“Slovyansk is the Center of the Bermuda Triangle”

The crisis in Eastern Ukraine has reached a new and dangerous phase this weekend. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has reported that the capture of OSCE observers in Slovyansk – three Germans plus one German interpreter, a Czech, a Dane, a Pole and a Swede – is the work of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Today, the SBU proclaimed that this abduction has been orchestrated by the Kremlin – it named the GRU Colonel Igor Strelkov as the boss of this operation – with the intent of using the OSCE observers as “human shields.”

Colonel Strelkov has been fingered by Kyiv as the eminence grise of much of the nefarious activity going on recently in and around Slovyansk, which is the epicenter of Russia’s stage-managed “rebellion” in Eastern Ukraine. A few days ago, the SBU released a videotape that implicates Colonel Strelkov, as well as GRU Lieutenant Colonel Igor Beltzer plus Slovyansk’s self-proclaimed “mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, as the culprits behind the 17 April abduction and subsequent murder of Volodymyr Rybak, a local lawmaker who was loyal to Ukraine.

What is happening around Slovyansk is the next stage of Vladimir Putin’s multi-stage campaign to assert Kremlin authority over increasing parts of Ukraine – in other words, the pursuit of the Special War that I’ve talked about a lot. Russia’s moves are based on provocation – nobody does provokatsiya better than the Kremlin – and for now Kyiv is powerless to reassert its authority in Eastern Ukraine, which de facto is now under Kremlin control. As I’ve made clear, Ukraine’s first step must be taking the offensive in counterintelligence, so SBU public statements now about the large role of GRU behind the crisis and violence is a much needed move in the right direction.

Yet detailed information about what’s really going on in Slovyansk is hard to come by, not least because Russian-backed militants capture and kill people they don’t like. Fortunately, there’s a fascinating new interview in the daily Ukrayinska Pravda with the Belarusian opposition journalist Dzmitry Halko, who writes for Novy Chasa weekly paper that is one of the very few independent outlets in Lukashenka’s repressive Belarus. This Russian-language interview, entitled “Ten Hours in Slavyansk,” recounts his strange experiences during a recent visit to GRU-occupied territory. It’s filled with important details about what’s really going on in Eastern Ukraine today, so I’m passing on the whole interview, beginning with Halko’s introduction:

Slavyansk is the center of the Bermuda Triangle, which is now located in the Donbas. We arrived there from Donetsk at somewhere around eight a.m. At this hour, the city looked like a ghost town, rather scary: There was no one on the streets, the streets were completely empty, just some people or other at the roadblocks.

Q: What kind of people?

A: It depends which ones you are talking about. They were all different; whether or not they were locals is unclear. They were dressed variously and armed with various weapons. Some with clubs of some kind, others with catapults, and others still with knives. And there were genuine military formations, military groups.

Q: Supporting Ukraine?

A: No, no, nothing at all remains of Ukraine in Slavyansk apart from a Ukrainian flag on the building of Donetsk Pedagogical University. There are no Ukrainian police there at all.

There has been some kind of MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] statement that there are no witnesses to our arrest or witnesses to our presence in Slavyansk. This is altogether strange for me to hear, because no one from the law enforcement organs has contacted us, and there were no police at all there in Slavyansk. Accordingly, there can have been no proceedings, no investigation, or anything else.

Q: You spoke about military personnel, did they have marks of identification?

A; Of course, I cannot claim with absolute certainty that they are Russian military. But there were situations when there was an opportunity to exchange a couple of words with these people, and we asked: “And where are you from anyway, guys?” What is wrong with this? you might think. But not one person said that he was from Slavyansk. Only one person replied that he was from the Donbas; well, of course, the Donbas is a big place.

In addition, the local inhabitants, literally all of them, spoke about these people as having arrived from somewhere or other, of having turned up out of the blue. But not as being their fellow townsfolk.

Q: Tell me about your arrival in Slavyansk in a little more detail…

A: There was nobody by city hall, it was barricaded, and it was impossible to get in. We went to the SBU building. There was an impressive barricade there, guarded by one person wearing camouflage and carrying a Kalashnikov, and a person in ordinary dress, a bearded man wearing an orange t-shirt. We addressed ourselves to him and asked whether we could come in. He took passports from the foreign journalists and said that he would go and see the commander and find out what he could do.

Incidentally, this bearded man in the t-shirt said that his mom lives in Rome, that they are in touch, and that he was here in support of Russia. So he went off to see his commander and returned with him half an hour later.

The commander, in my view, was a Russian, both in speech and in appearance. For about 20 or 30 minutes, he took us around the site. They have armed vehicles that had been seized or handed over without a fight – I don’t know. The commander showed them to us with great pride and said that these vehicles would force a passage across the Dnieper in order to break Kyiv.

Q: What kind of armored vehicles, and how many?

A: In my opinion, there were four infantry fighting vehicles. At that moment, only two vehicles were manned. At the entrance to the SBU building, people dressed in black with modern weapons went past under a Russian flag. The commander categorically forbade us to photograph these people, saying that if we did so, they would begin to shoot.

Q: Black uniforms? Like Alfa [FSB special operations forces]?

A: Yes, the uniform of some kind of special unit. The commander took us around for half an hour, then said that the audience was over and told us to go on our way. He looked like an important officer, almost a general. And I asked whether he could give us permission for us to go peacefully around the town and take pictures. He replied that he could not, that he was commander only in this small area, and that his command did not extend to all the other places.

An interesting observation: The people stationed there, from whom we simply wanted to find out who they were and why they were there, answered in military fashion: “We are not authorized…” 

In Kyiv, it was possible to talk with anyone who was in the mood to converse, and not once did anyone reply: “I am not authorized.” Everyone came to the Maydan, with some kind of truth and idea of his own, but here people responded purely in military style.

These people are copying the Maydan in its entirety. Even their barricades are the same as on the Maydan. And they try to serve you tea and some kind of food in exactly the same way.

There were women here who, learning that we were foreign journalists, began to chase away the drunks. There are a fairly large number of drunks there. They began to hiss at them, to drive them away – go away, they said, don’t spoil the picture! They served us tea and coffee, and we had a good sit down and relaxed completely. Very much mistakenly, as it turned out.

After this, we wanted to get to a district densely inhabited by Roma. We wanted to know whether there had really been any pogroms. We traveled for a long time on foot, speaking with people whom we met along the way. When we crossed the big bridge in Slavyansk, we took photographs of a plate with the inscription: “Mines.” We did not photograph anything else, even the roadblock through which we had passed.

But suddenly, people wearing camouflage appeared. I would describe them as “amateurs.” They were not military personnel. One was armed with either a musket or a sawed-off shotgun. Another was armed with a knife. A third with – I don’t remember with what.

They came up to us and said that we were spying, that we were carrying out some kind of secret filming. I replied that we were doing nothing of the sort. I invited them to look at the photographs. But nevertheless, they replied that we should wait, that a vehicle was coming — there would be an investigation.

The vehicle arrived, we were squeezed onto the back seat and taken away to a third roadblock.

Q: And who was with you?

A: Italian photographer Cosimo Attanasio and French journalist and photo-correspondent Paul Gogo – both freelancers.

They brought us in, and there the vehicle was surrounded by a group of ten people who literally thrust their mask-covered heads into the windows. They asked who we were, what we are doing, demanded that we hand over our cameras, and threatened to take them and smash them. In short, they behaved very unpleasantly. The guys were really frightened, and I was too.

Q: And the guys do not speak Russian? You translated for them?

A: No, they do not speak Russian at all, I was also their translator.

They took our passports and cameras from us to check them. They hauled us out, without documents and equipment: “Stand here.” They themselves gathered at about fifteen meters from us. This was a group of people dressed in military camouflage -not like the “amateurs”; they were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, to all appearances, but of a new model. I am not very well versed in these matters, but Cosimo said that they were not ordinary AK-47’s, but some kind of new model of Kalashnikov that is only in the inventory of the Russian Army.

Incidentally, when the atmosphere had become a little less tense, we asked what kind of weapons they were. They said that they had been issued for temporary use, but gave no further details.

At some moment or other, as if at someone’s command, they abruptly changed their attitude toward us. It was as though someone had given an order, or as though they had found out that this was the policy of behaving with foreign journalists – in short, they suddenly became concerned about their image. And they decided to show what white and fluffy bunnies they were: “Please excuse us, you understand, martial law and all that.” Then they released us.

Q: Did they give you back your passports and cameras?

A: Yes, everything was returned. And thinking that now everything was in order, we set off along the same route – across the bridge. But we were stopped at another roadblock on the other side.

This cannot be described as an arrest, they simply caught us, and we showed them the photos that we had taken at the third roadblock. We said that we had been seen, checked out, and authorized to go on our way. And we received the answer: “We do not know who checked you out. We will do so for ourselves. If you do not have permission from our authorities – take a hike! Or go and get it from the city council!”

Regarding the city council: I had heard from many journalists, including from Paul Gogo, who had tried to get into the building three days before this, but had been unable to so, that it was impossible to obtain permission. During the same attempt, a Moscow Times journalist, Oleg Sukhov, was arrested as a member of Right Sector. He was even taken into some kind of room where opposite him sat, evidently, Serhiy Lefter [Ukrainian journalist previously arrested]; his hands were bound to the chair, and he was guarded by a ‘little green man’ with an assault rifle. Therefore we naturally did not go to seek some kind of bogus accreditation. This is laughable – there is no authority there, but who knows what.

Also, when we had turned around and were walking back from the second roadblock near the bridge, a jeep painted in the colors of the Russian flag pulled up alongside us on the road. In the jeep sat people in a brand new military uniform, wearing masks and carrying weapons, and, let us put it like this, they looked at us very sternly. This was the last straw, we decided to get out of there while we were still in one piece.

Q: And were the jeep’s license plates Russian or Ukrainian?

A: I think that this jeep had no license plates at all, but I could be wrong. But it was painted all over in the colors of the Russian flag.

Incidentally, about the license plates. Not far from the SBU building I saw a vehicle with battered license plates, but with some kind of Russian decal on the window – a proof of vehicle inspection, I think. A piece of paper with the Russian flag on it was stuck to the glass. Moreover, not a sticker, but something official. And in the city I noticed several police vehicles, apparently Ukrainian ones, in which armed people wearing this same camouflage were sitting.

That is to say, they are in complete control of the city; Slavyansk is occupied.

Q: And what do they call themselves, these armed men?

A: They do not introduce themselves. They have signs everywhere saying “Donbas People’s Militia.” But no one introduced himself to us. No one said anything about himself.

The only person who spoke to us was a civilian who was standing at these roadblocks with a ribbon of St. George [symbol of loyalty to Russia] and without a mask. Some kind of hardcore Orthodox fundamentalist. Only with him was it clear who he was, that he was a local; he even showed his passport – he has retained a Soviet passport in which there was a column for nationality; in it was written: “Russian.” He is proud of this. And he says that we are all Orthodox Russians here. That means, we do not want this “European plague.”

Only he spoke with us in a normal way, and told us about his motives at least. Incidentally, among these people there are many with beards, but not because they have not shaved for many days, but really long beards, as if they were some kind of Orthodox brotherhood. Many say they are from Slavyansk, I do not know.

There are very many people of a frankly antisocial appearance – drunks, criminal elements. This is the second group.

And the third group are military persons. The usual military types. With the military bearing and all the other attributes.

Q: So this is the Russian Army on Ukrainian territory?

A: Yes, I think so. I am afraid so, yes. If they had wanted to refute this, they would have told us this. But they say nothing about themselves, they do not show their passports, and they do not introduce themselves. They cannot even bring themselves to say that they are from Slavyansk.

What is one to think in that case?! Only one conclusion remains. Especially seeing that the local inhabitants do not regard them as fellow countrymen.

Q: But do they support them?

A: You know, their attitude to the occupiers is as if to some kind of bad weather. Look – a thunderstorm, a tempest, or a gale has hit: What can you do about it?! They do not support this, they simply have to resign themselves to it.

I heard various people utter the phrase: “Everything was okay before their arrival.” In a certain sense, this can be assessed as support for Ukraine. Naturally, it is weak. A person will probably not fight for this, and will even submit if the territory is occupied.

But nevertheless, I did not meet a single person who said: “Yes, they are my protectors, they are standing up for us here. And just you get out of here, European villains!”

Not one person said this.

Q: Were there any other encounters?

A: We crossed the bridge without problems, took a taxi, went to the station, and there, completely by chance, we met the last Roma left in Slavyansk.

This person was terribly scared. He had come back to fetch some children’s things or other, and was in a state of genuine terror. I stopped him and asked him to tell me what was going on.

It turned out that, a day before this, the entire Roma community had left the town en masse. Because, in his words, their homes had been fired on from the street. And all representatives of the community had received threats that they would be destroyed en masse, including the children, unless they fled.

This man said that the armed men want only Russians to remain in the city.

This has affected not only the Roma. For example, he cited the example of his neighbors, who speak Ukrainian in everyday usage; they too have received similar threats.

The person from the Roma community asked us to help him to somehow get to see Rinat Akhmetov [Ukrainian oligarch]; he wanted to talk to him, he said.

That is to say, Rinat Akhmetov is perceived here as some kind of arbiter and de facto ruler. Although, for example, the separatists in the Donetsk Oblast Administration regarded the fact that at the last Dinamo-Shakhtar [football] match there were Ukrainian flags in the stand of the Shakhtar fans. They believe that in this way Akhmetov betrayed them. But nevertheless, they see him as tsar, as a prince.

So we missed the train, took a taxi, and went to Kramatorsk. En route, at some roadblock on a country road there was a group of frankly marginal types who said that we were spies for the European Union and found fault with the passports of the Italian and the Frenchman, even though it was the first time that they had seen what an Italian or a French passport look like.

And later, sixteen kilometers from Donetsk, I saw a very strange roadblock at which seemingly Ukrainian military persons were standing under a Russian flag and a flag of St. George along with so-called volunteer militiamen.

Q: I want to clarify one thing about the military: Did they have marks of identification?

A: Yes, yes, they had Ukrainian insignia. This is simply amazing. What kind of antiterrorism operation is it possible to speak of..?!

This is a Bermuda Triangle – Slavyansk is unraveling on all sides. And it is necessary do to something abut this urgently; otherwise things will be bad.

Q: How long were you in Slavyansk?

A: In total, we spent around ten hours in Slavyansk. And we were detained for not longer than two hours.

Q: Were you beaten?

A: No, at first they grabbed us by the arm, but things went no further than that.

Q: Have you been in Ukraine for long?

A: I have been in Ukraine since 8 March. First Kharkiv, then Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kherson, Zhytomyr Oblast, Novohrad-Volnynskiy, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, a kind of circle.

Q: And have you been in the Crimea?

A: After a “conversation” with the SBU in Donetsk at the beginning of March, I understood for myself that I occupy a very pro-Ukrainian position, a very clear position, despite the fact that I am a journalist. Therefore I understood that it was better for me not to poke my head in the Crimea. Especially seeing that I had met guys who had been held in captivity for two weeks in the Crimea, and who had remained in Kherson for operations.

In Donetsk an episode happened to me – I was detained by the SBU. I lived in the same room as a GRU agent; at that time it was still Ukraine here. And this detention at the hands of the SBU – well, I do not know, it was on the whole a nice affair, I was actually reassured that some kind of services were working here, that they were exposing some people, detecting some kind of bombs.

But what is there now, it is difficult for me to say.

There you have it: provocations, intimidation, ethnic cleansing among a freak-show of alcoholics, gangsters, Orthodox “warriors,” and GRU operatives, amidst lots of innocent people trapped with nowhere to escape … some great insights there into what de facto Russian rule in Eastern Ukraine actually looks like. As I write, Slovyansk “militants” have stated they will only free their OSCE captives in exchange for prisoners held by Kyiv. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, watch this space …

“Special War” Goes Mainstream

One of the main missions of this blog is spreading the idea that intelligence matters in the real world, and that a lot of important activities involve covert action that is anything but transparent; many media types, unacquainted with such dark arts, are skeptical of these notions, however, and sometimes this is a hard sell. One upside to the Ukraine crisis is that it’s brought some of these usually secret shenanigans into a bit of sunlight before the world.

For months I’ve been explaining that this all amounts to what I term Special War, and it’s something important that the Russians excel at across the board; regrettably, the United States does not. Ukraine is a realtime laboratory for the whole range of Moscow’s Special War activities, especially provocation. Slowly, the Mainstream Media is starting to notice.

Today’s New York Times has a good article explaining how Russian intelligence, specifically GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, is pulling the strings in Eastern Ukraine, employing special operators to cause mayhem and weaken Kyiv’s already flagging grip on the region. Of course, I’ve been telling you this for weeks, but it’s nice to see the MSM take notice, particluarly when they cite….me:

But masking the identity of its forces, and clouding the possibilities for international denunciation, is a central part of the Russian strategy, developed over years of conflict in the former Soviet sphere, Ukrainian and American officials say.

John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer who now teaches at the Naval War College, calls it “special war”: “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.”

And one country, Mr. Schindler noted in an article last year in which he coined the term, that particularly excels at special war is Russia, which carried out its first post-Soviet war to regain control of rebellious Chechnya back in 1994 by sending in a column of armored vehicles filled with Russian soldiers masquerading as pro-Moscow Chechens.

That’s good to see. As Ron Burgundy might say: “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” Hey, it’s a start. We can’t have a real public debate about Ukraine – and Putin’s nefarious actions more generally – until people understand what’s actually happening. I’ll be reporting on the next stages of the Kremlin’s Special War for Ukraine as they unfold…watch this space.

Putinism and the Anti-WEIRD Coalition

Vladimir Putin’s slow-rolling conquest of Ukraine has restarted openly today, with calls for an “independence referendum” for the newly declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in the East. It’s clear that Moscow intends to conquer something like half of Ukraine – through quasi-covert means if possible, by overt invasion if necessary. Regardless, this will place the West on a course for something like the Cold War 2.0 I’ve written about.

That notion is not accepted yet by many in the West, who seem not to understand Putin’s agenda. Among the doubters is President Obama, who dismissed the idea of a new Cold War with Russia, on the grounds that Putin has no ideology, so what’s there to fight about? As Obama put it recently, “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”

While it’s certainly true that the U.S. and NATO don’t seek confrontation with Russia, it’s worthwhile remembering Trotsky’s line that you might not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you. As for the rest of Obama’s statement, it’s simply wrong, and that matters, because the U.S. and many of its allies at present are unable to see the rising conflict with Russia and its friends for what it actually is. And it’s hard to craft a counter-strategy when one side doesn’t even understand the stakes or the issues.

Putinism is a far cry from the Marxism-Leninism that animated the Soviet Union, Putin’s Sovietisms and undisguised affection for some aspects of the USSR notwithstanding. That said, it’s good to remember that Soviet ideology, as practiced, was a pretty cobbled-together edifice too that only had intellectual coherence if you were standing firmly inside the bubble.

I’ll elaborate what Putinism actually is, but before I do, it’s important to understand why President Obama and countless other Westerners cannot see what is right before them. Putin and the Kremlin actively parrot their propaganda, they are doing anything but hide it, yet we still cannot make it out.

This is simply because we are WEIRD. That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.

Barack Obama, by virtue of his diverse ethnic and religious background and elite education, is almost an ideal stand-in for the WEIRD demographic, as he embodies so many things WEIRDos admire: education, affluence, diversity, progressive social views, etc. He comes close to being almost the perfect post-modern American, which perhaps is why so many Americans of that bent adore him deeply. Thus when President Obama says he detects no ideological rivalry with Putin’s Russia, he undoubtedly speaks the truth as he sees it.

Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.

Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.

Of course, this also happens to explain why some Westerners who loathe post-modernism positively love Putin, at least from a safe distance. Some far-right Westerners – the accurate term is paleoconservatives – have been saying for years that the West, led very much by America, has become hopelessly decadent and they’ve been looking for a leader to counter all this, and – lo and behold – here he is, the new “leader of global conservatism.” Some paleocons have stated that, with the end of the Cold War, America has become the global revolutionary power, seeking to foist its post-modern views on the whole planet, by force if necessary, and now Putin’s Russia has emerged as the counterrevolutionary element. Cold War 2.0, in this telling, has the sides reversed.

I’m skeptical of all that, but it is important to note that the post-modernism about cultural and social matters that has become the default setting in the West in the last couple decades has had a hard time putting down roots in Eastern Europe. It’s an odd fact that living under the Old Left (i.e. Marxism-Leninism) inoculated Eastern Europeans from much of the New Left of the 1960s and after, with its emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. “Critical Studies” didn’t get far with people who had to live under the KGB; indeed, East Bloc secret police in the 1980s viewed all this – the feminism and the gay rights stuff especially – as bourgeois deviance and a subversive Western import. Since 1990, Western countries have made actual efforts to import that, but it’s met a lot of resistance, and doesn’t make much of an impression outside educated circles; which is why when educated Westerners meet, say, educated Poles, “they seem just like us” – because they have accepted, verbatim, what we’ve told them is normative in a “developed” society.

Resisting Western post-modernism on a cultural level is but one component of Putinism, albeit an important one. What comes first, however, is an emphasis on national sovereignty, meaning a more traditional, indeed Westphalian, view of state power and non-interference in others’ affairs. That Putin has stolen Crimea indicates that Moscow’s views on this are highly conditional. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Putin’s regular incantations of the need for respect for sovereignty, which are of course aimed directly at the United States, which Russia views as a hypocrite of the highest order in international affairs, are popular among other regional powers who fear U.S. military might, especially China and India. Moreover, Putin would no doubt argue that his seizing Crimea is in no way a violation of sovereignty since Ukraine is not a legitimate country in the first place (an interview last year where Putin referred to Ukraine as a mere “territory” did not get the attention abroad that it merited). For most Russians, all this falls under the need to restore national honor after the disasters of the 1990s, and is to be applauded heartily. Additionally, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.

Nationalism matters too. This is a tricky issue in Russia, which possesses some 185 recognized ethnic groups and many religions, with ethnic Russians making up but four-fifths of the population, and that figure is declining. Until recently, Putin had done a good job of promoting state patriotism and a Muscovite sort of multiculturalism that celebrates citizens of the Russian Federation, of any ethnicity or religion, as long as they accept Kremlin rule; that this bears little resemblance to post-modern Western notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” should be obvious. All the same, hardline Russian ethno-nationalists, local equivalents of David Duke, have regularly faced arrest in Putin’s Russia, which has feared setting off ethnic disputes that could turn explosive quickly.

Yet the reconquest of Crimea has caused a clear change of tone in Moscow, with celebration of old fashioned Russian nationalism coming into fashion. In his speech to the Duma announcing the triumphant annexation of Crimea, when speaking of Russians, Putin specifically used the ethnic term – russkiy –  not the more inclusive rossiyskiy, which applies to all citizens of the Russian Federation. This came among incantations to the full Great Russian program, with a Moscow-centric view of Eastern Europe seemingly endorsed by mentions of great Orthodox saints. Unstated yet clearly, this was all of a piece with “Third Rome” ideology, a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.

Westerners seemed shocked by this “Holy Russia” stuff, but Putin has been dropping unsubtle hints for years that his state ideology includes a good amount of this back-to-the-future thinking, cloaked in piety and nationalism. Western “experts”  continue to state that a major influence here is Aleksandr Dugin, an eccentric philosopher who espouses “Eurasianism,” an odd blend of geopolitical theory and neo-fascism. While Dugin is not irrelevant, his star at the Kremlin actually faded a decade ago, though he gets some Kremlin attention because his father was a GRU general. Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.

They should, however, because Putinism includes a good amount of Ilyin-inspired Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism working hand-in-glove, what its advocates term symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad. Putin has explained the central role of the ROC by stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” – meaning her church-grounded resistance to post-modernism – is as important to her security as her nuclear shield. Meanwhile, Kremlin security agencies have publicly embraced Orthodoxy too, with the FSB espousing a doctrine of “spiritual security,” which boils down to the ROC and the “special services” working together against the West and its malign influences. Where Chekists once persecuted the church with fanatical fervor, now it’s de rigeur among Russian intelligence officers to be religious, at least publicly. The FSB basically kept the old KGB logo, the famous sword and shield, with St. George slaying the dragon in place of the former red star.

Putin, of course, is a public believer, and while there’s been skepticism expressed in the West about how this onetime mid-level KGB functionary suddenly became a pious Orthodox, it’s clear that, whatever he may believe privately, Putin’s regime benefits from the ROC giving it assistance for its neo-traditionalist state ideology. The Moscow Patriarchate, to use the proper term for ROC leadership, has been anything but shy in its support for Putin and his Kremlin, offering regular expressions of what exactly it believes about the West, often quite vehemently.

ROC propaganda portrays a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style. The practices of “sexual minorities,” to use the Kremlin term for LGBT lifestyles, come in for harsh criticism. Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, who is the MP’s frontman on these matters, explained about homosexuality, “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.” Moreover, Chaplin explained, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved,  to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”

Gay activists in the West have latched onto all this, but it’s important to note that Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda” ought to be seen as part of a full-spectrum assault by the ROC, and therefore the Kremlin, on Western post-modern values. (Westerners seem not to notice that Russia’s anti-homosexual laws are mild compared to many in the Islamic world and Africa, and Moscow continues to have a thriving LGBT scene.) Putinism rejects Western-style feminism just as strongly as homosexuality. As Patriarch Kirill explained recently, “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which must appear firstly outside of marriage and outside of family,” adding that it’s no coincidence that most feminist leaders are unmarried and childless.

Faith aside, it’s not hard to see why Putin wants to fight off Western values based on individualism in the sexual realm that have unquestionably led to lower birthrates, which is something that Russia, which is already facing demographic disaster, cannot afford. The existence of the country itself is at stake, so we should not expect Putin to back off here, especially because he may actually believe all this as a matter of faith, not just natalist practicality.

The West, and the United States especially, have helped cause this by active promotion of the post-modernism that Russia now rejects. It is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination that the U.S. State Department encourages feminism and LGBT activism, at least in certain countries. When Washington, DC, considers having successful gay pride parades a key benchmark for “advancement” in Eastern Europe, with the full support of U.S. diplomats, we should not be surprised when the Kremlin and its sympathizers move to counter this. My friends in Eastern Europe, most of whom are comfortable with gay rights and feminism, have nevertheless noted to me many times that it’s odd that the U.S. Government promotes such things in small, poor Eastern European countries it can intimidate but never, say, in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there remains the question of just how universal post-modern Western values actually are outside educated elites. There is ample evidence that many average people in Eastern Europe who fear Russia nevertheless are closer to the Kremlin’s positions on cultural matters than to America’s. In Georgia, where loathing of Russians generally and Putin particularly is universal, resistance to LGBT rights and feminism remains deep and broad, with the support of the Orthodox Church, while much the same can be said of Moldova, where fears of Russian invasion are acute, but so are fears of Western social values. Neither is this resistance limited to the East. It can be found as well in Central Europe, among NATO and EU members. In Poland, the Catholic Church continues to resist post-modern sexual values – what they collectively term “gender,” meaning feminism plus gay rights – leading one bishop to term this “ a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” Strongly Catholic Croatia last December in a national referendum rejected same-sex marriage by a two-thirds margin, to the dismay of progressives across Europe. One of the big talking points from the Kremlin and the ROC is that Russia represents the actual global consensus on such matters, while the West is the decadent outlier. Its postmodernism, proclaimed Fr. Chaplin recently, “is increasingly marginal,” adding that “it cannot cope with modern challenges,” while Orthodox Christian, Chinese, Indian, Latin American and African civilizations share opposite values and will play an active role in building peaceful relations between civilizational systems. Given recent trends in sexual matters globally, with India and countries in Africa enacting harsh anti-gay laws, it is worth considering if Moscow has a valid point.

We are entering a New Cold War with Russia, whether we want to or not, thanks to Putin’s acts in Ukraine, which are far from the endpoint of where the Kremlin is headed in foreign policy. As long as the West continues to pretend there is no ideological component to this struggle, it will not understand what is actually going on. Simply put, Putin believes that his country has been victimized by the West for two decades, and he is pushing back, while he is seeking partners. We will have many allies in resisting Russian aggression if we focus on issues of freedom and sovereignty, standing up for the rights of smaller countries to choose their own destiny.

However, too much emphasis on social and sexual matters – that is, telling countries how they must organize their societies and families – will be strategically counterproductive. Some Americans already believe that Putin, not Obama, is on God’s side in this struggle, and this will only get worse as Europe elects more far-right parties to power, many of which are sympathetic to Putinism, and some are secretly on the Kremlin payroll. If we choose to resist Russia because Putin rejects gay rights and feminism, we will have fewer allies and well-wishers than if we instead focus on matters of national sovereignty and dignity. The choice is ours. The Internationale famously promised, “this is the final struggle” (c’est la lutte finale), and now perhaps we are in that very conflict; there is no doubt that post-modern Westerners feel their social beliefs are the endpoint of all human development, and we may soon find out if they are right. The first step is accepting that we are in fact the WEIRD ones.