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How Russia’s Narratives on Ukraine Reflect its Existential Crisis

As it hunkers down for the long haul in Ukraine, Russia’s narrative of the war frames it as part of a much wider battle for the country’s very survival, as the very idea of Russianness appears under attack. If this is how Russia sees itself and its place in the world, what does this mean for how we in the West engage with it?

Cult of victory: tanks on display during Moscow's 2020 Victory Day parade. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The Ukraine war has become an existential crisis for Russia. Its senior leadership now appears to be talking in apocalyptic terms about the risk of Russia’s very survival, and to be on a messianic mission of which Ukraine is only part of the picture. The Kremlin’s framing sees Russia not only pitted against the West, but acting as the vanguard and protector of a collective civilisation under attack, through the retelling of historical memory that casts Russia as the aggressor. The current situation is no longer about which parts of Ukrainian territory Russia is willing to cede, but a fundamental reimagining of Russian national identity.

The Kremlin at War

More moderate forces within the Kremlin have lost the tussle over state narratives to the hardliners – beyond the hawkish views on Ukraine that have become de rigeur, important members of Russia’s senior leadership are now talking in terms of the destruction of Russia.

The head of the foreign intelligence service Sergei Naryshkin seems to have a habit of making important existential statements in rather incongruous contexts. At a ceremony to present masters degrees at the prestigious Moscow State University, Naryshkin maintained that Russia is fighting for its place in the world and its historical future, and that victory would be assured. Significantly, he said Russia would not retreat in Ukraine, because ‘otherwise it would not be Russia’. Earlier, in March 2022, he said something similar at a meeting of the Expert Council on historical education, as part of the Ministry of Education and Science – that now was the decisive moment in Russia’s fate, and in determining its future place in the world.

It could be that Naryshkin is directing these speeches on purpose toward students who may represent the Kremlin officials of tomorrow – after all, there is a smaller-scale but important war being played out within the Russian education sector for control of the narrative on Ukraine, with critics of the war summarily dismissed and sometimes denounced by their own students. Control of education and historical narratives has always been important for the Putin administration, which is preoccupied with ensuring the Russian view of history is recorded.

And perhaps Naryshkin is concerned for his position – he had an infamously tense exchange with Putin at the Security Council meeting on 22 February, in which Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine. Naryshkin had appeared to be stammering, unclear on his brief, and was given a humiliating dressing-down in public, broadcast on national television. It could be that Naryshkin is over-compensating for that public misstep, and is attempting to reflect back what he thinks Putin would like to see.

Control of education and historical narratives has always been important for the Putin administration, which is preoccupied with ensuring the Russian view of history is recorded

Others have expresses similar sentiments. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in May that claimed that the West has declared ‘total war’, not just on Russia but on the ‘entire Russian world’. Here he was referring to the sanctions on Russia that have extended to Russian culture, such as art and music. Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council, declared at a Council meeting in May that the war is an attempt by the West to influence Russia’s spiritual and moral values, with the aim of containing and ultimately destroying Russia. In this narrative, Russia was forced to take action, otherwise its very existence (sushestvovaniye) would be under threat. For him, the war is a symptom of a much wider conflict with the West that began years before.

Patrushev said similar things before in April, in a lengthy and vitriol-filled interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a pro-Kremlin newspaper. In his view, the US’s aim is to weaken Russia, and Ukraine is a vehicle to do this. Among his list of grievances, Patrushev maintained that Russia had been forced to give up not just its sovereignty and independent foreign policy, but more fundamentally what he referred to as its ‘self-consciousness’ (samosoznaniye). This idea of samosoznaniye is part of a long-standing academic debate about Russia’s awareness of itself as a socio-cultural community and its place in the world, as it tries to contend with its civilisational identity.

All of these statements seem to be grappling somehow with the idea of Russianness. In Patrushev’s framing, Russia’s self-consciousness, and the very idea of what it means to be Russian, is under attack. In Naryshkin’s statements, the cross that Russia must bear is not only ensuring Russia’s survival, but taking on the yoke of responsibility for the fate of the entire world. If the collective Russian political community views itself in these apocalyptic terms, this has serious implications, not only for the course of the Ukraine war, but for any political engagement with Russia.

Memory of War

First, these statements somewhat account for Russia’s insistence on framing the Ukraine war as a battle against Nazism. It is hard to believe that the Kremlin truly thinks that Nazis in the traditional sense control Ukraine, or that the far right poses a pressing security challenge. But the Nazi trope plays a useful role in embodying what Russia sees as a challenge to its samosoznaniye.

Kremlin narratives about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War are uncritical, mythologised by the authorities. They have become an identifying feature of Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, based mostly around the Soviet Union’s heavy losses and military greatness, with 9 May – Victory Day – touted as a public holiday in service of this military acknowledgment. Through its commemorative events, marches and other forms of soft power, Russia has encouraged a recasting of its role in the war, promoting a selective view of the world.

History is an inextricable part of Russian national identity and for the Kremlin, attacking Russia’s version of it constitutes an attack on all Russia

In the Ukraine war, Russia has taken this reframing of the Second World War one step further, and cast the memory of Nazism as a justification for invasion, with Ukraine as the catalyst of what Russia sees as a civilisational clash with the West, which is waging war on the historical truth and values of Russia’s sovereignty.

These frictions have been present for a long time. Russia’s National Security Strategy (NSS), updated in 2021 from the previous version in 2015, laid the framework for this burgeoning conflict with the West, showcasing a new priority: defending Russian ‘traditional values’. The NSS indicated that Russia’s cultural and historical memory were front and centre of the Kremlin’s security concerns, framed as being under attack from Westernisation. It also highlighted the importance of historical memory, expressing concerns that the West was seeking to achieve geopolitical goals by casting Russia as the aggressor through retellings of history, manipulating people’s ‘consciousness’ (soznaniye). History is an inextricable part of Russian national identity and for the Kremlin, attacking Russia’s version of it constitutes an attack on all Russia.

There are real-world implications for a senior leadership that holds – or says it holds – these views.

First, it suggests that Russia is in for the long haul in Ukraine. There is little evidence Russia would be content with the territory it has already taken over. Lavrov’s sharp retort to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy the day after the war began encapsulated this – the Ukrainian side had tentatively suggested that Ukraine was prepared to discuss its neutral status, including conversations around Crimea, to which Lavrov responded that it was ‘too late’ to be talking about regional security and that total capitulation was Russia’s goal. Protracted war appears to be inevitable.

It also suggests that punitive measures alone such as sanctions are unlikely to be sufficient to alter Russia’s behaviour. Demonstrably, Russia’s understanding of calculated risk has changed – the Kremlin viewed the situation as worth going to war over, even at the risk of severing relations with the West. This raises currently unanswerable questions about how to approach Russia, if the country views itself as fighting for its very existence, in a parallel but invisible civilisational war that the West is unable to fathom.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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