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Putin and Russian Nationalists Do NOT See Eye to Eye

Despite what you may have been led to believe Putin is a far cry from a Russian nationalist - in fact the nationalists are some of his biggest critics and opponents (only they dislike pro-western liberals even more)

Originally appeared at The Unz Review

One of the more frustrating misconceptions Westerners have about Russia – including even many of the more well meaning ones – is that Putin is some kind of nationalist.

He is not. Nor was he ever.

It appeared he might be sort of leaning in that direction in the heady days after Crimea’s return into Russia. He even used the term russkie - ethnic Russians, as opposed to the multiethnic, and about as fictional as “Soviet,” nationality called rossiyane – in a few of his speeches. But since then he moved back into old forms and familiar habits, and the wholesale “regathering of the Russian lands” that many (but far from all – it’s complicated) Russian nationalists were salivating after in mid-2014 wasn’t to happen.

This is not, of course, to say that Putin is a bad leader, or anti-Russian, like the hardcore real Russian nationalists have always claimed. To the contrary, he is objectively better for the Russian nation and its ethnic minorities than any plausible liberal or Communist opposition alternative.

But apart from being a patriot, he is also an ethnic blank slatist. No nationalist would have allowed large-scale Central Asian immigration into the Slavic Russian heartlands, which even many of my decidedly anti-nationalist acquaintances in Russia have complained about.

And most nationalists would have supported Novorossiya to the hilt, Western sanctions and ostracism be damned. Ironically Putin might get damned either way. It doesn’t much matter if you steal $10,000 (Crimea) or $10 billion (Novorossiya and Malorossiya) from a bank. Either way, the (world) police is going after you.

I personally don’t fully buy this argument 100%, but it should be stressed that this has been one of the main domestic criticisms of Putin’s Ukraine policy from the Right. And these criticisms are arguably far more potent and potentially dangerous for Putin than criticisms from pro-Western liberals for going against the West.

It is in this context that we the see the police search of Egor Prosvirnin’s apartment, and the confiscation of his computer and other electronics.

Egor Prosvirnin is the chief editor of Sputnik i Pogrom (SiP), a Russian nationalist glossy magazine. Unlike the Neo-Nazis and liberal nationalists, they are ardent supporters of Novorossiya, and tend to idolize Tsarism and the White movement. Prosvirnin has met with Igor Strelkov on several occasions and SiP has been responsible for raising several millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and organizing “vacations” to the lush resorts of Donbass. In this sense, their Novorossiya policy is in line with that of the Communists and the Eurasianist nationalists, and (to a far more limited extent) to that of the Russian state proper.

It is also the closest thing Russia has to a US-style Alt Right, thought as with all European nationalist movements, it does not have the American preoccupation with race and is far less literate on IQ matters. Its writers tend to be young, socially liberal, and unusually familiar with Europe and the US. Dugin, their “Eurasian” antithesis, believes “transhumanism” is some particularly deviant variant of transgenderism. The SiPers are familiar with Ray Kurzweil and write articles about Russia’s potential role in the technological singularity.

Sometimes this familiarity with the West leads them down some very questionable avenues in which they overestimate Western wisdom and intellectual vitality. I got the impression that Prosvirnin earnestly believes the European immigration crisis is a devious plot by Germany to enhance its power in Europe, as opposed to Merkel being her usual indecisive and feckless self. He is a militant atheist who wouldn’t be out of place at /r/atheism. He regularly cites Stratfor, and regularly more or less reprints it, which is very good at marketting itself as a “shadow CIA” but is far less competent at actual geopolitics, or even password security for that matter). And the SiP lot are positively obsessed with the concept of “Putinsliv,” that is, the idea that Putin is going to “let go” of Novorossiya anytime now (in this they are a somewhat ironic mirror image of Ukrainian svidomy who harp on about peremogi – victories, and zrada – betrayals, and the endless ways in which they morph and coalesce between each other).

But such minor quibbles aside, it is an excellent resource that regularly produces quality articles on history and Russian culture as well as politics, and (for Russian speakers) well worth its $50 annual subscription price. It did not seem to have any big problems with the Russian state.

What happened?

Russia does not have the First Amendment. It does have Article 282 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes hate speech, like in most European countries. But it is a tool that has been wielded selectively, mostly against politicians of the Neo-Nazi persuasion. Incidentally, the Neo-Nazis as well as the “liberal nationalists” (mostly Krylov and the more famous Navalny) have for the most part been the Russian nationalists most against Novorossiya, seeing it as a sovok creation and praising the Ukrainian junta as the new citadel of the White Nationalist global revolution. (Asking them what they thought of this White nationalist paradise having a Jewish oligarch for a leader and an Armenian sci-fi nerd head of the Interior Ministry was a reliable and entertaining way to trigger them).

A tool that has been wielded selectively… until now. The use of Article 282 against a public figure with no obvious neo-Nazi connections and a history of support for Novorossiya is unprecedented.

Now to be fair, Prosvirnin has always been staunchly – even rabidly – anti Putin. But this was a constant and one that never got him into legal trouble for it before, so that is unlikely to have been a key motivator.

The pessimistic explanation – and one advanced by Prosvirnin himself – is that Putin is indeed plotting some great “zrada” (betrayal) against Novorossiya. Naturally, this would excite massive opposition amongst most Russian nationalists, so in this interpretation the confiscation of Prosvirnin’s computer equipment – especially were it to lead to arrests and prosecutions – could be the Russian state nipping potential opposition in the bud.

SiP doesn’t have a great predictive record. It is been predicting Putinsliv for more than a year now, but during this same period the DNR and LNR have consolidated themselves as functioning states, and the Novorossiya Armed Forces are far more powerful today than they were even in early 2015. It would be strange of Putin to have enabled this only to “flush” it all down later on. In any case, the Minsk Agreements are failing on all fronts - most of all thanks to helpful Ukrainian nationalists who are the main obstacle to Poroshenko implementing his side of the deal. With Minsk II in its death throes, it would be exceedingly difficult for Putin to commit his “zrada” in any plausibly face-saving way.

And yet… and yet…

If that is indeed the plan, to decisively close up the Novorossiya project, try to make amends with the junta, and hope they and the Western “partners” forget and forgive Crimea, this is pretty much what I’d be doing in Putin’s place: Harassing and seizing the equipment of Novorossiya supporters, building criminal cases against them, discrediting them in the media, and sending them off to prison. So this conceivably might be Step 1 of such an operation. Or it might not be. It probably isn’t.

But then again… back in July of this year, Prosvirnin on his Facebook page – I can’t locate it now, but it was certainly there – predicted that Novorossiya would soon be folded up and replaced with a propaganda campaign in favor of Russian involvement in Syria, including boots on the ground. He even argued that this would be a way of mending US-Russian relations, which certainly cuts against the conventional wisdom – both in the mainstream and the altsphere – that the West and Russia are fundamentally at odds in Syria and that the US is committed to seeing Assad go. In effect, Russia would doing the “dirty” work of ending the war with the quiet acquiescence of the West and the Gulf Arab states while they wash their hands of it, condemn Russia, take meaningless symbolic actions against it (e.g. requesting that Greece close its airspace to Russian military cargo only for Greece to promptly refuse it) but are otherwise pleased with the restoration of order and the end of the refugee crisis.

And for all my, and the Saker’s, prior skepticism… this seems to be happening. Russians tanks and gunships are appearing in the Alawite heartland. Bases are getting expanded. According to the latest reports from (an anti-Kremlin paper), Russian military contractors are being sent to Syria to fight for Assad against their will.

It looks increasingly that either Prosvirnin must have either guessed very, very well… or that he had very, very senior informants in the Kremlin.

If this version of affairs is in any way accurate, then it appears that Putin is setting himself up for an epic fail of world-historical proportions.

My operating assumption is that the US does not tend to honor its commitments that are not both written and binding (just ask Gorbachev about NATO expansion). Assume Russia “sorts out” Syria, assuming on itself the opprobrium of keeping “bloody Assad” in power and doubtless taking some military casualties in the process to boot. Assume it also betrays Novorossiya, as Prosvirnin has been insisting it would for over a year now. Assume it does all this on some promise from the US to drop sanctions, accept Crimea, and help reintegrate Russia into the international (read: Western) community.

But why would it?

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on… shame on you, as that old Texan saying somewhere in Tennessee goes. If Putin falls for a trap this obvious, he will have nobody to blame himself. And it this obviousness that is the best argument against it. Putin might not be a Russian nationalist, but he is definitely not stupid.

The alternative, and in line with the theory of the “mnogokhodovka” – the idea that Putin has a very devious, multi-step plan that is by now said more in sarcasm than in admiration of his policies – is that Putin does plan to walk into this trap but then spring it on the US itself.

The third, and in my opinion likeliest version, is that both Prosvirnin and I are over-analyzing things. Though in fairness to Prosvirnin, his conspiracy theorizing has at least now being given weight by the arbitrary hand of the Russian justice system.

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