Under Putin, the phrase "Russkiy Mir," translated as "Russian world" but also "Russian peace," has driven Kremlin's foreign policy. It's built on the idea of a civilization that stretched well beyond Russia's borders, but it is Putin himself dooming Moscow to fade in importance, and the ancient capital of Kyiv to rise from the ashes.
The phrase “Русский Мир” (Russkiy Mir — “Russian world”) has appeared frequently in statements by Vladimir Putin and his top henchmen to justify the invasion of Ukraine. It’s the idea that Russia is not just a nation-state, but a civilizational-state with an important role to play in world history.
In Putin’s vision, the Kremlin has a duty to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers all over the world, including in the former Soviet republics.
Beginning in 2000, during Putin's first term, the concept of the "Russian world," so ambiguous and not fully understood by those using it, became the cornerstone of Moscow's foreign policy.
But it is the second word in the phrase, "Mir" that deserves special attention: the term has two interpretations in Russian — it also means peace.
When "peace" began with war
I first encountered this concept in 2008 during the Russian war in Georgia over the Abkhazia territory. At that time, memes began to circulate online: postcards with the words "We need peace. And preferably all of it" (here again word play is important).
For my generation — which was born in the late period of the USSR, and remembers little about it except for Mikhail Gorbachev’s last-ditch attempts to restructure it — Russian peace began with war, rather than friendship and cooperation between the former Soviet republics. After the military conflict in Abkhazia, "peace" or even friendly relations between Georgia and Russia were destroyed.
During Ukraine's bloodless Orange Revolution of 2004, "Russkiy Mir" featured little in the rhetoric of Russia and Ukraine. Despite the re-election and the victory of the Ukrainian patriot Viktor Yushchenko, pro-Russian sentiment and sympathy for Russia and its government were still very strong in the parliament and among citizens. Pro-Russian parties remained and continued to gain a parliamentary majority, and the next presidential election was won by an openly pro-Russian politician from Donbas, Viktor Yanukovich.
In the two decades after 1991, Ukraine had remained in a close orbit to Russia: Ukrainian oligarchs were also ethnic Russians; many parliament members barely spoke Ukrainian; there was scant support of NATO membership, and residents of the two countries could cross the border easily.
If ever there was a "Russian peace" between Ukraine and Russia, it was then — all the way from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas in 2014.
Not even working in Belarus
Eight years ago, “Russkiy Mir” entered firmly into Putin's speeches and, consequently, into Russian and Ukrainian media. In Ukraine, this concept began to arouse anger and mockery, and the comparison of Ukraine to Russia's little brother was even more contemptuous.
Now, with the brutal invasion of Ukraine, the term is indelibly associated with images of corpses of Ukrainians.
Having taken the foreign policy course of building the Russian world or Russian peace, Putin has done everything in his power to destroy it. And not only with Georgia and Ukraine, but also Moldova (Russiky Mir is often cited in the unrecognized breakaway state Transnistria), the former Soviet republics, not to mention Finland, which was once part of the Russian Empire and is now applying to join NATO.
It is also backfiring in Belarus, where Putin helps to keep strongman Alexander Lukashenko in power, thus isolating the neighboring country from the rest of the region and world and condemning its people to poverty and persecution, can hardly be called a success.
President Vladimir Putin addressing the nation on Russian television.
Kyiv as new capital of the Russian world
Before the war that broke out in 2014 between Ukraine and Russia, if there were large-scale conflicts, it was not between ordinary people, but somewhere in the offices where Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and politicians shared money and suitcases. In those now distant days, Moscow was the capital not only of Russia but of the entire Russian-speaking world.
Kyiv was instead referred to as the mother of Russian cities, the historic capital, as well as the jazz capital of the entire former Soviet Union. (Among other Ukrainian cities, Lviv was the place to eat delicious food, Odessa the spot for posh clubs, Donetsk for football matches, and the Carpathians for an affordable beach vacation!) But Kyiv is Kyiv.
Everything that used to be drawn to Moscow will inevitably flow to Kyiv.
As a result of the folly of this war that Russia has launched, its very future grows hazier and more unpredictable by the day. So much of the world has turned against Russia, posing the question of what Moscow or St. Petersburg, or any other city can continue to be the center of anything beyond violence, sanctions, and prisons.
Ukraine, on the other hand, has already begun to attract not only admiration but also money, which will be used for reconstruction after the war and reforms. And when peace is restored, the Ukrainian economy will be relaunched like never before: bringing new jobs, opportunities and culture for both Ukrainian and Russian-speaking people.
Concerts, sporting events, exhibitions, scientific, and business projects will have to take place somewhere. It is not hard to imagine that everything and everyone (artists to business people to tourists) that used to be drawn to Moscow will inevitably flow to Kyiv and other large cities in Ukraine.
Having ceased to exist, the bogus "Russian world" of Putin will give way to a healthy competition in the region among independent countries. Moscow will eventually again find its place in that world, but it must first reconcile with itself and others after having so brutally aimed to destroy Russian peace.
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