Main Image Credit Strident views: Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky at a parade in Moscow in 2021. Image: AlexAlSi / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
In recent years, hard-line views once limited to ultra-nationalist Russian politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky have increasingly been espoused by the highest levels of the country’s leadership. How has this happened?
The war in Ukraine has prompted much soul-searching among Russia watchers and policymakers, to try to consider where we might have got Russia wrong, what we might have missed, and what this now means about how the West looks at Russia.
One of the most pressing concerns highlighted by this war has been the growing acceptance in Russia of previously fringe views on both Ukraine and the West. Several particular events in the past few weeks have illustrated this well. The first was the death in early April of nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the legacy that he leaves behind. The second was an important interview that head of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev gave on 26 April to the government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. These, and other comments by the Russian senior leadership, have illustrated how peripheral ideas and ways of talking about Ukraine and the West have now become mainstream discourse.
A Toxic Legacy
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party (LDPR), died on 6 April from complications related to COVID-19. Much of Zhirinovsky’s racist, misogynistic and boorish commentary over the years tended to be dismissed as a colourful addition to an occasionally dull line-up of mostly grey-suited men in the Duma (parliament). But many of the views that he held – particularly on Ukraine and the West – have over the years seeped into mainstream Russian discourse, and are now being regurgitated at the very top levels of power.
A conspiracy theorist known for his showboating in parliament, dishevelled attire and vulgar language, from 1989 Zhirinovsky led the LDPR – a party that became part of the Duma’s ‘systemic opposition’ which tacitly agreed with United Russia’s positions, while giving the veneer of an active and engaged opposition. Zhirinovsky never gained a serious number of votes in the multiple presidential elections he ran in, nor was he ever considered one of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But he played a useful role in undermining the very concept of opposition, almost satirising the meaning of free speech and democracy and using the platform he was given as an outlet for extreme views. He was a convenient outlet to channel and amplify the Russian public’s general resentment – against living conditions, the West, or globalisation more broadly.
Taken in isolation, many of Zhirinovsky’s more outlandish statements were never a true barometer of public opinion, such as retaking Alaska by force from the US, or incorporating Kazakhstan into Russia. But disconcertingly, many of the views and expressions that he espoused about Ukraine and the West have been mimicked by those in important positions, and are now being used to promote Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine.
Many of the views and expressions that Zhirinovsky espoused about Ukraine and the West have been mimicked by those in important positions, and are now being used to promote Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine
In late May, Leonid Slutsky duly replaced Zhirinovsky as leader of the party. It is an inauspicious alternative – in 2018 Slutsky was accused by several journalists (including from the BBC) of sexual harassment, which he denied, and he is believed to own property and land worth millions, which is not commensurate with his official salary. But Slutsky is also a senior member of Russia’s negotiating team on the Ukraine war and has continued Zhirinovsky’s unpleasant legacy. As Chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, as well as in his position as negotiator on Ukraine, he has espoused conspiracy theories about the US in particular, and what he has termed the West’s ‘neo-colonial policy’. Slutsky will play an important role in the course of the conflict, including its framing.
Seeping into the Mainstream
Zhirinovsky long held the view that Ukraine was not a real country and was instead a backwater of Russia; as far back as 1998 in a speech to the State Duma, he claimed that the Ukrainian state did not exist. Then, in March 2014, he drew up a proposal that suggested carving up sections of Ukraine and annexing parts of it to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia. While at the time this seemed comical, Russia’s eventual partitioning of Ukraine’s Donbas region may be a depressing future reality.
In December 2021, Zhirinovsky gave an interview in which he claimed that Lenin created Ukraine, and that Ukrainian statehood was a myth. While it would have been tempting to dismiss this too, only a few weeks later, Putin gave an angry February address to the nation, in which he maintained that Russia would not tolerate an independent Ukraine and railed against the Bolsheviks, culminating in his recognition of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This address was given days before the war was launched, with Putin claiming that Lenin had given modern Ukraine a false sense of nationhood by allowing it some autonomy, and that Ukraine’s claim to independence was baseless.
Since Russia annexed Crimea, some of Zhirinovsky’s pronouncements on Ukraine – particularly assertions about partitioning – have not been too far from Putin’s own statements in 2014 about Novorossiya, the then-abandoned project to give Russia a land bridge to Crimea across southern Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Odessa. But this territorial expansion now appears to be part of the Russian army’s aims in the Ukraine war. While this is not to say that Putin has been particularly inspired by Zhirinovsky, it does seem that the direction of Russian political life is increasingly cultivating those who share these views, and the language that accompanies them.
Since 2014, when a more marked change in Russia’s rhetoric about Ukraine began, some of Zhirinovsky’s mannerisms and language have appeared to seep into other members of Russia’s senior leadership. Maria Zakharova, foreign affairs spokesperson and Kremlin mouthpiece, has sounded like Zhirinovsky at times in her characterisation of Ukraine, particularly when it comes to her emphasis on Nazism and her hyperbolic characterisations of the West. Even former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, once the West’s (now dashed) hope for a liberalising force in Russia politics, has posted increasingly threatening and vitriolic messages about the war on his Telegram channel, parroting the Kremlin’s propaganda.
Perhaps if we had recognised that some of Zhirinovsky's beliefs about Ukraine were more widely held among the senior leadership, we may have read Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine and its strategic calculus differently
Medvedev became deputy head of the hawkish Security Council in 2020, and since then has produced a steady drumbeat of increasingly anti-Western invective. In October 2021, he penned an article on Ukraine, using language not dissimilar to the kind of vulgar rhetoric that Zhirinovsky prized, in which he maintained that Ukraine was a vassal state, and that it was meaningless to negotiate with it. Medvedev’s article echoed increasingly hard-line sentiments about Ukraine that Putin had espoused in his essay of July 2021. While the article could have been an amplification of Putin’s views as a way of currying favour, it reflects a collective consensus on what Putin might like to hear from those closest to him.
One of the most revealing examples of this was provided by Nikolai Patrushev, the hawkish head of the Security Council and former head of the FSB, who on 26 April gave an interview to Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He reiterated Russia’s framing of the war as fomented and continued by the US, maintaining that this was with the aim of dividing ‘a single people’ (Russia and Ukraine). But his characterisation of the West – while typically hyperbolic and critical – was surprisingly acerbic, calling it an ‘empire of lies’ that seeks Russia’s humiliation and ultimate destruction, with sanctions intended to ‘spiritually and materially impoverish’ Russia, and maintaining that the future of Ukraine can only be its disintegration into several smaller states. Patrushev is no stranger to aggressive rhetoric directed at the West and the US in particular, but the tone was a marked departure from previous interviews, with a fervour far more typical of Zhirinovsky.
Many dismissed Zhirinovsky as a court jester, full of comedic ideas and bluster. But perhaps, had we recognised that some beliefs about Ukraine were more widely held among the senior leadership, we may have read Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine and its strategic calculus differently.
The decision-making circle of trust around Putin is narrowing, with their views increasingly embracing conspiracy theories, conservatism and insularity as a way of mobilising Russia against foreign threats. This makes it difficult to penetrate their mindset to the point that common ground with the West can be achieved, and as Patrushev’s article highlights, their views are the basis of an ideological clash between Russia and the West. While such ideas have been percolating for some time, it could be that the Ukraine war has been the catalyst for more extreme views to become standard. If not in life, then in death, this is Zhirinovsky’s toxic legacy.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security