On Monday evening, Russia’s state television networks had to finesse a delicate problem. The elections to the European Parliament, which ended on Sunday, had caused a crisis of confidence in the E.U. About a quarter of the seats in that chamber had gone to fringe politicians, mostly from the radical right, who have called for the E.U. to be downsized if not dismantled. This led to plenty of schadenfreude among the Russian political class, at least the part that takes a zero-sum view of anything bad that befalls the West. But it was somewhat harder to explain to the Russian public why the rise of the far right in Europe should be celebrated. Hadn’t millions of Russians died fighting the European right in World War II?
On the Kremlin’s main television network, Rossiya 24, the job of dealing with this question fell to a disheveled-looking pundit named Maxim Kononenko. “Before our eyes,” Kononenko began enthusiastically, “the humongous machine of European integration is starting to hit the brakes.” The reason, he stressed, is a natural and growing desire for people to return to their national identities, to reject the “romantic but failed” effort to unite dozens of “incompatible” nations under a common flag. “Human values are, of course, wonderful,” Kononenko said, “but most of all people have their own values, and they don’t want to trade them for nobody knows what.”
As a piece of rhetoric, the effort was commendable, but Kononenko’s logic doesn’t really fit with the reality of Russian statehood. The Russian Federation is itself a conglomerate of radically different nationalities all living under a common flag. Muslim republics inside Russia include proud nations like Chechnya, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, all of which have their own cultures, languages, histories and values. The same goes for the Russian republics of Kalmykia and Tuva, both of which are predominantly Buddhist. Their inclusion in the Russian Federation, as inherited from the Soviet Union, is why Moscow has usually gone out of its way to discourage nationalism, fearing that it could become a precursor to separatism and, ultimately, to the disintegration of the Russian Federation itself. So Kononenko’s approach wades into some dangerous ideological waters, running up against the Russian ethic of national unity that has, so far, helped keep the country together.
That could be why other Russian media took a simpler approach to the task of cheering on the European right. Channel One, another Kremlin-owned broadcaster, simply pointed out that European nationalism is bad for the Americans. In the coming months, the U.S. and E.U. are expected to negotiate a trade deal that has to be ratified by the European Parliament, and with all the political upstarts entering that debate after Sunday’s elections, it will be harder for the deal to pass. As the Channel One anchor floridly put it: “Washington’s desire to sell American oil and gas to the Old World could crash against the reefs of Europe’s new political reality.”
Though cynical, this rationale comes much closer to the real reason Russia revels in the rise of the European right. Russia depends on the sale of oil and gas to Europe for its economic survival, and it cannot abide the U.S. or anyone else becoming a competitor. As Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University, recently wrote: “A united Europe could generate an energy policy, under the pressures of Russian unpredictability or global warming or both. But a disintegrated Europe would remain dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. Individual nation-states would be more pliable than the E.U.”
That is the crux of the Kremlin’s European dilemma. Its economic interests dictate the need to spread discord inside the E.U., but its natural allies in this effort are exactly the kinds of political forces that the Russian people have long been taught to detest. Right wing parties like Jobbik in Hungary and the National Front in France are the offspring of the political tradition that Russia defeated in World War II, and the cult of that victory still lies at the core of Russia’s sense of self. No less importantly, nationalism in Russia is broadly seen as a dangerous centrifugal force, one that could tear the country apart if it spreads to Moscow’s ethnically distinct dominions.
So in embracing the European right, “we have to take a two-faced approach,” says Alexander Prokhanov, one of the Kremlin ideologues tasked with easing the return of nationalism into the Russian consciousness, in a telephone interview with TIME on Tuesday. “So far we’ve been able control it at home, carefully steering these ideas toward neo-imperialism, toward the idea of a resurgent Russia.”
It has been playing well. The annexation of Crimea in March – a profoundly imperialist act – led to a euphoric surge of patriotism unlike anything Russia has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, Prokhanov, once a demagogue on the margins of the Russian right, has been given regular slots on prime-time state TV to expound on his notions of a new Russian empire, one that will discredit the liberal decadence of the West, and eventually overtake it.
His language, syrupy with epic metaphors, is rooted in an idea of nationhood that is fairly new to Russian propaganda. Rather than the more accommodating Soviet-era rhetoric of “friendship of the peoples,” his theories play on the idea of an imperial destiny that runs through Russian veins. Applied to the E.U., he says, this philosophy dictates that every nation has the right to claim their own destiny, even if it runs counter to the idea of a united Europe. And by that rationale, Russia should have no qualms about supporting the European right.
But even as Prokhanov has become the face of this ideology in Russia, he recognizes the dangers of reviving it. “There is a duality in our position,” he says. “We welcome what’s happening in Europe. In some ways we even need it. But we also secretly fear it.” By stirring dissent at the fringes of the empire, he says, “these nationalist tendencies could become a contagion that afflicts Russia as well.”