Abstract: Russia’s meddling and involvement in its immediate neighborhood is widely interpreted through the realist lens as being purely unprovoked offensive acts of aggression that follow a logic of physical expansionism. Such an understanding of Russia and its actions is largely based on skepticism and mistrust rather than any concrete substance. Cynical and reductionist approaches of this kind have come out to be inadequate in identifying and explaining concrete underpinning reasons and common patterns that are deemed to be the driving force behind events like the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing separatist movement in Novorossiya. Besides mere concerns of physical security, concerns of domestic mood and sentiments along with ontological security loom large in the Kremlin. A constructivist-ontological security approach takes all these factors on board and helps reveal that the Kremlin is equally, if not more, interested in its ontological security along with its physical security. The Kremlin in the long term stands to gain more by instrumentalizing its disjunct-nations rather than by incorporating them into its territory. Instrumentalization of disjunct-nations as a strategy not only provides Moscow with physical security but as well as ontological security.
A billiard ball perspective model to analyze state behavior has come out to be inefficient, incapable and incompetent in both understanding and explaining the grave consequences of a possible disjuncture between the nation and the state. This is also precisely the reason why the dominant paradigm in International Relations has largely failed in laying out a nuanced argument that could help explain as to why secessionist movements take place. The recent events in Crimea and Novorossiya have been largely analyzed with a similar gaze which fails in adequately explaining the desires and the real intent of the Kremlin behind instrumentalizing the Russian disjunct-nations.
This paper advances that a good analysis of the situation in Crimea and Novorossiya, both of which the paper proposes to be examples of Russia’s disjunct-nations, not only requires taking domestic factors and composition into account but it also requires paying adequate attention to the notions of ‘sentiments’, ‘nation’ and ‘disjunct nation’, all of which are in one or the other way socially constructed and engineered, and how these notions can be instrumentalized not only for obtaining physical security but as well as electoral security domestically and ontological security.
Important Terms and the Concept of the Disjunct-Nation
As a lot of the terms used in the paper are contested, for the purpose of greater clarity the paper will lay out what each of these terms imply within the ambit of this paper. The usage of the term ‘nation’ in this paper refers to a group of people who feel bound together by shared commonalities and culture, typically in the form of ethnolinguistic similarities. The usage of the term ‘sentiment’ in the paper refers to the widely revered opinions and beliefs of the masses. Instrumentalization in the context of the paper implies the utilization and exploitation of someone or something, in this case the Russian disjunct-nations, as means to an end and the nature of the ‘end’ can vary as per state intent.
This paper introduces a new conceptual term, i.e. the ‘disjunct-nation’ which at the first glance might sound similar to the term diaspora but is actually quite distinct. Diaspora usually is considered to be a dispersed ethnic or national group spread across different countries (Dimanti-Karanou, 2015) which is different from the concept of disjunct-nation that the paper proposes. A disjunct-nation can broadly be said to have three main characteristics: firstly, the disjunct-nation is not dispersed but concentrated in a particular area; secondly, such a nation does not feel attached to the nation-state within whose sovereign bound it might be located but rather feels attached to another nation-state with which it can relate, and lastly, a disjunct-nation while being located within a sovereign state is also proximately located from the nation-state it associates with.
Disjunct-Nations: Unique to Russia?
Disjunct-nations are not a new phenomenon and are not something that is unique or exclusive to Russia. Ever since the social construct of the nation became an organizing principle of the state, ever since then disjunct-nations have existed. Disjunct-nations historically have been a result of continuous wars and conquests and of borders being drawn in a rush, often without taking cognizance of the communities being ‘disjunct’ from the nation-state they associate with. The example of the unification of various German states into one nation-state is one of the earliest examples of the state being organized on the principle of the nation. The German-speaking populations in certain regions of Czechoslovakia and Poland in the early half of the 20th century can be considered as classic examples of the concept of disjunct-nation proposed in this paper. The German disjunct-nation of Sudetenland located on the peripheries of Czechoslovakia was home to nearly 3 million people, most of whom were Germans. Sudetenland Nazi Party mobilized people in order to express the strong association of the people of Sudetenland with the German Nation (Mahajan et al, 2008). The disjunct-nation of Sudetenland was in fact later ceded to Nazi Germany in 1938 in accordance with the Munich Agreement. Adolf Hitler justified the annexation of Sudetenland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans, interestingly the very same narrative was used by the Russian state in the annexation of Crimea (Kralova, 2014). The paper will later delve into this narrative in greater detail.
Although a large chunk of disjunct-nations today have been either uprooted or assimilated but there continue to exist a few disjunct-nations across the world today, most of which are primarily marked by conflict and instability. The Palestinian settlements within the territory of Israel today are a contemporary example of a disjunct-nation that associate with the de facto State of Palestine. Similarly, the relatively small but existing Pakistani nation in the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir can also be labeled as a contemporary example of a disjunct-nation. Hence, it can be said that disjunct-nations are not a new phenomenon or something unique to Russia but what is unique to Russia is the instrumentalization of disjunct-nations. There have been instances when disjunct-nations have been incorporated by nation-states into themselves but they were never instrumentalized in the way, and on the scale, being done by the Russian state. To give an example, Pakistan has somewhat tried to instrumentalize the Kashmiri-Pakistani disjunct-nation in the Valley to malign India globally, but more than instrumentalization, as a lot of evidence suggests, Pakistan is more interested in annexing the part of Kashmir administered by India which is very distinct from Russia’s interest in instrumentalizing its disjunct-nations as a long-term fruitful strategy.
Can the logic of physical expansionism in itself explain Russia’s actions?
Russian Federation’s involvement in its disjunct nations of Novorossiya and annexation of the Crimean peninsula has often been perceived by most analysts in the West as some sort of Russian expansionism driven by the desire of obtaining material gains. However, such a vantage point undoubtedly is very simplistic and limited in its purview. Undoubtedly, the Russian state has instrumentalized its disjunct-nation located within the sovereign territory of the Ukrainian Republic but it has not just only been for the sake of material gains, like taking control over the extremely strategic location of the Crimean peninsula and its rich resources, or for just physical security as European Union and NATO continue to expand around Russia’s immediate borders. Both the pursuit of material gains and physical security have been a major driving force behind Russia’s involvement in the region on the surface but when one zooms out and takes a broader perspective, it becomes more evident that the Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine or the Novorossiya region and the Crimean peninsula seems to be driven by insecurities more than anything else that loom large in the Kremlin about Russia’s self-conception, identity and status in the world.
A perspective which explains Russia’s actions in both Crimea and Novorossiya with a plain expansionism logic also fails to explain as to why Russia only annexed the Crimean peninsula and not the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, both of which went on to declare independence with speculated support from the Kremlin. The question that forces us to engage more critically and beyond reductionist materialist and physical expansionism approach is as to why Russia annexed only Crimea when it could have taken over other significant chunks of Eastern Ukraine or Novorossiya as well under the very same garb of protection of Russian ethnics and Russian language-speaking community. The nature of the Russian narrative with respect to both Crimea and Novorossiya has been largely the same, but the course of action taken by the Kremlin concerning both these disjunct-nations has been different. However, the Kremlin has been way louder with respect to Crimea due to widespread speculations of Ukraine going back on the Kharkiv Accords that granted a lease to Russia’s Black Street Fleet, which is of extreme strategic importance to Moscow.
The Domestic factor and Ontological Security
Besides the physical security aspect, the domestic factor also played a crucial role in the annexation of Crimea as an overwhelming amount of Russians were in support of it and President Putin’s approval ratings, which were hitting a record low, skyrocketed in the aftermath of the annexation. A close analysis of the Kremlin’s narrative of Russia’s annexation of Crimea reveals that domestically the annexation was portrayed as a move to ‘reunify’ the Russian nation into one state. The official identity discourse stemming from Moscow was marked by a powerful reassertion of the altered boundaries between the Russian and Ukrainian nations, legitimizing Russian claims not only to Crimea immediately, but possibly to Novorossiya as well in the long run. However, the continuously evolving and changing references to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine illustrate how the Kremlin’s identity and disjunct-nation rhetoric continues to be mainly guided by considerations of political necessity and desires rather than being governed by some sort of national imagination or desire to ‘unify’ its disjunct-nations (Teper, 2015). Therefore, it is not unsurprising to note that whatever of “reunification” rhetoric that exists is primarily meant for domestic consumption.
Another layer worthy of consideration in the analytical study of the annexation of Crimea is Russia’s ontological security. Ontological security theory is a relatively new approach in International Relations but a very useful one as it argues that states do not only seek physical security but ontological security as well, i.e. security of the state’s self-identity and conception (Herrington, 2013). Russia, ever since Vladimir Putin came into power, and especially post the 2007 Munich Speech, started self-identifying or looking at itself as the leader and the only home for the ‘Russian world’ and has viewed itself as the protector of Russian compatriots and more aggressively the protector of the Russian disjunct-nations like Crimea (Zevlev, 2016). The desire to remain a relevant great power is also inherent in Russia’s self-conception and sense of continuity and hence the annexation of Crimea also reinvigorated Russian identity and morale as this displayed Russia’s continued relevance as a great power and the dominance and hegemony it still possesses in its geopolitical backyard. Hence, the move to annex Crimea boosted the ontological security of the Russian Federation as well.
Therefore, the move to annex Crimea by the Kremlin was a calculated one as it served multiple interests at home as well as abroad. Although, the developments in Novorossiya have not seen a direct Russian involvement, despite of domestic sentiment to push for it, as events in Novorossiya do not compromise Russia’s physical security but that does not imply that the Kremlin is not bothered about the status of Novorossiya. Russian presence in Novorossiya is to primarily keep a West-leaning Ukraine in check and to ensure physical and ontological security of Russia, both as a great power and hegemon in the region and as well as the protector of Russians across the world, especially in its immediate backyard where its disjunct-nations are located.
To conclude, Russia’s instrumentalization of disjunct-nations not only serves the sentiment of the Russian masses but also provides Russia with physical and ontological security both. The Russian state seems more interested in expanding its sphere of influence and not territorial control as long as there are no significant physical security threats. This article, in conclusion, dismantles all speculations about Russian physical expansionism in its neighborhood as Russia gains more by not absorbing these disjunct-nations into itself but by having these disjunct nations remain as disjunct-nations only as it gives Russia a major role to play beyond its borders and provides the Russian state with a ‘legitimate’ narrative for any possible future intervention, regardless of the real intent behind it, in its neighboring countries who are home to Russian disjunct-nations.
A significant number of Russian disjunct-nations are located in many erstwhile Soviet Republics and for Russia’s fortune, these disjunct-nations have provided Russia with a unique opportunity to exercise control and hegemony beyond its borders by instrumentalizing the disjunct-nations whenever and in whatever way the Kremlin deems fit. In this relative period of Russia’s decline, Russia has efficiently and in a calculated manner instrumentalized its disjunct-nations, like Novorossiya and Crimea, and that has helped Russia in not only securing its physical security, the best example of which is the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, but it has also primarily helped the Russian state in securing its ontological security. The Russian disjunct-nations have helped and most likely will continue to help Russia in maintaining its great power status as well as its status as the protector of the Russian World, both of which are an integral part of Russia’s self-conception.
Yash Sharma is a fourth year undergraduate student puruing B.A.(Research) in International Relations at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University. He is currently interning at the Foreign Policy Research Centre in New Delhi. His article recently got published in the latest issue of the FPRC Journal marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Moscow. Yash’s research interests include Russian and Eurasian affairs, questions of identity, counter-terrorism and national security. He looks forward to pursuing a career in the field of International Relations research.
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