Western nations overwhelmingly characterised Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine as entirely unfounded and insane. Mainstream news outlets, including The Times and The Telegraph questioned if Putin had ‘lost the plot,’ or become ‘unbalanced,’ (Bennetts, 2022; Millward, 2022). Within Russia, an increase in state censorship and arrests took place to quell significant domestic opposition (Gilchrist, 2022). However, a recent report endorsed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reveals that only 20% of Russian citizens disagree with the invasion, with 51% predominantly experiencing it as ‘national pride,’ (Volkov & Kolesnikov, 2022). Securitisation theory can be useful in explaining the motivations behind this support by revealing how the Russian administration has represented Russia’s relationship with NATO since the Post-Cold War Period.
What is Securitisation Theory and the Russian Context
Securitisation theory asserts that security threats are constructed by state elites declaring them as such through speech and propaganda (Romaniuk & Webb, 2015; Waever, 1993). The degree of danger perceived by an audience as well as the state actions implemented in response to a threat are not dependent upon the material capacities of the threat but on how it is represented by those with authority (Buzan, Waever, & De Wilde, 1998). If the audience, who are the general public, accept the threat, by not opposing its existence and salience, it then becomes established within society and legitimises a range of state measures that would be otherwise viewed as unjust or extreme (Balzacq, 2011). Security threats inform a state’s national interests, collective identity and relationships to other states, therefore examining a nation’s established threats can explain the motivations and justifications behind foreign policy actions and why Putin supporters may view the war in Ukraine as a just and necessary measure for maintaining the security of Russia.
Arguably, during the 1990s and 2000s, NATO expanded and restructured security in Europe while excluding Russia. The Russian administration securitised this exclusion as a national threat which enabled the administration to represent the soft and hard power that Russia was exerting over the former Eastern Bloc States as necessary measures to protect Russia from the threat of NATO.
Russian Interests in NATO and USA’s Opposition
Following the Cold War, Gorbachev, who expressed interest in Russia joining NATO, attempted to reconstruct Russia’s identity as an equal partner to America (Nünlist, 2017, p.20). However, America and Western Europe began imposing Western ideologies on Eastern Europe through agreements such as the 1990 Charter of Paris where states made commitments to democracy and economic liberty. Through these agreements, American-led NATO demoted Russia from its Cold War status as a global power by excluding it from security agreements (Behnke, 2014, pp.108-122). NATO represented Russia as the opponent and constructed a new security framework in Europe, in which Eastern Bloc nations were allied against Russia. In 1990 regarding Russia joining NATO, Bush stated, ‘To hell with that. We prevailed and they didn’t,’ (Nünlist, 2017, p.19).
The Post-Cold War Russian administration initially expressed positive sentiments towards NATO and pursued an equal integrative partnership. However, by 1994, Russia began securitising NATO as a threat. Yeltsin initially refused to sign the 1994 Partnership for Peace (PFP), which facilitated NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, unless Russia was granted a ‘direct voice in NATO decision-making’ (Behnke, 2014, p.112; +Marshall, 1994; Borawski, 1995, p.234). Yeltsin further stated that the PFP would create a ‘Cold Peace’, and questioned if NATO intended to ‘anaesthetize Russia for the period that its Eastern neighbours are being dragged into NATO,’ (Behnke, 2014, p.111; Nünlist, 2017, p.20). Clinton (1994) argued the PFP was directing ‘NATO’s quest for a new identity of the alliance as a true stabilizing core of European security’. Evidently, this new identity of NATO and Europe required the exclusion of Russia. Tensions escalated, and by 2000, the Kremlin released a military doctrine which explicitly represented NATO’s expansion as threatening to Russia (Brannon, 2009, p.44). Throughout the 2000s, NATO’s continuing expansion was securitised as a threat by the Putin administration. For example, Putin claimed the 2004 Colour Revolutions would create ‘catastrophic consequences,’ (Herd, 2005).
The Ukrainian Fiasco
Materially, NATO’s expansion increased western military presence on Russia’s borders. In 2007 America placed missiles in Poland, and four months preceding the Russo-Georgian war, NATO began curating a close partnership with Georgia, increasing the threat of opposition military bordering Russia (Traynor, 2007; NATO, 2008). In 2016 NATO began deploying more troops in Eastern European countries (Center for Preventive Action, 2022). Preceding the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Russian administration released a list of demands required to lower tensions in Europe (Osborn et al., 2021). These included demanding that Ukraine never joins NATO and NATO troops and weapons retreat from Eastern Europe returning to where they were stationed in 1997; NATO denied these requests stating ‘We will not compromise on key principles on which European security is built,’ emphasizing how any European nation can apply for NATO membership except Russia (Roth, 2021). This displays how NATO has reconstructed security in Europe which is distinctly exclusionary to Russia.
The Case of Russian Compatriots
The post-Cold War Russian administration not only represented NATO’s expansion as a threat to people within Russia but also to people living outside of Russia. From 1994 Russian political discourse began expanding the borders of the Russian national identity into post-Soviet states by emphasising Russia’s compatriot community. Compatriots, defined as any post-Soviet citizen who personally identified as Russian, were officially recognised in a 1994 decree and were granted access to citizenship in 1999 (Berliner, 1999). When Putin came to power, the rights and safety of compatriots were emphasised and securitised by presenting threats to compatriots as threats to the entire Russian state (Kallas, 2016). Expansionary undertones are evident from 2001 when Putin first introduced the ‘Русский мир’ (Russian World), as a label for the compatriots (Pieper, 2018). This constructed Russia’s post-Soviet identity as divided between several independent nations. In 2005 Putin stated, ‘tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory’, (Putin, 2005).
Compatriots enabled the Russian administration to securitise NATO further by representing the westernisation of post-Soviet states, through NATO’s expansion, as dangerous to compatriots. This is evident in an official military doctrine released in 2000, which highlights the discrimination and oppression of compatriots in NATO-allied post-Soviet states as a major security issue for Russia requiring imminent action (Brannon, 2009, p.44). Securitising the discrimination of compatriots living in westernised states increases the perceived legitimacy of fears regarding NATO. This representation of Russian compatriots portrays Russia as the protector and American-led westernisation as the enemy, providing a legitimate impetus for the expansion of Russia in order to protect the interests of Russian nationals in foreign territory and reunite the divided nation.
The Invasion of Georgia and the Russian Compatriots
The securitisation of Russian ethnic minorities requiring protection intensified in the years preceding the invasion of Georgia. In 2004 the Foreign Ministry established an Agency for Compatriots Living Abroad and the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots in 2007. These organisations and subsequent programmes funded cultural events and migration into Russia as well as diplomatically protected Russian interests abroad (Pieper, 2018). Arguably Russia used the securitisation of threats to Russian ethnic minorities to legitimise the Georgian war. This is evident from Medvedev’s (2008) statement claiming Russia’s invasion ‘puts an end to the eradication of the Abkhaz and Ossetian peoples.’
The Annexation of Crimea and the Russian Compatriots
Similarly, the annexation of Crimea was legitimised by Russia’s compatriot rhetoric which directed increasing attention at Ukraine preceding 2014. In 2007 Ukrainian schools in Russia were closed and politicians lobbied Ukraine to implement Russian as its official second language (Moser 2013, pp.130-163). Consistently, Russia spent $1.2 million supporting compatriots in Ukraine in 2011 (Moser, 2013, p.162). During the annexation of Crimea, Putin stated that ‘the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives,’ and further stated that 1.5 million Ukrainians are actually Russians (BBC, 2014). These actions and rhetoric domestically represent the annexation of Crimea as a measure to protect Russian nationals from oppression from western governments.
Since 2014, Russia has continued to securitise NATO and the need to unite the ‘Russian World.’ Putin has increasingly emphasised the fragmented dispersion of ‘ethnic Russians’, by favouring the term русский (ethnic Russian) over российский (Russian citizen) (Wiechnik, 2019). Altogether, this displays how the Russian administration’s representations of NATO’s action during the post-Cold War period have legitimised the exertion of Russian soft and hard power over post-Soviet nations as necessary for the protection of Russia and Russian people. In 2022 Putin stated ‘It is well known that for 30 years we have persistently and patiently tried to reach an agreement with the leading NATO countries on the principles of equal and inviolable security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we constantly faced either cynical deception and lies or attempts to pressure and blackmail, while NATO, despite all our protests and concerns, continued to steadily expand,’ (Al Jazeera, 2022).
In conclusion, the subsequent securitisation of the threat that NATO posed to Russia post-Cold War alongside the Russian administrations’ construction of Russian compatriots as under threat from westernisation can explain why so many Russian citizens have accepted that the invasion of Ukraine is justified and necessary to protect Russia and ‘ethnic-Russian’s’ from western enemies.
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