Understanding Russian national identity is key for American policymakers hoping to understand the country's international moves.
To hear contemporary American policymakers on both sides of the aisle tell it, Russian President Vladimir Putin has single-handedly molded the country into his own authoritarian image. 

But while Mr. Putin has deftly employed Russian nationalism to serve his own goals, the reality is that the country’s historical gravity exerts an equally forceful pull on him, said Igor Zevelev, a global fellow from the Woodrow Wilson International Center. 

Igor Zevelev

“Contrary to widespread belief, Putin does not shape national discourses, but national discourses shape Vladimir Putin,” Dr. Zevelev said during a Jan. 21 Atlanta Council on International Relations webinar on the relationship between Russia’s national identity and international strategy.

That means that parsing the strategy behind Russian policy moves is much more complex than reading one man’s moods, motivations and machinations, Dr. Zevelev said. 

At a time when the U.S.-Russia relationship is believed to be at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War, Dr. Zevelev’s presentation offered a deeper look at Russia’s strategic aims, its foreign policy and the resulting implications for the U.S. and Eurasia.

According to Dr. Zevelev, the Kremlin’s worldview is shaped by four main narrative threads, including the continuity principle, which is based on the conception of an uninterrupted flow of Russian history from Grand Prince Vladimir in the 10th century, to the present leader Vladimir Putin. So ingrained is this sense that it has trickled into many official documents, including the most recent Russian national security strategy, he said. 

Another narrative is rooted in the idea of “Russian exceptionalism,” wherein the Kremlin blends a set of distinct values with a sort of messianic spirituality to reconstruct Russian national identity. He cited the polls from the Levada Institute which indicate that this resonates with the population.

Russia’s relationship to Europe creates another narrative strain, with Russia seeing the continent as a proxy for the larger “West.” 

“In Russian consciousness, Russia and Europe are two entities of the same scale,” Dr. Zevelev said.

The two are linked by Christianity, but their interpretations of it also create a sense of rivalry, he added. The Kremlin wants to be seen as a custodian of true Christian values, in opposition to the postmodern liberal interpretations espoused by the countries of the European Union. The presence of a pro-Western contingent of Russian society and in its “near-abroad,” then, is seen as a threat to Russia’s distinct cultural identity.

Lastly, Russia operates with a sense of nostalgia and a current mission in the post-Soviet neighborhood. In the former USSR, the Kremlin believes itself to have valid geopolitical and cultural interests, if not civilizational and spiritual mission.

While the map changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the “mental map” has not for many Russians, who experienced these events as a deep national identity crisis.

Dr. Zevelev points to conflicts election turmoil in Belarus and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as examples of how these narratives play out in reality. The toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 was portrayed by the Kremlin as a coup on Russian ground organized by the West. In Dr. Zevelev’s mind, Moscow feels forced to securitize the question of identity for the very survival of the Russian nation and statehood. This has allowed Putin to justify his Crimean annexation both in geopolitical and sacral terms. 

When speaking about Kremlin’s policies towards the U.S., Zevelev argued that because Putin’s policies call to reassert Russia as a great power, it must maintain three objectives: limiting America’s global leadership role by making a multipolar world, breaking U.S. military preeminence and stopping the U.S. from inducing regime changes across the world, phrased tersely as “American crusades.” 

All this means that the scope for collaboration in U.S.-Russia relations is limited, though avenues do exist beyond arms control, Dr. Zevelev said during the question-and-answer period with the ACIR’s virtual audience.

Cybersecurity is one such area; while it’s a given that both sides will use their capabilities to gather information, they may be able to agree to ban their use for election interference, Dr. Zevelev said.

That said, hurdles remain. NATO expansion, he said, has always been a sore spot, given the Russian view that this is a Cold War institution that persists as a mode of containment. The Kremlin is able to use NATO expansion to justify its international policies in part because even the pro-Western liberal Russian thinkers are opposed to it. Add to this the values-based approach to foreign policy by the new Biden administration, as well as backing of post-Soviet countries, and each side may have limited room for maneuver.   

Greek Consul Theodoros Dimopoulos, posted in Moscow before arriving in Atlanta this year, asked how the Kremlin uses and views the terms “Russky” and “Rossiysky.” “Russky” is ethnic Russian, while “Rossiysky” is the term for Russian citizen/civilian of any ethnicity, Zevelev explained. Until 2014, Putin avoided using Russky, sticking to the civilian term instead, but when Crimea was annexed, “Russky” became more pronounced, reflecting the need to justify cross-border adventurism in the prism of protecting the Russian community abroad.

Dr. Zevelev said he didn’t feel threatened for sharing his broader views. 

“Russia is an authoritarian state; it is not a totalitarian state,” he said, noting that mass media outlets and individuals can still be critical of the government as long as they do not mobilize and organize protests on the national level (citing the example of poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny). 

In ending his remarks, Dr. Zevelev stated that he was choosing to be hopeful for future U.S.-Russian dealings, recalling his optimistic moment in 1989 when he first visited Washington. At the time, profound changes were paving the way for cordial relations under Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Robert Kennedy, president of ACIR, also shared his optimism, stating that despite many barriers, there is great potential for future cooperation.  

In addition to his role at the Wilson Center, Dr. Zevelev has held distinguished positions at the George Marshall European Center, John Hopkins, the MacArthur Foundation’s Moscow office, University of Washington, the University of California at Berkeley and other institutions. He has also authored numerous books on national security and Russian identity. Find out more about him here.

Learn more about the Atlanta Council on International Relations at www.atlantacir.org.

Nearly a month after Dr. Zevelev’s talk, the council hosted a panel of experts from the Daisy Alliance on the “ever-growing nuclear threat.” Watch that discussion on the Council’s YouTube channel here