The Kremlin’s ability to engage ethnic Russians outside its borders is one of Russia’s main instruments of influence in Eurasia and a tool to help restore Russia’s great power status. This capacity, Igor Zevelev reminds us in a perceptive report
published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies this week, has reflected two different but overlapping Russian foreign policy concepts. First is the principle of “compatriots abroad”—the need to maintain ties with individuals living outside the borders of the Russian Federation who have historical, religious, cultural and linguistic bonds with Russia, no matter what their current citizenship. Since the early 1990s the Russian government has institutionalized this concept into concrete outreach policies. The second concept is the more expansive idea of the Russian world, an idea defined on the basis of Russian self-identification but which implies a more formal association—even annexation—by the Russian Federation of territories that are home to ethnic Russians abroad. For Russian nationalists, Zevelev argues, “the question has always been not if, but when, by what means, and to what geographic limit areas populated by ethnic Russians should be reunified with the historic homeland.” During the 2014 Ukraine crisis, these two approaches to the diaspora converged in Russian political discourse as a justification of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, invasion of eastern Ukraine and support for the so-called Ukrainian “separatists.”
Following Russia’s military failure in eastern Ukraine, Zevelev argues, Moscow has returned to the approach it followed from 1992 to 2013. Once again, it no longer seeks to incorporate ethnic Russians abroad into the Russian Federation, but rather to pursue the more limited goal of broadening its influence over them with a targeted campaign of public diplomacy and enhanced cultural relations. Russia’s leaders have had a hard time accomplishing this, however, first because of neighboring states’ heightened sensitivity toward the “Russian question.” These governments view any Kremlin effort to cultivate ties with compatriots abroad as a possible prelude to what happened in eastern Ukraine. Neighboring leaders also regard their ethnic Russian minorities as potentially dangerous proxy groups for the Kremlin. Second, the recent NATO military buildup reduces the chances of a Crimea- or Donbas- style intervention by Moscow, especially in the Baltic states.
CEPA’s Lithuania brief this week, which looks at the visa controversy over Russian pop singer Oleg Gozmanov’s visit to Lithuania, offers an example that both undermines and supports Zevelev’s argument. On one hand, Gozmanov’s vocal nostalgia for the USSR and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hardly demonstrates a mellower Kremlin line toward ethnic Russians abroad (the Kremlin encourages and pays for popular entertainers to visit the former Soviet states). Russia’s information and propaganda initiatives, moreover, suggest Moscow’s motives are far more imperial than behind the compatriots abroad programs of the 1990s. On the other hand, the Lithuanian government’s vigorous opposition to granting Gozmanov entry shows the Vilnius government is taking no chances with its ethnic Russian minority, even though the Russian population is small and dispersed compared to those in Estonia or Latvia.
The Kremlin has portrayed its adventure in Ukraine as a great success, he concludes, but Russia’s strategic position in Eurasia today is weaker than before the Maidan events. Given increasing Western divisions over how to respond to Russian aggression, more likely it is too early to tell whether the Kremlin has won or lost. Zevelev is correct in pointing out, however, that when Moscow talks today about compatriots abroad or the Russian world more alarm bells ring now in Russia’s neighborhood than before the Ukraine crisis. A weapon once used as hard power cannot be easily converted back to a soft-power tool.