“Island Russia” and Russia’s Identity Politics
No. 2 2017 April/June
Boris V. Mezhuev

PhD in Philosophy
Moscow State University, Russia
Philosophy Department
Chair of History of Russian Philosophy
Associate Professor;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences (INION RAN), Moscow, Russia
Senior Research Fellow;
Chairman of the Editorial Board,
Russian Truth website


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Unlearned Lessons from Vadim Tsymbursky

During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, many political analysts and politicians talked about a “big deal” between Russia and the West if Donald Trump won the White House. Even if not exactly disposed towards Russia, Trump certainly does not display the traditional Anglo-Saxon anti-Russian hostility. The talk included the conflict in Ukraine, which could also be called an Eastern European clash. The deal itself, or rather talk of it, became an acceptable reality when clever geostrategists from various countries, especially the United States, came to the conclusion that the rivalry between Russia and Europe over Ukraine joining the Eurasian or European economic bloc may lead not only to the disintegration of Ukraine (which became a de facto reality in February 2014), but also to a full-scale military conflict over “the Ukrainian inheritance.”

On February 22, 2014, the day of the coup d’état in Kiev, the Financial Times published an article by Zbigniew Brzezinski that urged Ukraine to reconcile with its neutral status, and Russia to accept the “Finlandization” of its neighbor; that is, Ukrainian economic and cultural integration into the West, with all possible guarantees of its non-entry into NATO. Later, after the conclusion of the Minsk accords, the issue of Ukraine as a “buffer” between the two centers of power on the continent became a point of consensus between sober realists in the U.S. and Russia. In an interview with Russia’s Kommersant newspaper on February 28, 2017, Thomas Graham, a political analyst, managing director at Kissinger Associates, and special assistant to former President George W. Bush, said that the U.S. and Russia had a common basis for agreement. Graham said everyone was interested in stabilizing the situation in Ukraine. He specified that this settlement should include a non-aligned status for Ukraine, respect for its sovereignty, decentralization of power, respect for the rights of national minorities, and assistance to Ukraine in restoring Donbass and its own economy. Sergei Karaganov, a leading Russian expert in international relations, wrote the same in his important article “2016—A Victory of Conservative Realism.” Karaganov argues that “while continuing to insist on full implementation of the Minsk accords and building bypass transport routes, Russia should press for undelayed broad autonomy for Donbass within Ukraine. Later, Russia should work towards the emergence of a neutral, independent and Russia-friendly Ukraine or many Ukraines, if Kiev fails to retain control over the entire territory of the country. The only way for Ukraine to survive is to turn from an object of rivalry into a bridge and a buffer.”

Obviously, the views of Russian and American realists on Ukraine as a “buffer” are not exactly the same. The Russian version is much tougher and makes the territorial integrity of Ukraine directly dependent on its ability to incorporate regions with an irreversible pro-Russian orientation. But on the whole, room for a possible dialogue with the West over Ukraine is provided by the imperative to preserve its neutral, non-bloc status, which does not infringe upon the interests of any part of Russia.


Everything seems to be clear. Yet both practical and conceptional difficulties arise that are extremely important for continuing the dialogue on the future of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. The modern era is not an age of old Realpolitik, when the problem of buffer territories was solved very simply: the poles of power could, if necessary, divide buffer territories between themselves, as Russia, together with Germanic countries, partitioned Poland in the 18th century, and as the Soviet Union and Germany did to Poland once again in the 20th century. Or when Poland, Sweden, and Denmark divided Livonia at the end of the 16th century after a long war, or as France did in the 15th century to Burgundy, which was a kind of buffer between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Western powers do not hesitate to divide countries within their areas of influence: at first, they tore Slovenia and Croatia away from Yugoslavia; later they did the same to Bosnia and Serbian Krajina, then Montenegro, and, finally, the autonomous province of Kosovo. But it is one thing to split up a country within the European geopolitical space and another to dismember a country, one part of which gravitates towards the West and the other towards a different pole of power that is also a direct neighbor to it. I think it is morally unacceptable for the West not so much to divide a country, but to strike a “deal” with an external, non-Western power. For all its postmodernism, the modern West is absolutely not pluralistic. The West must admit that the gravitation of some part of the population towards Russia is a reality and not a political phantom created by Russian propaganda and the activity of its security agencies. The West must admit that free citizens may freely not want to join the Western world.

But even if Western powers agree that there are real grounds for Russia-centrism, they will hardly accept a soft dismemberment of Ukraine (or Georgia and Moldova) simply as a gesture of goodwill. This move would cause a storm of indignation in European countries and would be called a new Munich or a new Yalta, with all the specifications resulting from such a comparison. Therefore, the division of buffer states into spheres of influence can be implemented only through Russia’s unilateral actions, which, of course, narrows its diplomatic capabilities. European realists theoretically concede the preservation of neutrality for buffer states; however, even this concession requires recognition of the cultural and political heterogeneity of these countries.

But this admission raises the question of what Ukraine divides and between what and what it serves as a buffer. Obviously, Ukraine does not divide individual countries and military blocs, because the West, or the Euro-Atlantic area, is a community of countries united by defense, legal, and cultural commitments. If Russia is a European country and if it culturally and civilizationally belongs to the West, why should it be separated from the West by intermediate, limitrophe territories? Alas, Russia itself did not have an answer to this question for a long time and preferred to explain its resentment towards NATO’s eastward expansion by its fear of being separated from native Europe. This was quite a plausible argument until Russia started a dispute with Europe over the Eastern Partnership program and Ukraine’s plans to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. As soon as the dispute touched on countries within Russia’s civilizational domain, there arose a natural perplexity: if Russia is so afraid of being separated from Europe, apparently considering its pro-European orientation compatible with its Russian identity, why should it keep other countries from joining Europe? The indistinctness of Russia’s civilizational self-identity also manifested itself in its vague diplomatic strategy aimed at integrating into Europe economically and culturally over the head of limitrophe states, while, at the same time, at preventing independent attempts by these states to join Europe, including through separation from Russia.


So, the dispute over NATO’s expansion and the civilizational self-identification of Ukraine inevitably highlighted the problem of Russia’s civilizational self-identification. Having started the struggle for Ukraine, Russia inevitably discovered the scarcity of its geopolitical and geo-cultural conceptual arsenal. If a pro-European orientation is the only possibility for the Slavs, including Russians, then on what grounds can Russia challenge the pro-European choice of Ukrainians?

Russia clearly lacked its own identity politics. The term ‘identity politics’ has two unrelated meanings. One implies the demand of ethnic, gender, or other minorities to recognize their identity as equal to the identity of the majority. This article, however, discusses the other meaning. Yelena Tsumarova, Associate Professor of the Institute of History, Political and Social Sciences at Petrozavodsk State University, has offered a definition that I find operational and convenient: “Identity politics is the activity of political elites aimed at shaping the idea of ‘we-community’ within existing administrative-territorial boundaries. The main aspects of identity politics are: the symbolization of space, the ritualization of affiliation with the community, the formation of the idea of ‘we-community’ and establishing ‘friend/foe’ boundaries. The symbolization of space is done by adopting and replicating official symbols and cultivating natural and cultural features of the community.” It would be important to add here that existing administrative-territorial boundaries are taken as a given in Russia, whereas “identity politics” theoretically can be used to recognize or not recognize existing borders. The entire geopolitics of imperial Russia was revisionist in this way, just like the politics of many other countries—the German Reich, revanchist France at the end of the 19th century, and today’s Japan, which dreams of the Kuril Islands. Nations may conduct revolutionary “identity politics” in relation to the world order, but, overall, Tsumarova is right—the consolidation and internal recognition of existing borders requires special (conservative) “identity politics” aimed at maintaining the status quo against all attempts to radically revise the balance of power. But Russia did not have such politics when it needed them most.

During the decade between the two Maidan revolutions in Kiev, the vacuum of “identity politics” in Russia that would be relevant to the solution of the “Ukraine problem” was filled with two very simple ideologies—imperialism and nationalism, which immediately began to fight for leadership in the patriotic camp. Imperialists and nationalists tried to answer the question left unanswered by the official ideology: Why does Russia need Ukraine? Russian neo-imperialism in a sense owes its existence to Brzezinski, who wrote in his book The Grand Chessboard (1997) that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Imperialists content that since empire is the only possible form of Russia’s existence, and the era that began in 1991 is only a temporary collapse of traditional statehood, then any full-fledged strategy for restoring the country’s grandeur must provide for the reintegration of Ukraine, fully or partially, into Russia or some supra-state entity controlled by Russia; for example, a Eurasian Union, which would be not a pragmatic economic association, but the first step towards restoring an imperial Grossraum.

Unlike imperialists, nationalists were much less concerned with regaining the former state grandeur. They viewed Ukraine as an artificial entity that forcibly kept territories with a Russian population and Russian identity and constantly tried to Ukrainize them. This is why they believed that the best way to resolve the Ukrainian issue would be to separate Russian-populated areas from Ukraine and incorporate them into Russia. The goal would be not to restore an empire, but to complete the construction of a Russian nation state, increase the number of ethnic Russians in Russia, and revise domestic policy in order to protect the interests of the titular ethnic majority.

Advocates of imperial and nationalist policies acted differently during the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014. Imperialists were more active at the first stage, during the debates over Ukraine joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Nationalists emerged into the spotlight during the Russian Spring, when a chance appeared to split Ukraine and separate all the so-called Russian-speaking regions from it. Finally, both lines failed as they stymied diplomatic dialogue with the West over Ukraine. Neither imperialists nor nationalists agreed to view Ukraine as a “buffer,” as this view was at variance with their ideas of Russian identity. Imperialists wanted to integrate Ukraine into some kind of neo-imperial entity, while nationalists wanted to divide it along ethnic and cultural lines.

On the other hand, political realists, who had to engage in dialogue with Western realists, failed to explain why Ukraine is a “buffer,” what it divides in the cultural and political sense, and direct conflict between whom it could prevent. Russia failed to present to the West any intelligible identity politics to substantiate its position, with tough terms and possible compromises. This ideological vacuum made the geopolitical concept of “Island Russia,” forwarded by Russian philosopher Vadim Tsymbursky (1957-2009), the only possible way to achieve a potential “deal” with the West.

Tsymbursky wrote his essay Island Russia. Prospects of Russian Geopolitics in 1993. Later, he amended his conclusions several times, but the essence remained unchanged. In this article, we will not delve far into the discussion of the evolution of his views. It is enough to know that Tsymbursky viewed the break-up of the Soviet Union as separation of Russia’s civilizational niche from territories that spatially connected it with platforms of other civilizations, and that he explained the meaning of Russia’s imperial expansion towards the west and south as a desire to destroy the barrier between Europe and Russia or to form, in defiance of Europe, a geopolitical space of its own that could serve as a counterbalance to the Roman-Germanic world. In this sense, the “loss” of these territories only moved Russia farther away from Europe, which the post-imperial political elite did not adequately realize. Therefore, Tsymbursky believed, Russia could strengthen its security only if it abandoned the idea of ??reunification with Europe or any plans to recreate a new empire under the umbrella of some anti-Western ideology; naturally, if Euro-Atlantic organizations do not try to take control of the so-called Great Limitrophe, a vast space from Central Asia to the Baltics. In fact, the Russian Empire had set a long-term geostrategic goal to conquer this territory.

Unlike all other foreign policy concepts, Tsymbursky’s theory answered two key questions: Why can Russia accept its existing borders without thinking about imperial revenge or nationalist irredentism? And why should Russia make every effort to prevent Euro-Atlantic organizations from taking full control over limitrophe territories? In order to understand what Russia is and why it should preserve its geopolitical sovereignty, Tsymbursky turned to civilizational theory, an idea that became popular in the early 1990s after Samuel Huntington published his famous article The Clash of Civilizations? Interestingly, the article was published in the same year as Island Russia. Tsymbursky differed with Huntington over the status of limitrophe territories. Huntington proposed dividing the territory of Eurasia into spaces of individual civilizations in order to minimize conflicts on their borders. In Huntington’s view, the West should have limited the eastward march of Protestant and Catholic countries and thought twice before extending NATO to countries with traditionally Orthodox populations. Tsymbursky argued that it is impossible to divide the entire territory of Europe into stable spheres of influence. Some limitrophe states will always play on differences between external centers of power and maneuver between them, while other countries will inevitably disintegrate if some civilization tries to fully incorporate them into its framework.

Moldova and Georgia are the two de facto divided states that exist in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Both countries could preserve their integrity only within Russia’s area of influence, which was unacceptable to the majority of their titular nations. In 1994, Tsymbursky predicted—alas, prophetically—that in the event of a crisis of Ukrainian statehood, Crimea, Novorossiya, and areas on the left bank of the Dnieper River would separate from Ukraine. He insisted that in this case Russia could recognize the breakaway parts of Ukraine as independent states, without thinking of territorial expansion: “As regards Ukrainian affairs, a deep crisis of this state entity could be of benefit to Russia, if it, while firmly declaring its refusal to revise its present borders, supports the creation of an additional buffer layer of regional ‘sovereignties,’ within or beyond Ukrainian frameworks, on the outer side of its borders—on the Left Bank, in Crimea and Novorossiya—amid the degradation of the Ukrainian central government.”


I mentioned earlier that Tsymbursky, when he was developing his “Island Russia” concept in 1993-1994, proceeded from the erroneous assumption that the West would not be able to incorporate Eastern Europe. He based his theory on the difficulties that the economic integration of East Germany had involved. He believed, and with good reason, that the admission of former Warsaw Pact members and especially former Soviet republics to the EU and NATO would weaken these organizations. When the alliance expanded to the East, the “Island Russia” concept began to look unconvincing in its early and overly optimistic version. Perhaps Tsymbursky thought so too, since for a long time he gave up searching for an answer to the most painful question for his system of views: What kind of policy should Russia pursue in “strait territories” that divide it and the Euro-Atlantic region, considering the latter’s advance?

In the late 1990s-early 2000s, Tsymbursky published a series of articles in which he discussed the prospects of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, demanded that the U.S. be prevented from penetrating into Russia’s Central Asian “underbelly,” analyzed the potential for economic and strategic cooperation with China, and reflected on the rationality of moving the Russian capital eastward, closer to the country’s geographical center and away from the western borders where the situation was becoming increasingly tense. The content of the articles imparted a Eurasian, or rather Oriental, tint to Tsymbursky’s theory that was absent in the early version of his concept. Simultaneously, Tsymbursky devoted himself entirely to studying the history of Russian geopolitics and began to write his landmark book The Morphology of Russian Geopolitics and the Dynamics of International Systems in the 18th-20th Centuries, which he never finished. Yet it was published as a large volume last year, with the support of the Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Research. Nevertheless, the “Ukrainian issue,” or rather the issue of the western frontier of the Great Limitrophe, remained unresolved in his theory. In fact, Tsymbursky himself felt that the “Island” concept required a radical revision to meet the challenges of the times.

After Russia’s brief war with Georgia in August 2008, Tsymbursky found that he needed to supplement his previous analysis of the Great Limitrophe with a special conceptualization of those segments that historically and culturally gravitated towards Russia and that, therefore, would be ready to secede from their countries if they tried to integrate into NATO or the European Union. He used the term “the shelf of Island Russia,” coined by his longtime colleague and co-author, political analyst Mikhail Ilyin. Tsymbursky defined the “shelf” as “territories that are connected with the present indigenous Russian territories by physical geography, geostrategy and cultural ties.” It was obvious to him that “Eastern Ukraine (…), Crimea (…) and certain territories of the Caucasus and Central Asia belong to the Russian shelf.” In one of his last public appearances at the end of 2008, Tsymbursky drew a remarkable difference between “geopolitics of spaces” and “geopolitics of borders:” the meaning of this distinction was revealed in his subsequent fragmentary remarks. Tsymbursky was still convinced that Russia was not interested in a radical revision of its borders and that its geopolitical niche on the whole met its interests. But “geopolitics of borders” is something different, as it “requires scrupulous analysis of a specific situation, in view of the existence of the Russian shelf and the assessment of the situation on this shelf in terms of our interests and our future.”

Although Tsymbursky never completed his analysis of the differences between the two types of geopolitics, it seems that after the military conflict with Georgia the author of Island Russia was no longer confident that Russia’s formal borders should not be revised in favor of expansion, if part of “the shelf of Island Russia” broke away from the limitrophe belt of states, which the Euro-Atlantic region sought to rally into a single whole. Tsymbursky hoped that a possible revision of the borders of post-Soviet states would not radically change the essence of his “Island” theory. Russia would remain an “island” even if part of its coastal shelf dried up, and would gather under its tutelage lands and peoples gravitating towards it.

The hypothesis that Tsymbursky planned one more fundamental revision of his geopolitical theory using the notion of ‘the shelf of Island Russia’ is confirmed by an excerpt from his memoir essay Speak, Memory!, written in the last months of his life in late February-early March 2009: “The year 2008, with the five-day war and statements by Russian leaders about territories outside Russia that are of special significance to it, suggested that I could rethink the concept, with special emphasis on the notion of ‘the shelf of Island Russia,’ introduced back in 1994. I view this shelf as areas in the Limitrophe, including beyond Russia’s state borders, that have special physico-geographical, cultural-geographical, economic and strategic ties with Russia, which should be recognized and taken into consideration. The world crisis has made such a revision of the concept less important at present, but it may be done in the future.”

Had Tsymbursky witnessed the events of 2014, we can assume that he would have revised his “Island Russia” concept. Alas, destiny did not give Tsymbursky a chance to develop the “island shelf” concept, although the reference to 1994 suggests that Tsymbursky recalled the above-quoted phrase about the possibility of creating a pro-Russian “buffer territory” comprised of Crimea, left-bank Ukraine, and Transnistria. Moreover, the distinction he drew between “geopolitics of spaces” and “geopolitics of borders” leads to a bolder conclusion: that Tsymbursky accepted the possibility—in a critical situation—of reunifying Russia with certain parts of its “shelf.” This conclusion suggests that attempts by some Ukrainian experts to portray Tsymbursky as the inspirer of Russia’s current policy towards Donbass—that is, to ascribe to him the game with these lands in the spirit of cynical Realpolitik—are unfounded. Tsymbursky made an obvious distinction between territories of the “shelf” and “Limitrophe territories” proper, for which Russia is not responsible and towards which it can conduct a purely pragmatic policy.


Late geopolitical works by Vadim Tsymbursky could well give rise to a strategy which I in some publications call “civilizational realism.” According to this strategy, Russia and the Euro-Atlantic region would be recognized as separate civilizations, with their own gravitation orbits; Russia’s orbit would be much more modest, but still real. In this sense, the “Russian world” would no longer have a narrow ethnic interpretation and other nations that gravitate towards Russian civilization, in particular Abkhazians and Ossetians, may be included in this space. It is also quite possible that they will be joined by Belarusians, Gagauzes, Tajiks, Serbs, and other peoples who will strive to remain in Russia’s civilizational field. Russia views the territorial integrity of states which have different ideas of their civilizational identity and whose orientation towards Russia is characteristic of several regions as dependent on the neutral status of these countries and on their readiness to recognize the “Russian world” as a cultural and political reality. Additionally, Russia is in no way inclined to change the format of existing borders and is still interested in maintaining the conservative status quo in Eastern Europe, which is undermined by the Euro-Atlantic region’s revolutionary actions.

Tsymbursky believed it was irrational and disadvantageous for Russia to destroy what he called a “one-and-a-half-polar world,” in which the United States occupied a dominant position, but where it had to reckon with regional centers of power. Tsymbursky argued that if the Euro-Atlantic region collapsed as a civilization and if all players subservient to the will of the U.S. started independent games, this in no way would be advantageous to Russia. Subsequent events partially confirmed that he was right: the game played by France and Great Britain in Libya and Nicolas Sarkozy’s and David Cameron’s support for the armed opposition against the al-Gaddafi regime forced Barack Obama to interfere in the conflict in order to retain U.S. leadership in the Western coalition—a fateful decision for Libya. The temporary weakening of the U.S. in the same period encouraged various players in the Middle East pursuing their own interests—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel—to take actions that were not coordinated and which turned the region into a field of the classical “war of all against all.” Tsymbursky would hardly have been enthusiastic about the possible emergence of a “Europe of Fatherlands” in place of an EU liberated from U.S. control, because each such “fatherland” would not necessarily pursue a policy that would meet Russia’s interests. In his view, Russia was interested in maintaining a balance between the U.S.’s global center of power and various regional centers of power, which should not be upset in favor of a unipolar or an entirely multipolar world order. This is also a manifestation of Tsymbursky’s “civilizational realism:” Russia should uphold its position as a regional center with a concrete gravitation orbit, but not seek to achieve a final fragmentation of the entire “one-and-a-half-polar world” system.

Certainly, Tsymbursky’s model, which I call “civilizational realism,” theoretically may include a scenario where buffer states would disintegrate and their individual parts would join the nuclei of their civilizational gravitation. However, this would be an extreme scenario, brought about by external pressure and which would be highly undesirable. Within the framework of “civilizational realism” there naturally arises the question of relations between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic region. The author of the “Island Russia” model wrote that it aimed in part to reduce the possibility of direct conflicts between Russia and Western powers. Tsymbursky perfectly understood that Russia would in any case remain a great power and that domestic liberals would not be able, however hard they might try, to turn it into an analogue of Canada, another northern giant with very limited geopolitical aspirations. Russia would seek to become an independent player in world politics, such as China, India, or the United States. Russia would always differ from modern Europe in a socio-cultural way as well: Tsymbursky thought it was quite normal that the ideas of sovereignty and the nation state, which had become outdated in Europe, were acquiring a new life in Russia, because, according to his chronopolitics, Russia was entering the same period in history, the period of modernity, which Europe was exiting. He paid particular attention to the need to develop small towns in Russia, in contrast to large cosmopolitan areas, linked with the global world as if disregarding their own country. He hoped for the emergence of such a specific ideological complex as Russian Victorianism, which he understood as the ability of conservative middle classes, heirs of the Puritan revolution, to coerce the upper classes into external asceticism and moral integrity.

To sum up, Tsymbursky, like no other thinker in modern Russia, combined pragmatic realism in foreign policy with civilizational identity politics. It would be very important if realistic Western politicians had an opportunity to see that the geopolitical concept of “Island Russia” carries great weight among the Russian foreign-policy elite and that Tsymbursky is not a mere name for people in charge of strategy in Russia. That would help eliminate all sorts of misunderstanding, which Russia’s enemies abroad seek to take advantage of, suspecting Russia of wanting to seize Estonia, or divide Europe, or become a new empire spreading from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

If Tsymbursky’s ideas had been put to use in Russian foreign policy during his lifetime, who knows what problems and difficulties Russia could have avoided, what mistakes we might not have made and what silly things would not have been done by those Western leaders who are driven not by hatred for Russia, but by an unjustified fear of it or a mistaken view of its pro-European choice. Perhaps, eight years after the death of this outstanding Russian scholar, Russian politicians and experts should reread his geopolitical works and dissect them for quotes.