By Richard Arnold
Russia-watchers have noted the Kremlin’s domestic deployment of propaganda, which attempts to harness Russian society’s support for its imperialist project in eastern Ukraine (see EDM, May 1), but the efforts being made by the Kremlin to change international opinion have received less attention. Of note has been the focus on Putin’s allies in the European Far Right (http://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/2014/03/vladimir-putins-allies-in-european-far.html). The widely expected strategy is for Russia to promote far-right parties like the Front Nationale (France), Jobbik (Hungary), and the British National Party (United Kingdom) ahead of the European Parliament elections due in May 2014. A good showing by these parties, which are fundamentally opposed to the European project as it currently stands (though not against the idea of racialized European Union—see Richard Arnold & Ekaterina Romanova, “The White World’s Future,” 2013), could have dire consequences for the future of Europe. Yet, Russian plans to remake the map of Europe also have other international dimensions.
In particular, unofficial Kremlin mouthpiece Vladimir Zhirinovsky wrote an open letter to Poland, Hungary and Romania suggesting that they annex (by referendum) the western portions of Ukraine (http://www.mk.ru/politics/article/2014/03/24/1002686-zhirinovskiy-ofitsialno-prizval-polshu-podelit-zapadnuyu-ukrainu.html). According to Zhirinovsky, the two halves of Ukraine have “different mentalities,” which makes living together very difficult. Indeed, “when left for many years, mutual dislike, accompanied by open conflict, often turns into bloody carnage.” Zhirinovsky proposed that the Chernivtsi, Zakarpattia, Volyn, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankisk, and Rovensky regions should all hold referenda on whether they would rather be part of neighboring countries rather than remain within Ukraine. The regions were incorporated into Ukraine during the Soviet era, something Zhirinovsky described as a “historical mistake.” The plan would have little legal foundation in international law, but would give Russia’s own “referendum” on Crimean sovereignty a more solid legal base. Of course, there is no sign that the Western countries would cooperate on such a proposed bargain. Notably, Poland said the plan was a product of Zhirinovsky’s “sick mind” and called it “ridiculous” (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/poland-rejects-zhirinovskys-proposal-as-product-of-sick-mind/496890.html). At least through conventional political channels, then, such proposals to change the international political scene are somewhat lacking.
But this has not stopped the Kremlin from trying to present such an image to the rest of the world. For example, the Kremlin’s English-language Voice of Russia service featured an article about how ethnic Poles in the Zhitomir region of Western Ukraine are demanding a referendum of their own (http://voiceofrussia.com/2014_04_24/Ukrainian-territories-used-to-belong-to-Poland-turned-into-base-for-the-nationalistic-movement-7324/). According to the article, which cites a number of supposed “experts” on the ethnic situation in Ukraine, the “referendum” was initiated due to the divisive issue of the memory of the 1943 Volhynia massacre where Ukrainians killed between 50,000 and 100,000 ethnic Poles. This Voice of Russia story follows attempts by the Kremlin to use ethnic minorities throughout the former Soviet space to achieve Russian national goals—such as the Rusins in western Ukraine (see EDM, April 8). Overall, this creates an impression of Russia as a historically revisionist power, bent on fundamentally changing some of the milestone treaties on which the current world order is based. Rather than just revisiting the Belovezh’a accords of 1991, which dismantled the Soviet Union, Russia seems to want to turn the clock back even further.
That Russia should be trying to sway international public opinion is not surprising, given the magnitude of international norms its president broke by ordering the annexation of Crimea and promoting instability in eastern Ukraine. The vision of Europe that the Kremlin projects is one that promotes the importance of ethnicity in international relations. This is hardly unexpected given the contentious debates over the place of ethnicity in the multi-ethnic Russian Federation and the fact that Russia experienced a different historical development of nationalism to the Western European states.