Putin and Russia’s Identity
Historically, both Russia and Turkey were seen as Europe’s ‘Other’. For Russia this was most evident during - although not limited to - the years of the USSR (Kundera 1986, p. 33), while Turkey’s ‘otherness’ dates back to the Ottoman Empire’s move onto the European continent. As the two countries’ relationship with the West changed, so did their perception of identities, values, and norms vis-a-vis those espoused by the West. Scholars have argued that, in Russia’s case, changes in the internal and external environments have led to re-definitions of ‘self’ and reordering of priorities, which in turn, has led to changes in foreign policy (Prizel 2004). Historically, the debates surrounding Russia’s identity have evolved between Romantic nationalist and European-oriented liberal views (Neumann 1996). Vladimir Putin has played an important role in this process of re-interpretation, declaring Russia to be its own, separate civilisation.
In speeches, articles, and documents, Putin has continuously emphasised the distinctiveness of Russian identity. He has frequently pointed out the uniqueness of Russia as a ‘state-civilisation’ while contrasting it with the ‘Western’ one. The difference is established not only in terms of values and the Russian way of life but also by contrasting Russian understanding of democracy with views on sovereignty, rules, morals, and practices managing international relations with Western ones. The emphasis on distinct civilisational values has affected Russia’s foreign policy, expressed as opposition to Western global hegemony, special relations with Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and founding of the Eurasian Union (Tsygankov and Tsygankov 2010, p. 237)
For instance, in his 2012 article published originally in Izvestia, Putin listed a number of elements of Russian culture: respect for government, prioritisation of the common good and public interests; he also defined the country’s unity as ‘the sovereignty of the Russian people, rather than the supremacy of individuals and groups, across its entire territory’ - features that align with the statist view of foreign policy. Putin further argued that the unipolar world was over and the global economic and political problems call for cooperation among countries, especially the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In these conditions, Russia can and must play a deserving role, dictated by its civilizational model, great history, geography, and its cultural genome, which seamlessly combines the fundamentals of European civilization and the centuries-old experience of cooperation with the East, where new centers of economic power and political influence are currently rapidly developing. (Russia Today, February 2016a)
The ideas of a strong state and great power status have been important elements of Russia’s identity. A closer look at several speeches given by Putin as well as his article from 2012, show several other common themes: sovereignty, Russia’s uniqueness and contrast with the West, and patriotism. Other themes include territorial integrity, the rejection of a unipolar world, and emphasis on international law and cooperation among states to solve global problems. This idea of Russia’s standing in the world as a great power serves as an ideational basis for Russia’s pursuit of economic and military power; it aligns with its rhetoric and behaviour on the international scene. It also helps to explain its involvement in the Syrian conflict and relationship with Turkey.