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Decoding Putin’s State of the Union Speech

Vladimir Putin’s December 4th “state of the union” address to Russia’s Federal Assembly once again explained why he annexed the Crimea. This time, his explanation reached new ideological heights, while again confounding academic realists, who continue to insist that Russia grabbed the Crimea in response to an aggressive West. Here are Putin’s words:

[The annexation of the Crimea] has special significance for our country and our people. Because our people live in the Crimea, and the territory itself is strategically important; because it is here that is found the spiritual source of the formation of a multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. It was here, in the Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized and then baptized all of Rus.

In addition to ethnic similarity, a [common] language, common elements of material culture, a common territory unmarked by stable borders, and nascent common economic activity and princely rule, Christianity proved to be a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped include very different blood tribes and tribal unions of the extensive eastern Slavic world in the formation of a single Russian nation and the creation of common statehood. And it was on this spiritual soil that our forefathers for the first time and forever became conscious of themselves as a single people. And this gives us the grounds to say that Crimea, ancient Korsun, Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have enormous civilizational and sacral importance for Russia. Like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is for those who believe in Islam or Judaism. And that is how we will relate to it from now and forever.

Needless to say, there’s no mention of NATO, the United States, American imperialism, and the like. Instead, we’re told that the Crimea is sacred Russian land. Forget Putin’s ignorance of Russia’s own history (as I’ve written before, Russia is to Rus as Romania is to the Roman Empire—i.e., Rus is not ancient Russia, just as the Roman Empire is not ancient Romania). Disregard the fact that putative sacredness is the worst possible reason for territorial adjustments. Focus on the fact that Putin is intentionally invoking Islam and Judaism in order to underline that today’s Russia is bound to ancient Rus by means of Christianity. (Hence Putin’s obscenely close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and its ex-KGB patriarch, Kirill.) This is nothing more than a rehashed version of the Muscovite imperial notion of Moscow as the Third Rome. This is crazy stuff, especially in the 21st century, but the good news is that, when dictators seek legitimacy in religion, it usually means they know they’re weak and need succor from outside.

There’s another important aspect to this passage. Lest it go unnoticed, it should be pointed out that the list of unifying forces Putin mentions at the beginning of the second paragraph are a restatement of Joseph Stalin’s famous definition of the nation. Putin is using that definition in order to make the point that it was then, in 988 AD, when Kyivan Rus was baptized, that “a single Russian nation” came into existence. Putin specifically says nation, and not people—an important semantic distinction that is supposed to connote a far greater degree of identity and solidarity for the former. This is a fundamental revision of the standard Soviet and Russian ideological line, according to which Kyivan Rus was the birthplace of three “fraternal” peoples—the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. There’s no mention of the latter two in Putin’s speech. It follows, according to Putin’s logic, that Kyivan Rus was a Russian nation state. That’ll be news to scholars, who generally agree that nation states are relatively recent political entities. Putin’s version of eternal Russia has been a nation and a state since time immemorial.

Contrast these sentiments with Putin’s March 18th speech to an assembly of Russian policymakers in which he gave his first justification for the Crimea’s annexation:

Literally everything in the Crimea is suffused with our shared history and pride. Here was ancient Khersones, where the saintly Prince Vladimir accepted baptism. His spiritual feat of turning to Orthodoxy determined the common cultural, value-based, and civilizational foundation that unites the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The Crimea is a unique blend of different peoples’ cultures and traditions. This makes it similar to greater Russia, where not a single ethnic group has disappeared or vanished in the course of centuries. Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and people of other peoples have lived side by side in the Crimean land, retaining their own identity, traditions, languages, and faith.

Putin said nothing about Kyivan Rus as home to a Russian nation. Quite the contrary, he emphasized “the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus” and the multiethnic nature of the Crimea. And no word of the sacredness of the Crimea for the Russian nation.

So what does this all mean?

First, international relations specialists of the “realist” school should finally acknowledge the obvious truth that has escaped them thus far: Putin wasn’t thinking of NATO or the West when he ordered his troops to occupy the Crimea. Only once, on July 1st, did Putin ever mention some putative NATO threat. Contrast that one sentence—“we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the balance of forces in the Black Sea area”—with the hundreds of words justifying the land grab in ideological or historical terms.

Second, Putin either knows very little about his own history or is manipulating and distorting it shamelessly. The first possibility is probable, given his KGB background. The second is equally probable, given his KGB background. Either way, Russia is ruled by a neo-fascist leader who is either shamefully ignorant of his country’s history or cynically promotes a distorted version of it to Russians. Little surprise there.

Third, Putin has clearly decided to adopt a Russian supremacist line. Apparently, the Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Crimean Tatars no longer have a place in his visions of the Russian future. At best, they’re irrelevant to the project of constructing a Fourth Rome, the Putinite successor to Muscovy’s third version. At worst, they’re obstacles that must be removed. That’s bad news for the Tatars and the Belarusians. Ukrainians may breathe a bit more easily, knowing that they’ve managed to stop the ongoing Russian assault.

Fourth, and this is the good news, Putin appears to know that Russia is alone. The rest of his speech makes that point over and over again. His new Moscow will be the center of a Fortress Russia, and there’s at least a possibility that the fortress will be too busy building walls to trouble its neighbors.

By the way, if Putin knew Kyivan Rus’s history a bit better, he might abandon his insistence on Russia’s continuity with that state. Kyivan Rus fell victim to internal divisions and external attacks and disappeared as a state in the 13th century. 

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