WHAT’S PUTIN’S GAME?

(Those of us who wish to defend democracy must now look very carefully at the modern dictatorships and their ideologies.)

Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. In Britain, one political assassination and one attempted assassination, both with illegal chemical weapons. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain again, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many escaped abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed down to a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control. (Read more about this here.)

Secondly, any hope of democratization was dashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. His court is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas. Read more about this here.)

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the Czar who set the job in motion. His agenda of ideas is for the inspiration of that job and purpose.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moscow, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had accepted German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moscow. (Read more about this here.) The European embrace of Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Finally, why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and public health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the West expected Russia to become a compliant collaborator. What has emerged is an aggressive competitor.

First published in the Los Angeles Times, here.

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