TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Commentary on Russia and Ukraine

The ongoing takeover of Crimea by Russia, and its intense political campaigning to annul the results of the Kiev revolution, took most observers of international politics by surprise. Normally, one has not been considering Russia as a serious contender of the United States for hegemony, as a country with serious economic or military resources, or even as a country with a particularly serious ideology. American and European political science has for decades been busy with “transitions to democracy” and the evaluation of their relative successes (even though there is a recent shift toward the study of authoritarianism), and in International Relations, China seemed to be the only possible opponent to U.S. unilateral hegemony. European Studies examines the various neighborhood policies of the European Union, measuring their relative success in “democratization.” The U.S. and European leaders therefore reacted to the events in Russia and Ukraine with surprise: John Kerry spoke of Russia’s “nineteenth-century behavior,” and Angela Merkel described Putin as being delusional, living “in another world.” This correctly describes the huge discrepancies in worldviews and values, but the views and values of Russian leadership, whether delusional or not, have very real effects, and therefore represent a repressed part of the reality about which the Western leaders do not want to think.

In the last couple years since his second arrival, Putin has managed to consolidate and formulate a radical conservative ideology, the one that had earlier existed only implicitly, and in an equal competition with the liberal ideology which was shared by the urban educated class and carried on by several powerful media. Putin himself had earlier maneuvered between the nationalist conservatism and liberalism and did not univocally support the anti-Western sentiment.

What is this new worldview and what are these values? It should actually not be so surprising because it is the familiar international “realism” that is so common (even though somewhat dated) in U.S. academia. This is a world of states and their selfish interests of sovereignty and security. But this is also a world of competing imperialisms (something that is not always clarified in the “realist” paradigm as long as we cling to sovereign states as subjects and do not consider their shifting identities as they claim former colonies to be part of themselves). According to this worldview, the United States and the European Union are imperialist powers that defeated the Soviet Union and made Russia abandon its naturally (“geopolitically”) dependent regions. Now they are trying to finish this process by further alienating Ukraine from Russia. The multiple “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union of the 2000s were, Putin firmly believes, organized and staged by the U.S. instructors.

As for the values, they are nationalist and conservative. The nationalism mostly means defending the Russian state or its empire. The conservatism means counter-revolutionary and supportive of the status quo whatever it is. Family values and familiar traditions (such as heterosexuality) are consensual and sacred. Religion is also sacred, even though serious religious practice is relatively rare.

This ideology is now being actively spread by all the national TV channels, by almost all the newspapers, and by most major news websites. And now Russia acts on this ideology, gradually moving from a mere conservatism of “stability” to a conservative activism, such as the regaining of the “Eurasian” space and the announced revision of the post-1991 international system in Europe. The atmosphere within the country has some resemblances with historical fascism. (I use this word not as an insult but in the sense of a revisionist authoritarian nationalism.) Consider the very emotional and aggressive nationalist language in the media, accompanied by the unilateral and often knowingly false evidence of the presumed dangers to the Russian population in Ukraine; the increasing role of paramilitary civilians and direct violence, and, of course, the arguments for révanche.

Now, this may be surprising for several reasons.

First, the Russian regime is an heir to the 1991 post-Soviet Union constitutional state, which claimed to emulate the Western model, and largely did so, in economics and in constitutional law, although not in terms of “liberal democracy,” which the Russian leadership refused to build. Unlike Iran, Russia has not had a theocratic ideology, and unlike the Soviet Union, it hasn’t had a communist one either. Economically, again, unlike the Soviet Union, it is entirely dependent on foreign trade; since it sells only oil, gas, and arms, its domestic mass industry is weak, and most everyday consumption goods are imported.

Second, the United States and Europe have not visibly had an anti-Russian foreign policy. They have usually not attacked its direct interests, they helped it with credits in the 1990s, and U.S. philanthropists helped to save Russian science in the 1990s and early 2000s. Russia was included in the G-8 and WTO, and the alliances of NATO and the European Union with some former Soviet republics such as Baltics and Georgia were largely solicited by these republics themselves. The much discussed military interventions in Serbia and Libya might have been illegal, but they were genuinely based on grave humanitarian crises on the ground. So why does the Russian leadership, and at least a half of its population, feel itself betrayed by the United States, encircled by enemies, and in a bad need of regaining the control of post-Soviet space? Does it not know that we live in a global world where economic and ideological power are more important than military and sovereign control of territory?

There are of course subjective, emotional, and psychological reasons for this. However, there are also objective reasons for the fact that some world leaders suddenly live in “different worlds.”

In many senses, the United States and Europe fell into a trap of what John Seeley, a late nineteenth-century British historian, called an “empire” “conquered . . . in a fit of absence of mind.” Strong powers tend to attract clients, and they have economic and political interests in many countries across the world: these interests are often initiated not by governments but by non-state actors such as international corporations and NGOs, and sometimes minor states themselves ask for patronage, for moral and expert, if not for economic, aid—and this is readily provided (“empire by invitation”). So when all these interests are suddenly threatened, the empire starts growing, now in the literal territorial sense. Such effects of passive expansion are particularly strong after major revolutions, where vacuums of power and/or legitimate rule tend to form throughout the world (I treat this in more detail in my essay “Negative Imperialization,” in Politics of the One, Bloomsbury, 2013).

If there was a strategic plan to extend the U.S.-European empire, for some serious purpose, into Georgia and Ukraine, then it could have been better prepared, and maybe even negotiated with Russia on some conditions (such as the surrender of Crimea, which would have immediately come on the agenda, the Crimea that Ukraine does not really need, the Russian rent for the Black Sea fleet excepted). If there was no imperial extension, and all this is just the paranoia of Russian president, then please explain why Ukraine was offered association with Europe, which would severely limit its free trade with Russia, and sets a distant goal of EU membership (and such partnership had never been offered to Russia itself). Explain also why, after the successful revolution in Kiev, the EU leaders insisted on Yanukovich’s surrender, blamed all the bloodshed on him, and recognized the new leadership immediately after his escape. I am not claiming that they acted wrongly. But they certainly did not act impartially toward Russia and Yanukovich, who is supported mostly by the non-Kiev, Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. While Yanukovich did order to shoot on demonstrators (belatedly and unwillingly), it is also true that the revolutionaries used lethal weapons. Erdogan in Turkey and the current Egyptian leadership use violence on a much larger scale, and no one seriously considers delegitimizing them. While Russian propaganda falsely depicts the Ukrainian revolutionaries as “fascists” and “Banderites,” it is true that many prominent leaders of the revolution, and many ministers of the new government, do appeal to the Ukrainian “hero” Bandera who was responsible for ethnic cleansing during and after World War II. If it is a revolution, then it is first of all a right-wing nationalist revolution (which also used the Ukrainian Left only to oust it), while Yanukovich, corrupt as he was, never played a nationalist card and tried to maintain an inter-ethnic balance.

So, my fear is that Europe, feeling itself a “cosmopolitan empire,” started—like the Roman Empire before it—viewing the world as its own indeterminate periphery, even though with some mystical authoritarian forces on the horizon. With such an approach, the blind apolitical moralism (“we carry the Good,” “we need to be nice to our neighbors if they want it,” “popular revolution against a corrupt even though elected government is always a good thing”) took the place of political judgment. And it continues to suppress such political feeling, because any claims to interest rather than morality (and this is Putin’s frame of reference) seem “delusional.” Putin is known for playing zero sum games where he sees them, even though he is also known for liking deals. But, failing to see a political decision and choice where they are potentially present, and discernible for the opponent, means that morality, to use Weberian language, wins out over responsibility.

Now take the new Russian conservatism and the elements of nineteenth-century mentality. This has been a long story on the Russian side. In the 1980s and 1990s, pro-Western liberalism was the most widespread creed among Russian intellectuals. But it immediately coexisted, during and after perestroika, with some conservative values, such as hatred of revolution, return to “normal” (traditional) gender roles, to the “natural” order of life (that is, the free market), to the pre-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary high culture, etc. This was a conservative liberalism that mimicked Western neo-liberalism, but with an increased counter-revolutionary element, because it was aimed explicitly against the heritage of the 1917 revolution. Increasingly, the liberal element withered away, because of the hardships brought on by the economic reform, and because most intellectuals, who were ready to become a part of the international scene, were ignored by the international public sphere: Russia lost its interest as an interlocutor, the Soviet autarchic discourse was not relevant for global discussions, and its intellectuals had to emigrate in order to be heard. Therefore, during the 2000s, a shift in hegemony occurred, as most political leaders and the majority of rank-and-file intellectuals throughout the country became classic conservatives, now finally coming full circle and rejecting the heritage of 1989–1991 as such. These days, the leading media and many ordinary people view Gorbachev as a traitor, and they believe that the fall of Soviet Union was a U.S. conspiracy (even though there remain powerful liberal universities and think tanks, mostly in the two capitals). Both the internal achievements of perestroika (freedom of speech and of assembly, tolerance of subversive lifestyles, etc.), and the international ones (independence of former colonies, partnership with United States) are under attack. This is actually a blow to the legitimacy of Putin’s regime itself, as it is a direct heir of Yeltsin’s anti-Soviet Russia, and this ideological self-undermining may be one of the reasons that Putin feels a need to re-found his regime on something else.

Nothing can morally justify this attack of reactionary consciousness, but we can see that there were reasons why it emerged, and why the West bears some of the responsibility. First of all, Russian conservatism is counter-revolutionary conservatism, and it therefore returns to the West—which now cherishes revolutions—its own counter-revolutionary foundation, i.e., its fierce struggle against the post-revolutionary Soviet regime. It is easy to praise nice nationalist revolutions that bring nations into the hands of dominant empires, but it is harder to digest a historical ideological revolution like the Bolshevik one. The reactionary Russian stand is thus a symptom of the suppressed conservatism of the West and of the Western capitalism. Hence the appearance of the “nineteenth century”: please meet Russia that inhabits the world as it would have been without the 1917 revolution, if for instance the White Army would have won the Civil War. Wasn’t this what you in the West celebrated in 1991?

Another aspect of the global conservative consensus is the sanctity of post-war sovereign borders, which nevertheless is regularly violated “as an exception.” We largely live in a world of sovereign countries created by Yalta agreements and, in addition, by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the partition of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Alternately, Putin defends this status quo from the West, or the West defends this status quo from Putin. However, this post-war system is dated, while at the same time to simply abandon it and proclaim any independence movement legitimate, is a sure path to civil wars. What is needed, is a new security conference, and Russia, to give it credit, did propose one in the 2000s, but received no answer: the European Union obviously felt it didn’t need advice from Russia on its borders. In this case, it is hard to say who is more conservative. No one wants to abandon the post-1945 system, to democratize the UN, or to agree on a joint policy with regard to secession movements. What this leads to is a legally unprincipled policy with regard to sovereignty, on both sides: the latter is sacred only if this is in our interest. They know not what they do.

The situation does remind one, mutatis mutandis, of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s—the very situation that would end in the aforementioned Yalta. Then, too, the imperialist politics of France, Britain, and the United States were formulated morally (as a denunciation of German “aggression”), and in Germany, which started anew as a lively republican country but violently suppressed the radical Left, an ultra-conservative, nationalist authoritarian ideology came to predominate. Based on this ideology, Germany started gaining and regaining the ethnically German territories, initially without much violence. This all ended in a major world war, as we know. The blame lay in part with the European empires, which first alienated and humiliated Germany, and then admired its national democratic spirit and decided to befriend it, when it was already too late. In Russia, even though an ethnic blood-based nationalism is not a major factor, and a genocidal politics is highly unlikely, there is a bitter emotion of collective humiliation, leading to xenophobia and to the shameless appeals to national egoism. Similar to anti-communist German nationalism, in Russia, the conservative feeling stimulated by the media and shared by a large part of the population, is opposed to another large part that has just tried to organize a liberal-democratic revolution against the authoritarian government. The difference is that Russia is not nearly as economically strong as Germany in the 1930s, and that it cannot and does not want to expand beyond its “Eurasian” sphere of influence. On the other hand, Germany did not have nuclear weapons, and this gives Russia a large leverage for military blackmail, which is another argument that a serious collective discussion of the security system is needed before the actors get too emotional.

The similarity between the two cases lies also in the way that the moral reproach or indifference from outside was internalized by the actor. The Nazis committed moral atrocities because they felt alienated and thus justified in acting as criminals, in a sort of a collective hysteria (we’ll show you how bad we are). Besides, they openly and “honestly” did things that, they thought, were done by everybody under morally hypocritical pretexts. Some elements of behavior of the Russian politicians (open lying and myth-making, consciously raising the emotional grade of aggression in the society) point dangerously in the same direction. Even more so than with the Germans of the 1930s, today’s Russians cynically mimic what they think is a hypocritical behavior by the United States: the U.S. bombs Kosovo where there is a large-scale civil war on the ground; Russia occupies Crimea where there is no civil war on the ground, but it claims there can be one in principle. The United States supports an independence movement; Russia creates one out of a scratch. So, again, it is important to proactively elaborate a new international system, instead of returning to Yalta which still bears the traces of moralizing restoration after a victory over a maverick political hysteria. Yalta is an uncomfortable trace of the two world wars. What is needed would be a system that would accommodate both the legitimate governments and the grassroots social movements, the old, established Subjects, and the new, emerging subjects, and reasonably regulate the non-governmental international intervention—before everyone starts acting on reactive passions.

Artemy Magun is Professor of Democratic Theory at the European University at Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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