How Russia, Fascism, and Nationalism impact world politics | Interview with Dr. Andreas Umland

How Russia, Fascism, and Nationalism impact world politics | Interview with Dr. Andreas Umland

We met with Dr. Andreas Umland to discuss world peace, terrorism, ultranationalism, and more. Enjoy!

Notable political scientist Dr. Andreas Umland explores fascism and ultranationalism in Russia and elsewhere, as well as genocide in the Ukraine, terrorism worldwide, and nations that threaten world peace through weapons of mass destruction. Member of the Institute for Central and East European Studies at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, and professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Dr. Umland talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

The West should outline to the Russian people a fairly detailed and concrete plan to what could happen to Russia if Russia behaves well again. And what is actually the future of Russia if Russia behaves as a normal nation state, if Russia does not invade foreign countries, and what is actually going to be Russia's relationship with Europe.” – Dr. Andreas Umland

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Andreas Umland

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:29.3Comparative political science

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and at Academic Influence. And today, we have a special guest visiting us from Kiev, in the Ukraine, his name is Professor Andreas Umland. And he is a political scientist, so I would love to know…

…what kind of political science do you do, Professor Umland?

Andreas: Well, I guess I could call it comparative political science. My mother is Russian, my father is German, so mainly I have compared Russia and Germany. But I also do a lot of just descriptive sort of contemporary history research, where I research mainly new far-right groups in Russia and in Ukraine.

Jed: Well, tell us a little bit about those far-right groups in those two countries. Are they in cahoots with each other or do they just operate independently?

Andreas: Well, the two countries are at war actually. So the far-right groups are also, you could say, in war. There was actually a somewhat odd cooperation between some of the far-right groups before the war, but now this has gone down to very small, and I would say, insignificant context. The far-right groupings are very different in Russia and Ukraine.

In Russia, ultranationalism is mainly about the empire, whereas in Ukraine, ultranationalism, if you see that as being far-right, is mainly about independence and sovereignty. And so there is a big difference in their ideologies.

Now, I would also say, if you look at the last 30 years, that means the independence of Ukraine and the existence of Russia as basically a nation state, it calls itself Russian Federation. It sees itself as a multinational state, but in fact, it is by most criteria, a nation state.

So if we look at these both nation states, then the Russian far-right has over these 30 years been, I would say, a far more important force in Russian politics than the Ukrainian far-right has been in Ukrainian politics. The Ukrainian far-right was also here in parliament and even represented for a few months in government.

But over the whole period of the 30 years, the Ukrainian far-right has been actually, not only in comparison to Russia, but in comparison to many other European states, including many EU member states, surprisingly weak as a political force.

In contrast and contrary to what actually many people think around the world, who are watching maybe too much Russian-influenced media reporting about Ukraine and about the many allegations of Russia that Ukraine is fascist, is anti-Semitic, ultranationalist, and so on. Certainly, these groups are also present in Ukraine as they are unfortunately in most countries of the world, but they are, at least within Europe, rather weak in comparison to other European countries.

0:03:51.5Putin and the "radical right"

Jed: Fascinating. Now, we had on our show earlier, Alexander Motyl, who is a political scientist working on the East Coast of the United States, first at Columbia, and now in New Jersey. He said that there are two views on Russia and the reign of Putin, and that is that he is a mastermind or that he is not. And Motyl’s opinion was that he’s not a mastermind, that he’s barely hanging on to power, and so on and so forth. I obviously have no idea.

What do you think? You’ve studied the situation. And do the ultra-right groups give him more power to stay in control or is it undermining his authority?

Andreas: Wow, that’s a good question, a complicated question. I know Alexander Motyl, of course, very well. I’ve read him and we know each other personally. I think we value each other although we don’t agree on a number of points, both about Ukraine and about Russia.

For instance, Alexander has classified the current Russian regime under Putin as fascist, which I don’t agree with. I would also call it radical right at least. I would say it has moved to the far-right since 2014, since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in the Donbass, but I wouldn’t use this term "fascist" for this regime because fascism in my interpretation is a revolutionary ideology and Putin is not a revolutionary.

There are revolutionary far-right thinkers and leaders in Russia, like for instance, Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Aleksandr Dugin . For those who have studied this a little bit, they will know these names, and I can elaborate on them if you like. And indeed, these far-right groups, they have, I would say, on the balance, more supported Putin than they have attacked him. They have an ambivalent relationship to Putin and Putinism and the Putin regime, in that Putin has to a large degree, done things, especially in the international arena, that they would have also done if they had power. They would have gone much further than Putin, they would have been even more aggressive than Putin, they would have basically started, if they had power, World War III.

That sounds a bit apocalyptic, but I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration actually. If you look at their programs and the ideas they have about restructuring the whole world, and that is what fascists usually want to do.

But Putin, on the other hand, he is a conservative imperialist or a reactionary imperialist. He wants to only preserve or restore Russia as an empire, as one of the poles in a multipolar world, and that is, and the fascists are unhappy with that, they want him to go further.

So most of them have a very ambivalent relationship to him. And Dugin, for instance, who is one of the perhaps now best known far-right ideologists and fascist ideologists of Russian ultranationalism, he has written a whole book about the ambivalence of Putin, that he is both on the far-right, but he’s not a fascist, basically that is his complaint, and he’s too much also engaged with the liberals for Dugin’s taste in Russia, and he is too much, perhaps even of a liberal.

Although, that is of course very, very relative. I think Putin is actually in no reasonable sense a liberal, but that is how Dugin has criticized him.

Jed: Fascinating. So in the end result, would you say that Putin is somewhat of a mastermind, that he’s continuing to stay in power? Or is he just bumbling through the way that Motyl was describing?

Andreas: Well, I would agree with Alexander, especially in the last month during the pandemic and the resulting fall of the energy prices, and also some rather unfortunate behavior of Russia on the international energy markets.

Russia has actually made a whole bunch, I would say, of mistakes in energy affairs which are very important for Russia, for the Russian budget, for Russian GDP. So as a result of the pandemic and of this fall in sort of Russian fortunes in the economic sphere and the political sphere, Putin is now less popular than he used to be.

He was, again, rather popular after the annexation of Crimea. There was even something called the Crimea Consensus, sort of a new social contract between the authoritarian regime and society, which was, at least for a few months in 2014, rather happy about the annexation of Crimea.

This has now faded and now it’s basically, I would say about… In a regime stability and whether the so-called Siloviki, the power ministries will halter him.

…I'm not sure what the next years will bring, but certainly the question is now when this regime will collapse. It's not any longer whether it will collapse, but I think it's already, I would say, a dead man walking, but it may still be walking a long way.” – Dr. Andreas Umland

So the problem with, I would say, with Putin’s regime is that it has a large security forces, a large Ministry of Interior, that so far it controls well. It has, of course, all the successor organizations of the KGB, and so it has a lot of force that it can use, and that makes it different let’s say from Yanukovych’s regime that was brought down in early 2014 during the so-called Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan Revolution, where in which Yanukovych had far fewer reliable security forces with which he could prolong his power.

And as the example, for instance of North Korea, shows such rigid regimes, they can even, in times of rather difficult economics and of a rather difficult social situation, they can prolong their life by simply suppressing dissent. But that is much more complicated in Russia than in North Korea to do, so I’m not sure what the next years will bring, but certainly the question is now when this regime will collapse. It’s not any longer whether it will collapse, but I think it’s already, I would say, a dead man walking, but it may still be walking a long way.

But basically, I would agree with Alexander, that he is already a man of the past, but he can prolong this period for more years.

0:11:04.4Famine in the Ukraine

Jed: Fascinating. Well, of course, you know that Alexander Motyl was also very interested in the famine in the Ukraine, and since you’re living in the Ukraine, I’m sure this historical event is interesting to you.

Do you think that his book pretty much summed up what happened and the role of Stalin in killing so many farmers in the Ukraine?

Andreas: Yeah, I belong to those who think that this was actually a genocide. This is the big issue that also I think Alexander is mainly talking about. This is an issue in Russian-Ukrainian relations now. Recently, it was an issue in Ukranian-German relations also, because the German parliament has, unlike other parliaments, not yet recognized the famine of the early 1930s, the Holodomor, as it’s called in Ukrainian, as a genocide. I think it was an attempted genocide, because there were a few traits of this famine that actually point out that this was not just an ordinary famine. It was not just about industrialization and about exploiting the land in order to further industrialization. It was actually… There were a few of the measures that were taken by the Soviet regime, by Stalin, that actually point in the direction that he actually wanted the Ukrainian peasants to die. And he also, at the same time that the Ukrainian peasants were dying, he was also killing a large parts of Ukrainian Intelligentsia.

And so, if you take that together, for me, at least it qualifies as genocide. Others would not use the term, but I think for me, that is good enough, that is, it’s not, of course, the Holocaust. There were no gas chambers, or there was no mass shooting as there was in… 10 years later then when the Germans arrived in Ukraine and had these huge mass shootings, like for instance here in Kiev, at Babi Yar, where they just in two days shot approximately 34,000 Jews in September 1941. At least during the famine, there was nothing like that, but the people died in the millions, and the regime wanted them to die, and that makes it a genocide, as I think.

0:13:41.8Poles? Who’s a threat?

Jed: Yeah, that’s a really sad event. Well, thank you for sharing those thoughts. I’m gonna switch gears a little bit. We’ve had a lot of political scientists talk about the different poles that there are out there.

You mentioned that Putin wants to be one of those poles. It’s fascinating to me that there was sort of just a singular pole starting in the late 1990s, and that was the United States, but of course that has…

Andreas: In the late ’80s, I would say.

Jed: Well, late ’80… Yes, that’s right.

Andreas: Yeah.

Jed: It started with President Bush the first, and it could’ve continued on, and whether they were Democrats or Republicans, pretty much everyone bought into this idea that the United States should be in charge of the world, and eventually that has come to an end with the Presidency of Donald Trump .

That marks the end of that mono-polar view, but of course, it was inevitable. Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, most of the political scientists I talked to say there was no way to forestall that, it’s just that it was very clearly over when Donald Trump took office, because that was his whole thing, America first, don’t worry about running the world.

What do you think is the biggest threat then to the United States, and the biggest threat to world peace? Is it Russia, or is it China, or something else?

Andreas: Well, I will just for the sake of provocation, argue here that actually, although Russia is not a self-sustaining pole in the new multipolar world, although the Russians clearly want to be a pole in the new multipolar world, the Russian economy is in nominal dollar terms about as large as the economy of the State of New York.

So the economies of Texas and California are larger than the economy, the whole economy of Russia, or the economy of Russia is about as large as the economy of Italy, but Russia sees itself as something equal, not of course, to the State of New York, but to the United States, and not as similar to Italy, but as an empire or civilization similar to the European Union, and it has then created also the so-called "Eurasian Union" with a few smaller countries where Russia dominates.

And from that point of view, clearly, Russia looks far less interesting than China, which is an economic superpower and is rising further, and it’s also quite aggressive, in at least in economic terms, I would say.

…I think Russia represents the larger risk for not only the United States, but for humanity, because it has the largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world.” – Dr. Andreas Umland

But still, I would say that on the whole, I think Russia represents the larger risk for not only the United States, but for humanity, because it has the largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. I think the number of warheads is even larger than those of the US, and it’s a declining power, and that is a very unhealthy combination, this huge arsenal and the obvious decline.

And not only in relative terms, but even as I see it now, especially for the next years, it could become… Actually, decline in absolute terms, with the change in the energy markets and the basically loss of value for the main export commodities that Russia has, namely oil and gas and coal.

So if all of that goes down, then Russia goes down, but Russia still has this huge weapons arsenal, so I think it should worry us more than China.

My interpretation about China, and maybe it’s a bit naive, I haven’t studied really China, but China, with its economic expansion is also… It’s not only making other countries dependent, but it’s also making itself dependent on the world economy and on other countries, and that means for me that this economic expansion of China that we observe has actually an ambivalent meaning and that China cannot really become a fool, and as adversarial a country as North Korea, or even as Russia, I would say, because it’s simply part of the world that it tries to take over in a way, economically.

So maybe that is a bit too rosy view of the future role of China, but I’m much more worried about Russia and about these weapons of mass destruction, and apparently, as we now know, from the attacks with chemical weapons on Russian opposition figures, or on Navalny, on Skripal, a former secret agent of Russia who was also… Whom Russia tried to kill with a chemical weapon. So Russia has these weapons of mass destruction, and it’s a declining power, and that makes it extremely dangerous, I would say.

Jed: Well, that’s a sobering thought. Now, you didn’t mention in there any other potential threats like the Islamic States and things of those natures.

You don’t consider those to be as big of a threat as Russia?

Andreas: Well, I mean, there are terrorist threats and there are certainly also alliances possible, but on the whole, I think this is of a much smaller magnitude. Of course, it’s worrisome, but I don’t think that Iran is as much really a problem.

I think it’s an overblown, frankly, issue, especially in American foreign policy, because the question there is, can they build nuclear weapons? And they may be able or may not be able, but the main threat here, of course, is less so for the US, but for Israel.

And I can understand certainly Israel, that Israel is very worried about Iran. But on the whole, I don’t see Islam as much… In general, I don’t think, in this Huntingtonian terms about adversarial-built civilizations, that there is something deep and fundamental about Islam that makes it incompatible, that’s how Huntington saw it. I think that’s all a matter, basically, of national politics.

So for instance, the Huntingtonian civilizational model does not work in Ukraine. According to Huntington… And he had this very influential book in the early 1990s where he divided, basically, humanity and civilizations, there could and should have been a war in Ukraine according to Huntington, but it should have been in western Ukraine, not in eastern Ukraine where the Orthodox civilization goes over to the Catholic civilization in Eastern Galicia in western Ukraine.

But the war is actually in eastern Ukraine and the people who are shooting at each other there are all Orthodox, Eastern Slavic Orthodox. They, according to Huntington, belong to the same civilization and nevertheless, they are at war with each other. And this and many other examples seem to me to indicate that this vision that the Christian civilization, Islamic civilization, they will be at war with each other is overdrawn.

I think it has to do much more with the individual regimes in these various countries and you now see also these… Let’s say, the new context between Israel and various Islamic states, diplomatic relations, alliances even to some degree. So, somehow I’m not as worried about that. Although, of course, the radical Islamism, terrorist radical Islamism, is also a security issue.

0:22:08.5World peace

Jed: Well, fascinating. This truly has been mind-opening to all of the things that you’re talking about, and we appreciate you sharing your view of what’s going to happen and what is happening.

What do you think should be the strategy, as we close our interview, with Russia? If you were, for example, Joe Biden , would the strategy be to give them a little more credit because they have their hearts on their sleeve?

A lot of Russians tend to… As Alexander Motyl was saying, "If you insult a Frenchman, they think you’re stupid. If you insult a Russian, they’ll get angry and they’ll take it personally." They won’t just think you’re stupid, there’s something a little bit more heart-on-the-sleeve about Russians.

So would there be a strategy that we could take with Russia in order to ensure world peace?

Andreas: Well, although I said that Russia is a threat to world peace because of the nuclear weapons arsenal, I would still think that the way to go with Russia is to be tough and to draw red lines and then really to punish Russia for overstepping these red lines.

Because the Russian, I think, worldview is that… And that is also something very present in Russia, is that everything that is written and said is basically fake. And so all this talk about principles and ideas and ideals and so on, and some sort of agreements, that is all insubstantial.

What is substantial is what is done and what happens, actually. And if you do not do what you say you’re gonna do, then this is going to be a sign for people like Putin, and perhaps even for the majority of Russian politicians, that you can spoil more. If you do not actually punish for misbehaving, then that means, to a Russian politician, that misbehaving is okay and it will go…

And that is what happened, for instance, in Ukraine in early 2014. After Russia had annexed Crimea and was not really punished for it, the Russian leadership thought that, "Well, why not do the same thing in eastern Ukraine?" And that’s how we got into the war in eastern Ukraine, because we just took Crimea, so why not go further?

And if there had been punishment, immediate sanctions, of course, not military punishment, but harsh sanctions in March 2014, I think there would have been no war in April 2014. So I think that is one part of the strategy as I see it, and the other strategy should be that the West should outline to the Russian people a fairly detailed and concrete plan to what could happen to Russia if Russia behaves well again.

And what is actually the future of Russia, if Russia behaves as a normal nation state, if Russia does not invade foreign countries, and what is actually going to be Russia’s relationship with Europe? And I had actually an article on that, where I’m saying that what the EU is currently doing with countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova could also be a model for a future re-democratized Russia, an association agreement which basically includes now the Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan economy into the EU economy and something like that could also be offered to Russia to include the Russian economy in the EU economy.

Visa-free agreements as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova already have, so that Russians can, without visa, travel to the EU and the US could offer something similar.

And most importantly, perhaps that if Russia finds a solution for its territorial conflict with Moldova, with Georgia, with Ukraine, then it should also have the opportunity to enter NATO. That would be the biggest step, of course, and something like that, perhaps even more elaborate than I have just outlined, should be offered to Russia. So that it is not left in the cold, because it’s not a pole in a multipolar world.

It likes to be a pole, but it can be offered to become a part of a larger Europe. But for that, it has to observe international law and has to free the territories that it’s currently occupying outside Russia.

0:27:20.4Sign off

Jed: Well that would be amazing. So let us hope for that to happen and thank you so much, Professor Umland, for your great interview and the great thoughts that you’ve left us with. Thank you.

Andreas: Thank you, Professor Macosko. It was an honor and pleasure.