In that speech, Putin expressed his version of Russian-Eurasian exceptionalism. “We remember how Russia’s enemies … tried to seed inter-ethnic and religious strife so as to weaken us from within and divide us. They failed completely. Today, our warriors of different ethnicities are fighting together, shielding each other from bullets and shrapnel like brothers. This is where the power of Russia lies, a great invincible power of our united multi-ethnic nation.”

Russian nationalism has always been a double-edged sword for Putin: He likes the raw passion of its patriotism, but he appears wary of its sometimes uncontrollable ethnic extremism, which might threaten his authoritarian rule over a disparate nation.

Recent Russian history illustrates this tension. Anti-immigrant riots erupted in Moscow in December 2010 after a migrant from the North Caucasus shot a Russian soccer fan. Thirty people were injured in the mayhem, as crowds chanted “Russia for Russians.” Police suppressed the protest.

Similar riots exploded in October 2013 in the Moscow district of Biriulevo, after an Azerbaijani immigrant killed a Russian; police arrested nearly 400 rioters. An assessment by intelligence analysts at Poland’s Center for Eastern Studies explained: “The authorities’ reaction to the Biriulevo incident indicates that they are aware of the scale of social tensions regarding immigration in the city, and want to prevent social unrest from spreading.”

Putin’s regime similarly cracked down on an extreme Russian nationalist named Alexander Potkin, who was known to his followers as “Belov.” He led an ultranationalist group called the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which was banned in 2011. Potkin was convicted for extremism by a Moscow court in 2016.

One inspiration for Putin’s dream of an exceptional Eurasian empire is the late Russian historian Lev Gumilev, according to the U.S. official. In Putin’s 2016 annual speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, he lauded what Gumilev had called passionarnost, which could be translated as “passionism.” Rather than trying to become Western and bourgeois, Gumilev argued, Russia should recognize that it “owed its heritage more to the fierce nomads and steppe tribes of Eurasia,” as the Financial Times explained in a 2016 essay about the Russian historian.

It would be comforting to think that the Ukraine war and its assault on the European order are simply products of Putin’s fevered imagination. But they have deep roots in the history and culture of the sprawling Russian federation. This truly is a battle of East vs. West — and of two versions of exceptionalism.