Neo-Tsarist Foreign Policy: From Tsardom to Stardom

Krystel von Kumberg

It is important to consider how international security has evolved since Russian Tsardom (1547-1721) and the Russian Empire (1721-1917). Logic would dictate that as new dynamic threats emerge, Russia’s national and foreign security objectives would change, as national and foreign policy largely depend on the staging of the international landscape. However, despite new developments, Putin’s stardom suggests that, on the surface, not much has significantly altered Russia’s principle internal drivers and overall strategic mindset. Generally, symbols, narratives, and the ways in which the security discourse is framed largely mirror past ideas of greatness. While technological advancements in an increasingly multipolar and globalized system have accelerated the pace of international relations, Russia’s behavior still somehow mirrors its Tsarist roots. 

Conflating the Tsarist image of greatness with Putin’s cult of personality (his stardom) aligns with Russia’s national security objectives. Putin’s popularity ratings are usually around or above 70%, and many have compared him to “Peter the Great.” While Putin’s global ratings have been declining since the February 24th invasion of Ukraine, he is still polling at above 80% at home. This is to be expected; as in previous times of war, his ratings have shot up.  

In 2017, The Economist branded Putin as a “post-modern tsar,” calling him “Tsar Vladimir.” Mirroring Tsarism is key to Putin’s national security objectives, as Russia’s historic successes and failures are used to further legitimize decisions today. Indeed, in November 2016, “tenth-century Russian King Vladimir the Great was erected near the Kremlin in a not so subtle tribute to the country’s current ruler.” Additionally, Putin, like a tsar, surrounds himself with the siloviki: loyal and efficient men that he can trust. Adi Ignatius described the President as an “Elected Emperor,” dictating that he will long-reign as “the supreme leader, master of Russia’s destiny.” Indeed, as Stephen Blank has argued, Russian foreign policy is “rooted in…Tsarism which saw itself as the gendarme of Europe uniquely appointed to prevent revolution in the 19th century.” Putin exemplified this outlook in his 2005 Annual Address to the Federal Assembly: “above all else Russia was, is and will, of course, [always] be a major European power.” 

Similar to Putin, Nicholas I, who reigned from 1825-55, ruthlessly defended the status quo. He came to power in a time of turmoil, which earned him the title of the “Gendarme of Europe.” Faced with the chaos of the proto-colored revolutions, he helped crush revolts in Poland and even offered troops to help the Hapsburgs suppress a revolt in Hungary. One of his main objectives was protecting territorial integrity. Likewise, Putin projects an image of protecting the sovereignty of states. The 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, the Color Revolutions of the early 2000s, and the Arab Spring of the following decade all intensified his fear of popular unrest. Putin characterizes these uprisings as instigated by the West and therefore acts as a protector, helping states curb revolts and insurgencies that spring up. Fear of instability is therefore a constant national security concern, and Putin’s goal is to protect what Russia perceives as the status quo. There are limits to using history in the globalized landscape we find ourselves in today. Nonetheless, Putinism seems quite similar to Russia’s Nicolaevian Phase. Coincidentally, just as Crimea can be considered a strategic mistake for Putin, Nicholas also embroiled Russia in risky foreign adventurism including an ill-fated war in Crimea. 

Additionally, the dominant imperial ideological doctrine of Nicholas I still rings true today. The Black Hundreds (1905-1917), a Russian monarchist and ultra-nationalist movement, supported the House of Romanov and was known for its incitement of pogroms and xenophobia, including anti-Ukrainian beliefs. The Black Hundreds supported the dominant imperial ideological doctrine of Nicholas I. Minister of Education, Count Sergey Uvarov, promoted the following slogan: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” This slogan provided the backdrop to his reign and parallels some groups the Kremlin unofficially supports today. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is part of an extensive collection of extreme-right ‘political Orthodoxy’ groups in Russia today that idolize Russia’s Tsarist past and garner inspiration from the Black Hundreds. Today’s movement  has an imperialistic outlook and considers decadent liberal Western ideas a major threat undermining Russian influence on the global arena. Their slogan is “God. Tsar. Nation.,” mirroring Uvarov’s troika. RIM is predominantly attempting to bring to the fore a monoethnic state led by a Tsarist autocracy. They believe the Russian Revolution in 1917 was not legitimate and that legally the Russian Empire still exists. While they were anti-Putin, their rhetoric shifted as the group became more pragmatic. In 2014, as RIM began supporting separatists in Ukraine, it came into the spotlight. The Imperial Legion’s training program, known as Partizan, prepared Russian fighters to destabilize the Kiev government and protect ethnic Russians. Partizan has been increasingly active since 2014. 

Additionally, the concept of geography as destiny stems from the Tsarist period. The 2014 annexation of Crimea paralleled some of the actions and circumstances of the 1783 annexation of the same region. In 1784, when the Ottoman Empire was defeated by Catherine the Great, Crimea was traded to Russia by the Ottoman Empire as part of the Convention of Ainali-Kavak. Reclaiming lands that were a part of Russia during the Tsarist period is vital to Russian national and foreign security policies today. Restoring regional hegemony today also echoes the past, with Russia garnering strength as its rival centers of power (Sweden, Poland, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire) declined. The Russian state has consistently expanded for centuries. Expansionism is a key characteristic of the Russian state and is rooted in its history—from 1551 to 1700 Russia grew by 35,000 km2 per annum on average. The expansionist worldview held by Russian leaders for centuries holds that the country cannot exist in stasis. Even today, its influence over its neighboring countries reflects this same imperial logic. 

Russia does not feel secure unless its neighbors feel insecure. The phrase “offense is the best defense” echoes throughout its history, and modern Russia exhibits these same traits, as illustrated by the information warfare it has employed in Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine. One stark difference that Russia faces is that the leadership is even more insecure after the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the resulting loss of territorial integrity and status. The collapse of the Soviet Union severed Russian foreign policy and stalled its national objectives. The complexities of the international landscape are also something to consider, especially considering advancing technological systems, nuclear arsenals, and NATO expansion.  As additional online shows of support like that of the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO) spill over into the real world, they challenge Moscow to modify their traditional strategic mindset to better suit 21st century conditions. 
Throughout his reign, Putin has tactfully replaced Tsardom with Stardom, taking center stage in decision-making. The Kremlin’s security goals have largely remained constant, as the “offense is the best defense” mindset remains ingrained within the Russian psyche. Moscow’s main fear—territorial loss—still remains. Despite the changing international arena, Russia is seemingly driven by one leader as in Tsarist times, who is encircled by the siloviki. Maintaining the Russian status quo and curbing revolts warped by a traditionalist backdrop are some elements of Tsarist trends that Putin continues to pursue today.

Image: 32325-Moscow by xiquinhosilva is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and “Putin by Platon” by firdaus omar is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Krystel von Kumberg is studying Global, International, and Comparative History and graduated from the Security Studies Program at Georgetown in 2020. She specializes in the roles of non-state actors; militarized social movements, terrorists, and militias in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Her research focuses on the Cold War, the history of transnational terrorism, recruitment methods, and radicalization.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s