Emergence of Russian ultra-nationalism and its challenges for Europe

Since the failure of Yeltsin’s liberal democracy in Russia in the 1990s, Russia has moved towards increased ultra-nationalist sentiments under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. These state-driven expressions of nationalist exceptionality became ambiguous strategic, political, and societal questions for Europe at the latest after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. However, the challenges of the analytics stem from the hardly-defined political extent and the uncertain limits for the application of ultra-nationalist ideology in the field of foreign and domestic policy of Russia.

The application of the current ultra-nationalist ideology and sentiments in today’s Russia challenges the security and stability of Europe. Russian state uses a variety of measures from the “toolbox of ultra-nationalism” to control the domestic population as well as to increase the success of the aggressive foreign policy measures. These measures pose security challenges against Europe in terms of strategy, policy, and societal discourse. However, the extent and effectiveness of the application of the presented measures are two-folded and should be seen in the relation to a variety of factors.

Foundations of contemporary radical nationalism

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s created a unique layout for the newly-created state of Russian Federation as in the first time in its history Russia had become ethnically coherent state consisting 80% of ethnically Russian population. The uniqueness of the new situation was based on the historical stances of the previous regimes towards nationalism; during the tsarist times nationalism was a direct threat against the cohesion of the multicultural empire, while in the Soviet Union nationalism was the exact opposite of the official internationalist ideology. Hence, unsurprisingly, the dissolution of the Soviet Union introduced a variety of suppressed nationalist sentiments in the post-Soviet states.
The failure of the newly-founded democratic institutions to establish a solid rule-based system, combined with the collapse of the economic system, paved the road for the ideological and political movements embracing nationalism and exceptionality of the Russian culture, history, religion, and global political status. The current regime of Vladimir Putin has effectively utilised the nationalist pride by fuelling the ultra-nationalist drive both domestically and in the sphere of foreign policy. After over 15 years of the implementation of nationalist ideology through mass communications, legislation, education, military service, and state-funded mass events, the acceptance of foreign and domestic policy actions that challenge the sense of security and the current strategic-political order in Europe have become an issue of concern.

Geopolitical ambitions and the oppression of sexual minorities – Hard measures empowering ultra-nationalism

The current crisis between the European states and Russia began at the latest in March 2014 after Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The Annexation of Crimea provided a significant boost for the sense of nationalism and solidified the support for the current foreign policy among Russian people. According to the Levada Center, 70% of Russians think that the annexation of Crimea has “mostly helped” Russia, while 51% of Russians support the idea of foreign policy being driven by the ambition to make Russia as “one of the most influential countries in the world”. Hence, if the annexation is seen through purely ideological motives, the capture of regions from foreign countries bear ultra-nationalist incentives.
Russia has utilised the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as a measure to increase the nationalist sentiments in Russia by promoting anti-Ukrainian and anti-western narratives through a constant use of propaganda and disinformation. At the peak of the conflict in 2014, the half-celebrity warlord of the conflict, Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh appeared even in a New York Times article on the battle of Ilovaisk. After the comprehensive disaster followed by the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 passenger plane, both Givi and Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov were assassinated, and their funerals were shown in the Russian state television broadcasts. The glorification of the conflict combined with the extensive use of social media and mass communications also attracted foreign fighters from European countries to fight alongside the ultra-nationalist extremist groups of Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
In 2013 Russian Duma implemented the so called “gay propaganda law” prohibiting the expressions of homosexuality on the public places for the “protection of moral and health of children”. The decision is related to the increased anti-LGBT sentiments in Russia: since 1998, the opposition against the sexual minorities increased from 68% to 76% in 2008. European court has described the law as being discriminatory and against the European Convention of Human Rights, while the Human Rights Watch, in turn, has reported an increase in the violence against sexual minorities. The act has, arguably, solidified the status of the current regime in the field of value politics.

Radical nationalism among children and bikers – ultra-nationalism legitimising hard measures

During the following years since the annexation of Crimea, Russian state has increasingly implemented patriotic and nationalist education for the youth and children. One recent example of controversy occurred on the 24 May when Radio Free Europe reported on a Siberian N1 channel journalist being discharged after criticising a children’s kindergarten performance Uncle Vova, We Are With You, composed by a neonationalist author Vyacheslav Antonov. The song became viral after Volgograd TV -named YouTube channel published a video performance produced by a state Duma representative Anna Kuvychko featuring small children in police cadet uniforms. In addition to the Uncle Vova -controversy, the Russian Ministry of Defence launched in 2016 a military-patriotic movement for the youth, the Young Army (Junarmija), to provide nationalistic indoctrination and military training for nearly 200 000 enlisted children.
One of the most interesting phenomena in Russia is the role of the motorcycle gang Night Wolves in the state-run propaganda and as a hybrid influencing instrument that operates both in the domestic sphere and abroad. Night Wolves, in its current form, is a curious mixture of ultra-nationalism, Soviet nostalgy, Mad Max style apocalypticism, hardcore Orthodox Christianity, Novorossija affection, and exaggerated masculinity. The leader of the organisation, Alexander Zaldostanov, is a well-known public person and a close friend of Vladimir Putin. Hence, the organisation enjoys full protection from the behalf of Kremlin and the power vertical.
Night Wolves is perhaps the most well-known from its provocative biker-runs in Eastern Europe with the motive of causing controversy and negative reactions among local population, as well as to promote certain narratives in the Russian domestic information space. However, the most distinguished event is the annual bike-show in Sevastopol, funded by public money and live-broadcasted on the main state channel Rossija-1 and even last year on Russia Today English. The well-funded bike-show has included a number of well-rehearsed performances varying from highly -ultra-nationalist themes of neo-imperialism to a Gorbachev coming out from a snake’s mouth.

Challenges for Europe – how to define and counter them correctly

Today Russia is challenging Europe from a variety of vectors through an efficient use of hybrid warfare methods to disrupt the societal and political mechanisms of the European societies. The ultra-nationalist ideology acts as a sole horizontal part of the well-oiled system of disruption and turmoil to undermine the current regional political order and to establish a replacement for the liberal rule-based international society where the equality of individuals, groups, and states in terms of rights and needs are ignored. The only limitation for the extent of the ultra-nationalism is the domestic structures in Russia that self-regulate overreactions.
The phenomenon of ultra-nationalism in Russia, however, is not completely straightforward. According to a poll conducted by the N1 channel, for instance, concluded that 68% of the respondents opposed the idea of ultra-nationalist indoctrination for small children in kindergartens. Also, in 2017, the Night Wolves failed to receive presidential funding for the first time since 2012, hence indicating either a change in the mechanisms of public and undercover funding or the change of attitudes from the top of the power vertical.
Nevertheless, the vague threshold of internal and external measures of control as well as the constant shortage of information allows the formation of friction and biases. The annexation of Crimea as well as the “gay propaganda law” can also be seen in the light of pure Machiavellism only as instruments of manipulation and control. However, even if the power vertical would lack any deeper ultra-nationalist ambitions, the implementation of coercive measures with ultra-nationalist incentives should still be regarded in their form of appearance to maximise the results of the countermeasures from the European states and institutions, tasked with the physical and cognitive deterrence against the threats associated with ultra-nationalism.
In regard to countermeasures, the European Union and its member states have applied measures to counter the Russian ultra-nationalism in terms of economic sanctions related to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. In addition, some member states including the United Kingdom have imprisoned individuals that have fought in the Eastern Ukraine in accordance with the national counter-terrorism legislation. The Night Wolves were denied of entry to Poland in 2015 due to suspicion of provocative actions. Also, in the field strategic communications, both the EU and the NATO are working to counter ultranationalist extremism in the media sphere and social media. Still, more coordination and concentration of resources are needed to maximise the efficiency of the member states to acquire maximised capacity to deter the aforementioned challenges.
TEXT Andreas Turunen
PHOTO YouTube – Andrei Malofeev

Andreas Turunen is a Springer author on information warfare network theory. He studies international relations and security in the Aberystwyth University. His interests include Russian security and information operations in the cyber domain.