Tag Archives: Vladislav Surkov

The loneliness of the half-breed

Vladislav Surkov, long considered an important ideological figure within the ‘Putin regime’, has previously been described as a ‘relative Westernizer’ among Vladimir Putin’s advisors. But even he is apparently now fed up with the West. In an article published yesterday in Russia in Global Affairs, Surkov declares that Russia is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead it stands alone.

The events of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine) marked a turning point, Surkov argues,

the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples. From 2014 onwards, a new long era, the epoch of 14+, stretches into a future in which we will experience a hundred (two  hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical loneliness.

Surkov states that for the past 400 years, the Russian elite have tried to Westernize their country, following whatever trend seemed to be most in fashion in the rest of Europe, be it socialism a hundred years ago or the ideology of the free market in the 1990s. None of this has led the West to accept Russia as one of its own. The problem, says Surkov, is that

Despite the external similarities of the Russian and European cultural models, their softwares are incompatible and their connectors dissimilar. You can’t make a common system out of them.

That does not mean that Russia should turn east, Surkov says. Russia has done that in the past, during the era of the Mongol ‘yoke’. That left its mark on Russia, but in the end Russia moved on. Thus, Surkov writes:

Russia moved East for 400 years, and then moved West for another 400. Neither the one nor the other took root. We have gone down both paths. Now we need the ideology of a third path, a third type of civilization, a third world, a third Rome … And yet, we can hardly be called a third civilization. Rather, we are dual one, a mixture of both East and West. Both European and Asian at the same time, and thus neither completely Asian or European. Our cultural and geopolitical identity resembles that of somebody born of a mixed marriage. He’s a relative everywhere, but nowhere is he a native. He’s one of his own among strangers, but a stranger among his own. … Russia is a western-eastern half-breed country.

It’s time to recognize this reality, Surkov argues. This doesn’t mean total isolation. Russia will continue to trade, to exchange scientific knowledge, to participate in multilateral organizations, and the like. But it should do so ‘without denying its own self.’

Surkov’s article will no doubt get a negative reception among Western commentators, and be spun to argue that Russia is bent on confrontation with the West. After all, if you’re not with us, you must be against us. But it’s worth noting that Surkov at no point condemns the West nor argues that Russia should be trying to undermine Western hegemony. He simply argues that Russia and the West are doomed to go their separate ways. This is far removed from the ambitious Eurasianist designs of the likes of Alexander Dugin, who argue that Russia should lead a grand international coalition to overturn the existing international order. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Surkov avoids using the term ‘Eurasia’ to describe Russia and also directly denies that Russia is a ‘third civilization’, thus failing to endorse a key Eurasianist concept.

Rather than Eurasianism, with its often expansionist, anti-Western ambitions, Surkov’s view of Russia’s place in the world seems closer to that of the late Vadim Tsymbursky and his idea of ‘Island Russia’ into which Russia should retreat. That is keeping with the editorial line of Russia in Global Affairs, which in recent times has published a number of Tsymbursky-inspired pieces, such as articles by Boris Mezhuev on the idea of ‘civilizational realism’ and an essay by Nikolai Spassky, entitled ‘Island of Russia’.  These bear witness to a growing isolationist trend in Russian geopolitical thought. ‘Isolationist’ isn’t actually a very good word, because as Surkov points out, separation from the West doesn’t mean that Russia won’t still be connected with the wider world. Perhaps the word he chooses to use – ‘loneliness’ (odinochestvo) – might be better. But whatever word one uses, the point is the same. If Surkov’s article, and others in Russia in Global Affairs, are anything to go by, Russia’s elite aren’t looking for a conflict with the West, but are increasingly convinced that partnership is impossible and that Russia will have to learn to live on its own. People in the West should not find that threatening, but personally I do find it more than a little bit regrettable.

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The limits of Kremlinology

As I struggle to complete an article about Russia’s objectives in Ukraine, one of the problems I confront is that we have only a slight understanding of how decisions are made in the Kremlin. British academic Richard Sakwa comments that Russia has a dual power structure: on the one hand, there are the formal institutions of the state; and on the other hand, there are the informal contacts and mechanisms through which many decisions are actually made. To a certain extent, this is true of all states, but the division between the two structures is probably wider in Russia than in most Western countries, and because the informal system is hidden from sight we have only the faintest idea what is going on.

To make up for this deficiency of knowledge, analysts resort to a modern form of Cold War style ‘Kremlinology’ – that is to say, they draw sweeping conclusions from little facts which they think reveal something about the goings on behind the scenes.

Last week, for instance, police raided the apartment of Egor Prosvirnin, editor of the nationalist Russian website Sputnik i Pogrom. As Anatoly Karlin explains, Prosvirin has been a fervent supporter of the rebellion in Donbass. He is also vehemently ‘anti-Putin’ and has repeatedly claimed that Putin is preparing to betray the rebels. The raid on his apartment can thus be seen as proof that the Kremlin is clamping down on the rebellion’s supporters within Russia. This in turn can be interpreted as showing that Prosvirnin is correct – that the Russian government is distancing itself from the rebels and preparing to abandon them. As Karlin says,

If that is indeed the plan, to decisively close up the Novorossiya project, try to make amends with the junta, and hope they and the Western ‘partners’ forget and forgive Crimea, this is pretty much what I’d be doing in Putin’s place: Harassing and seizing the computers of Novorossiya supporters, using that to build criminal cases against them, discrediting them in the media, and sending them off to prison.

But then again, Karlin admits, the ‘likeliest scenario is that both Prosvirnin and I are overanalyzing things, that the case against Egor is just what it says on the tin (alleged hate speech in one of SiP’s articles), and that nothing particularly radical is happening.’ In other words, the event doesn’t actually tell us anything about the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine at all.

Here we confront an immediate problem with Kremlinology – it rests on the assumption that the Kremlin is behind everything which happens, and that even small events thus contain hidden truths about state policy. But this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes an investigation into hate speech is just an investigation into hate speech – nothing more.

Another problem with Kremlinology is revealed by a different case which caused some excitement a couple of weeks ago: the dismissal of the speaker of the parliament of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Andrei Purgin, and his replacement by Denis Pushilin. Some Russian nationalists view Pushilin as the stooge of important Kremlin functionary Vladislav Surkov, who supposedly leads the ‘doves’ within the Russian government. For instance, former rebel commander Igor Strelkov claims that ‘Pushilin fulfills all Surkov’s instructions’, while Surkov himself is allegedly doing all he can to stab the rebellion in the back and betray it to the Ukrainian government. For Strelkov, Purgin’s ouster is proof that the Russian government is preparing to sell the DPR down the river.

New York University’s Mark Galeotti has a different explanation. He links the event to a shifting power balance in the Kremlin between Surkov and Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin. According to Galeotti, the Purgin story:

may also thus signal not just a change in policy but also another swing of the pendulum as authority for the ‘Donbas adventure’ is exchanged between the more straightforward and bullish Volodin and the more subtle, if sometimes too smart for his own good Surkov. … I suspect we are seeing another step towards the ‘Transniestrianisation’ of the Donbas.

Here we see the second problem with Kremlinology: the facts being analyzed are so scanty that the same event can be interpreted in entirely different ways – in this case, either as evidence that the Kremlin is preparing to surrender the rebels to the Ukrainian government, or as evidence that the Kremlin is preparing for ‘Transniestrianisation’, which is a very different outcome. And neither may be right. The Purgin-Pushilin story may just be another example of the apparently interminable power struggles within the Ukrainian rebellion, and have nothing to do with Moscow at all.

Kremlinology is like reading tea leaves. Its value as an analytical tool is very limited. But, given the lack of transparency in Russian government, we are probably stuck with it. We wish to understand events, and so clutch at whatever fragments of information we happen to find which might help us to do so. I don’t propose that we abandon Kremlinology entirely. But analysts (including myself) need to be rather less categorical than they often are, and should be clearer in separating fact and opinion in their analyses, while also highlighting just how speculative the opinions actually are. The reality is that we don’t actually know what is going on.