What Putin really really wants

Political commentators regularly line up to tell us ‘What Putin wants’ (see for instance this, this, and this). In the early years of Putin’s rule, analysts tended to the view that Putin was non-ideological, and that he was above all a pragmatist, perhaps even an opportunist. More recently, though, there has been a tendency to regard the Russian president as having become more conservative in his outlook. Yet, despite this, there have been very few serious efforts to attempt to understand his beliefs. For the most part, ‘What Putin wants’ is assumed to be self-evident, based on the particular commentator’s own attitude (normally very negative) towards the actions in question. Little genuine research is done to back up the assertions. In particular, the conservative ideas dominating much of contemporary Russian discourse remain understudied, as do their historical and philosophical roots. ‘As a result,’ I wrote in an article a few years ago, ‘Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia’s conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.’

A new book by veteran historian Walter Laqueur, entitled Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, constitutes a rare effort to come to grips with the subject. Drawing on a solid knowledge of Russian intellectual history, Laqueur attempts to analyze the ideology guiding the current leadership of the Russian Federation, and thereby to answer the question ‘What is Putinism?’

Laqueur’s answer is that it isn’t fascism, but it is something close to it – a paranoid, nationalist, far right doctrine, made up of six components: ‘religion (the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, Russia’s holy mission, the third Rome, and the New Jerusalem), patriotism/nationalism (with occasional leanings towards chauvinism), geopolitics Russian style, Eurasianism, the besieged-fortress feeling, and zapadophobia (fear of the West).’ Underlying the contemporary search for Russian identity, Laqueur says, is a ‘conviction that Russia is not Europe and that there is a giant conspiracy to destroy Russia. Accompanying it is another set of beliefs that whatever went wrong in Russia is the fault of foreigners.’ Laqueur concludes that ‘Among the Russian weaknesses is the fatal belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories and strange ideas, such as neo-Eurasianism, neogeopolitics, confabulation, and zapadophobia, accompanied by an enduring persecution mania and the exaggerated belief in a historical mission.’ In these circumstances, a ‘retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems … unlikely.’

To reach this conclusion, Laqueur embarks upon a potted history of Russian politics, and then upon a rather rambling examination of various other subjects including conservative and far right philosophy, demography, post-Soviet attitudes towards Stalin, and Russian foreign policy. The effect is somewhat incoherent, as the text leaps backwards and forwards in time and space and from topic to topic. But an overall theme does emerge, namely that a lot of Russians believe in a lot of really crackpot ideas.

In some respects, I agree with this. I share, for instance, Laqueur’s negative appraisal of Eurasianism. The reactionary pronouncements of some high-ranking members of the Russian Orthodox Church are also fair game. And Laqueur’s observation that Russian political culture has a paranoid streak is accurate. There are, however, some weaknesses in his thesis. In the first place, he doesn’t do a very good job of showing that the loopy rantings of far-right philosophers and historians really have an impact on how Russia’s rulers think, let alone prove that they have any impact on their behaviour. He says, for instance, that the Russian government’s current alleged support for Eurasianism (which I think in any case is much exaggerated) ‘has to do in part with their aversion toward Europe, which (they feel) rejected it, but it is also a reflection of the immense popularity of the ideas of Lev Gumilev’. But are the ideas of Lev Gumilev really ‘immensely popular’? I can’t say that I see any strong evidence for that assertion. Laqueur then goes on to say: ‘Putin and his colleagues believe that the long search for a new doctrine has ended and that in [Ivan] Ilyin they have found the prophet to present their much-needed new ideology’. But is that really so? I have suggested elsewhere that Putin is fond of Ilyin, but it is not clear how many others share his preference, and in any case Ilyin could hardly be said to be the sole source of the modern ‘Russian idea’, even if it could be shown that such a thing exists. It also makes little sense on the one hand to claim that modern Russia is Eurasianist in orientation and on the other hand to say that Ilyin is the country’s prophet, given that Ilyin most definitely was not a supporter of Eurasianism.

Laqueur does not appear to like the conservative trend in Russian thinking, and as a result emphasizes its negative side to the detriment of anything positive which might be found in it. One can see this in his treatment of Ilyin, which concentrates almost entirely on the favourable things the philosopher had to say about fascism. But there is more to Ilyin than that. Similarly, while it is true that contemporary Russian politics contains more than its fair share of crazy talk, not all Russian conservatives are loony conspiracy theorists. As Paul Grenier showed in a recent article, ‘anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism. But it is only one part.’  Russian conservatism, Grenier notes, is very varied, and its adherents contain many intelligent, creative, and in some instances even quite liberal people. It deserves a deeper and if not sympathetic, at least more empathetic, analysis than Laqueur is willing to give it.

Grenier comments that, ‘If we wish to understand Russia in something like its true complexity, we have to take the trouble to listen to it, to let it speak in its own voice instead of constantly projecting onto it all our own worst fears.’ Laqueur’s Putinism doesn’t do this. My worry is that rather than deepening its readers’ understanding of Russia, this book will serve only to convince them that Russians really are a bunch of crazies with whom no civilized conversation is possible.

In defence of whataboutism

A frequent complaint about ‘Russian propaganda’ is that it engages in ‘whataboutism’: the response to complaints about the behaviour of the Russian government or about some social, economic, or political ill in Russia is ‘what about the bad behaviour of the West?’

The anger which whataboutism provokes in some Western commentators suggests that it hits a raw nerve, possibly because it bursts their bubble of moral superiority. This week, in his blog Russia Without BS, Jim Kovpak describes the finger pointing involved in whataboutism as ‘one of the most irritating memes, for lack of a better word, that one encounters in discourse on Russia.’ This retaliatory finger pointing, Kovpak writes, is an example of ‘“fractal wrongness”, i.e. wrong on every conceivable level’. Furthermore, he says, ‘The culprit is almost always someone wholly ignorant about Russia and commenting on some news story, or it is a pro-Russian expat who attributes their privileged lifestyle to Putin.’ ‘If you have a problem with a claim in some article,’ he concludes, ‘put up or shut up. Make a damned argument and while you’re at it, bring some evidence.’

Kovpak’s view, and I suspect this is an opinion held by many others, is that only one side may legitimately ask ‘what about?’ The West can point fingers at Russia, because it is objectively better, but Russia has no right to point fingers at the West, because Russia is objectively worse than the West. The comparisons Russian whataboutists make are therefore invalid.

However, even if Kovpak is right that the West is objectively better than Russia, it still seems to me to be completely valid to point out hypocrisy where hypocrisy exists. For instance, when people like Michael Weiss of The Interpreter Magazine denounce the Russian media for their bias, it is surely entirely fair to comment, as I have, that Weiss and The Interpreter are hardly bastions of balanced reporting themselves.

In addition, Russia isn’t always and in every way worse than the West. Don’t get me wrong here. Quite obviously, Russia is not a properly functioning liberal democracy. It has a serious problem with corruption, and its foreign policy does not always respect international law. Often, when Russians point fingers at Western countries, and argue that things are as bad if not worse over there, they are wrong. But sometimes they are right.

When, for instance, people respond to complaints about ‘Russian aggression’ by pointing at American and NATO aggression elsewhere, they are making a fair point. Western commentators often claim that Russia is a ‘revisionist’ power; that in Ukraine it is trying to tear up the existing international order. Whataboutism allows us to see what a ridiculous claim this is, since the people making it are citizens of states which have done more to undermine that order than anybody else, through actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the bombing campaign against Libya.

In a recent episode of RT’s Crosstalk show (yes, I know, RT, lackey of the Kremlin, propaganda, lies, blah, blah, blah), Dmitry Babich commented that the real problem in international politics was not whataboutism but ‘let’s move on-ism’. I like this. Take the example of the torture carried out by Americans during the War in Terror. Nobody apart from whistleblowers has been jailed. Why? According to President Obama, because ‘we need to look forward, not back’. Likewise, consider the invasion of Iraq. ‘I know a large part of the public wants to move on’, said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, ‘I share that point of view.’ And so on. Nobody is ever held to account.

In these circumstances, it is a good thing that somebody somewhere is willing to do a bit of finger pointing. Instead of rejecting criticism, we in the West should start taking it a little more seriously.

Deny, deny, deny

One thing which struck me during the ‘tele-bridge’ which I described in my last post was the refusal of all concerned to take responsibility for their own actions – everything which went wrong was always the fault of the other party. Another example of this attitude appeared in Monday’s Kyiv Post – an article blaming separatist forces for the shelling of downtown Donetsk on 18 July. According to the Kyiv Post:

At a briefing on July 19, Major General Andriy Taran, the head of the Ukrainian side of the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC), said separatist forces had driven out of the city to fire upon the center of it before returning and firing on Ukrainian positions as if in retaliation. The shelling was done specifically to be able to accuse Ukrainian forces of breaking the ceasefire and firing on civilians, Taran said.

Similar claims have been made many times before. For instance, Colonel Andrei Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, has declared that, ‘We have a strict order, the president’s demand [not to fire on residential areas]. The Ukrainian military has repeatedly stated that the militants fire into residential areas in cities near where the government forces are located in order to discredit us.’

This is, of course, nonsense. Ukrainian artillery has hit residential areas of Donetsk, Lugansk, and other towns time and time again. Large numbers of people have died as a result. The Ukrainian government’s refusal to accept responsibility for this is a serious moral failing on its part.

Rebel forces have had less need to engage in such denial, because for most of the war they have had less artillery at their disposal and have been defending urban areas rather than attacking them. Firing out of a city tends to be less damaging than firing into it. But when they have killed civilians, the rebels have been equally unwilling to admit it. An example was the shelling of a bus in Volnovakha on 13 January 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people. Given that the bus was well behind Ukrainian lines, rebel artillery was almost certainly responsible, but rebel leaders have never admitted this. Nor has anybody ever confessed to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 in July 2014.

The inclination to avoid responsibility is widespread and understandable. What is perhaps surprising is the willingness of outsiders to let people get away with it. Neither Russia nor the West have shown any notable inclination to force their proxies to be more honest. Rather they seem to encourage the tendency to claim that others are at fault. It seems that the desire to maintain an ally’s image outweighs the desire for the truth.

Tele-bridge

On Friday I participated in a ‘Tele-bridge’ which was broadcast by the online Ukrainian TV station, Channel 17. The idea was to promote dialogue between the warring parties in Ukraine by bringing together via Skype representatives of both sides along with outside commentators who could provide an alternative perspective. The ‘Tele-bridge’ participants included military personnel and civilians in Kiev (including a member of the Right Sector organization), representatives of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, a journalist from Minsk (Aleksandr Feduta), and from Ottawa, the former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bissett, Halyna Mokrushyna who is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, and me.

Details of the Tele-bridge can be found on the website of Channel 17 here. An abridged version containing only those parts in which the Canadian contingent participated is online here. I apologise for at one point continuing talking when the interviewer was trying to let somebody else have a word – the sound link with Kiev was poor, and I couldn’t hear what was being said.

During the broadcast, I made the following points:

Continue reading Tele-bridge