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The Nexus Religion/Nationalism in Today’s Russia: Are the Roots Buried in Dostoevsky’s Novels?

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“Only one nation is ‘god-bearing,’ that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin, he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!”   -Shatov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]’d like to begin this reflection on the nexus between religion and nationalism in a rather prosaic mode, so to speak, with the empirical facts, as announced by Pew researchers on the subject: roughly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, religion has been resurrected in Russia, as well as 17 other countries formerly under its fist.

Overall, 86 percent of 25,000 respondents interviewed between June 2015 and July 2016 said they believe in God; 59 percent believe in a heaven and 54 percent believe in hell. Just 14 percent fall within the atheists or agnostics category.

In many countries formerly under Soviet rule, religion and national identity are inextricably tied. In Russia, the Orthodox Church is heavily favored, while Polish believers are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Overall, 70 percent of poll respondents in those countries where Orthodoxy is predominant said their national identity was tied to their faith; for Roman Catholics, the percentage was 57.

However, identification with faith does not necessarily translate to strong church attendance. Few respondents to this poll regularly attend worship services; 25 percent of Roman Catholics said they attend weekly Mass, while only 10 percent of Orthodox adherents attend worship at least once a week.

Those statistics strongly imply that three-quarters of a century of official state atheism in the former Soviet Union and its Central and Eastern European satellite nations (from 1917 till 1989) has all but evaporated in a sudden resurgence of faith since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

From 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia, until 1991, when the USSR crumbled, religious faith — though technically constitutionally protected — was treated with ambivalence and often persecuted as incompatible with Marxist ideology.

In various ways, the state oppressed religion, Christian and non-Christian alike. Believers often found themselves dismissed from their jobs, clergy imprisoned and sometimes executed or doomed to gulags for perceived disloyalty. This persecution encouraged the emergence of new officially atheistic generations which replaced the believers of old.

This may at first look like a positive development, at least for freedom of religion. But on further analysis one discovers that there is a problem in this rosy social scenario: the entanglement between nationalism as expressed by the State with the official state religion seems to have become all but inextricable. What the US founding fathers dubbed “the separation of Church and State” is also evaporating fast.

Perhaps ironically, Orthodox Christians today see Russia as playing a role in protecting — rather than persecuting — their faith. And most former East bloc, predominantly Orthodox nations agree that “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” So, it appears that religion (Russian Orthodoxy, in particular) has become a political tool in the hands of Putin’s strategy of “divide and conquer,” another tool, like cyber-war and disinformation, by which to oppose the West alleged to be greedy and corrupt, devoid of moral underpinnings.

In Russia, the same above mentioned poll shows, 85 percent support the idea of their nation being a buffer against the immorality of the West, with that opinion echoed to varying degrees elsewhere in former Iron Curtain countries — from 52 percent in Romania and Georgia to 80 percent and 83 percent in Armenia and Serbia, respectively. The sole exception, as might be expected given current strained relations with Russia, is Ukraine with just 22 percent support for the concept of Orthodoxy as a defense against a corrupt West.

But, staying within the parameters of religion/nationalism, another conundrum surfaces: the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, has also brought on the stage increasing resistance to faiths imported from the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin — under the official impetus of cracking down on terrorism — has approved tight restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism by other non-Orthodox faiths. In other words, he does not consider Christianity a universal religion practiced by different denominations and different cultures. In that respect he is violating (like Trump in America) the constitutional violation of equal treatment of all religions.

Hit particularly hard are Pentecostals and evangelical Christians, as well as Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, believers who consider themselves Christians and who often have been forced to conduct low-key meetings in homes. Mormon missionaries are now called “volunteers” in order to better downplay their proselytizing motives. Persecution is the air. It is a selective kind of Christianity that is propagandized by the State.

What is conveniently forgotten by this pseudo-religious posture, which amounts to a stealthy cover-up, is that the essential political struggle between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance in the West may have little to do with the struggle between atheism and religion, or between morality and corruption, or secularism against the sacred, but rather between democracy and tyranny.

I’ve already written extensively on this topic of the democratic deficit which may eventually doom both political blocks, with or without religion. What I’d like to do here is to explore the roots of the kernel of truth that exists in the concept that Russia is a substantially different from the corrupt West; that is not invented by Putin’s propaganda machine. Indeed, iIf those roots exist, one will not uncover them by merely listening and following Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric, but by reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, particularly two from which I will quote extensively in this article: The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamozov.

As an intriguing aside, one wonders how many people noticed that while the London Olympics opened up with an image of a train coming down the rail, spewing pollution into the atmosphere to glorify the industrial revolution and the British Empire of old nostalgically resurrected, while Shakespeare was not even mentioned, the Moscow Olympics did not neglect to prominently mention and display Dostoevsky’s picture, as well as that of Tolstoy, as glories of Russia.

Be that as it may, let us begin with an extensive quote from The Possessed. When I first read the novel in college in the 60s it was translated as The Devils. We shall see further down why that translation also makes eminent sense. The quote is the following:

Science and reason have, from the beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part in the life of nations; so it will be till the end of time.[underlining mine]. Nations are built up and moved by another force which sways and dominates them, the origin of which is unknown and inexplicable: that force is the force of an insatiable desire to go on to the end, though at the same time it denies that end. It is the force of the persistent assertion of one’s own existence, and a denial of death. It’s the spirit of life, as the Scriptures call it, “the river of living water,” the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse. It’s the aesthetic principle, as the philosophers call it, the ethical principle with which they identify it, “the seeking of God,” as I call it more simply. The object of every national movement, in every people and at every period of its existence is only the seeking for its god, who must be its own god, and the faith in Him as the only true god. God is the synthetic personality of the whole people, taken from its beginning to its end….

You reduce God to a simple attribute of nationality…

I reduce God to the attribute of nationality? cried Shatov. On the contrary, I raise the people to God. And has it ever been otherwise? The people is the body of God. Every people is only a people so long as it has its own god and excludes all other gods on earth irreconcilably…. Such from the beginning of time has been the belief of all great nations, all, anyway, who have been specially remarkable, all who have been leaders of humanity…. The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations… If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people…. But there is only one truth, and therefore only a single out of the nations can have the true God, even though other nations may have great gods of their own. Only one nation is “god-bearing,” that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin,’ he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!

Is Dostoevsky saying, via the conversation between Shatov and Stavrogin that for man to be saved and fulfill his final destiny he needs to believe in a Russian God? This line of thinking may appear preposterous to the “enlightened” secular intelligence of Western Europe, but notice please that, from the outset, science and reason are declared a secondary and subordinate part of the life of nations. In other words, the rational preoccupations of the age of Enlightenment are not the focus here; they are subordinate to a more encompassing idea; the idea of the search for the ultimate destiny of man.

As Rebecca West has aptly expressed, this is “the inquiry that looks over the shoulder of the man of science at every experiment; it is the preoccupation that sits like a judge in every artist’s brain. The discoveries of science and philosophy have opened such magic casements out of the world of appearances that they have attracted men of imagination, whose impulse it is to find out the beauty and significance of material, as strongly as they have repelled those who have staked their existence on the finality of the Christian revelation. And thus it is that the history of the research for redemption is written not in the liturgies but in literature.” Which is to say, the task may be less theological, of linking with a Greek Orthodox Church (from which derives the Russian Orthodox Church) and more philosophical and literary. And yet, Dostoevsky has that Church in mind, a church that had indeed preserved the kindness of the early church but can also be a calculating institution as many religious institutions indeed are. Just take a good look at the photograph below the title of this article.

As the title of the book The Possessed more than adequately suggests, the near-obsession with the theme of the meaning and final destiny of man’s life, was stimulated by some of the events going on at the time at the hands of the so called Nihilists. Who were the Nihilists in 19th century Russia? They were the likes of Stravogin and Shatov in the Possessed. They do not believe in the God who lives within the shining frames of the Greek icons, or the Orthodox liturgy intoned in a dialect spoken a thousand years ago in a remote corner of Macedonia. There is a strange faith, a difficult faith. At one point of the narration this exchange occurs: “I want to ask you,” asked Stavrogin coldly, “do you believe in God, yourself?” “I believe in Russia,” muttered Shatov frantically, “I believe in her orthodoxy…. I believe in the body of Christ…. I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia…. I believe…” “And in God?” pressed Stavrogin, “in God?” “I… I will believe in God….”

One is tempted to ask: has Dostoevsky too joined in spirit those disordered minds of the time called Nihilists or “disordered saints of the mind”? Those who reasserted with Schopenhauer, that there is a will-to-live which universally guides humanity with a blind sort of genius, and then with Nietzsche doctrine of egotism preached that not only men but entire collectives, entire nations could be strong, super-nations, so to speak, sinless like the angels. Those types called the possessed had become intimately involved in the eternal struggle between the proud and the humble, the original genius and the academic protocol that loves tradition, the militarist nations organized for war and obedience and the pacifist nations which leave themselves open to chaos for the sake of freedom.

Another tempting question: had Dostoevsky allied himself with the proud? The question is prompted by his book The Brothers Karamazov which relates how Christ came to Seville and is condemned to death by the Grand Inquisitor lest he should restore free will to humankind. That would explain his hatred of everything Catholic, a church which preached salvation by the subjection of the will to ecclesiastical authority, what he calls, not unlike Nietzsche, a communion of cowards rather than a communion of saints.

Again, to quote Rebecca West once again: “Dostoevsky hated the materialism of his age, which declared, in the phrase that jangles like a cracked bell through The Possessed, that “the rattle of the carts bringing bread to humanity is more important than the Sistine Madonna,” because it understated the magnificent greeds and appetites of the human animal. He loved Christianity because the willingness for sacrifice is brave, and in the words, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit,” rings such a call to adventure as no other religion has dared to take upon its lips. It behooved a man to be so proud of life that he would honor its young strength in little children; that he would welcome any deed that would make it sweeter, even if it were performed by the clumsy hands of an old man; that he would rejoice at every word that made its meaning clearer, even though it were hiccupped by a drunken convict. It behooved a man to remember that he was part of a nation crowned with the destiny of saving mankind, and to bear himself proudly and busily as one of its ambassadors. So he might be saved.”

And so we arrive at Dostoevsky’s nationalism, which some have misunderstood and confused with that of Putin and his ilk. It has nothing to do with the repression of intelligence and liberty, with the aggressive nationalism of a modern Italy or Germany, or aggressiveness and arrogance in international affairs, or the Machiavellian principles that “might makes right” or “the end justifies the means.”

Then what exactly is Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism? It might be nothing more than the ancient Greek’s advice to create a society that aims at common good and creates an environment that is suited to the cultivation of the soul and the pursuit of perfection. If mother Russia wanted to be an example to the rest of the world it had to create those conditions.

Dostoevsky seems to imply in The Possessed that tradition is the enemy of science, or vice versa; but all he might be saying is that if one deprives an individual of his heritage and tradition the end result will be the deprivation of the total of human relationships wherein he may learn love, which strengthens the will to live. He will be in effect be robbed of that network which is necessary to remain human and above the restrictions of mere ethnicity or worse, tribal loyalty or exclusion of the other.

The problem is that in The Possessed and in The Brothers Karamazov this nationalism seems to come across as an angry kind of nationalism, one that suggests xenophobia and seems to support the nefarious attacks of the state bureaucracy against its own people. Perhaps Dostoevsky was too obsessed with his hunger for salvation and could not reflect more serenely on this crucial issue. As Rebecca West renders it “it’s like standing in the darkness outside a lighted house to which one has no key. If Dostoevsky sometimes lost himself in rage as he beat on the doors, it was because he had in his heart such a wonderful dream of the light.” Be that as it may, the path to the fulfillment of that dream will not be found in the advice of those who are pursuing another nefarious Machiavellian path and covering it up with the appearance of piety. Those people are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their core belief is “knowledge is power.” That slogan, come to think of it, was proffered by one of the fathers of the Western Enlightenment: Francis Bacon. Perhaps it needs a revisiting.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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