Friday, June 9, 2023

opinion | Putin Driving Grand Theory to War

President Vladimir Putin’s bloody attack on Ukraine in almost a month, still seems inexplicable. The rockets raining down on apartment buildings and families are now Russia’s face in front of the world. What could prompt Russia to take such a deadly step, effectively electing to become a pariah state?

Attempts to understand aggression fall into two broad schools of thought. The first focuses on Mr. Putin himself – his state of mind, his understanding of history or his KGB past. The second calls for developments outside Russia, primarily NATO’s eastward expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the underlying source of the conflict.

But to understand the war in Ukraine, we have to go beyond the political projects of Western leaders and the psyche of Mr. Putin. The fervor and content of Mr. Putin’s announcements are not new or unique to him. Since the 1990s, plans have been underway in Russia to reunite Ukraine and other post-Soviet states into a transcontinental superpower. A revived doctrine of the Eurasian Empire informs Mr. Putin’s every move.

The end of the Soviet Union distraught Russia’s elite, stripping them of their special status in a vast communist empire. What was to be done? For some, the answer was just to make money, the capitalist way. In the wild years after 1991, many were able to amass enormous wealth combined with a liberal regime. But for others who set their goals under Soviet conditions, money and a vibrant consumer economy were not enough. The post-imperialist ego keenly felt the loss of Russia’s status and importance.

As communism lost its enthusiasm, the intelligentsia discovered a different principle on which to organize the Russian state. His explorations took shape briefly in the formation of political parties, including radical nationalist, anti-Semitic movements, and with more lasting influence in the revival of religion as the foundation of collective life. But as the state dominated democratic politics in the 1990s, new interpretations of the essence of Russia took hold, bringing solace and hope to those who sought to regain their country’s prestige in the world.

One of the most fascinating concepts was Eurasianism. Since the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, the idea presented Russia as a Eurasian polity, formed by a deep history of cultural exchange between Turks, Slavs, Mongols, and peoples of other Asian descent. In 1920, linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy – one of several Russian diaspora intellectuals who developed the concept – published “Europe and Humanity”, a scathing critique of Western colonialism and Eurocentrism. He called on the Russian intelligentsia to free themselves from their fixation on Europe and build on the “Legacy of Chinggis Khan” to create a Russo-Eurasian state spanning a great continent.

Trubetzkoy’s Eurasianism was, without communism, a recipe for imperialist recovery—a harmful Western import in his view. Instead, Trubetzkoy emphasized the ability of a revived Russian Orthodoxy to provide unity in Eurasia, with solitary care for believers in the many other religions practiced in this vast region.

Suppressed for decades in the Soviet Union, Eurasianism survived underground and burst into public awareness during the Perestroika period in the late 1980s. Lev Gumilyov, a prodigious geographer who spent 13 years in Soviet prisons and forced-labor camps, emerged as an acclaimed master of the Eurasian revival in the 1980s. Mr Gumilyov emphasized ethnic diversity as a driver of global history. According to his concept of “ethnogenesis”, an ethnic group, under the influence of a charismatic leader, could evolve into a “super-ethnos”—a power spread over a vast geographical area that would clash with other expanding ethnic units.

Mr. Gumilyov’s theories attracted many who went through the chaotic 1990s. But Eurasianism was injected directly into the bloodstream of Russian power in a version developed by the self-styled philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. After an unsuccessful intervention in post-Soviet party politics, Mr. Dugin focused on developing his influence where it counted – with the military and policymakers. With the publication of his 600-page textbook in 1997, titled “The Foundation of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia”, Eurasianism moved to the center of the political imagination of strategists.

In adjusting Mr. Dugin’s Eurasianism to current conditions, Russia had a new opponent – not only Europe, but the entire “Atlantic” world led by the United States. And his Eurasianism was not anti-imperialist, but rather the opposite: Russia had always been an empire, the Russian people were the “imperial people”, and after the crippling 1990s sell-off to the “eternal enemy”, Russia was in the throes of global war. Could be revived in the next phase. And become a “world empire”. On the civilizational front, Mr. Dugin highlighted the long-standing relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Empire. Orthodoxy’s fight against Western Christianity and Western collapse can be used for the coming geopolitical war.

Eurasian geopolitics, Russian orthodoxy and traditional values ​​– these goals shaped the self-image of Russia under Mr. Putin. Themes of royal glory and Western oppression were publicized throughout the country; In 2017, he was drummed at home at the monumental exhibition “Russia, My History”. The expo’s captivating exhibits showcased Mr. Gumilyov’s Eurasian philosophy, the sacrificial martyrdom of the Romanov family, and the evils the West inflicted on Russia.

Where was Ukraine’s place in this imperial revival? As a hindrance, from the very beginning. Trubetzkoy argued in his 1927 article “On the Ukrainian Problem” that Ukrainian culture was “the individualization of pan-Russian culture” and that Ukrainians and Belarusians should bond with Russians around the organizing principle of their shared Orthodox faith. Mr Dugin made things more direct in his 1997 text: Ukrainian sovereignty presented “a great threat to the whole of Eurasia”. Full military and political control over the entire northern coast of the Black Sea was an “absolute imperative” of Russian geopolitics. Ukraine was to become “a purely administrative region of the Russian centralized state”.

Mr. Putin has taken that message to heart. In 2013, he declared that Eurasia was a major geopolitical region where Russia’s “genetic code” and many of its people would be defended against “extreme Western-style liberalism”. In July last year he declared that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people,” and in his fiery rant on the eve of the invasion, he described Ukraine as “a colony with a puppet regime” where the Orthodox Church attacks. and NATO prepares to attack Russia.

This brew of approach—complaints about Western aggression, the elevation of traditional values ​​over the collapse of individual rights, Russia’s assertion of a duty to unite Eurasia and subordinate Ukraine—developed in the cauldron of post-imperialist outrage. Now they influence Mr. Putin’s worldview and inspire his brutal war.

The goal, clearly, is the Empire. And the line will not be drawn in Ukraine.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
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