Russian Nationalism: here to stay or gone by payday?

Despite the acute economic slowdown in Russia, Vladimir Putin has enjoyed soaring popularity at home. In recent months, polls have consistently shown the Russian leader's approval rating to be above 80%, a level of public support which political leaders of prosperous western countries can only dream of. While the reasons for his popularity are complex and many, the correlation between the Crimea/Ukraine crisis and favourable public opinion towards Putin is undeniable. Many Russians see the conflicts as symbolising the return of the great Russian ‘narod’ (nation), while a politically weak and feeble EU and NATO can only look on with horror.

But by raising its head and beating its breast, has the Russian eagle inadvertently succeeded in clipping its own wings?

Military victories in the Donbass and talk about the re-creation of Novorussiya have certainly made Putin popular in the short-term. But the substantial damage they may do to Russia’s economy has yet to be seen. And in that event, the Russian president is not likely to cut such a fine figure back home. Despite the state media’s best efforts to portray Russia as a spiritual nation which is immune to the decadent thrills of consumerism, increased economic hardship will not be well-received by its people. According to the World Bank, households in Russia are already feeling the effects of a weakened economy, and unless the Kremlin agrees to substantial economic reforms, things are likely to get worse for them in the medium term.

Furthermore, Russia’s economy, (and the legitimacy of Putin’s administration) depends heavily on earnings from energy exports. In response to the Ukraine crisis, the EU will increasingly move away from Russia as an energy provider, which will be damaging to an economy which relies on the energy sector as much as Russia.  Putin has dismissed these suggestions, declaring that as far as energy is concerned, business with Europe will be business as usual. But the mood in the European Union tells a different story.

Last month, Lithuania celebrated the opening of its first floating LNG storage terminal, which will effectively make Lithuania independent of natural gas from Russia. Part of an energy island, Lithuania pays the highest price for natural gas in the European Union, and will use the terminal as leverage to renegotiate its contracts with Russian energy giant Gazprom. Lithuania’s gas pipeline with Russia also services the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, so the geopolitical significance of the new LNG terminal is far from insignificant.

The Ukraine conflict has also coincided with the appointment of a new European Commission, and energy security is high on the new agenda. Renewable energy and increased energy efficiency are cited as top priorities for the five-year term. Hundreds of millions of euros are planned by the Commission to support investments which promote a more diverse energy mix. This means a reduced dependency on Russian oil and gas in the medium term.

Strictly speaking, none of this is new, but Putin’s actions in the Donbass have been the definitive wake-up call. Long described as a strategic partner, Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have earned it the eerie moniker of ‘strategic competitor’ in the EU. Even traditionally pro-Kremlin countries such as Italy are revising their view on Russia.

So while sanctions are frequently touted as the most significant outcome of EU action over the Ukraine crisis, perhaps that is not the biggest issue for Russia. Indeed, it is unlikely that all twenty-eight member states will agree to renew sanctions in slightly less than a year’s time. What is significant, though, is that Putin’s Russia can no longer be trusted. EU energy policy will have to take into account the fact that Russia is now an unpredictable provider, and will involve an energy diversification and efficiency drive which is stronger than ever. And as the EU is Russia’s biggest market, shrinking demand for energy would place significant strain on the latter’s already sluggish economy.

The incursions in Crimea and Ukraine have once more stoked the fire of Russian nationalism. It burned brightly in the heydays of the Russian Empire and National Socialism, but was unceremoniously extinguished when the Soviet Union fell to the West. Now it is back. But the world today is a different one from the isolated Soviet world of Putin’s KGB youth, and Russia’s energy-focused economy now relies heavily upon the sales to the rest of Europe. Russians today have known what it is like to live in a country with shops filled from distant markets. To this end, are the remonstrations of the Russian eagle really only hollow threats? And if so, by challenging the West, how will they affect its ability to fly in the future?

by Geoffrey Upton, Research Assistant, CEPS