Invoking russophobia as justification for imperial war. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



The invocation of russophobia with regard to the Republic of Moldova is related to an older strategy of Moscow, which tries to have in hand pretexts to intervene at any suitable moment in the sovereign decisions of the Moldovan state. The necessity of having efficient mechanisms for counteracting these unfounded accusations, with this task becoming a mandatory element of the national security strategy of the Republic of Moldova, derives from here ...


Anatol Țăranu

Together with the coming to the presidency of Russia of former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, at the beginning of the 2000s, the Russian politics started step by step to distance itself from the previous attempts to democratize the former Soviet-type society, heading for a neo-autocratic political regime. Using the afflux of money coming from the export of gas and petroleum, the regime of Putin not only raised the living standards of the Russians, but also used the factor of wellbeing to amplify the nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the historical successor of the tsarist empire. The West that was regarded as a partner by Yeltsin’s Moscow in the 1990s was reassessed by the regime of Putin in the 2000s as an opponent whose occult actions destroyed the USSR and spoiled the unity of the so-called Soviet people. The thesis of the danger from outside, which is one of the traditional pillars of Russian thinking, was intensely resumed by the Kremlin propaganda and was revived in the Russian collective mentality.

“Russian world” doctrine as a pretext for aggression

This shift in the Kremlin’ view on its interaction with the surrounding world needed a new ideology – neither a purely Soviet one nor a tsarist one, but one that matched the reality of the 21st century. The structuring of this new ideology intensified after the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which was interpreted by the Russian elites as the result of a West-inspired coup and aroused the Putin regime’s fear that the Ukrainian experience will serve as a model for a political change in Moscow itself. This way, the idea of a “Russian world” started to be shaped. This was initially conceptualized by the narrow circle of quasi-doctrinarians from the environs of the Kremlin at the start of the 2000s and was in time taken as a benchmark and name for a new political doctrine of the Russian state.

The “Russian world” doctrine is not a well-structured and precisely-defined construct in theoretical terms and this points to its artificiality. But these details do not bother the current occupants of the Kremlin. Given the political command, the “Russian world” concept eclectically incorporated as constitutive elements the Russian language and culture, the Orthodox religion, the historical memory and a common past for the former Soviet nations, especially a particular attitude to the Great Patriotic War (Russian term for World War II), which is considered the biggest victory of the Soviet Union. From the perspective of the imperial interest of Moscow, the Russian language is perceived as a method of keeping the unity of the “Russian world”, a kind of transnational tie that goes beyond the borders of states. As the affiliation to a cultural-linguistic group is considered to be the main justification for membership in the “Russian world”, the borders of the latter are not strictly delimited. Consequently, the Russian Federation as a state has borders, while the “Russian world” does not have borders.

Russian language and compatriots as instruments

The pretexting of Moscow’s right to interfere in the internal affairs of the new post-Soviet states gave live to the complementary concept of “Russian compatriot abroad”. This way, Putin’s Russia ideologically ensured the political remodeling of the problem of language and official historical narrative in the fight for the “hearts and minds” of its so-called compatriots as a method of exerting power on the neighboring countries and of imposing the own geopolitical interests in the post-Soviet space. The “Russian world” doctrine complimented by the “Russian compatriot abroad” concept became the ideological coverage of the Russian military aggression against its neighbors in the post-Soviet space.

Russia started the war against Ukraine claiming that this sovereign state belongs to the space of the “Russian world” and on the pretext of defending the rights of its compatriots in this country – rights that were allegedly violated by the so-called Ukrainian Nazis. The Kremlin expected to score a swift victory over Ukraine, which was to represent the triumph of the “Russian world” doctrine at international level. The reality was yet tough on the theories and practices applied by the Kremlin. The Ukrainian people and army daily destroy the “Russian world” myth on the battlefield, by their heroic resistance against the eastern aggressor, while the international isolation of Putin’ Russia due to the war in Ukraine turns the “Russian world” theory into an odious one that more often is associated with the infamous theory of the Third Reich of Hitler.

Propaganda stratagems at UN

In the desperate attempt to save the appearances, the regime from the Kremlin resorts to different propaganda stratagems, including by using the UN rostrum. One of such actions was witnessed last month, when a meeting of the UN Security Council was called in New York on the initiative of Russia to discuss russophobia, which in the views of the Russian side is widespread in Ukraine and the West. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN in that meeting spoke about the “anti-Russian Bacchanalia in the West”, about the fact that the Russian language is fully banned in the public sphere in Ukraine and that russophobia is manifested by banning the Russian books, the fight against monuments and geographical names related to Russia. It was separately noted that russophobia has grown significantly since February 24, 2022.

In response, the representative of the Ukrainian delegation reminded of the crimes and atrocities committed by the Russian army in Ukraine and asserted that those who are to blame should be held accountable. “Bucha, Irpen, Izyum, Mariupol, other tens of towns with mass graves of innocent people show the efficacy of the Russian war propaganda in dehumanizing the faces of the Ukrainians, which opens the path of Russian soldiers towards permissiveness,” said the Ukrainian speaker. He also said that “Ukraine underlines once again that the war propaganda and national hatred are based on discrimination and violence and are banned based on Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The history of the past contains instructive examples when a nation poisoned by the propaganda of hatred started a war to destroy other nations and peoples. In 1945, this war ended with the defeat of the Nazi regime and the process of bringing those to blame to justice.”

Aggressor makes a victim of itself

On the sidelines of the meeting of the UN security Council, Professor of History at Yale University of the U.S. Timothy Snyder, a famous specialist in the history of Eastern Europe, held a briefing called suggestively “Judging the victim”. The renowned historian said that the term “russophobia” is being used in this setting to advance the claim that the imperial power is the victim, even as the imperial power, Russia, is carrying out a war of atrocity. The imperial power dehumanizes the actual victim, and claims to be the victim. The term “russophobia” is imperial strategy designed to change the subject from an actual war of aggression to the feelings of the aggressors, thereby suppressing the existence and the experience of the people who are most harmed,” stated Timothy Snyder.

The prominent historian said that all of this harm to Russians and to Russian culture has been achieved by the Russian government itself, noting the downgrading of Russian culture around the world, and the end of what used to be called “russkiy mir”, the Russian world abroad. “When an empire attacks, the empire claims that it is the victim. The rhetoric that Ukrainians are somehow “russophobes” is being used by the Russian state to justify a war of aggression,” he said. The professor insisted that “claiming to be the victim when you are in fact the aggressor is not a defense.  It is actually part of the crime.  Hate speech directed against Ukrainians is not part of the defense of the Russian Federation or its citizens. It is an element of the crimes that Russian citizens are committing on Ukrainian territory. In this sense, in calling this session, the Russian state has found a new way to confess to war crimes”.

“The rest is false accusations and destabilization attempts...”

The Republic of Moldova is also often threatened by Russian officials over the violation of the rights of the national minorities, especially the Russian speaking citizens. Together with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the pressure on this matter in Moldova has intensified. Not only once in this period, the representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, accused the Moldovan authorities of “raising the already exaggerated level of russophobia” in Moldovan society. In response, the President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, said that nothing threatens the Russian speaking citizens inside Moldovan society. “They are respected as all the others citizens of the Republic of Moldova are. We promised to respect everyone and to take care of everyone’s safety. The rest is false accusations and attempts to destabilize the situation in Moldova,” noted the head of state.

The invocation of russophobia with regard to the Republic of Moldova is related to an older strategy of Moscow, which tries to have in hand pretexts to intervene at any suitable moment in the sovereign decisions of the Moldovan state. The necessity of having efficient mechanisms for counteracting these unfounded accusations, with this task becoming a mandatory element of the national security strategy of the Republic of Moldova, derives from here. A necessary step in this direction should be the precise defining by law of the status of the Russian language with the same status as other languages of the national minorities, by giving the Romanian language the status of language of interethnic communication in Moldovan society.   

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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