Russian “Identity Warfare”

  • Arman Mahmoudian
    International Relations Expert - University of South Florida
Foreign Policy & International Relations

Russian “Identity Warfare”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and fall of Communism as a major global ideology, observers across the world were optimistic that “political ideologies” would never again determine great power competition. However, the spread of ethnic conflict in Ukraine between Russian-speaking minorities and the Kiev government since 2014 has demonstrated that the Communist political ideology, which was promoted by the Soviet Union for over seventy years, was being replaced by a new narrative, “identity politics”, which emphasized ethnolinguistic identities as fundamental pillars of society rather than socioeconomic categorizations.

Simply put, in the Soviet era, Moscow sought to export its ideology and take advantage of socio-economic gaps in target countries. Communism’s revolutionary nature and its anti-class and anti-elitist rhetoric made this ideology an attractive option for many, in both less fortunate socioeconomic classes and intellectual groups, Therefore, the Kremlin was equipped with an effective psychological warfare tool for manipulating other nations and influencing their decision-making systems. The major advantage of Communism as an ideological tool of influence was its self-maintained nature, as seen in the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, wherein the communization of these nations took place without the Soviet Union’s direct involvement. In other words, Moscow’s political influence was extended vis-à-vis its major rival, the United States, without an active Soviet presence.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was accompanied by the collapse of its global ideological influence. In fact, with the collapse of the USSR, Moscow struggled against new ideological challenges at home, not least a prolonged conflict between the new Russian Federation and Islamist separatists in Chechnya. The rise of these internal challenges illustrated that the internationalist nature of the Communist ideology had also served as a semi-unifying element among the different ethnic groups in the Russian mainland itself. In the absence of this unifying worldview, different communities redefined their identities through new factors including ethnolinguistic characteristics.

The new emphasis initially represented a “double-edged sword” for the Russian government. In 2008, Russia intervened in Georgia’s central government dispute with separatist movements in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, with the intention of aiding local ethnic groups. This eventually led to the invasion of Georgia to establish self-proclaimed republics in the two breakaway territories. It is arguable that the Russian intervention in Georgia was the first indicator of the rise of “identity” as a new factor in Russia’s foreign policy.

As a result, the New Russian Federation started to encourage ethnolinguistic identities rather than socio-economic class, as in the case of the former Soviet Union. In this context, there is a fundamental similarity between Russia and the Soviet Union in that they have sought to undermine US hegemony by applying multiple methods, including the use of soft power to turn various communities against the Washington-backed international order. On this basis, Russia constantly endeavors to influence “Slavic Russian-speaking” minorities in East Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus to advance its influence over these regions, specifically in countries such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Belarus. Within this framework, Russia employs ethnocultural factors in dealing with target communities with similar cultural identities in order to influence them. Moscow’s emphasis on ethnicity has led to the creation of a new mechanism of socio-political influence that we could term “identity warfare.”

This approach represents the outcome of two decades of efforts by Moscow to promote the Russian language and values among the Slavic communities of the former Soviet Union republics.[1] In this setting, Russia has targeted various communities across its western and southern borders, mainly in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus.[2] These communities share a number of characteristics: for example, they all have (1) Slavic populations, (2) speak the Russian language, (3) practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and (4) were formerly ruled by the Soviet Union or came under Moscow’s dominant influence.

To strengthen “identity warfare” and promote Moscow’s global narrative, Russia utilizes multiple news networks and TV channels, such as RT and Zvezda TV, to provide a propaganda machine as an alternative to US and Western-sponsored media.[8] Additionally, Russia has established various cultural institutions to help promote its conception of identity warfare.

In 2007, the Russkiy Mir Foundation (RMF) by the decree of Vladimir Putin[9] was created to serve as Kremlin’s new identity warfare headquarters to strengthen ties between Russia and its compatriots. From the very beginning,[10] the RMF was assigned to enhance the Russian language, heritage and culture abroad.[11] It is noteworthy that Dmitry Kozak, who is the chairman of the RMF, is also Kremlin’s Deputy Chief of Staff and a member of Putin’s inner circle. In addition, Kozak’s background as a former member of the Soviet military intelligence agency (GRU) special forces[12] indicates how sensitive the RMF mission is to the Putin regime.

In the light of the RMF’s importance, former president Dmitri Medvedev introduced RMF as the “key instrument of Russian soft-power.”[13] Since 2007, RMF has founded 235 institutes across the world.[14] As most of these institutes are located in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Baltic region, it is safe to argue that these regions are primary targets of Russian identity warfare given that they are home to various communities of Russian speakers and have been historically regarded as traditional backyards of Russia. In this context, the RMF offers various funding opportunities to individuals and organizations that wish to promote the Russian language, culture or Russian-language media.[15] While the RMF claims such activities around the world are its main agenda, it spends most of its financial resources in countries such as Ukraine,[16] whose Russian speakers constitute roughly 29 percent of its population,[17] and Kazakhstan, whose Russophones make up approximately 20 percent of its total population.[18] The RMF pays special attention to these two neighbors of Russia due to their importance to Moscow’s identity warfare aims.

Although the RMF claims that its primarily goal is to ensure that Russian-speaking communities do not lose touch with their historical roots, one can argue that the RMF’s primary goal is to promote loyalty to Russia, rather than the Russian language. Although the impact of the RMF’s cultural activities is difficult to measure, statistics suggest that the RMF has been at least partially successful in expanding its activities in these countries. For instance, prior to the occupation of Crimea, the RMF-backed ‘Russian-Speaking Ukraine” organization connected around 120 organizations with about 10,000 members.[19]

Reflecting on the importance of the RMF, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) officially joined the organization in 2009,[20] thereby adding the prestige of the state church religion to the RMF’s tools of influence.[21] Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, the Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia, announced that the Russian world constituted a “unique civilization” with which Western liberal values could not be reconciled with.[22] Under the leadership of Kirill, the ROC is following what is known as the “Kirill Doctrine”, which basically ties Orthodox values to Russian nationalism.[23] In the Kirill Doctrine’s view, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians should not be seen as separate peoples, but rather ethnic variations inhabiting a common land that shares a common Orthodox belief.[24] In short, the ROC asks the Slavic Orthodox community to recognize the Russian church as their spiritual leader. As the ROC has strong ties with the Kremlin to the extent that Kirill called the Putin era a “Miracle of God”,[25] the implication is that those who chose to accept ROC as their spiritual leader will also accept the Kremlin’s political leadership.

RMF and ROC are not the only advocates of Russia’s identity warfare. In 2011, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs established the “Gorchakov Fund” (GF) to provide support funds to NGOs and think tanks.[26] Additionally, the GF offers training programs to NGOs, young experts, public figures and journalists.[27] It can be contended that while the Russian World Foundation is intended to influence and nurture “common compatriots” in line with Moscow’s ideological objectives, the Gorchakov Fund is designed to support “elite compatriots”.

Thanks to the ROC’s cooperation, Russian identity propaganda has two wings; one focused on Slavic traditions and the other on Christian Orthodox values. Both of these are aligned in portraying Russia as the “leader and guardian” of Slavic and Orthodox civilization. Nevertheless, Russia has also targeted communities in different countries with diverse socio-cultural identities such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. These countries all have one thing in common in that they all have uncertain identities having become newly independent in the twentieth century. In addition, countries such as Ukraine, have suffered from ethnic-based civil wars that have negatively affected peaceful coexistence among their populations. Additionally, these relatively young countries have been undermined by foreign interference, which has disrupted their central governments and led to rivalry among local actors, thereby providing a conducive environment for foreign actors to take advantage of instability to expand their influence.

For instance, the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 polarized Ukrainian society. In addition to this annexation by Moscow, the Russian military intervention in Ukraine led to a nationwide conflict between Russian-speaking minorities in the south and east of Ukraine and the Ukrainian-speaking majority. The ethnolinguistic conflict polarized the Ukraine[28] and appeared to offer an opportunity for Russia to expand its influence over co-ethnic minorities.[29] The result has been continued conflict within which ethnolinguistic identities play a significant part. Additionally, some Ukrainian sources[30] have suggested that Russia also deploys Ukrainian militants from occupied Crimea to Syria to fight against the Syrian government’s opponents. If true, one can argue that Russia not only succeeded in mobilizing the Russian-speaking community of Ukraine, but also convinced them to fight Moscow's battle in Syria.

Nevertheless, the expansion of Russia’s influence over the Russian-speaking minorities has not been without cost for Russia. In fact, recent opinion polls suggest that Russia has lost the Ukrainian-speaking population of Ukraine. In the western and central regions of Ukraine where Ukrainian language is the dominant language, more than half of the population have either a “mostly bad” or “very bad” view on Russia.[31] In a similar context, 58% of the country’s population supports joining the EU and 54% supports joining NATO.[32] Therefore, it appears that Russia’s attempts to prevent the Ukraine from joining NATO have actually had the reverse effect, increasing positive perceptions of a western alliance among Ukrainians.

Where Russia has successfully expanded its soft and hard power in the Russophone east and south of Ukraine, more than half of the populations in these regions have a “very good” or “mostly good” view of Russia.[33] The bond between Russia and her compatriots in Ukraine depended on the extent to which Moscow’s “fellow travelers” in Ukraine pursued their own autonomous culture and institutions in their own regions. In 2014, pro-Russia groups in Donetsk and Luhansk proposed the formation of the confederation of New Russia (Novorossiya/Новороссия). Their proposal suggested that Russian Orthodoxy be confirmed as the regions’ official religion and that the Russian language serve as the official language.[34] However, these demands were reversed after the separatist groups stated that they wished to give the Minsk II agreement a chance to work.[35] This agreement ensured the Ukrainian central government’s continued right to restore its authority over the autonomous regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.[36]

However, it is hard to believe that Russia and its proxies withdrew from their territorial ambitions solely to assist the Minsk II process. In reality, there were other issues that might have convinced the Kremlin to put a hold on its territorial ambitions. Moscow’s incursions against Georgia and Ukraine have also altered the attitudes of other traditional allies of Russia in Central Asia and East Europe. Following the occupation of Crimea by Russia, both Belarus and Kazakhstan were increasingly worried that they might be the next targets of Russian expansionism. Many in Kazakhstan started to fear that Russia might attempt to bring regions populated by ethnic Russian speakers in northern Kazakhstan back within its borders.[37] Also, in Minsk, a growing fear began among elites over Russian intentions towards Belarus.[38] Hence, despite the many achievements of Russia’s identity warfare, it also presented Moscow with new challenges.

Similarly, Russia’s identity warfare has also provoked a response from other Orthodox communities. For instance, in response to the Russian Orthodox Church’s expansionist agenda, the Greek Orthodox Church (GOC) granted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) with autocephaly, which basically freed the Metropolitan Epifaniy, the primate of OCU, from reporting to any other higher-ranking Orthodox bishop including Russia’s Kirill. This decision not only granted the OCU independence, it also undermined Russia’s influence in Ukraine.[39]

Another potential challenge that Russia is facing is from its own citizens.  Reports indicate that 20 percent of Russia’s population are non-Slav and non-Orthodox minorities.[40] Given this, Russia’s emphasis on presenting itself as the leader of the Slavic Orthodox community may alienate Russian minorities. This is important given that Russia still suffers from unhealed wounds due to past struggles with specific minorities. Russia’s war in Chechen (1994-2006) still continues to resonate in terms of national coexistence in the country, and the Kremlin continues to face challenges in the region. Ironically, Moscow’s longstanding quest to promote its own “unique civilization” might alienate a substantial number of its own citizens.

On the one hand, Russian identity warfare has helped Moscow to advance her regional policies and to deter strategic threats. Following the 2014 Ukraine revolution, Russia was concerned about the expansion of NATO to Ukraine, though the pro-Russian separatist movements in Luhansk and Donetsk successfully established a buffer zone between Russia’s mainland and pro-west Kiev. One the other hand, Russian identity warfare has not been cost-free, Russia’s policy has led to the growth of xenophobic nationalism in Russia[41] to the extent that many of the country’s minorities have started to consider themselves as persona-non-grata in Russia. In a way, the current emphasis on the Orthodox religion and Slavic ethnicity as the core elements of Russian national identity has raised concerns among non-Slavic minorities that Russia is moving toward a cultural nationalism that discriminates against these minorities.[42] Hence, it seems that while identity warfare can be an efficient sword in Russia’s weaponry, it is also double-edged one that can be hurtful to Russia.



[1] Kudors, Andis; Orttung, Robert. (2010). Russian Public Relations Activities and Soft Power. Russian Analytical Digest

[2] Kudors, Andis; Orttung, Robert. (2010). Russian Public Relations Activities and Soft Power. Russian Analytical Digest

[3] Ukraine Crisis Media Center. “Russkiy Mir” as the Kremlin’s Quasi-ideology.

[4] Mikhail Suslov (2018) “Russian World” Concept: Post-Soviet Geopolitical Ideology and the Logic of “Spheres of Influence”, Geopolitics, 23:2, 330-353, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2017.1407921

[5] Riga, Andis Kudros. (2016). “Russian World”-Russia’s Soft Power Approach to Compatriots Policy. Russian Analytical Digest.

[6] Mikhail Suslov (2018) “Russian World” Concept: Post-Soviet Geopolitical Ideology and the Logic of “Spheres of Influence”, Geopolitics, 23:2, 330-353, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2017.1407921

[7] Riga, Andis Kudros. (2016). “Russian World”-Russia’s Soft Power Approach to Compatriots Policy. Russian Analytical Digest.

[8] Helmus, Todd C., Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Andrew Radin, Madeline Magnuson, Joshua Mendelsohn, William Marcellino, Andriy Bega, and Zev Winkelman. (2018). Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

[9] Указ Президента РФ 21 июня 2007 г. № 796 “О создании фонда "Русский мир” [Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of June 21, 2007 No. 796 “On the Creation of the Russkiy Mir Foundation0]

[10] Kudors, Andis; Orttung, Robert. (2010). Russian Public Relations Activities and Soft Power. Russian Analytical Digest

[11] The Russkiy Mir Foundation: About Russkiy Mir Foundation

[12] Sukhov, Oleg. (2014). From Olympics to Crimea, Putin Loyalist Kozak Entrusted with Kremlin Mega-Projects. The Moscow Times.

[13] Sergunin, Alexander. Karabeshkin, Leonid. (2015). Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy. Political Studies Association, pp. 347-363.

[14] Milos Popovic, Erin K. Jenne, Juraj Medzihorsky. (2020). Charm Offensive or Offensive Charm? An Analysis of Russian and Chinese Cultural Institutes Abroad. EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES, VOL. 72, NO. 9, 1445-1467

[15] The Russkiy Mir Foundation: Grants.

[16] Lutsevych, Orysia. (2016). Agents of the Russian World

Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighborhood. The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.

[17] Ukraine. CIA World Factbook.

[18] Kazakhstan. CIA World Factbook

[19] КОЛЕСНІЧЕНКО, ВАДИМ. (2012). ''Русскоязычная Украина'' на своем примере призвала все общественные организации отчитаться за свою деятельность [''Russian-Speaking Ukraine'', by its own example, called on all public organizations to account for their activities]. Українська правда.

[20] Bremer, Thomas (2015) "How the Russian Orthodox Church Views the "Russian World"," Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Vol. 35: Iss. 3, Article 4.
Available at:

[21] Bremer, Thomas (2015) "How the Russian Orthodox Church Views the "Russian World"," Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Vol. 35: Issue 3, Article 4.
Available at:

[22] Mite, Valentinas. (2006). Russia: Orthodox Church Discusses Morality and Human Rights. Radio Free Europe.

[23] Verkhovsky, A. (2014). " 4 “Kirill’s Doctrine” and the Potential Transformation of Russian Orthodox Christianity". In Orthodox Paradoxes. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. Doi:

[24] Bremer, Thomas (2015) "How the Russian Orthodox Church Views the "Russian World"," Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Vol. 35: Issue 3, Article 4.
Available at:

[25] Bryanski, Gleb. (2012). Russian patriarch calls Putin era "miracle of God" Reuters.

[26] The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund. About Fund: Activities.

[27] The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund. About Fund: Mission and Goals.

[28] Romenskyy, Maksym. Spaiser, Viktoria. Ihle, Thomas. Lobaskin, Vladimir. (2018). Polarized Ukraine 2014: opinion and territorial split demonstrated with the bounded confidence XY model, parametrized by Twitter data. The Royal Society.

[29] Atlantic Council. Overcoming polarization of Ukraine

[30] Coynash, Halya. (2018). Russia sends Ukrainians from occupied Crimea to fight in Syria. Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

[31] Statista. How do you feel about Russia in general now (2022)?

[32] International Republican Institute. IRI Ukraine Poll Show Support for EU/NATO Membership, Concerns over Economy and Vaccines for COVID-19

[33] Statista. How do you feel about Russia in general now (2022)?

[34] Babiak, Mat. (2015). Welcome to New Russia. Ukrainian Policy

[35] Владимир Дергачев, Дмитрий Кириллов. (2015). Проект «Новороссия» закрыт[The Novorossiya project is closed]. Газета.Ру

[36] United Nations Peacemaker. Package of measures for the implementation of Minsk agreement

[37] Walker, Shaun. (2015). Annexation of Crimea has magnified divisions inside Kazakhstan. The Guardian.

[38] Ayres, Sabra. (2017). In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine? Los Angeles Times.

[39] Karleska, Khrystyna. Umland, Andreas. (2020). Russia set to escalate fight against Ukrainian Orthodox independence in 2020. The Atlantic Council.

[40] Russia. CIA World Factbook.

[41] Rogoża, J. (2014). Russian Nationalism: Between Imperialism and Xenophobia. European View13 (1), 79–87.

[42] Alexey Bessudnov, Andrey Shcherbak. (2020) Ethnic Discrimination in Multi-ethnic Societies: Evidence from Russia, European Sociological Review, Volume 36, Pages 104–120; Blackburn, M. (2021). Mainstream Russian Nationalism and the “State-Civilization” Identity: Perspectives from Below. Nationalities Papers, 49(1), 89-107. doi:10.1017/nps.2020.8,

: 17-February-2022

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