Putin’s War Shrinks and Expands
By David K. Shipler
Russia’s war in Ukraine might be one of the strangest in history. Even while his army is being pummeled into retreat, President Vladimir Putin expands the goals of the conflict into a messianic campaign against the entire West. As his military holdings shrink on the ground, his strategic ambitions spread into a miasma of self-delusion. It is a dark comedy with monstrous effect.
Not only does Russia aim to retake the Ukrainian part of the lost Soviet empire, according to Putin. Not only must Russia parry American military threats to preserve its very existence, he claims. But also, more deeply, Russia must fulfill its mission, borne of its thousand-year history, to lead toward a multipolar world: to defeat the arrogant West’s “faltering hegemony”; its “neo-colonial system”; its “enslavement” of the less wealthy; its “pure Satanism,” its “radical denial of moral, religious, and family values.”
That is a tall order for a country with a limping economy, few international friends, and an army that looked formidable until the first shot was fired. It also suggests a war in search of an ideology — or at least a rationale trying for resonance in both Russia and developing countries that feel exploited.
In a way, it seems a lame throwback to the communist era of Russian evangelism for worldwide social justice. But it also reveals something more significant.
Putin seems to fancy himself a brilliant global analyst. He has been holding forth in various writings and several long speeches, most notably on September 30 in annexing Ukrainian territory that his troops didn’t entirely hold, and then on October 27 in a three-hour session at the Valdai International Discussion Club — an annual gathering of fawning Russian and foreign guests who lob softball questions after he pontificates at length.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this disconnect between solid ground and atmospherics. First, Putin is not stupid and he is not unaware. He is Donald Trump with a sheen of sophistication. He is a cunning wordsmith who weaves lies and truths together into webs of alternative reality.
Second, he is a chess player with the long view, cognizant of historical trends and able to think several moves ahead. But he does not play well when he is emotional; emotion is not helpful in the logic of chess. And despite his steely pose, Putin reveals his emotions with a mystical reverence for Russian destiny. It has thrown him off his game.
And that leads to the third conclusion, perhaps the most important. Whether in sincerity or opportunism, Putin is tapping into a strain of ethno-nationalism that has endured through upheavals of state rule from czarist monarchy to Soviet communism to transitory pluralism to post-communist autocracy.
Call it Russianism, the label I settled on when I first encountered the phenomenon under Soviet rule in the late 1970s. A liberal writer saw it as the country’s only mass movement, and the most dangerous.
It was a form of quiet dissent then, its adherents sometimes imprisoned by Soviet authorities but most often tolerated as they circulated their underground samizdat — self-published essays — condemning Marxism and the Bolsheviks, the country’s non-Russian influences, and the restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church. They regarded Russians, the dominant ethnicity among a very diverse population, as the most pure and enlightened and entitled, carrying the nostalgic honesty and simplicity of rural peasantry.
Unlike the pro-democracy movement of Andrei Sakharov, however, Russianism’s ethnic nationalism embraced autocracy. As its main apostle, the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, prisoner and then chronicler of the Stalinist prison camps, thundered in a 1973 letter to Soviet leaders: “Russia is authoritarian. Let it remain so.” Then, with the publication abroad of The Gulag Archipelago, he was exiled to the United States.
He was quoted approvingly two weeks ago by none other than Putin, who cited Solzhenitsyn’s sneering denunciation, delivered at Harvard’s 1978 commencement, of the West’s “persisting blindness of superiority, [which] upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day Western systems.”
Solzhenitsyn also infused the Russianists’ anti-communism with ethnic-cultural resentment, describing Marxism as a “dark, un-Russian whirlwind that descended on us from the West.” His disciples in Moscow wrote acerbically of the Jewish and non-Russian genealogies of Trotsky and some other Bolsheviks in the original Politburo, including Lenin’s Kalmyk father and his German (perhaps Jewish) mother.
If you diagramed those Russianist sympathies, they would not have formed limited circles like the Sakharov movement for democracy or the Jewish push for free emigration. Instead, Russianism would have made a vertical line reaching from outcasts vulnerable to arrest, up into the Soviet hierarchy, which tolerated some well-placed figures who shared the views.
Indeed, since Putin was a KGB agent and Communist Party member in those Soviet days, it is worth noting that Communist officialdom and Russianism overlapped in key areas of belief: in authoritarianism and political unanimity, in chauvinistic insularity, and in social conservatism averse to Western permissiveness. Soviet Communists outlawed homosexuality, for example, as Putin’s government does today. Here is what Putin said at the September 30 ceremony annexing parts of Ukraine:
“Do we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, ‘parent number one, parent number two and parent number three’ (they have completely lost it!) instead of mother and father? Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children? This is all unacceptable to us. We have a different future of our own.”
Sound familiar? Putin could win a Florida election in a landslide. Indeed, he speaks of “two Wests,” one “of traditional, primarily Christian values, freedom, patriotism, great culture and now Islamic values as well — a substantial part of the population in many Western countries follows Islam. This West is close to us in something. We share with it common, even ancient roots. But there is also a different West — aggressive, cosmopolitan, and neocolonial. It is acting as a tool of neoliberal elites. Naturally, Russia will never reconcile itself to the dictates of this West.” The word “cosmopolitan” has often been used as code for Jewish.
Since Putin sees such affinities, it’s no big leap to think that he has been influenced by his supporting ideologue, the historian Aleksandr Dugin, who has urged that Russia “destabilize internal political processes in the U.S.” Hence, the fake social media sites created by Russian operatives posing as Americans to exacerbate divisions.
What is the impact of Putin’s Russianism internally? Does it resonate enough among his citizens, and especially in Moscow’s elite, to shape long-term policy toward the West? It’s hard to assess amid the clampdown on Russians’ ability to speak their minds. Will it counter the growing disaffection with the reverses on the battlefield, the doubts about the war’s purpose, the fear of being drafted that has propelled an estimated 200,000 men to flee abroad? Will Putin’s call for vitriolic chauvinism keep his country’s will intact? Will it keep him in power? And if he is deposed, what then?
Whatever the answers to the immediate questions, Russianism coincides with a longer global retreat into ethno-nationalism, seen in Italy and Israel, Hungary and France, and in right-wing streams of American politics. These trends have momentum, not easily reversible.
The fundamentals of Russianism have proved durable enough to outlive Putin, as they have his predecessors. That suggests a post-Putin Russia as still testy, wounded, and confrontational, with a hawkish posture toward the U.S. and its democratic allies — a dangerous scenario.