Crimea, Civilization And Geopolitics

It is not surprising that with every day that passes, the Ukrainian crisis and our relationship with Russia are becoming the mirror in which Westerners of different ideological persuasions see their own -often unconscious- convictions reflected. As I remarked in an earlier essay, especially the European right is uncomfortably divided on this issue, between those who regard Russia's preference for realpolitik and its national and cultural assertiveness as an example to be emulated and a healthy antidote to the aggressive idealism of the European Union; and those who, on the contrary, see in Putin's Russia nothing more than a revival of the Soviet Union, a collectivist and anti-Western country aligning itself with anti-Western powers and movements all over the world. Both views have something to recommend them, but at the same time an objective appraisal of the Ukrainian situation is hampered by the ideological misconceptions on which they are both based. A successful solution to the current escalating crisis, as well as a sound principle on which to base Western relations with Russia, can only be found if both groups manage to reconsider their viewpoints and reconcile the useful elements in both. 

The main confusion in this question arises, in my opinion, from a failure to distinguish between the issues of civilization and of (geo)politics. Those who side against Russia and with the European Union do so for a very understandable reason, namely that Russia is an authoritarian, collectivist civilization and cannot be expected to change any time near. The “pro-Western” side has even resorted to accusing their opponents of emulating the radical left in consistently choosing the side of the anti-Western power, just like they did when they opposed intervention in Syria to overthrow Assad. Of course, there is some truth in these remarks. As I said before, many on the extreme right want to save the West by emphasizing tradition, the bonds of family and corporation, etc.; they do not seem to realize that this would amount to turning the West into a copy of the East. This fringe group which is steadily gaining more adherents could be termed “right-Wing Bolshevism.” However, the problem is that this is not the whole story – and not by far. The pro-Western camp consistently underestimates (or simply is not aware of) the cultural and historical aspect of this crisis which makes reaching conclusions or viable solutions a lot more difficult than they tend to assume. 

In many ways, Russia was the first “Third World” country to be confronted with the overwhelming technological prowess of the West, and it reacted in much the same way that non-Western countries would later on. The Russians took to proclaiming their moral superiority in answer to the challenge of the West they could never adequately deal with; they emphasized the godlessness, the moral emptiness of Western culture and religion, its endless striving for material comfort and accomplishments, as opposed to the liturgical state that medieval Muscovy was. Needless too say, the Russians would never have criticized Western culture if it had not been so superior in wealth and organization: nothing breeds moral indignation like plain jealousy. Indeed, even before the time of Peter the Great Russia could only stand its own ground by hiring foreign mercenaries and importing just enough of the hated Western technology to enable it to fight wars with the Western powers. It was the first case of a country that craved the material benefits of the West but did not seem to realize that this desire was totally incompatible with retaining a collectivist and in many ways mystic indigenous culture. 

The debate about the nature of Russia and the question whether to regard the country as an Asiatic intruder or an example of a Christian nation to be followed, goes back at least two centuries; namely, to the Napoleonic wars. It is worthy of note that before this phase in European history, Europeans were generally not impressed by Russia, neither in the positive or in the negative sense. Russia was considered a backward, barbarous country, but on the other hand nobody denied that this was probably the only way it could be, given the land and the people that the Russian emperors, however enlightened their intentions, had to rule. The precise nature of Russia was not a subject that appeared of any interest to the intellectuals of the eighteenth century, preoccupied as they were with the new developments in all the branches of intellectual endeavor that characterized the age of  enlightenment. 

What changed with the French revolution and its aftershocks? Of course, the military prowess of Russia in the Napoleonic wars and its preeminence on the European scene attracted attention and necessitated a discussion on the precise nature and objectives of this new player in international relations. But there was the deeper reason that in the struggle against the son of the revolution, the Russian emperor had taken the lead in the crusade for the monarchical principle and the restoration of the old order. After the horrors of the French revolution and the misery brought about by the attempts to implement the Utopian principles of the enlightenment, Europe could not be as self-confident or self-contained as it had been. And Russia was the ideal country to cash in on this European crisis of self-confidence: emphasizing spirituality, tradition and collectivism, it seemed to many Europeans that after all, the Russian model was not as  irrelevant as it has seemed in the preceding centuries that had been marked by a joyous outburst of curiousness and creativity in Western thought. Russia was the “other” that taught us the virtue of mental sobriety and the simple Christian truth that, after all, human nature was fallible and ultimately unchangeable. 

In the light of these observations, it would be rather short-sighted to characterize the pro-Russian camp in the twenty-first century as tainted by the Western self-hatred  of the radical left. Although some of the same psychological causes are involved, since the beginning of the nineteenth century admiration of the Russian model was a conscious moral reaction to the problems and deficiencies of Western culture. The error that many progressives, but especially classical liberals, make, is to misinterpret the reactionary stance as simply bigotry, stemming from a religious rigidity and intolerance that had supposedly disappeared after the wars of religion. But that is totally missing the point: the motivation behind the reactionary movement (or “anti-Enlightenment”, to use term invented by Zeev Sternhell) was the entirely correct insight that the distinguishing characteristic of the French enlightenment was its utopianism, and that its advocacy of freedom, human dignity, and reason, did not stem from any real appreciation of these values for their own sake, but that they were merely meant to be the first steps in the long-term process of perfecting human nature and society. First the people had to be “liberated” from tradition and religion, and then the ground  would be cleared for the execution of the blue print(s) of the intellectuals. The enlightenment did not replace the superstition of Christianity with reason and rationality, it simply replaced it with its own secular superstition, cloaked in scientific garb. Today it almost goes without saying that such things as the Holy Alliance, established by the traditional monarchies after the Napoleonic war, could only be supported by religious cranks and that no sane or humane person could ever support such a ludicrous scheme. However, in their prediction that the utopianism of the enlightenment would bring destruction down on mankind, history would prove them entirely right: hundred years later, the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent communist revolutions – described by Richard Pipes as a massive-scale experiment in human conditioning, on the premise of Helvétius that human nature could be changed by changing man's sensory stimuli- would lead to the death of approximately a hundred million people. That the connection between the idealism of the enlightenment and the communist drama of the twentieth century has escaped almost everyone's attention, makes clear to what degree the intelligentsia has succeeded in making their perception of themselves and their actions the dominant discourse in popular history.

We find the same dilemma of two hundred years ago almost exactly replicated in the discussion about the Ukrainian crisis. Liberals and classical liberals who defend the European Union believe they are defending the West, but whether they like it or not, they are also defending something totally different, namely the ideological direction in which that West is steadily moving. Just as they have always done since the French revolution, the middle classes and proponents of the free market are unwittingly aligning themselves with progressive utopianism, simply because at certain junctures progressivism advocates the same values, like democracy and free trade (in this case), but for  entirely different reasons. The Eurocrats are simply the heirs of the intellectuals of the French Revolution who strategically aligned themselves with the bourgeoisie, but whose ultimate goal was the creation of a totalitarian society, not democracy, capitalism, and constitutional freedoms. The “pro-Western” camp in fact has no right to feel that it is defending the West against Russian collectivism and authoritarianism, because the only thing it is defending with its advocacy of a “free Ukraine” is the expansion of the neo-totalitarian construct of the European Union, or in more general terms, the self-destructive leftist tendency in Western thought. 

It is entirely insufficient to declare that one does not necessarily share the ultimate leftist goals because one advocates the same reforms as the left in the short term. As the slogan often heard in the French Third Republic went: the Revolution is a whole, either you accept it as such, or you reject it in its totality. The simple reason for this is that the free-market oriented middle classes and bourgeoisie always acted in the moral shadow of the progressive intelligentsia, and that they do not have any moral justification for their beliefs in the sense that socialism or communism have. Historically, the phase of free markets and free trade in the nineteenth century was just the first step toward more radical schemes for social transformation: always, capitalism was defended on the grounds that it would benefit the masses and ultimately usher in utopia; when it was clear that utopia in the sense the intellectuals understood it was not coming soon, more drastic ideological remedies were applied. The bourgeoisie could never oppose socialism or communism because it had always loudly proclaimed the malleability of human nature and the immorality of self-interest. Unless they have a distinctly conservative bent, you could define classical liberals of the middle classes as progressives who cannot bring their progressivism to its logical conclusion because their wallets are too thick. But at the same time this means that they can never defend themselves against the thugs who tell them it is selfish to have a thick wallet. (and this also precisely the reason why the middle classes will react so aggressively when conservatives try to defend themselves against the extreme left: since by moral default liberals are simply socialists to a lesser degree, and their ultimate goal is also the transformation of society according to blueprint, they will always side with socialism or communism against “reaction”.)

So it is perfectly possible that in the short term the meddling of the EU will enable the Ukraine to become more free politically as well as economically than it has ever been; but the fact remains that in the long run the country will be engulfed in the inexorable march towards either the establishment of a European super-state that will be just as authoritarian as Russia is today, or in the violent collapse of that super-state and all the resulting chaos. And the fact is that the classical liberals will have no way of stopping this process, because they cannot provide any moral foundation for the free society they advocate. 

If the argument on the basis of civilization is not very convincing, neither is the argument based on (geo)politics. I will not concern myself here with the exact details of the developments in the Ukraine, not in the least because we will only know all the facts when the storm has subsided (or perhaps never); in any case, the good historian knows that there is no such thing as a spontaneous revolution, a revolution “of the people”. Revolutions, to be distinguished from mere uprisings, are always fomented by and serve the interests of one particular group in society, and the art of making a successful revolution consists of fooling enough people into believing that support for the revolution's goals will also benefit themselves. And after the upheaval, it consists in convincing the world that the revolution really did represent the whole nation and that pre-revolutionairy society really was that intolerable for everyone. The French revolution served the interests of the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals, while the proletarians who provided it with its shock-troops materially gained absolutely nothing from it; the Russian revolution served the interests first of the bourgeoisie and then of the tiny Bolshevik party, all the while convincing the nation of the righteousness of their cause by spreading the lie that the royal family was secretly dealing with the Germans or fooling the peasantry into believing that they would drown in plenty if they confiscated the land of their noble oppressors (of which there was actually very little left.) I have never seen any opinion poll proving that the majority of the Ukrainian people are on the side of the rebels, and the Russian claim that the current Ukrainian government is illegitimate because it was never elected is not simply a propaganda lie. For all we know, the overthrow of the government was brought about by skillful mobilization of certain disaffected groups in the cities while the rest of the country was just going about its daily business.  

Also regrettable is the tendency of the Western press constantly to have recourse to the reductio ad Hitlerum or reductio ad Stalinam. It is perfectly justifiable not to regard Russia as a free or civilized country, but to draw parallels with Munich and the Cold War is really a sure sign of intellectual immaturity and lack of political insight. The truth is that Russia is utterly uninterested in ideological goals in foreign policy and does not pretend to be acting for the betterment of the world. By keeping the Ukraine in its orbit it wants to protect its southwestern flank, that is all there is to it, nothing spectacular, no desire to start a third world war. That realpolitik is neither a moral nor a viable course in the long term, may be quite true, but the question is which alternatives the West has to offer at the moment, and those alternatives are decidedly worse. One of the reasons why the Eurocrats are so resentful of the Russian attitude is because it reminds them of the painful fact that neither they nor any power for that matter can act outside the course of history and outside the framework of power politics that forms the basis of all international political relations, and that  their foreign policy is nothing more a very old-fashioned craving for power disguised as a concern for human rights and progressive idealism. Apparently, nobody thought it necessary to note that the policy of cutting off trade that, coming from Russia, is decried as authoritarian and “nineteenth century”, is precisely the punishment the EU will inflict on disobedient European countries if they wish to cut themselves loose from the super-state. Indeed, it has already partly been inflicted on Switzerland and the British people has repeatedly been threatened with the possibility of loosing the European trade. Neither did anybody seem aware of the fact that it is rather strange that the European press is wailing about the economic pressure that Russia can wield to force poor Europe to accept its schemes by cutting of the energy supply or not repaying European loans, while our dependency on Arabian oil and the favorable stance toward the Islamic world and the Palestinians that it has forced us to adopt, has never been important enough even to be mentioned by our ever-critical and ever-searching journalists. 

In short, this is a conflict in which real supporters of freedom should not choose sides, because it is a lost cause either way. Russia is a collectivist, mystic culture, and will either ossify into the old liturgical state it once was, or turn into a Muslim-majority country in the near future. If Europe is to follow the lead of Russia, it will slowly descend to a medieval condition. Europe only consists of the vestiges of the vibrant civilization it once was, totally demoralized, and the only clearly living moral element in it is the self-destructive leftist ideology that has been living off its host for the past two hundred years. If we follow the lead of the EU, we will be reduced to the same medieval condition, but through violent destruction and chaos, as the Roman Empire fell. As I said in the beginning, both points of view in this question contain important elements of truth; combine these elements, and you will discover that both of the solutions commonly suggested are false. 

Ukraine path? Russia or EU?

It has been quite a while since I came to this forum. I came here hoping to find an article clarifying the Ukraine conflict.

Before reading your article I had already concluded that if the Ukraine allied with Poland and could go it on their own without attachment to either Russia or the EU they would be better off. At this point in time, the US is in no position to help them. Until Obama is gone and his minions removed. Which I think is coming.

Now the question, Will Putin take over the entire Ukraine? If so, it will not be bloodless. Who will eventually assume power in the remainder of the Ukraine if Putin just takes Crimea? This reminds me of the contrast with the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Outcome was much different because of the nature of those who assumed control. The families of Western Ukraine have suffered much under Russia as has Poland. May this price not be lost to bad choices of leaders now.

Your analysis was much more thought out and much more detailed. I largely agreed with your statements.

Thanks for your article.


Dave in Texas.

Bad Advice

Indeed, "human nature is fallible and ultimately unchangeable", and Mr de Jong provides a great service by warning against the perils of both "aggressive idealism" and "progressive idealism", also where the EU is concerned. His impressive article provides a strong defence for the conservative value of caution.

But, once more, in the real world (and especially that of geopolitics) choices have to be made between concrete actors and powers, not between abstract notions and/ideals, nor can one hide behind philosophical but ultimately speculative considerations in order to avoid making moral distinctions about actual conditions today. For example, the comparison in this article between the Putin-treatment of Ukraine and the EU-treatment of Switzerland is a clear example of moral relativism in the form of positing an absurd moral equivalence.

The absence of easy "solutions" for Ukraine does not provide an excuse for moral relativism. The latter implies either the refusal to make moral judgements or the positing of absurd moral equivalencies, and both lead to moral indifference which is immoral, i.e. inhuman. Moral relativism is the greatest affliction of Western civilization today, and it leads to bad advice.

These conflicts are becoming

These conflicts are becoming more common today, due to increasing international political instability.

But I tell my Egyptian friends that the path to freedom  does not go through Russia. Nor do I think the current EU provides that either for the Ukraine.

But Texans look at the world differently. The love of freedom is cemented by open spaces.




Dave K