By Coleman Hopkins
The defeat of Republican Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in the 2018 midterm elections felled one of the few prominent dissenters from a troubling consensus in Washington: that Russia is an unambiguous enemy of America the state, and America the idea. The view now dominant in Washington is that Putin despises the US’s liberal creed and international reach, and will act to destroy both as he can. Such an ominous outlook forebodes further deterioration of US-Russia relations, as Russia’s nuclear arsenal, geographic position, economic resources and sway in international governing bodies make it more than capable of thwarting American interests. But this perspective also mischaracterizes Putin’s motivations by misunderstanding the nature and origins of the Russian nationalism that drives his governance. Contrary to the prevailing narrative in Washington, D.C., Russian nationalism is not inherently at odds with American interests and security.
American politicians often misattribute the US’s poor relationship with Russia to factors other than the country’s nationalism. In recent years, the most commonly cited factor is Russia’s antics during the 2016 election. Russia’s meddling in this election rightly brought it scorn, for voting and democracy hold a sacred position in American life. But the US’s uniquely bad relationship with Russia cannot be fully explained by this recent instance, as Russia has held the distinction of America’s least-favored nation since long before 2016. Election shenanigans were not a cause so much as a consequence of this designation.
Others claim bad relations with Russia result from its domestic and regional politics. Russia has protected Syrian leader Bashar al Assad despite his brutal flouting of international law, much to the chagrin of American leaders determined to unseat him. And Russia remains infamous for a widely-condemned law passed in 2013 prohibiting the distribution of pro-LGBT literature and political pamphlets among minors. Such restrictions on liberty and speech rights contradict America’s values, and contribute to the deep antipathy felt by many Americans for the Russian state.
Again, this claim is initially plausible but ultimately incomplete. Though Russia’s restrictions on LGBT rights may be backwards, they nevertheless do not threaten America or its way of life. Many states with which the US is closely aligned — Saudi Arabia, to use a timely and stark example — do far worse to LGBT people within their jurisdictions. These countries are not regarded as enemies, let alone as mortal threats. Clearly there is some room for states to stray from the US’s ethical code without becoming sworn enemies, so offense at specific policies cannot explain the icy relations either.
A more compelling explanation for America’s designation of Russia as a critical threat is its stubborn political nationalism. While universalist internationalism underpins America’s ethos in global and domestic politics, particularism and nationalism form the pillars of Russia’s political stance. Russian nationalism is illiberal, and it unapologetically departs from the norms and conventions of the West. e.g., liberal democracy, or equal rights under the law. It also embodies many of the political and social values that America has come to oppose over the twentieth-century, such as Orthodox cultural conservatism; civic collectivism; realpolitik in international affairs; and a ‘Big Man’ approach to domestic politics. From at least the final years of the tsarist regime through the end of the USSR, Russia stood in contrast to the values and practices of America in particular and to the West more generally.
So, as the US grew more powerful and willing to promote its values around the world, Russia became increasingly recalcitrant toward this global campaign for liberal values, markets, and democracy. Russia criticized American actions and abetted its rivals. This is why many in the foreign policy establishment see Russia as America’s greatest threat: it is one of the few states which actively opposes the US’s moral and political agenda, and one of the even fewer powerful enough to impede it.
But it is not merely Russian nationalism which has caused this friction so much as America’s misunderstanding of it. Nationalism has developed a bad reputation in the West due to its complex and muddled ideological underpinnings and its less-than-great record in the twentieth-century. All forms of nationalism overlap in that they are conceived upon ideas of shared blood, history, and/or language. Moreover, Russian nationalism has no obvious liberal qualities: it is irrational, exclusive, and somewhat intolerant of difference. At the same time, Russian nationalism departs from other strains of nationalism, such as those of the Nazis or the Japanese militarists, in a critical way: it is not built upon a mythic past in which the Russians ruled the world as near gods (à la German nationalism under Hitler) nor does it justify the mistreatment of non-Russians. Rather, Russian nationalism is constructed upon very real and comparatively recent historical phenomena, most of which involve devastating, vividly-remembered conflicts with Western states. The error in America’s reasoning lies in its failure to distinguish Russian nationalism from other forms, and in its obliviousness to its own role in shaping and sustaining these sentiments in Russia.
Nationalism of the Russian variety is predicated not only on language and religion, but also on shared historical experiences. Russian history sheds light on the nature and purpose of its nationalist project, the genesis of its animosity toward America, and the reasons why this contentious relationship has endured.
For most of Russia’s history, it has been at the same time an immense state and a profoundly weak one. Its size forces it to share borders with many peoples at once, and these borders were not always clearly demarcated, much less defensible. Size also made it naturally diverse, such that it suffered from a lack of social or political cohesion. Additionally, Russia endured disruptive political shakeups, such as civil wars and invasions, every few decades for several centuries. Furthermore, as a state on the border of two continents, Russia has always been squeezed between and/or situated beside great powers, such as the Ottoman Empire and the empires of Napoleon and Hitler. This unalterable geographic reality made Russia the host to many conflicts, some among the most savage and destructive in human history.
Often the most impactful historical events have been military conflicts, and three in particular deserve special attention: Napoleon’s invasion, the Great Fatherland War, and the Cold War. Each of these interactions had a monumental impact on the establishment of the Russian nation as it exists today, in part by teaching Russians that caution, self-reliance, and suspicion are virtues essential to survival in a dangerous part of the world.
Let us begin with the Napoleonic Wars. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Russia was an underdeveloped country with a limited bureaucracy and army. By the time Napoleon’s vast armies crossed the Neman River in 1812, they had bested many of the most advanced militaries and wealthiest states in the world in a long stream of uninterrupted military victories across multiple continents. Russia seemingly had no business competing with — let alone defeating — the preeminent army on the planet. Yet Russia did defeat it, and Napoleon was repelled. How did Russia succeed in doing what so many other states had failed to manage?
Of the factors that contributed to this victory, perhaps the most decisive was the sense of the conflict being a civilizational or cultural one. This idea was driven by the tsar’s propaganda campaign during the invasion. Orchestrated from the top down, this barrage of information painted the conflict with France not as a standard war, but rather as an existential cultural battle with implications for the Russian people and their way of life. The risk that French liberalism would be imposed by gunpoint was made explicit to Russian commoners, as was concern that Napoleon’s invasion would spur Polish nationalism and in turn reduce Russia’s territorial holdings. Hence, the effort to repel “the invasion of the twelve languages” took on a larger significance than the mere defense of the tsarist regime.
Sentiments roused by the campaign against Napoleon survived long after the expulsion of the French army. In framing the conflict as the ‘Patriotic War’, the tsar and his allies created an idea of Russianness and concern over its extinction. The West and Western states were seen as an alien and adversarial entity. This had a lasting impact on how Russians saw themselves in relation to the Western world, as they defined their existence outside of ‘Western Civilization’. A major consequence of the war was that Russians now shared a border with a perceived threat to everything their home and culture stood for.
This anxiety over enemies on the border was magnified and substantiated in the first half of the twentieth century. During the Russian Civil War, numerous countries intervened, either to aid the Whites (the more conservative forces opposed to the socialists and Bolsheviks) or to take advantage of Russian weakness to claw back land and wealth. Only a few decades later, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and sent the Wehrmacht east to make good on his promise of a lebensraum for the German people. Thus began the most destructive military confrontation in human history.
Today some portray this meeting between the German Nazis and the Russian communists as a duel between fascists and anti-fascists, or as a kind of oppositional ideological battle. In reality, the Great Fatherland War was between two deeply nationalistic sides whose leaders decided that coexistence was impossible. During the war, Stalin’s Communist Party reoriented and ratcheted-up their propaganda efforts to emphasize Russian history and heroes to motivate soldiers and civilians alike — a stark departure from the USSR’s propaganda and policy of the 1920s and 1930s, which emphasized imperial ‘affirmative action’. The gambit worked and Stalin successfully rallied support for the nation, and by extension, himself. Again, nationalism and concern over territorial and cultural integrity pushed Russia to victory in a battle of great powers.
Finally, the decades-long Cold War between the USSR and America deepened and radically accelerated the divide between the East and the West. Over the course of roughly a half century, Soviet culture and politics developed in an illiberal and idiosyncratic manner. The culture became more collectivist and the people grew more skeptical of the capitalist system, in part because communism delivered on its promise of improved living conditions for several years. Accordingly, the Russian people’s view of important international events — like the Marshall Plan — departed even more radically from the views of those in the West. For almost 50 years, there was little to no meaningful shared history between the Russian people and the American people, for those in the USSR experienced cultural events and interactions in their own way through a non-Western lens. Russia was less influenced by the West over this period, and more resentful of it, thanks to its oppositional stance during the Cold War.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the West’s rush to absorb former Russian lands and allies into Western institutions terrified and outraged Russian leaders and citizens. Unable to push back against these advances, Russians had to sit on their hands and bite their tongues until they were stronger and able to voice their dissent. But today Russia is more capable of expressing its will — so it does. The renewed expression of Russian goals and interests is not a new development with regard to country’s nationalistic orientation. What is new is that America now interprets Russia’s historical disposition toward nationalism — present even during times when the two states were tepid allies — as a sudden threat to its security and interests. In reaching this determination, the US ignores the historical record and its own actions, both of which suggest that these aims are pragmatic and largely security-focused.
In seeing Russia as an enemy on account of its nationalistic political and cultural values, the US makes a serious mistake. That is, it holds Russia as a natural adversary due to its perception of Russian nationalism as conflict-oriented, aggressive, and inherently contrary to American interests. Furthermore, it associates nationalism with words like ‘reckless’ or ‘aggression’ — even ‘racism’ or ‘fascism’ — and reacts according to the menacing implications of such words. But the historical record reveals that Russian nationalism is anything but assertive or rapacious; on the contrary, it is insecure, paranoid, conciliatory, and hesitant. Indeed, though Russian nationalism is reactionary, it is also defensive, reacting only in fear to perceived threats from the West, many of which have been substantive and grave. And that fear — partially instilled by decades of Western-initiated conflict and interference — is what shapes Russian interactions with neighbors near and far.
Russia is nationalistic, but it has no designs on international domination or regional genocide. As Putin has repeatedly said, he wants partnerships with those who want partnerships with Russia; he wants balance in international institutions while also securing a bigger seat for Russia at the proverbial table; and he wants an end to NATO-American activities along his borders. In many respects Putin’s aims could be understood as a kind of ‘Russia First’ agenda, which, while worrisome, is not so different from Zionism and other forms of nationalism that the US can and does work with. The friction between the two countries is a matter of choice on the part of America, and it is one that America ought to rethink.
Unlike with other former enemies such as Germany or Japan, the US has never succeeded in transferring its values over to Russia. The absence of shared political and cultural principles helps to explain the distrust and resentment between the two states. But that does not justify Washington’s general unwillingness to work with Moscow. While Russia and America may not share the same values, they may share the same interests in certain cases. Those could lead to a healthy partnership if the latter is willing to examine the strategic goals that underlie Russian nationalism. To consider those aims and their implications for the US, America’s leaders suspend and reconsider their assumptions about what Russian nationalism entails and desires. Perhaps future Congresses will be willing to do that.