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The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has been the main focus of discussions about Russia and its activities in recent weeks. However, it appears that there has been a shift in the Russian domestic political climate underway for sometime. These changes likely have some bearing on the more aggressive posture in foreign policy and are in turn accelerated by the external conflict.

Xenophobic Chill Descends on Moscow

From the moment that Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea cast a new, bitter chill over relations with the West, a sinister jingoistic vibe has pervaded this unsettled capital — stirred up by state-controlled television and Mr. Putin himself.

“Some Western politicians are already threatening us not just with sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front,” the president said in his speech announcing plans to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation. “I would like to know what they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors,’ or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?”

At Mr. Putin’s direction, a committee led by his chief of staff is developing a new “state policy in culture.” Widely expected to be enacted into law, the proposed cultural policy emphasizes that “Russia is not Europe” and urges “a rejection of the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance” in favor of emphasizing Russia’s “unique state-government civilization,” according to Russian news accounts that quoted a presidential adviser on culture, Vladimir Tolstoy.

A Russian news site, znak.com, also reported last week that a popular series of math textbooks would be dropped from an official list of recommended educational texts because it used too many non-Russian fairy tale and other characters in its illustrations.

Prior to the Olympics in Sochi the world had become aware of Russia's increased emphasis on the repression of gay rights organizations. This is one aspect of a broader range of far right movements. Right wing hostility to immigrants has been on the rise across most of Europe. In most countries the existing government has attempted to contain such movements. In Russia Putin seems to have decided to use them to forge stronger bonds of nationalistic solidarity. It appears to be a political strategy that has reaped benefits for him in terms of increased domestic political support. He seems to have very little to deal with in terms of serious internal political dissent.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, the west led by the US has attempted to bind Russia into the global capitalist economic system. Some of those attempts such as the initial shock doctrine arguably did more harm than good. Russia has developed fairly extensive bilateral trade relationships with the west, particularly the EU. It became a member of the WTO. There had been discussions of eventual EU membership for Russia. Russian leaders never showed much enthusiasm for that prospect. There were some notable bumps in this road such as the armed conflict with Georgia in 2008, but there was a fairly clear trend in the direction of global integration over 20 years. That now seems to be reversing. What has happened to bring this about?

During the presidency of Boris Yeltzin the Russian Federation was generally in a state of chaos and decline. It pretty thoroughly ceased to be a nation able to wield power and influence on the global stage. When Putin became president he set about putting the house in order. Whatever else one might say about him, he has been an effective political leader at accomplishing his objectives. The  improvement in general economic circumstances won him much favor among the populace. However, he doesn't seem to have been content with the idea of restoring the nation to economic stability and assuming a role as an essentially regional power on the global stage. He aspires to a return to the status of Russia as an international great power. He has managed to generate leverage for a place at the table in international negotiations such as those dealing with Syria and Iran.  Raising the spectra of the external enemies has been effective in generating political support for this policy. He is by no means the first political leader to find such an approach to be a very useful tool.

The US is making proposals for increasingly stringent economic sanctions to contain what it sees as Russian aggression. However, it is the EU and Germany in particular that has the most extensive economic relationships. Imposing sanctions on Russia would require an economic sacrifice for them. So far actual sanctions have been limited to a few token gestures. Direct military confrontations with Russia seem to be pretty much out of the question.

One thing that the changed domestic political climate in Russia seems to indicate is that Ukraine is not simply an isolated incident that will simply blow over. There does seem to be a fundamental transition in Russian posture and policy and it is likely to have some sort of persistent impact on global security relationships.      

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