Russian-speakers from the former Soviet republics have been a maneuvering table in Moscow’s foreign policy since the days of Boris Yeltsin, but they have become the essential piece of the new Russian imperialism that Vladimir Putin has built and whose last stage is annexation, so as was seen in the case of Crimea, as the Lithuanian Agnia Grogas showed back in 2014.
Thus, in order for Russia to consider you a compatriot and thus make you part of the Russian World/Ruskii Mir, you do not need to be ethnically Russian, but to speak the Russian language or even to have cultural and spiritual affinities with Russia.
This is where the stake of Volodymyr Zelenski’s rapid promulgation of the new law on national minorities is to be found, which caused a legitimate concern in Bucharest.
But concern is one thing, and the populist path is another, and until the unwanted validation of the Russian narrative that says that minorities have their rights violated by Kyiv, so they urgently need to be defended, the road is not long.
Romania had, through the MAE and President Klaus Iohannis, a consistent position regarding the law on national minorities, recently promulgated by the President of Ukraine. However, the reference to the topic of the Romanian minority does not appear in the account that Zelenski makes after the discussion with Iohannis, while the Romanian president refers extensively to it, in a note that can be perceived as populist, especially since it comes after the failure not entering the Schengen area, a decision that is imputed to Austria and the Netherlands, but for which the politicians from Bucharest invested a lot of political capital in the internal game.
I have written about Agnia Grogas’s book, Crimea and the new Russian Empire, with the mention that the Romanian edition, published by Corinth Publishing House, has added a closing word about the war in Ukraine.
Photo: Facebook/Agnia Grigas
Agnia Grigas is an expert within the Atlantic Council, specializing in energy and political risks in Europe, Russia and the former Soviet space. She is the author of The Politics of Energy and Memory Between the Baltic States and Russia (2013) and The New Geopolitics of Gas (2017). He has worked for a decade as a business development, analysis and risk mitigation advisor. He served as adviser on energy and economic issues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. She holds a BA from Columbia University and a PhD in International Relations from Oxford University.
The premise from which it starts is that, since the breakup of the USSR and much more intensely and geopolitically oriented after 2000, Russian foreign policy has incorporated the concept of “compatriot” and built around it a growing trend of re-imperialization.
If in 2014, the theme of re-imperialization could still seem precious or reserved for academic discourse, from February 2022 onwards it took on an abject historical form. Moreover, Grigas recalls, the French researcher Helene Carrere d’Encausse was not shy to describe the USSR as an empire, to the indignation of the Sovietologists of the time.
Russia’s imperialist vocation never disappeared
For Putin, the argument of compatriots who need to be urgently defended has served him enormously, fueling his discretionary power and legitimizing his imperialist will.
After he sent troops to Chechnya in 2000, his trust rating rose to 84%, notes Agnia Grigas. In 2014, before the annexation, the trust rating of the Russian president was 72%. After annexation, it reached 85%.
It also speaks volumes about the narratives Russians are willing to believe, and largely explains why the uprisings in Russia remain marginal to Ukraine’s large-scale military aggression.
What exactly is the Russian compatriot and how did he come to be an explicit part of the foreign policy strategy?
Sootecestvenik, the Russian term for compatriot, designates not only ethnic Russians living outside Russia, but has been ideologically broadened to include Russian speakers who do not have Russian nationality, and even those who do not speak Russian, but they have cultural, historical, religious ties with Russia.
These compatriots have become one of the instruments used by the Putin regime in foreign policy, both for exercising influence (the example of the Baltic states, where the percentage of Russophones, therefore not of ethnic Russians immediately, is consistent, significantly stronger in Estonia and Latvia), and especially for the justification of military aggression (frozen conflicts in South Ossetia, Transnistria, Abkhazia), which can go as far as annexation (Crimea) or genocide (today’s Ukraine).
In the last phases of re-imperialization, writes Agnia Grigas, the need to protect compatriots constitutes Russia’s justification for military intervention.
Russia continues to consistently use the “defense of countrymen” strategy in the war in Ukraine. Among Putin’s stated purposes for justifying this war is to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians—whom Moscow has declared compatriots—from other Ukrainians and the government in Kyiv.
Moreover, in the newly occupied territories of Donbas, Russia is now issuing Russian passports and even offering money to those who accept Russian passports. These newly created or purchased Russian citizens then come under the protection and jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.
The same model was followed in Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia is also trying to clear southern and eastern Ukrainian territories of its original inhabitants, to then bring in the Russian military and their families. These new Russian colonizers can then claim Russian protection and vote in referendums for incorporation into the Russian Federation, as was the case with Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk and, let’s not forget, Transnistria.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians are either forced to flee those territories or are taken to infiltration camps to be settled in remote parts of Russia.
Agnia Grigas, interview for Spotmedia.ro
In all this construction of non-coercive instruments, the Russian language plays an important role, as does cultural-spiritual affinity.
In other words, if you speak Russian, are Orthodox and culturally identify with the Russian World, then you can be defended – you don’t have to want to, as was seen in the case of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, which Russia killed indiscriminately – from ” mother Russia.
It is the stage that Agnia Grigas calls the stage of humanitarian policies. The Russian World foundation itself, established in 2007, is the result of an association of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, but interestingly, this foundation is headed by Viacheslav Nikonov, grandson of Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister.
Nikonov did not come to head a foundation where culture, religion and language are foreign policy arsenal by chance: he started his career as an assistant to the head of the KGB, in the period 1991-1992.
Therefore, for Ukraine, the Russian language is a weapon of the aggressor, just like the rites belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, such as the celebration of Christmas according to the old rite. Starting with Christmas 2022, Ukrainians celebrate on the same day as Europe, not Russia. It is more than a declaration of independence, it is a foiling of one of Putin’s strategies.
Here is also the stake for which Volodymyr Zelesnki promulgated the new law on national minorities, although it infringes the rights of other minorities, Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, with the mention that the situation of the Romanian minority is special, because ethnic Romanians are often designated by the Ukrainian authorities as being Moldovans, an aberration that must be corrected.
Besides, Ukraine’s European path would not even be possible without a correction of this law.
But until the actual accession to the EU, Ukraine is at war, and one of the weapons of the aggressor is the compatriot who either speaks the Russian language or wants to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, hence the hypocritical call of Kiril, the infamous patriarch, for there to be a truce during the Russian Christmas, the one that Ukraine no longer celebrates.
Should Romania be silent?
It is Romania’s right to defend its ethnic people from Ukraine, but it does not help them at this moment if it is inopportune, because that is the problem of President Klaus Iohannis and not only now: inadequacy.
This is the reason why President Zelenski reported the conversation with the Romanian President as being about cooperation in security matters and other topics on the agenda.
It does not mean that the rights of Romanian minorities should not be heard in Bucharest, but an effective policy means that the authorities in Bucharest even have a strategy about when and especially how.
After the reaction of the MAE, correct in substance, but inadequate to the real context, i.e. the war that cannot be put second, because bombs fall and people die, the additional comment of President Iohannis brought an excess that sends Romania’s positioning into populism.
In other words, it was not the time for Romania to decline the narrative that is useful to Viktor Orban, but the illiberal is not shy to put himself in the EU’s defense and be useful to Moscow.