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How successfully has Russia been able to utilise its 'compatriots abroad' to achieve political goals?

By: Greta Isola

This paper aims to evaluate the extent to which Russia has been successful in using the concept of compatriots abroad for its own political goals. The paper will argue that Russia has indeed been extremely successful in securing geopolitical victories through a category of individuals that, until the Yeltsin era, represented more of an issue to tackle than a political tool. [1]

In order to evaluate how successful Russia has been in using compatriots abroad for its political goals, it is momentous to understand who these individuals truly are. The widely accepted definition is that they are the “Russian-speaking population of the former Union Republics” (Nozhenko, 2006: 79). In fact, at the time of the collapse of the USSR, there were about 27 millions of these individuals, most of whom were of Russian ethnicity. Although there is a seemingly precise definition for the concept, the lines between Russian speakers and Russian compatriots are quite blurred. (Nozhenko, 2006: 80). The emergence of this concept of compatriots residing outside their homeland finds its foundations in the early days of the fall of Communism in the USSR, when these individuals found themselves in nationalising countries they were not citizens of and in which they often faced discrimination. In fact, while the other fourteen former republics had developed their own national identity, Russia had relied on Soviet identity for far too long and found itself without a common national sentiment. Thus, the concept of compatriots abroad rose not as a form of ethnic nationalism, but rather as a civic one, in which holding a Russian passport was not necessary (Kolstø, 2016: 32). Although being a Russian citizen is not needed in order to be considered a compatriot abroad, having been a Soviet citizen was a fundamental trait (Kosmarskaya, 2011: 61). As this paragraph hints, the concept of compatriots abroad is extremely volatile, including an incredibly high number of individuals scattered around different countries that could be used as a pawn in Russia’s geopolitical game at any point.

The legal status of compatriots abroad has never been defined, however, what is clear is that they have a very different status from that of Russian citizens. Over the years, Russia has implemented cultural and language support programs for those living in different countries. Moreover, Russia has set up a number of international organisations to secure compatriots’ rights abroad, other than offering military protection. Such was the case in Crimea, which can be seen as an example of Russia’s geopolitical success through soft power tools (Grigas, 2016: 27). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Federation at the time, declared that Russia was the successor of the Soviet Union. This meant that Russians living in other newly independent states were included in the political discourse as fellow Russian citizens. Since a wide number of countries ethnic Russians resided in were developing nationalistic policies that were making life quite hard for them, the rights of these individuals started to become a pressing issue for the Russian government. Therefore, Yeltsin, between 1994 and 1999, attempted to carry out a number of policies in favour of the interests of compatriots abroad. The most influential policy was the 1994 presidential decree ‘On the Principal Directions of the Federation’s State Policy Towards Compatriots Living Abroad’ which was revised in 1999. However, this act provided only a vague definition of compatriots: Article 3 states that one can freely decide whether or not one is a Russian compatriot, thus implying that any Russian speaker or anyone with a Soviet ancestry can be identified as a compatriot (Kallas, 2016: 5).

When Putin came to power in 2000, the concept of compatriots became a lot more politicised, especially through the programs of repatriation and the establishment of the idea of a “Russian World”. The former was not successful, since only a small portion of the ethnic Russians the project was directed towards decided to repatriate. However, the Russian World concept managed to create an idea of a common identity across different countries through the Russian language, the Orthodox church and a feeling of pride in remembering the victory in the Second World War. The Russian World program became an indispensable soft power tool in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, as will be illustrated (Kallas, 2016: 6-9). Having explored the policies regarding compatriots implemented by both Yeltsin and Putin, it can be argued that the main difference between their policies is that the latter ceased to see compatriots as those who needed help and support and rather considered them as a resource to be exploited. They are in fact the ideal soft power tool due to the fact that their status has never been defined thoroughly and is thus adaptable according to the geopolitical situation of the moment. Therefore, it can be said that Yeltsin unconsciously set out the path for Putin to transform a perceived nuisance into an indispensable instrument to achieve his political goals by leaving the concept of compatriots open to interpretation.

It is worthwhile to explore an instance of a more informal state-sponsored strategy employed in order to create a civic nationalism among those identified as compatriots, namely the Ruvek news website. This forum is subsidised by the Russian state, and it is directed towards Russian compatriots living outside the motherland. Its main aim seems to be alienating Russians from the country they reside in, creating resentment and consequently a deep feeling of belonging to Russia, which is portrayed by the website as a caring and protective mother they can turn to when needed. Ruvek thus operates a process of ‘Russification’, which does not stand for an attachment to Russian ethnicity, but rather to the Russian state, emblematic of civic nationalism, which is a fundamental tool of Russian use of soft power (Cheskin, 2016: 5). Another successful strategy employed by Putin's Russia to gain compatriots' favours is passportisation, meaning the handing out of passports to Russian minorities residing in foreign countries, which has been employed in Crimea (Grigas, 2016: 120-121). Overall, Russia has been able to create a Russian community within foreign countries that feels detached from its country of residence, looking up to Russia for security and political culture. The establishment of civic nationalism among Russian compatriots is undoubtedly the foundation of Russia’s claim to protect compatriots’ rights, without which the active military defence operated by Russia in foreign countries in more than one instance, as the following paragraph will show, would not have any grounds.

A fundamental event to analyse when studying the phenomenon of the politicisation of the concept of Russian compatriots is the Russo-Ukrainian conflict of 2014 and the consequent annexation of Crimea from part of the Russian Federation. In order to understand where this conflict stemmed from, it is important to stress that Ukraine had always been very important to Russia because of its strategic position (Grigas, 2016: 126). Following the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan protests, along with Yanukovich’s removal from power and the fear that Ukraine would be next in line to join NATO, Russia felt like action needed to be taken as Ukraine seemed to be getting dangerously closer to the West. In February 2014, Russian troops that were already stationed in Crimea to allegedly protect the high percentage of Russian compatriots in the area, started blockading state buildings and assailing Ukrainian troops. Meanwhile, on February 27, members of parliament were convened for an emergency meeting, only to realise that the parliament was presided by Russian troops and that an unconstitutional motion to vote for a new pro-Russia Prime Minister of Crimea was taking place. On March 16, while thousands of Russian troops were patrolling the streets, an illegal referendum on whether or not Crimea and the city of Sevastopol should become part of Russia took place. Over 95 percent of votes decided for the annexation of Crimea by Russia. However, it is crucial to take into consideration the fact that troops were patrolling the streets while the vote was taking place (Grigas, 2016: 127-128). It is very important to consider the fact that while this war was taking place, both the Russian government and news outlets were stating that such measures against Ukraine were only being taken in order to protect the rights of Russian compatriots, who had been allegedly asking Russia for help because of supposed discrimination and threats to them by the Ukrainian political environment (Grigas, 2016: 129). The reasons for Russia's operations in Ukraine in 2014 are still discussed today, but regardless of whether it was a reaction to the possibility that Ukraine would become a member of NATO or a reminiscence of Russian Imperial expansionist ambitions, this is a pillar of Russia's contemporary geopolitical success that is fundamental to illustrate when analysing compatriot policies (Rutland, 2016: 426). It is clear how Russia has been using the compatriots abroad concept in order to extend its territorial domain. This has led many to wonder whether annexing Crimea had been Putin’s plan all along, considering the fact that Russian troops were already stationed in Crimea and in Sevastopol because of the extension of Ukraine’s lease to Russia’s Black Sea fleets.

Overall, it is interesting how extremely vague and ineffective policies such as the 1994 ‘On the Principal Directions of the Federation’s State Policy Towards Compatriots Living Abroad’ managed to be turned into the foundations for such a significant geopolitical success as the annexation of Crimea was. However, it can be argued that none of this could have been realised without the nationalist policies of a number of former Soviet republics that led to discrimination against Russians, facilitating the effectiveness of compatriots' policies enormously. It is in fact a standard reaction for someone who feels alienated from the country they reside in, to turn to the state that makes one feel protected and cared for, and this is where Putin has been extremely skillful, deciding to take an active role in defending compatriots' rights rather than just creating ineffective policies to appease them. Nonetheless, it can also be affirmed that it is all a matter of circumstance. Had Yeltsin developed more specific policies to tackle the issue of compatriots abroad, and had the newly independent states been more accepting of ethnic Russians, Putin might not have been as successful as he has been in using compatriots for his own specific political goals.

This discussion has led us to the conclusion that the Russian government, under Putin's guide, has been extremely successful in securing itself geopolitical victories through the soft power tool of compatriots abroad. As a matter of fact, although the issue of compatriots seemed to be an emerging problem to be tackled urgently under Yeltsin, Putin was able to formulate policies encouraging civic nationalism, as for instance the Russian World policy, which proved itself to be quite successful in creating a community based on civic values. Another fundamental instrument in this operation was the employment of tools such as the Ruvek online magazine, directed specifically to compatriots abroad, educating them to loathe their country of residence and to consider Russia as their true homeland that would provide them with support and security. Finally, the annexation of Crimea illustrates a successful example of Russia's achievements under the pretext of protecting compatriots' rights.

[1] Putin’s use of the “compatriots abroad” can be also broadly conceptualized as justification of the doctrine of the "limited sovereignty of the former Soviet republics" (also known as "Putin's doctrine") as he has done in Crimea, DNR, LNR, and Kazakhstan. Since military forces are almost always present, the term "soft power" underestimates what the regime created with the use of compatriots.


Cheskin, A. (2014) ‘The Russian Federation and Russian-Speaking Identity in Latvia'. Russian Speakers in Post-Soviet Latvia: Discursive Identity Strategies. Edinburgh, Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

Grigas, A. (2016) Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, Yale Scholarship Online.

Kallas, K. (2016) ‘Claiming the diaspora: Russia's compatriot policy and its reception by Estonian-Russian population’. Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE. Volume 15, Issue 3, p. 1-25.

Kolstø, P. (2016) 'The ethnification of Russian nationalism'. The New Russian Nationalism. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Kosmarskaya, N. (2011) ‘Russia and Post-Soviet “Russian Diaspora”: Contrasting Visions, Conflicting Projects’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Volume 17, Issue 1, p. 54-74.

Nozhenko, M. (2006) ‘Motherland is calling you! Motives behind and prospects for the new Russian policy on compatriots abroad’. Lithuanian foreign Policy, Issue 18, p. 77-94.

Rutland, P. (2016) ‘Geopolitics and the Roots of Putin’s Foreign Policy’, Russian History, Volume 43, Issue 3-4, p. 425-43

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