The Kremlin Triad: Strategic Communications after ‘Nullifying’ of the Constitution and COVID-19 

The Kremlin Triad: Strategic Communications after ‘Nullifying’ of the Constitution and COVID-19
Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi / RIA Novosti / REUTERS

The question that is being discussed a lot now sounds like this: what will happen next and how to act? We are talking about the entire system of communication between Europe – that is, the European Union, national governments, and intercountry associations – and the Kremlin, which, after the constitutional reform (the ‘nullifying’), undoubtedly took a new form. Kremlin has completed its «post-Crimean transition» (2014-2020). For international communications at all levels, a strategic question arises: what to focus on?

Putin’s «conservative turn» began a long time ago, with several stages. And each successive stage was more aggressive and created a new atmosphere of anti-Westernism with new practical consequences.

In 2005-2007, the first instruments of a new «ideological war» and anti-liberal rhetoric emerged.

The next big period extends from the Munich speech to the annexation of Crimea (2007-2014). During this period, there was still some struggle between the dominating and liberal wings of Putin’s circle and several future scenarios could be predicted. But since 2014, there is only one “scenario” left.

And during this period from 2014 to 2020 the Kremlin has taken a form in which along all traditional lines of communication all “protocols” and “interfaces” have collapsed. It has gotten to the point with traditional diplomacy that, for example, the Czech authorities are already appointing a “special representative” for negotiations with the Kremlin. With discussions on education in Moscow, even before the constitutional reform in the State Duma, some said that Russia would need to leave the “Erasmus” European student exchange system. With civic organizations, all European organizations that have been working with Russian partners for many years are now afraid to harm them because the Kremlin has created a threatening status of “foreign agents,” under which even such distinguished and loyal organizations as the Levada Center or the Moscow School of Political Studies have fallen under.

In official Russia, an atmosphere has been established in which, in general, any activity of foreign organizations is viewed in the context of a “threat to sovereignty.”

The bloated patriotic society in Russia makes public scandals even around school contests about the Second World War that Memorial has been conducting for many years, and the FSB immediately enters the case followed by the legislators. Repressions and legislative restrictions have been incessant throughout the post-Crimean period.

There is also a problem of “toxicity.” Until 2014, many Russian-European projects were developed with the support of foundations created by major Russian businessmen, including the heads of state corporations. But now there are sanctions. The landscape has changed year after year. And now it is impossible to count how many large initiatives and civic hubs that once handled coordination have left Russia.

If before there were numerous sites in Russia that were patronized by prominent representatives of business or government management and with whom humanitarian organizations in Europe could easily establish cooperation, now they are disappearing from the map. And in place of them a completely different Kremlin infrastructure has been formed which no longer operates from the standpoint of open communication but asserts itself as “soft power.”

The extension of this scenario is clearly observed both in the constitutional amendments and in the rhetoric of various figures.

The Kremlin places the triad of «Russian language – history – values» to the fore in humanitarian communications. And the main narrators of this semantic triad are Putin – Patrushev – Primakov.

All three elements are now actively and fully embedded in the ideological struggle with the West. Historical revisionism, the use of the theme of the Russian language, and “traditional values” – we have seen all of this before.

But now the final “weaponization” has taken place. Vladimir Putin himself is now the leader of the “historians.” He is opening a new round of struggle around language and the amendments he approved contain the consolidation of ideological points related to “values.”

For the West, with which the Kremlin is waging a Cold War, all this is not very sensitive. But this works for those countries that the Kremlin wants to keep under its hegemony. For these tasks, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo was replaced and Primakov developed an ambitious program. He tries not to use the term “soft power,” but when he reflects on “humanitarian politics” in his program interviews he describes expansion as even more active than before.

Patrushev’s article on values looks very weak, archaic, and even anecdotal if interpreted from the standpoint of any modern political philosophy. The Kremlin does not have any “special traditional values,” especially those that can be opposed as a universal alternative. But that is irrelevant, since the theme itself serves solely as a marker.

Russian language itself is simply the lingua franca of the post-Soviet territories. There is nothing ideological about this. Many languages do play such a role. But at this new stage, the Kremlin will “sell” the Russian language to neighboring peoples not just as a language of international communication but as part of a package. The language is accompanied by a theory of “traditional values” and “historical narrative.”

The whole “triad” works like markers. The Russian language is the language of the Great Victory and the language that fights against the “erosion of traditional values.” If you acknowledge this, you are “ours.” And the rest are not “ours.”

This received the blessing of the Kremlin as the content of international contacts in the coming years.

The most vulnerable space for this new stage in the advancement of the Kremlin “triad” is Belarus, since it exists within the framework of the “union state.” But this is also important for Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic countries, primarily for Latvia.

After the “integration attack” on Belarus in the first half of 2019, many wondered if the Kremlin would annex Belarus by military means. These fears are unfounded. The Kremlin acts only where the narrative – linguistic, moral, and historical – is already rooted in the mass consciousness and where the population is equated with any other Russian territory. The threat is not the “economic purchase” of Belarus or a forceful “anti-Lukashenko” pro-Moscow coup by itself. Neither one nor the other is possible without a deep adjustment of the mass consciousness.

Russian language and economic cooperation with Russians will not leave all of Eurasia. The question is how to put up a screen to separate language and economics from the Kremlin appendage that is understandable to wide audiences. Cooperation between the peoples of Eurasia should not be based on the narrative of a continuous and universal struggle against “Western values” on a special “historical map.”

The Kremlin’s ideological triad is the exact opposite of what is required in the 21st century for these lands to live in peace, preserving their statehood and the general pace of modernization.

A fundamental question arises: how should those who continue to work with Russia at all react to this new stage (2020-2024)? This is the stage in which all consultative groups around old and new treaties become an empty formality and bilateral diplomacy turns into an exclusively operational settlement of occasional conflicts. Not only Soros and large American foundations, but also small civic organizations of European countries are under suspicion. Any “contact with the West” around civic engagement, social entrepreneurship, and humanitarian activity is under suspicion.

The Kremlin will isolate itself and wage a virtual war with the West, seeking to involve Russian-speaking neighboring countries. Sanctions will intensify, and the system for bypassing sanctions will collapse. Only an insignificant part of anti-Putin propagandists can stigmatize the “Russians” as a bloodthirsty, imperial people. For the leaders of European countries and for the political establishment, this is impossible. One can only take the position of referring to Russian society as a “victim,” in much the same way as in the famous resolution of the European Parliament described Russia as a victim of Stalinism, infuriating Putin.

It is possible to predict some lines of “humanitarian policy” based on the general outline of the Kremlin’s “post-constitutional” policy.

LANGUAGE. A new stage in the use of Russian language in the ideological struggle will lead to a split among the Slavists. This refers not only to the academic Slavic community, but also to the entire wide circle of people abroad associated with teaching Russian language, translation services, etc. The task will be to clearly separate the teaching of Russian language from any connection with the expansionist and anti-liberal policy of the Kremlin. Moreover, the Association of American Slavists and the circle of Slavists of the Lotman Institute at Ruhr University have issued open letters several times in the past two years in support of their persecuted colleagues in Russia.

The “Putin-Primakov plan” to reactivate the Russian language as soft power will trigger a new wave of political struggle around this topic in countries that border Russia. This includes those where there are few Russian speakers. We must not forget that in the past two decades, that Russian language in large cities with modern consumer infrastructure (mega malls, hotels, restaurants, and cultural industries) is indeed the language of international communication along with English. Employers often make knowledge of Russian a requirement when hiring into this infrastructure. The Russian language is indeed the lingua franca and will remain so. But its teaching and use must be freed from the Kremlin’s ideological appendage.

And not only legislators can do this, because party decisions trigger a painful reaction from Russian speakers.

There should be efforts made by the Slavic community itself, by cultural figures.

HISTORY. It is impractical to impose a historical discussion on European countries in the form that Putin proposes in his article and how the development of the Military Historical Society is impossible.

However, for the countries of the former USSR – foremost for Belarus, parts of Ukraine, and Kazakhstan – the historical narrative exploited by the Kremlin is much more influential, as it relies on the “Soviet memory” of the war.

Domestically, Putin’s article on World War II is important as a sign that Putin himself is becoming the frontman of the Military Historical Society, signaling a new stage in finishing off Memorial. We must prepare for the fact that the Russian historical centers of the “politics of memory” that resist Putin’s ideologization will end up abroad. Although already at the former stage, thanks to the efforts of people from the circle of N. Mikhalkov, V. Yakunin, the widow of Solzhenitsyn and others, many old emigre “centers of memory” were “Putinized.” Other independent historical initiatives, however, such as the Russian Traditions Foundation, are now in the Czech Republic.

Independent media have already moved their offices outside the country, and the same will happen with some Russian historical centers and research groups.

VALUES. Of course, Putin lost the opportunity to build a global “right-wing international” because he traded this opportunity for the annexation of Crimea. After the annexation and under sanctions, it is no longer possible to advocate criticism of consumer civilization on the global political market or to serve as an “oasis” of traditional values. The right in the U.S. and Europe is forced to distance itself from the Kremlin.

However, the “blurring of traditional values” marker, for all its abstractness, works for some audiences, primarily in the countries of the former USSR where there are large social contingents that are made easy prey for the supposed “civilized criticism of the West.”

For the Kremlin and its propaganda machine, it does not matter how seriously people take this criticism and how it relates to the reality of their lives. It is enough for the Kremlin to build a kind of transboundary mental contour in which there is a negative attitude towards the West and through which pedaling its problems creates an “acceptability” for the Kremlin’s actions. The concept of “traditional values” works in one direction: “If not for our demagogy about traditional values, then there will be NATO soldiers/migrants/Soros/LGBT.” As a marker, “traditional values” allow the Kremlin to manipulate a segment of the political elites in Belarus and Ukraine.

SPECIAL REPRESENTATION. What will the bilateral diplomatic conflicts the Kremlin easily inspires at the expense of aggressive rhetoric of the Foreign Ministry representatives and deputies of both chambers lead to? A meaningful step is the appointment by the Czech Republic of a special representative for Russia in the system of executive power. Indeed, if bilateral relations reach an impasse, an atmosphere of mistrust is created and contacts at the state leadership level lose the feeling of real dialogue. In this case a “minister without a portfolio” (special envoy for Russia) is an obvious solution. An interesting programmatic text was published by the Czech diplomat Rudolf Jindrak regarding this. It shows how a mission is formulated in this kind of situation. Many other European states will have to resort to this form in the next five years.

PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS. After the elections to the European Parliament (2019), a small group of deputies emerged (Kubilius, Lagodinsky, etc.), which draws attention to the situation of civic activists and organizations in Russia and to the diminishing of civil liberties. Opportunities for “parliamentary diplomacy” by parliamentary groups specializing in Russia in the national parliaments of European countries are clearly being reduced, as these old formats lead to “toxicity. Most likely, in the coming years, groups like the Kubilius-Lagodinsky group will appear in many parliaments. If so, the strategic goal will inevitably be the creation of a new international human rights organization. As the influence of Amnesty International and those formats that have survived since the time of the Helsinki agreements have weakened, the question arises whether the protection of civil rights, public attention to political prisoners in Russia, and in post-Soviet Eurasia in general, requires a new large European human rights project.

CIVIC ORGANIZATIONS. European civic organizations and party foundations were forced to reduce their activity in Russia in 2014-2020. But they cannot fully transfer their work to the territory of third countries since their Russian colleagues invited to any seminars and workshops fall under suspicion of disloyalty and control of the FSB.

The long trend of Russia’s self-isolation will clearly intensify in the coming years. The problem lies in the fact that, unlike the period of 2003-2010, there are no major systemic figures left in Russia who can and would like to act as patrons of international communications in this area. After 2014, the remaining representatives in Russia of Putin’s “liberal wing,” at best in a shadowy way, are fighting to end criminal cases against such figures as the director Serebrennikov or journalist Golunov. But practically no one is still serving as a patron of progressive forms of civic self-organization.

This severely limits the possibilities of European civic organizations that operated in Russia through securing elite support.

This situation will lead to the emergence of a new system of awards and international statuses awarded to Russian figures – not only civil activists, but also representatives of any field of activity. As in the Soviet period, foreign awards from well-known organizations strengthen the status of a person within the country and complicate repression.

These and many other trends in public communications between European and Russian organizations and figures could become the subject of a large conference in Brussels.

The Kremlin’s policy of self-isolation, coupled with ideological aggression against neighboring countries, also raises the question of how the institutions of the countries of the former USSR should act in the long term.

Even Belarus will no longer be able to remain exclusively in the zone of the humanitarian policy of the so-called “union state.”

It is already clear that another layer of young experts, journalists, and cultural and urban creative industry figures is being formed in Belarus, for whom the format of interaction with Russians through the Public Chamber of the Union State is impossible and meaningless, since the decrepit ideological veterans of the Soviet period sit there.

The presidential campaign in Belarus in 2020 has clearly shown that those new progressive circles that supported a course of revitalization would easily find a common language with those who demand the same revitalization at the rallies in Khabarovsk. And in general, in the post-Soviet countries, we see a new generation that no longer identifies with the leaders of the old political oppositions that emerged in the 90’s. This generation needs to find a common language among themselves in different countries, since the synchronization of the democratic process across the post-Soviet territory would be beneficial both for the peoples of post-Soviet Eurasia and for Europe.

Alexander Morozov is an iSANS expert, political scientist, co-organizer and fellow of the Boris Nemcov Academic Center of Russian Studies in Charles University in Prague

Материал доступен на русском языке: Кремлевская триада. Коммуникации после конституции и ковида