This is turning out to be a bad week for Europeans hoping to resist the advance of Putinism. Ukraine continues to dither, rather than fight Russian invasion seriously. While Kyiv at last termed Moscow’s violence against their country “aggression,” they demurred from calling it a war, which it is, seemingly not realizing that if Ukraine won’t call this a war, NATO and the rest of Europe never will. The Poroshenko administration continues to pass on getting serious about defending their country, as I have roundly criticized.
News from Athens is also bad. The newly-elected hard-left SYRIZA party is not just anti-austerity, it’s openly pro-Putin. New Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras makes no effort to hide his admiration for this Kremlin, and the first foreign dignitary he entertained as PM was Russia’s ambassador to Greece. Greece’s new defense minister visited Moscow before the election, while the new foreign minister is pals with Aleksander Dugin, the Kremlin-approved neo-fascist ideologist (while Dugin, the son of a GRU general, is a marginal figure in Moscow, he is employed by the regime as fly-paper for foreign Putin groupies). Although SYRIZA is a very left-wing party, it fits comfortably into the mostly far-right Putinist coalition in Europe. As Dugin explained in 2013, “In Greece, our partners could eventually be Leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance. As far as I know, SYRIZA is anti-capitalist and it is critical of the global oligarchy that has victimized Greece and Cyprus.”
Everybody expected that SYRIZA, with its anti-austerity platform, would pose immediate problems for the EU, but it’s now clear that the new government in Athens will bring problems for NATO as well. SYRIZA opposition to EU sanctions on Russia is stated openly, and it seems possible that Greece will now move into an openly pro-Moscow orientation in foreign and defense policy, which would pose serious complications for NATO. The emerging dividing line in European politics is no longer Left versus Right, but Pro- or Anti-Putin.
Most Western leaders remain blind, at this point willfully, to what Putin represents and what he wants. Moscow makes no effort to hide its worldview, a toxic blend of Chekism, militant Orthodoxy, xenophobia, and anti-Western resentments, but the Davos elite, being the consummate WEIRDos, cannot see the obvious. As long as NATO and EU leaders refuse to notice what is before their eyes, the West will continue to lose to a Russia that it dwarfs in political, military, and economic terms. In war, will counts more than numbers, as Putin is proving yet again.
It’s increasingly obvious that Moscow’s aim is the recreation of something like the Tsarist Empire of pre-Great War days. An important bellwether here is the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), another “independent” Moscow think-tank that actually isn’t independent. RISI’s head is Leonid Reshetnikov, another “former” Chekist, in fact a career KGB officer who retired as a two-star general and the head of foreign intelligence analysis. Like many, he has transformed into a militant religious believer with Big Ideas and enthusiastic backer of Putin’s Orthodox Jihad. Reshetnikov, who pushed for the invasion of Ukraine, now wants to erase Belarus also, and thereby recreate Tsarist Russia. It’s comforting to dismiss this as lunatic nostalgia, but Reshetnikov is no marginal figure, rather a connected member of the Chekist elite with close ties to the Kremlin.
Recreating Tsarist Russia within the frontiers of 1914 would mesh nicely with the fate of Ukraine I recently sketched as the likely outcome if Kyiv does not get serious about the war, soon. That this vision includes the re-annexation of the Baltic States, which would mean war with NATO, should be obvious to all. The West must look squarely at the fact that Putin may no longer fear such a confrontation. There is little time to waste.
In the midst of all this dire warning, I want to inject a dose of optimism. Putin’s neo-imperial project is doomed to fail. Its inherent contradictions are great, to add a fleeting Marxist note. It is an intensely Russian project and the very things that make Putinism intoxicating to Russians — its nationalist politics and religion, its paeans to Muscovy’s heroes and greatness past — render it toxic to foreigners. For all its ambitions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, Putinism has nothing to offer non-Russians except vassalage.
It’s impossible to miss that European fans of Putin increase in number the farther you travel from Russia’s borders. Closer to Russia, the sort of far-right activists who agree with a lot of Moscow’s critique of the West’s WEIRD problem are intensely anti-Putin, out of fear; they know the Kremlin has no place for them in their plans for a New Europe, free of Atlanticism and the United States.
It’s easy to fantasize about Putin “saving” Europe from itself when you’re in Germany or Greece, or better yet France. Such illusions are rare in Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, much less Ukraine, where the hungry Russian bear looms close-by. One wonders what Marine Le Pen would think of her crush in the Kremlin if France were located a thousand kilometers eastward of where it is.
Ukrainians have no illusions, they know the Russians well. They are aware that most Russians, including Putin, don’t view theirs as a “real” country, despite the fact that it has forty-five million citizens and is the second biggest country in Europe. Putin has openly stated he does not think Ukraine is a country and he refers to them as “Little Russians,” an offensive Tsarist throwback. Ukrainians know that their language, the second-biggest in Imperial Russia, was banned entirely by the Tsar in 1876, while the Soviets, despite being more understanding about Ukrainian language and culture, brought genocide. After such recent historical experiences, why any Ukrainian would welcome Moscow’s rule is a good question.
The volunteers who are bearing so much of the defense of Ukraine’s East include many right-wingers whose views on the WEIRD West are indistinguishable from the Kremlin’s, but they know that Putin does not want allies, he seeks vassals. They are acquainted with what control by Moscow means. Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, which is powerful politically — Ukrainians tend to be more personally devout than Russians, who like to wax about Orthodox swords but don’t actually go to church much — has explained that it rejects Western post-modern values but emphatically does not reject Europe or democracy.
There is nothing new about any of this. In the decades before the Great War, Russian Slavophiles, who pushed an earlier version of militant mystical nationalism fused with Orthodoxy, fantasized about Russia taking over all their “little brothers” in Eastern Europe. They meddled internationally, helping cause World War I, and they were genuinely shocked to discover that Slavs living under the Habsburgs did not greet them as liberators. Ukrainians in Habsburg lands occupied by the Russian army in 1914-15 were immediately treated to what fellow Ukrainians living under the Tsar already experienced. They did not like it, and the Russians arrested thousands of Ukrainians who objected — clerics, teachers, politicians — packing them off to Siberia for the duration.
Such blindness is hardly a uniquely Russian problem. Nationalism is not for export, and is bound to collide with other people’s nationalisms. Comparisons to Hitler are always to be used sparingly but some apply here. Fascism never became an international movement because of the inherent contradictions of the competing nationalisms among Hitler’s wartime allies. For instance, Horthy’s Hungary and Antonescu’s Romania were happy to fight Bolshevism but they really hated and feared each other more.
Neither did the Germans deal well with political figures seeking to be partners, not vassals, of Nazi Germany. Narrowly focused on themselves and their nationalism, the Germans failed to develop any sort of pan-European coalition against the West and Bolshevism, even though there were millions of right-wing Europeans who would have joined them. It never seems to have occurred to Berlin that the more than thirty divisions of the Polish army would have been very helpful in the Wehrmacht‘s (ultimately failed) drive on Moscow in 1941, not to mention that there were many Poles who were as eager to crush the Soviets as anyone in Germany. Poles were inferior Slavs, Untermenschen, and had to be crushed, per Nazi dogma, and that was that — notwithstanding the fact that Germany never fully subdued the Poles, who resisted Nazi occupation with unmatched fervor.
Close to the end of the World War II, as Nazi dreams of empire were collapsing in flames, a noted French collaborationist explained how the Germans did it all wrong. Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, a fascist who became disillusioned with the Germans’ imperial project, shortly before taking his own life, thereby missing a date with an Allied hangman, castigated the “imbecilic” Hitler and Germany’s “extreme political incompetence”:
These military failings followed from Hitler’s total lack of imagination outside of Germany. He was [essentially] a German politician; good for Germany, but only there.
Lacking political culture, education, and a larger tradition, having never traveled, being a xenophobe like many popular demagogues, he did not possess an understanding of what was necessary to make his strategy and diplomacy work outside Germany. All his dreams, all his talents, were devoted to winning the war of 1914, as if conditions [in 1940] were still those of 1914.
Much the same could be said of Putin, a Chekist functionary, not a deep thinker, a man of limited experience of life outside Russia and the KGB cocoon. His brand of Tsarist-era nostalgia, fueled by nationalism and Orthodoxy, has nothing to offer non-Russians, and is not even wanted by some of Russia’s many minorities. Putin, like Hitler, lives in a mental time-warp that was outmoded already in 1914 — see his strangely 19th century views on diplomacy — and would be laughably obsolete now, were it not so dangerous. Moscow’s imperial experiments past all failed, thanks to the limited appeal of the Kremlin’s political program to millions of non-Russians, and this one will too, eventually.
But the ultimate defeat of Putinism, while pre-ordained, may not be quick. Ukraine may indeed fall under Russian vassalage again, and Europe shows no signs of waking up to the nature of this threat, much less what must be done to counter it. No sanctions will stop Putin, who cares little about economics, now. The Davos crowd, long on money and comfort, will likely keep its heads firmly in the sand until Russian tanks are audible, naively thinking Putin can be bought off.
To make the fall of Putinism happen sooner, not later, before Russian imperial fantasies cause a massive war that could kill millions, the West must address this threat seriously, now. Helping Ukraine resist Russian invasion is important, as is finally getting serious about deterrence in Eastern Europe. Just as important is resisting the Kremlin’s Special War against NATO and the EU, while addressing the legitimate concerns of Europeans about hot-button issues like immigration and national identity before they embrace Putin-approved “solutions.”
Vladimir Putin has already torn Europe’s post-Cold War consensus asunder, shattering the happy views of the Davos crowd (though they seem not to realize it), bringing war to the continent again. What this Kremlin wants is perfectly clear. The West’s not noticing Russia’s agenda is a choice, one with increasingly fateful consequences. Putin’s dream of Russian Empire over Eastern Europe will fail, as all preceding efforts of this kind did. NATO and the EU, with American help, have the power to determine how long it takes for Moscow’s fantasies to turn to dust, and how many countries and lives are destroyed before that happens. Let us hope they use it, soon.