The delayed threat of Strelkov's opposition movement

Commentary

This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


The former military commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic has launched the All-Russian Nationalist Movement, which is an extremely important development to watch.

Late last month, Igor Strelkov, the former military commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic – and a man often credited with setting the East Ukraine separatist conflict in motion before the Kremlin pushed him out – launched the All-Russian Nationalist Movement (OND), publishing an oppositionist declaration, giving interviews, and generally voicing explicitly anti-Putin views.

This is an extremely important development to watch. As I wrote last year, the real threat to the regime, if it is going to emerge, will come from nationalists co-opted, groomed, and then set loose by the Kremlin, and not from the liberals. To that extent, Strelkov’s increasingly aggressive posturing as a critic of Vladimir Putin raised real questions about whether he, indeed, could become that formidable opponent.

The question is crucial. But the answer is no. And the first testament to just how successfully the Kremlin has co-opted and managed this nationalist threat is the emergence of Strelkov’s movement in itself.

His declaration calls for many things. There are clearly imperialist goals, like the unification of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and “other Russian lands”, as well as “liberal-national” ones, like “acquiring control of the political system, national resources and the media by the Russian nation” where “nation”, in the context of the political forces that drafted the manifesto, vaguely connotes things both ethnic and cultural. But there is also a dose of liberalism: independence of the courts and the legislature.

What is key is that the group – which has included a motley assortment from outright Stalinists like Alexei Kungorov and Maxim Kalashnikov, to National Bolshevik Eduard Limonov, to more liberal nationalist elements like Yegor Prosvirnin and Konstantin Krylov – is a movement, and not a party. There is a reason for this: no justice minister in today's Russia would register a cohort like this as a real party, nor does it seem necessary to be considered one from the point of view of the movement’s members.

“There are no such plans [to run for office]”, Krylov, who along with Prosvirnin drafted the manifesto, told me. “And it is clear why. For purely technical reasons. It is impossible to register such a party, I can tell you as someone who tried. Strelkov was offered to run on the Communist ballot. He did not agree. What am I going to do in the Duma, he said.”

Strelkov’s transformation, if anything, reveals what might go on in the minds of others, mental and emotional processes that could be acted upon were a fertile political environment to arise.

An important factor behind this is simply a strategy of waiting it out. “How long will this regime last anyway. Is there any point to associate with it? Isn't it better to work towards the future?”

For OND, the outward motivation, in other words, can be none other than it is for any other non-parliament opposition group in Russia today – not changing the regime or influencing policy today, but laying the groundwork for the freedom, turmoil and opportunity that will inevitably accompany an immediate post-Putin political environment. This is, unfortunately, the reality of Putin’s Russia today, where political movements, already beset by endemic problems with cohesion and an inability to negotiate among themselves (it is telling, for instance, that just as there are existential schisms in the liberal opposition, several members, like Limonov and Kungurov, left OND over disagreements before their manifesto was published), are also pushed to the fringes and radicalised by the existing political structure itself.

There is also an internal motivation, a simple and a human one, best described by the pleasure of association, of belonging and, if not doing, then, perhaps, making plans for great deeds in a socio-political environment that precludes civil agency and achievement. Talks in bars and pubs over whiskey, vodka or even Armenian moonshine about “what we are going to do once we take power”, knowing full well that such a day will never come, were a hallmark of many of the current OND members’ meetings since I first met them in 2003. That such a day may now arrive is not a testament to their own actions, but to the environmental factors that will, post-Putin, push this or that sentiment, charisma, or rhetoric to the fore depending on the new forces of supply and demand of the ideological market of the future.

For now, however, OND is in no position to pose a threat to the existing regime. For one thing, Strelkov is doing his politics out in the open, where he is vulnerable to all sorts of legal mechanisms ready to swoop down on the movement the moment it demonstrates any real threat. For another, as a former security officer, he has been isolated from the rest of that community, a circumstance that will not allow him to stir up much trouble.

It is this second factor that emerges as one of the most interesting aspects of Strelkov’s rise from a military commander in a Kremlin-backed proxy war to an opponent of that very same Kremlin. Does his security background, as a colonel of the FSB, work to his advantage, or not?

In the here and now, probably not: it is obviously detrimental for serving members of the security community, particularly at a time when Putin is lavishing them with financial perks, to associate with rogue elements. We are not seeing, after all, Strelkov aligning or working actively with other rebel nationalist siloviki, if they exist after the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov.

Strelkov’s transformation, if anything, reveals what might go on in the minds of others, mental and emotional processes that could be acted upon were a fertile political environment to arise.

“One year ago, when I met him, he had a portrait of Putin in his office”, Krylov said. “Now he doesn't.” While there were many factors behind the change, the fact that there was a fundamental transformation is important.

“Igor Ivanovich tried to be loyal for a long time. He is by character a typical patriot. And it's not just that he wants to love his country. He believes, for instance, that it has a good government. Taking into account where he worked in the past, all this is compounded by a complex typical of Soviet security members. These people believe they know better than others, that they have a right to hold in contempt the average persons views. And at the same time he is used to thinking that the bosses know better, that certain sacrifices in the name of the government are inevitable. But everything has its limits. When those same bosses start acting in a way that cannot be explained, then you have to admit that…. there are traitors and thieves in the government.”

This is a common thought process: scratch the surface, and many former security officers will go into similar lamentations. But the Kremlin has demonstrated an effective tactical response to those who act on them: either imprison, like Kvachkov, or, more importantly, isolate and allow them to let off steam. The real question will emerge post-Putin, when better opportunities will arise for such elements to act on.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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