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Finland’s president and prime minister recently announced the country’s urgent intention to join NATO, bringing a swift warning from the Russian Foreign Ministry of retaliatory steps “of a military-technical and other nature … to neutralize the threats to its national security that arise from this.” Historically neutral Finland was pushed into this unprecedented decision by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In 2018, former Finnish military intelligence officer Martti Kari reflected on the historical arc that has formed Russia’s entrenched sense of “neurotic insecurity.” 

In the words of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, “Autocracy, orthodoxy, and Russkiy mir” – the Russian world – “must be assembled under the protection of the wings of the Russian double eagle.” 

This also sounds like Vladimir Putin the First, currently in power. “Russia’s sacred mission is to act as a messenger of a higher civilization,” the emperor also said, and “A little warfare in the border areas is needed to maintain a patriotic spirit.” These quotes come from the 1800s but it could have been said in the 2010s or in 2018. Nothing has changed. 

I have served in military intelligence for most of my career, with Russia and the Soviet Union as my point of interest. In 1986, as a young lieutenant, I was sent to what was then Leningrad. From that point on, I worked with the Russians and with the Soviets until my retirement. Even back then, I wondered why the Russians were doing things differently than we do in the West. Why do they see the world differently than we see it? 

How does the Russian state leadership see a crisis? How does it see the role of a crisis and the use of force in foreign policy? How does it envision the possible strategic options by which it might respond to a threat? 

The coat of arms of Russian Empire.

Strategic culture theory is one way to explain it, to help us understand. When I say understand, I do not mean we have to approve of what Russia is doing. But it helps us understand why Russia does things differently. The theory of strategic culture is based on trying to outline what factors influence the decision-making of the state leadership. It may even give us the instruments to predict what may happen next. 

Churchill said in 1939 that “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” This is well said. Let us now set out to unravel this riddle. 

Six Layers of Russian History

Before we start with that, we must remember that we do not have one Russia. We have many layers of Russia, different historical layers that still influence the thinking of the Russians about how the Russians work today. 

Let’s start from that very first movement, that is, Slavic Russia, when language and entity and Russianness were born, and also the belief that all Slavic people are one. The idea that the Russian people, the largest of the Slavic peoples, have the duty of keeping them all in check and protecting them. 

Next, the Byzantine era. With the fall of Constantinople, the traditions of Eastern Rome were transferred to Moscow. Moscow uses the term third and eternal Rome for itself. The Russians are, in this way, followers of the Eastern Roman tradition. Religion, conservatism, and the relationship to authority come from this. It means that one does not challenge authority. Authority is obtained from God. The one in authority is infallible. This idea comes from Byzantine Russia. 

The third era that influenced Russian thought in a significant way is Mongol Russia. In the 1240s, the Mongols conquered Russia and held it for 150 years. It was a cruel time. There are a lot of words in Russian, related to torture, taxation, and corruption, that come from the Mongol language. 

Dominance based on personal authority was rooted in the administrative culture of the Mongols. That is, there is only one khan that leads. It is he who leads, no one else. Others are passive followers. When you combine this with the belief of the divine right to rule, the leader will appear as fairly tough in their world view. 

Corruption and cruelty are a legacy from the Mongol era. Under Mongol rule, lying, corruption, and violence were ways to survive. This still lives very deep in Russia’s strategic culture. When Mongol rule ended, the Mongols did not just pack their bags and disappear from Russia; they were already intermixed with the locals. So these traditions also stayed with the people, in particular in the top caste, the ruling layers, which is still visible today. 

The next layer was the era of turmoil, referred to as the Time of Troubles (1606–1613). Although it was a short period of time, it had great importance to the Russians. Because at that time both external and internal enemies were in an uproar. The Poles conquered Moscow and Russia did not have a strong leader. Michael Romanov was then chosen as tsar and the Russians realized that a strong leader was better than chaos. 

The Era of Europe and Russia as a Superpower

Then came European Russia. Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg in the early 18th century on a Finnish swamp in the Neva estuary. After that, there began to be a clash about whether the Russians were in the West or in the East, and which one was in favor. This struggle is ongoing to this day. 

Then came the great power of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. The power politics and the concept of Russia’s sphere of influence come from the Cold War era. World War II taught them that it is better to fight not in their own territory but on the territories of others.

So, authoritarian rule has been a part of Russian rule since the Mongol era. The name of the leader has changed but authoritarian rule itself has always remained the same. Russia today sees itself as the heir to the Soviet Union, as it is in some respects. 

So these are the six layers of Russia. There is not one Russia that was born in the 1990s – instead, Russia has a long tradition that goes back to the 13th century and earlier.

It has been their genetic inheritance, their historical DNA, for several hundred years, that autocracy is the only right solution. That is, autocracy is better than chaos and mayhem. 

There are 11 time zones in Russia. These huge distances also have an effect. The area from the Polish border to Moscow, through to the Urals, is a plain that is easy to attack with both horses and tanks. That is what happened throughout history. Napoleon attacked, the Germans attacked and so on. 

That idea is also in the historical DNA of the Russians – that someone is always attacking. “We will be conquered.” Geographically, Russia has always been easy to conquer, which also influences their thinking.

The Russians have the ability to expect and endure a tremendous amount of suffering. In the 19th century, Mikhail Glinka composed the opera A Life for the Tsar, in which a peasant sacrifices his life to save the tsar in the war between the Poles and Russians. It’s no coincidence that in 2004 Russia issued a stamp commemorating this same opera. That is, people are still told that it is their job to sacrifice themselves for the ruler. 

The 2004 Russian stamp commemorating the opera A Life for the Tsar.

Battle Over Information

Some 80% of Russians get all their information from television channels under the control of Putin and his close associates. Even though more and more young people receive information from the internet, 80% of the older population still receives information through television. 

The narrative pushed on television in Russia is that Russia is a besieged fort. “NATO is besieging Russia.” “Russia is at constant war with NATO.” “The enemy is at the gates.” America is surrounding Russia both from air and from space. 

The only task for and within the state leadership is to stay in power. They stay in power by saying “the enemy is at the gates, we are at war,” “only an autocrat like me can keep this country safe,” and “a weak leader means chaos.” The enemy is at the gates and inside. 

According to this narrative, the West is feeding the opposition, which is in a conspiracy with the West against Russia and must be responded to accordingly. And 80% of Russians receive this information, that opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny are Western agents. 

“Russia never lost the Cold War because it never ended.” That’s how they talk there. Putin said, “The collapse of the USSR was the geopolitical tragedy of the century.” When he says it, he also really thinks it and means it.

Neurotic Insecurity

“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” That’s from George Kennan, U.S. ambassador to Moscow after World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, when he began to see how the Soviet Union would not necessarily be an ally for the United States. 

Image from social media about the United States “surrounding” Russia.

So the Russians have a feeling of insecurity about “someone always attacking us.” Remember the point about the steppes up to the Urals, easy to attack with horses or with tanks or whatever. Napoleon attacked, the Mongols conquered most of present-day Russia, Hitler attacked and got really far into the Soviet Union. Finns and Swedes have also ventured into Russia. 

Now evil NATO is going to attack Russia. This is the story, based on a neurotic sense of insecurity. 

The Logic of Power

As Kennan wrote in his famous telegram, Russia is “impervious to logic of reason” but “highly sensitive to logic of force.” Lenin once said, “Probe with a bayonet. If it’s soft, push. If it’s hard, leave.” In other words, if we treat Russia in the Sea of Azov and in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine as before, by only protesting without doing anything else, we’ll always get more wounds and more stitches from Russia. 

But Russians are very sensitive to the logic of power. This means that if there is a tough opponent against them, they leave. The Russians are imperialists, as are the Americans. But American imperialism is based on wanting resources – oil, or whatever. Russian imperialism, on the other hand, is based on fear, on someone potentially attacking them again. 

They sought to solve this problem in the 1950s by forming the Warsaw Pact, from which they got a buffer between the enemy and themselves. Russians are building the buffer a little differently now. Russian air defense systems are creating a buffer zone in the air from the Kola Peninsula, the Karelian Isthmus, Kaliningrad, Crimea, to Syria.

Russians see the world through history. The Russians have a wonderful belief in how they must save Europe. In some sense, they are right, they have. In history, they really saved Europe from Napoleon. They saved Europe from Hitler, fascism. They think that they must save Europe and unite the Slavic peoples.

I remember when I was on a business trip to Russia in the 1990s. I asked the Russian officers, “What are you doing in Chechnya, why are you fighting there?” According to them, the Russians were there to defend Europe against Islam because Europeans themselves did not realize how great a threat Islam was. They really believe in how their mission is to defend, protect, and save Europe. They may not know against what, but in any case, they will always save us. Even if we don’t want to be saved.

What Scares Moscow

So what could destabilize Russia? The middle class? An internal conflict in the system? An activation of the opposition? Some of these threats have been eliminated already. Change in the energy sector? Whatever would happen to Russia, they have such good reserves that it wouldn’t matter. Even if the price of oil drops to $40 a barrel. Nationalism is not a problem when it is channeled. The Chechnya problem has been fixed, Ramzan Kadyrov pulls the strings there at the moment. 

When there’s a weak leader, the country is in turmoil. So, even if it hurts a little, they prefer a strong leader, because under a strong leader chaos is absent. But what could make a difference is a time of turmoil. This is what the Russians fear: a time of turmoil, like the time before Romanov was elected leader, or the 1990s. 

What they are afraid of is a repetition of the Maidan Uprising in Ukraine in 2013. 

In the 1990s they were trying to save the remnants of their empire, by using wars. Chechnya and so on. Western culture began to push itself into Russia. But then – thankfully, in the Russian mind –  along came a strong leader who saved everything. 

Russia in 2000: Putin’s Russia. Again there is an authoritarian system of leadership, corruption, persecution of the opposition, the West is described as a threat, Russia has a messianic mission, regional enlargement efforts, and a belief in Russianness. 

In a 2017 poll, Russians were asked to name the 10 most significant people in world history. Stalin got the votes of 38%. Some 34% said Putin was the toughest man in world history. In 2012, 50% of Russians considered the purges under Stalin to be a political crime; by 2017 only 39% did. 

They still consider Stalin a tough guy, which is pretty concerning. It’s a worship of the past, of Stalin’s glorification, a longing for the days of the Tsarist empire and so on. They want to go back to that kind of imaginary past that doesn’t exist.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at an event in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in March 2021. Photo via CTK/Reuters.

The more time passes, the better the times in the past become in people’s minds – but those good times were interrupted by democracy, a time of turmoil. People in Russia today come from different eras, they have lived in different eras. Consider what a young student is thinking today. He has actually lived under Putin’s rule all his life. He has heard all his life on television that “the West threatens us” and “we are a besieged fort” and so on.

Then there is the desire to correct the historical injustices experienced by Russia. The Russians are seeking redress. Crimea was given to Ukraine in 1954. The Russians took it back because it was just a correction of a historical injustice, and so on.

So what could be the future for Russia? One possibility is that the period of stagnation will continue until Putin leaves. Or there will be a harsher period, Stalin’s time part two – more purges, development stops, repression begins, the return of the Iron Curtain. Or the whole system will collapse as it did in February 1917. Or maybe Russia democratizes, which I personally don’t believe. 

If we imagine a Russian timeline from the end of Mongol rule in the 15th century to the present day, it would be one long red line of an authoritarian system of leadership, with one small dot on the line in the 1990s showing when there was freedom of speech, there was democracy, and the West was not seen as a threat. The anomaly of the 1990s was an exception. 

This will continue as long as it continues. In other words, if someone thinks Russia can change, you can think so, but I don’t agree. 

Martti J. Kari, a former assistant chief of military intelligence of the Finnish Defense Forces, teaches strategic intelligence, cyber security, and other topics at Jyvaskyla University in Finland. This text is adapted from an open source translation of Kari’s presentation at the university in 2018. Images from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.