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Russian nationalism goes far beyond Putin

Navalny: supported Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty

Boris Johnson’s recent video message to the Russian people was a “futile stunt”, says Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. Talking partly in Russian, the PM spoke directly to the country’s citizens: “Your president stands accused of committing war crimes. But I cannot believe he is acting in your name.” It’s a lousy strategy. As one Russia-watching friend told me, hardly any locals will see it, and the ones that do will find it irksome – “proof that the British are anti-Russian”.

Brits are often naive about Moscow. We think that if only the Russian people were told “the truth”, Vladimir Putin would be booted out and succeeded by a “Western-leaning” figure like Alexei Navalny. That’s wishful thinking. Navalny, currently languishing in jail, is brave and courageous. But, like many Russians, he is a nationalist. He supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and used to attend nationalistic rallies “in which racist slogans were the dominant discourse”. Navalny is popular because he wants to stamp out corruption, not because people think he’d push foreign policy in a pro-Western direction. In fact, “domestic support for Putin has only grown in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine”. Last week, one American banker departing Moscow said that his Russian colleagues had become jingoistic and antagonistic. “Russians have a world-class inferiority complex,” he observed. “Sometimes they just need to lash out and show why they are exceptional.”