Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Is Nationalism Rising in Russian Foreign Policy? the Case of Georgia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Is Nationalism Rising in Russian Foreign Policy? the Case of Georgia

Article excerpt

Abstract: In this article, the foreign policy influence of Russian nationalism, from the Putin to the Medvedev eras, is traced, with a focus specifically on Russian nationalist arguments for and reactions to the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. The typical relationship between Russian nationalism and foreign policy is one in which the authorities have generally promoted a pragmatic, conservative "statist nationalism." Nevertheless, they have simultaneously stoked more aggressive ethno-nationalist "civilizational nationalism" in the domestic sphere. The Russia-Georgia War was a marked deviation from this pattern, showing an unprecedented spill-over from the domestic to the foreign policy realms. Since 2009, there has been a partial return to the norm. However, without more fundamental domestic change, the likelihood of nationalism increasingly affecting Russian foreign policy remains.

Keywords: foreign policy, Georgia, nationalism, Russia


Western discussion during the last half-decade has increasingly focussed on an "assertive" and even "aggressive" Russian foreign policy that underpins an ever more confident global position. From a Russia that could only say "yes" in the 1990s, the West is apparently now confronting a Russia that can, and will, say "no." (1)

For many analysts, this assertive stance has been associated with distinct ideational underpinnings that have sought to challenge Western liberalism. Although "sovereign democracy" has been the most obvious example, many have also argued that anti-Western nationalism has moved from the margins to the mainstream of Russian discourse during the Putin era. (2) Moreover, this nationalism had, apparently, begun ineluctably to influence Russian foreign policy and to deepen the rhetorical and cognitive dissonance between Russia and the West. Indeed, as Edward Lucas argued, "the ideological conflict of the New Cold War is between lawless Russian nationalism and law-governed Western multilateralism." (3)

However, the role nationalism might have played in the Russia-Georgia War of August 2008 has been largely ignored. One of the most influential authors on the conflict, Ronald Asmus, did argue that "by the summer of 2008 ... an increasingly nationalistic and revisionist Russia was ... rebelling against a system that it felt no longer met its interests and had been imposed on it during a moment of temporary weakness. (4) Neither he nor other authors examined this in depth. Yet his contention can support a narrative of "lawless Russian nationalism." Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in defiance of Euro-Atlantic positions can be seen as the tipping-point when Russia began to substantiate its rhetoric and to export highly nationalistic internal values in an attempt to revise the post-Cold War order.

Nevertheless, hindsight perhaps confounds this view. Although the Western consensus is that Russia wanted and planned the war, Western and Georgian mistakes mean that a narrative of "good" West versus "evil" Russia (implicit in Lucas's account) cannot be convincingly maintained. (5) More widely, the US-Russia "reset" has involved a marked change of climate and de-escalation of rhetoric. Russia itself has focused increasingly on internal modernization, and the immediate fear that it was to pursue overt annexation of other contested regions like Crimea and Transnistria has receded. Finally, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's modernization rhetoric is associated with increased efforts to control domestic nationalist excesses via greater law enforcement. (6)

In this article, I will trace the foreign policy influence of Russian nationalism from the Putin to the Medvedev eras, focussing specifically on Russian nationalist arguments for and reactions to the August 2008 conflict. The main questions in focus are: (1) What are the basic dynamics of the relationship between nationalism and foreign policy under Putin and Medvedev? …

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