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.

DICTATORSHIP AND IDEOLOGY

The three big powers in today’s world are America, China and Russia – two autocratic-dictatorial systems and one democracy.

The two dictatorial systems are in some ways different and in some ways similar. Russia maintains a pretence of democracy – Vladimir Putin has just been re-elected president. China has no such pretence – when Xi Jinping was recently re-anointed as party boss and state president there were not even make-believe elections.

They are similar in that both are engaged in aggressive campaigns for domination in their neighbourhoods and the wider world, campaigns that aim to undermine the position of the sole democratic super-power and its allies, such as democratic Europe.

They are different in the way they engage for added domination. China is a power with vast resources and is able to make itself stronger by the day. Russia is without similar resources. Its campaign is therefore one of strategic relativism. Says Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom: “Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.” This difference also makes for campaigns different in character. China is an elegant player on the world stage. Russia is an ugly and thuggish player.

Both engage, in their different ways, with assertive determination. This assertiveness and determination comes from both states being ideological states. In both countries, the leaders have dressed up their systems in similar ideological cloaks. They are now both nationalistic powers.

Putin’s Russia, explains Timothy Snyder, is inspired by a vision of a greater Russian spiritual empire. This explains, for example, Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, a country that cannot be democratic and European because it is part of spiritual Russia. China is inspired by Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of China’s “great national rejuvenation.” This explains, for example, China’s building of a new global architecture of power in the “Belt and Road Initiative” with the aim of China reclaiming its global position as “the middle kingdom.”

Both nationalistic narratives are also narratives of state and society. In both cases, the unit of purpose is the nation. The core of this thinking is that the nation is one and indivisible and that individuals have their existence as components of the nation. In the Russian case, which Snyder characterizes as no-nonsense neo-fascism, individualism is seen to be the idea of European decadence. European democracy, and the European Union, are therefore the enemies of spiritual Russia, not because of what they do but because of what they are. In the Chinese case, the “Dream” contains not only a vision of national greatness but also the idea, in Xi’s words at the launch of the “Dream,” that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation.”

Nationalistic ideology gives both these powers backing for aggressive assertiveness, all the more being ideologies that submerge individuals into the nation. There is then no autonomous good for individuals that stands in the way of the good of the nation, nor of the state that is the custodian of the national good.

Democratic countries are by definition non-ideological. That is their strength in value terms. The idea that the state is the servant of the person is morally superior to the idea that it is the servant of the nation in the meaning that persons do not matter.

In power terms, are non-ideological democratic regimes at a disadvantage vis-à-vis ideological autocratic regimes? That is probably not the experience, but they may be at a disadvantage in some ways. It may be difficult from a democratic vantage point to grasp and understand the nature of ideologically motivated autocratic assertiveness. That seems to be the case today. The West appears unable to make sense of Putin’s Russia and Russian policies of aggression in the Ukraine and Syria, and of destabilization in Europe and America. The West also appears unable to make sense of Xi’s China and China’s audacious design towards no less than a new world order. The West is hopelessly lacking in hard-nosed realism up against very hard-nosed aggression from the autocratic powers.