Unfortunately, tensions between Russia and the West have risen again in the wake of the horrible attack on the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. On both sides, war rhetoric has been stepped up dramatically. As the contrast between the Russian and Western political goals and world-views seems to be growing ever larger, it is becoming clear that the problems go deeper than day-to-day events, politics, and diplomacy (the things we hear about in the news), but on the contrary follow from the two sides' fundamental misunderstanding of each other. This is a good opportunity to take a closer look at the nature of the Russian nation, the mentality of its people, and its ultimate goals. Fostering understanding between the two cultures is probably the only remaining solution that can defuse the current tension and avoid more dramatic developments, as it seems clear that mere diplomacy is no longer working.
The mirage of Russian power
First of all, Russia is believed to be a resurgent world power, striving to reassert itself in the most unscrupulous manner. Indeed, it is on this assumption that the whole policy and intended policies of the Western countries rest. However, on closer inspection the clear irony of the situation appears to be that the West has attached too much importance to Russia's new realpolitik, its posturing on the world stage, and is believing the same propaganda that the Russian population is fed. Russia's elaborate international maneuvers are in fact meant to conceal its accelerating decline as a world power from the other major international actors, and the downing of the Malaysian airliner brought this harsh reality into the open for the first time. Now it is clear that president Putin has no real options and is quite isolated in the world, and that his Ukrainian policy was part and parcel of this posturing as a world power. As long as the conflict was fought out in terms of soft power, Russia could keep up with the West, but now that stark options are on the table, the country faces degradation to second-rank power status. Contrary to what Western observers tend to believe (or tell the public), Russia is simply not capable of large-scale military aggression. Comparisons with the machinations of Nazi Germany in the Sudetenland abound, but these comparisons do not testify to much historical insight. Nazi Germany in 1939 had a larger economy than either the United Kingdom or France, and had secured the alliance or neutrality of two other powers. The Russian economy, on the contrary, is only one fifth the size of that of the EU or the USA, and Russia is isolated on the international scene when it comes to the Ukrainian crisis. Russian propagandists like to believe that the BRIC countries are somehow on their side, but the truth is they are simply indifferent. The fact that they identify themselves as “non-Western” doesn't in the least mean that they will behave more brotherly towards Russia, but only that they will stand with Russia when it is in their clear interest to do so. There is much talk about the energy weapon of Russia; this indeed makes European sanctions against Russia more difficult, but the Russians can never use gas as a weapon like the Saudis did in 1973, because for Russia energy is a double-edged sword. If they stop export, the Russian economy will suffer a lot more than various European markets. And last but not least, capital flight and immigration to the West -which already began long before the current crisis- are assuming dramatic proportions.
When it comes to military strength, experts have already known for a long time that Russian power cannot rest on its army, which is in chronic need of improved materiel for which funds are simply lacking; the bombast with which the Russian government regularly announces the introduction of new weaponry should not fool us – however much Russia may ramp up its armaments budget in the following months. Meanwhile, unperceived by Westerners, Russia is, in terms of “soft power” as well as “hard power”, receding in its “near abroad”, especially central Asia, where China is gradually asserting itself. Russia as a country is already over-extended, and simply cannot afford a new military excursion, certainly when it is beginning to fear for the future of its Far Eastern territories. Russia already incurred relatively high costs with small military operations like the troop movements along the Ukrainian border. A full-fledged invasion of either Ukraine or other Eastern European countries -the prophecy of many Western observers- is almost totally excluded, certainly since Russia knows that only hard power can achieve such a result. If Russia makes use of military power now, this will mean the end for Russia – or at least for the current regime. The best Putin can hope for now is that the crisis will simmer down without the West applying sanctions or forcing Russia to give up on the Ukrainian rebels and face the resulting humiliation. As we already saw, Putin's pragmatic policies are mainly meant to conceal national decline through a smokescreen of Russian international attachments, which in reality may not mean very much; and when confronted with a West that slams its fist on the table, Russia will appear as it is, relatively weak, clearly declining, and isolated. Everybody within Russian government elite knows this, and if common sense prevails, they will act accordingly.
The book to read for those interested in the decline of Russia is Implosion: The End of Russia and what it means for America by Ilan Berman. Although written from a neoconservative point of view, Berman effectively deconstructs the myth that Russia under Putin is a reemerging superpower, and convincingly argues that Russia will face near collapse in the coming decades, due to several circumstances, of which demographic decline (and the growth of the Muslim population) is of course the most important. Also, it points to the demoralization of Russian society, in contrast to the impression that the Russian government and Orthodox church want to convey -and which European reactionaries take at its face value- of Christian Russia as a bulwark against a relativist and decadent West. David P. Goldman reviewed the book, criticizing it for its overly pessimist view of the Russian future, and countering the book's main argument with the observation that the Russian birth rate has risen again. But is this due to an increase in the ethnically Russian birth rate, or in that of its ethnic minorities?
But then of course the question arises: what are the motives of Russia in fomenting rebellion in Eastern Ukraine? What possible motives could there be, except a mad expansionism? We do not understand Russian motives partly because we do not understand its predicament, and partly because, after the fall of the USSR, many Westerners never learned to live with the idea of a self-assertive Russian nation, that stands up for its own interests – and announced the return of Soviet totalitarianism from the very moment Russia tried secure its rights as a nation.
The Russian infiltration of the Eastern Ukraine (and its invasion of the Crimea) has everything to do with its weakness and decline. After the fall of the Soviet Union, about twenty million Russians were left stranded in the ex-republics. Clearly, this was an intolerable situation for every self-respecting country, and especially one that is in demographic decline. And here Western analysis is too shallow, because it sees Russia's expansionism exclusively in territorial terms; and from such an appraisal it automatically follows that Westerners believe that Russia wants to restore the Empire of Evil. But what it really wants is actually very understandable in itself: to recuperate the ethnic Russians living in the near abroad. You only have too look to the experience of the Northern Caucasus to understand that Russia can hardly strive to reestablish control over non-Russians; this would simply wreck the social fabric, the economy, and impede every attempt to build a real nation state on the European model. Throughout the past twenty years, the tacit agreement between Russia and the West (embodied in NATO and the EU) was that Russia would refrain from attempts to reincorporate ethnic Russians, while the West would refrain from expansion of NATO and the EU. In a fit of wild enthusiasm, the Eurocrats in Brussels violated the agreement, and Putin understandably saw no reason to abide by it any longer; if the EU is bent on expansion of its sphere of influence in a country that is partly populated by ethnic Russians, Russia should do everything to prevent this implicit attack on its own status as a great power, was the reasoning.
The second cause of Western misunderstanding of Russia is -especially in American neoconservative circles- the inability to accept that, after the fall of the USSR, there would still be a sovereign Russian nation with a fairly large population and military power. The Russian accusation that the West wanted to keep Russia weak and effectively did so in the nineties is perhaps unfair, but it is certainly true that the West felt a lot more comfortable with an unassertive Russia, and that Russia's reemergence as a real force to be reckoned with was not a welcome development in Brussels and Washington. It may be true that Russia has moved toward authoritarianism, but would the West have looked favorably on a more powerful but democratic Russia? I doubt it, because great and established powers will always view the rise of newcomers with dismay. Of course this judgment has to mitigated with the observation that an anti-Western mentality has remained ingrained in the Russian mind, with an occasionally (and now increasingly) anti-Western foreign policy as a result. To this point I will come back later.
A fratricidal war?
Analysts have a whole set of historical analogies to choose from to describe the current Ukrainian crisis. Besides Sudetenland, the crash of MH17 has drawn comparison with the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Again, there is much to find fault with in such a comparison, arising from the urge of pseudo-intellectuals to play the historian. However, there may be an unintended, deeper truth in the analogy. To be sure, no world war can erupt between Russia and the West, because Russia would be exhausted in no time, and such an event could never have quite the significance of the First World War in history. But what is remarkable is that today both sides, Russia and the West -indeed, the Northern Christian countries together- find themselves in a similar situation as in WWI. As we know, this was a war in which the moral and economic health of Europe was brutally sacrificed to the interests of the European elites; and while young men were dying in their millions for what later clearly appeared to be a quite meaningless end, Europe went through an unnoticed revolution – unseen because the peoples of Europe were pursuing false causes, their barbaric passions flamed by government propaganda. This evolution was the dramatic increase of state power over citizens' lives, and the erosion of traditional conceptions of individual liberty. Today, the Christian North is going through another unseen revolution -or perhaps two revolutions, in the case of Western Europe- while the leaders of both Russia and the West are fanning the flames of conflict. The most obvious revolution Russia as well as the West are experiencing, is the growth of the Islamic population, and in both countries almost nothing is being done about it. In Western Europe -just like a hundred years ago- the state is further expanding, and will cripple our in economies faster than we realize. More generally perhaps, the concealed revolution is the peril of the encroachment of the non-West on both Western and Orthodox culture. There is a good chance that if it comes to a conflict between Russian and (parts of) the West, the Christian North will only realize far too late which situation they are in. But unlike the growth of the state in the inter-war period, the takeover of the Christian North by Third World cultures will definitely mean the end of the world as we know it.
The nature of Russian culture
A word on Russian culture is perhaps needed here. The confrontation between Russia and the West is often portrayed as the clash between East and West; and since the rise of Russia as a European power, the country has always been considered the representative of “Asian-ism.” Historical analysis, however, has revealed this supposed Asiatic identity of Russia to be largely an invention that emerged in the nineteenth century with such thinkers as Leontiev and Danilevsky. Russian culture is certainly not Western, but neither is it Asiatic – it is Byzantine. The historical episode that has captured the imagination of the “Eurasian” intellectuals in Russia, namely the Mongol over-lordship which lasted from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, has often been misrepresented and thus erroneously given as proof of Russia's “Asian” nature. In reality, during the Mongol occupation Russian society was not drastically interfered with on the cultural level; the Orthodox religion remained paramount in Russian life, and the Orthodox clergy was exempted from taxes. Culturally, as well as geographically, Russia remains closer to the West than to the East. Both are offshoots of Classical civilization, and since the fifteenth century Russia has, for all practical purposes, been part of the expanding European culture, its Eastern conquests proceeding in symmetry with the colonization Western Europe embarked upon. It is historical fact which the Russians ignore at their peril. Cooperation with a more closely related culture is not only more fruitful, but the Eurasian dreams of certain Russian ideologues on the extreme right, like Alexandr Dugin, are, as Walter Laqueur notes, “generally speaking, a one-sided love affair.” They do not seem to understand that, while Russians may not consider themselves Europeans or Westerners, Asians will certainly never see Russians as Asians or worthy partners in Asian affairs. Bearing in mind the pressure of the Chinese population on the border with the Russian Far East, the Eurasion delusion could cost Russia dearly. The power elite in the Kremlin may not harbor the same fantasies as these ideologues (in fact, the political elite is one of the few groups in Russia that still has any sense of the underlying reality, and that we can do business with), but it keeps permitting the sale of high-tech military equipment to China, and in any case too little is being done to safeguard Eastern Siberia from Chinese expansionism – all, no doubt, in order not to expose the illusion of Chinese-Russian solidarity.
A new factor in the Russian mentality is the legacy of the Soviet Union. Contradictory statements are made about this phase of history in the West, once again because so few Westerners are knowledgeable on pre-revolutionary Russian history Almost invariably, we hear that communism is simply Russian collectivism in ideological disguise; however, this begs the question why communism presented such a challenge to the West and the world only in the twentieth century. While it is indisputable that communists could take power far more easily in an underdeveloped, agrarian society, and that communism could be imposed on Russians because of the country's collectivist tradition (or, as Carroll Quigley put it, its “socialist instrument of expansion”), tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union should be clearly separated. Indeed, it is saddening routinely to hear the most penetrating anti-communist intellectuals declare that there is something like the “eternal Russia”, and that modern Russia is therefore also the old Soviet Union cloaked as a democracy. They do not understand that in believing this, they are victims of perhaps the biggest lie that the Soviets succeeded in spreading in the West. When the communists came to power, they declared that their brutalities were justified as a reaction to the cruelty of the preceding imperial regime. In fact, reality could not have been more different: in 1906, freedom of press had been introduced in imperial Russia, and a parliamentary system was gradually developing; the Russian economy was rapidly industrializing and standards of living increasing accordingly. (by comparison, it was only around 1960 (!) that the Soviet Union reached the same income levels as Russia in 1914 – you could almost call it an achievement to have wrecked a country's economy in such a fashion!) As a result, the communist party was a marginal group, not exceeding 100,000 members on the eve of the great war. After witnessing the horrors of communism, few will believe the communist claim that they did a better job than the monarchy, or even that the nature of the old regime justified the slaughter of the revolution. But the myth of equivalence between the Russian monarchy and communism remains standing, and it is crucial for Westerners as well as Russians to understand that this is a propaganda myth that fatally clouds our understanding of the nature of communism, and what it did to the world. Communism had little to do with Byzantine culture; what really happened in 1917 was that a small band of leftists succeeded, amid all the chaos of war and revolution, to take control of a whole country with its enormous manpower and natural wealth, and use it as an international springboard for their progressive designs. We know the tragic results – and probably the actual extent of worldwide communist subversion will not be revealed in our lifetime, since the KGB archives remain hermetically closed to this day. The Soviet Union was not Russian culture “returning to its Asian roots”, or “rejuvenating itself”; it was one of the greatest tragedies in human history, above all for Russia. The Russians, so obsessed with conspiracy theories and constantly on the lookout for a Western-dominated “New World Order”, should understand that the twentieth century did, in fact, know a “New World Order” project -which had a political as well as a cultural aspect- and that is was directed from Moscow by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The painful message for Russia is that it can only ever redeem its soul if it fully repudiates its Soviet past.
Russian political culture
Connected with this misunderstanding of Russian culture, Westerners often only posses scant insight in Russia's politics, or political culture. This is a reflection of the postmodern mentality that is especially prevalent in Europe, and which assumes that democracy can be transferred to practically any culture if only elections are held and copies of Western political institutions are put in place. For Westerners, it is almost impossible to find any credible reason why Putin should have established his regime after the failed experiment of democratic “shock therapy” in the Yeltsin years. We find it incredible to hear from Russians that, to them, democracy means anarchy; and indeed it is quite true that this argument is just a straw man. Yet this mentality is also rooted in Russian history, and the structure of Russian society. Russia has never know the clear division between state and society that is one of the most well-known characteristics of Western Europe; instead, in Russia the state is society, and apart from the state people do not have any natural order or authority to fall back on. It is in this sense that the Russian people can at the same time be the most collectivist and the most anarchic of Europe: when state authority recedes, people basically no longer feel bound by any rules. This goes back to the liberation from the Mongol yoke and Muscovy's conquest of the other, less militaristic, Russian principalities; the main task of the Russian government from then on was not to foster liberty or the well-being of its citizens, but essentially to keep together a country that always ran the risk of falling apart and descending into chaos. Not surprisingly, under Soviet rule this situation was frozen, and became even worse; this regime robbed Russia of a vital chance to finally make the transition towards a Western society. We must always recall this historical background before criticizing the current Russian regime and the choices of the Russian people. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the introduction of democracy was perceived by most Russians as a sign that the government -the only regulator of their lives they knew- had suddenly abdicated its authority. Not surprisingly, chaos ensued, as autonomous regions teared themselves away from the central authority, and the burgeoning criminal milieu produced its own warlords. It may be true that, under Putin, anti-authoritarian sentiment is growing in Russia, but that is only the typical reaction when people resent the heavy hand of authority. The Russians believed in democracy in 1991, yet the democratic experiment failed dismally. Is there any reason to believe that it would succeed in 2014, simply because Russians desire to live in a democratic society on Western lines? And we should add that especially in these times, the Russian penchant towards authoritarian solutions could only be encouraged. In a way, Russia is living through a new time of troubles, and faces challenges age-old challenges: a chronic labor shortage, foreign invasion, and ultimately the disintegration of the empire. Perhaps we must learn to accept that there just isn't any ready-made solution for Russia's many problems, and to understand that what we consider the brutality of the current regime, may in the eyes of many Russians appear to be the only thinkable answer to their country's predicament.
“Convergence of systems”
Interestingly, Russia and the West have followed a different path towards a similar present situation. Russia suffers from Stockholm syndrome concerning its Soviet past. It is undeniable that, while Russia is not the Soviet Union, the mentality of both its leaders and people are colored by communism. This influence is felt in various ways: Russian's adherence to conspiracy theories, the anti-Western attitudes of many Russians, and most importantly, the tiers-mondialisme that so often inspires its foreign policy. The West, on the other hand, is not recovering from a Marxist past, but is suffering from the gradual erosion of its traditional culture by cultural Marxism. While Russia and the West are seemingly ideological opposites, in fact the general mindset is surprisingly similar. This should come as no surprise for the student of history: Russia owes a large part of its intellectual culture to borrowings from Europe; since the late eighteenth century it has been part of the Western cultural world. The Soviet Union was the vehicle for the spread of a Western ideology, and indeed Cultural Marxism in the West was to a large extent promoted by Soviet disinformation. On the political plane, Russia is confronted with the same problems as Europe, as we saw. The government is staffed with members of the security apparatus who, like most politicians, are mainly interested in feathering their own nests, regardless of the real challenges the country faces. For Russia, there are three great challenges: the rise of Islam, the pressure of China on its Far Eastern provinces, and its dysfunctional economy. And while Russia's maneuvers in the Ukraine are to a certain extent understandable, the barrage of general anti-Western rhetoric and the encouragement of such a mindset among the population is less so. Often Russians ask us to leave the Cold War behind, but they are often the same people who look back to their Soviet past with nostalgia. If a serious confrontation between Russia and the West materializes, more blame will probably fall on Russia (just as more blame fell on Germany in WWI); but this does not mean the confrontation would not be tragic and senseless.
The Eurocrats of the European Union are in many ways our version of the Kremlin elite, telling us this is a struggle for European values of freedom and dignity, while it is nothing of the kind and distracts attention from the real problems Europe faces. Especially exasperating are those “Eurosceptics” who actually believe that when the Eurocrats put on their foreign policy hat, all of a sudden they are becoming Defenders of the West. The West is receding all over the world; it is growing weaker economically, it is being taken over by Third World immigrants, and Middle Eastern Christians are being slaughtered with impunity, etc. Quarreling with a declining Russia over Ukraine is clearly not the first priority if we want to defend the West. It is funny to hear the media calling this episode a return to the cold war situation. Apart from the Reagan years, when the Americans finally had the courage to impose sanctions on the Soviet Union, the West never was so bellicose towards Russia as today. Western companies sold technology to Russia unhindered, and especially European countries sometimes displayed a sickening servility towards the USSR. The danger of Russia to the West during the Cold War was far greater than it is now, yet the Cold War and communism only seem to be a problem for Western leaders now that it is over (also note the frequency with which Putin's government and suppression of dissidents are compared with the Stalin era and the gulags – did Western governments ever voice significant criticism of this kind when the Soviet Union still existed?) As the cases of the USSR and, today, Iran and the Islamic world in general make clear, the West suffers from a complete lack of moral self-confidence, and is in no moral shape to resist the scheming of real totalitarian regimes. If Russia would really have been the barbaric imperialist power the Eurocrats and neoconservatives claim it to be, it would probably not be criticized by them at all. So what are the motives for pushing for further sanctions against Russia? On the part of the United States and the United Kingdom, it is simply power politics, but of a particularly distasteful kind: they know very well that Russia is in a weak position, and consider the country easy prey. Could it be true that the champions of the European cause themselves form a new nomenklatura, bent on imperial expansion in order to enlarge their personal power and prestige (although they are as yet stumbling and disorganized); that the EU is in a certain sense what it accuses Russia of still being? Let us hope that in foreign policy, as in domestic policy, dissension between the various countries will impede the forward march of the “European project” (and thus save Europe as a distinct cultural entity).