It’s been a generation or so since Russians were in the business of shaping the destiny of the world, and most of us have forgotten how good they used to be at it. For much of the last century Moscow fuelled — and often won — the West’s ideological and culture wars, notes analyst Owen Matthews:
In the 1930s, brilliant operatives like Willi Muenzenberg convinced ‘useful idiots’ to join anti-fascist organisations that were in reality fronts for the Soviet-backed Communist International. Even in the twilight years of the Soviet Union the KGB was highly successful at orchestrating nuclear disarmament movements and trade unionism across the West.
“Now Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world — this time as a champion of conservative values,” he writes for The [UK] Spectator:
A recent report by the Centre for Strategic Communications, a Kremlin-connected think tank, neatly summarized Putin’s ambition: it’s entitled ‘Putin: World Conservatism’s New Leader’. The report argues that large, silent majorities around the world favor traditional family values over feminism and gay rights — and that Putin is their natural leader. ‘The Kremlin apparently believes it has found the ultimate wedge issue to unite its supporters and divide its opponents, both in Russia and the West, and garner support in the developing world,’ says Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore. ‘They seem to believe they have found the ideology that will return Russia to its rightful place as a great power with a messianic mission and the ability to win hearts and minds globally.’
“American presidents, understandably for strategic reasons, want to forge a relationship with Russia that goes beyond Cold War paradigms,” said Damon Wilson, a former Bush administration official now at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
“But inevitably, they are dragged back to the reality that they are dealing with an interlocutor that isn’t prepared to be a partner in that effort,” he said. “If you look at Russian foreign policy it is a negative agenda…..The issue is restoring Russian influence by checking American power.”
The realization that Moscow views the world in terms of “us or them” has been slow to dawn on the Obama administration, but is becoming more apparent to White House and national security officials, foreign-policy experts say.
The administration gave Moscow “every favorable interpretation, every benefit of the doubt” in its first years, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“Even in the administration, they are beginning to understand this is not a question of Putin’s mood,” Mr. Aron said. “This is the geostrategic framework that Putin operates. This is how he understands re-establishing Russian greatness.”
Rebuilding Russia’s position on the world stage and its dominance in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union have been a key part of Mr. Putin’s agenda. Despite U.S. insistence that geopolitics isn’t a “them-or-us,” zero-sum game, Mr. Putin has made it clear he doesn’t agree.
Obama administration officials reject the idea that Mr. Putin is gaining the upper hand, noting the problems faced by the governments of Syria and Ukraine—both allies of Moscow.
“Neither of those situations advance Russia’s interests in any way,” a senior administration official said. “If anything, these and other events demonstrate that people want democracy, they reject corruption, and they want individual opportunity and integration into the global economy.”
U.S. officials expressed dismay that Moscow has operated in secret in Ukraine. “They have not been transparent about what they’ve been doing in the Ukraine,” a senior State Department official said. “And we would completely reject that it is we who have been interfering.”
Putin also benefits from widespread skepticism and ‘change fatigue’ on the part of the Russian public, analysts suggest.
“While a minority of intellectuals and democracy activists have shown envy or drawn inspiration from Ukraine’s protest movement – and blasted the Russian state media for distorting the story – this is far from the majority view,” writes FT analyst Kathrin Hille:
In particular, for those who experienced the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the stormy 1990s – a period marked by political infighting, food shortages and rampant inflation – a quiet, safe life is more important than anything else. These are the people who, although more critical of corruption and economic stagnation, keep electing Mr Putin because they cherish stability. Ukraine reminds them of what could have been.
An opinion poll conducted before the latest upsurge in violence shows that Russians were already becoming more skeptical about the Ukrainian protests. Disinterest had given way to bewilderment, irritation and resentment.
According to a survey in January by Levada Center, Russia’s most independent pollster, 84 per cent of respondents saw events in Kiev as a violent coup attempt and only 4 per cent as a peaceful protest. The proportion of those believing in a peaceful resolution of the standoff through compromise dropped to 23 per cent, down from 34 per cent a month earlier, while 17 per cent fear that the situation would escalate into civil war.
“Moscow’s fierce criticism of western leaders and the Ukrainian opposition is not simply the panicky response of an authoritarian government trying to shore up its Ukrainian puppet, as sometimes described in Washington or Brussels,” Hille adds. “It stems from a very real difference in perspective on the unrest.”
But it’s a perspective strongly informed by a distinct form of ideological nostalgia.
“Like the old Communist International, or Comintern, in its day, Moscow is again building an international ideological alliance,” Matthews contends:
The Comintern sought to bring ‘progressives’ and left-wingers of every stripe into Moscow’s ideological big tent; Putin is pitching for moral leadership of all conservatives who dislike liberal values. And again, like the Comintern, Putin appears convinced that he is embarking on a world-historical mission. It’s certainly true that such a moral mission has deep roots in Russian history. Many previous occupants of the Kremlin have set themselves up as defenders of orthodoxy and autocracy — notably Nicholas I, the ‘gendarme of Europe’, and the arch-conservative Alexander III. Putin quoted the 19th-century conservative thinker Nikolai Berdyaev in his Duma speech. ‘The point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward,’ Putin said, ‘but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’
Putin is also able to take advantage of the Kremlin’s hyper-centralized administration and political discipline to act more decisively than the haplessly divided European Union.
“The deadly violence that exploded this week in Ukraine has another victim: Europe’s foreign-policy credibility,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
A few months ago Ukraine looked on course to be drawn into the Western orbit through a wide-ranging trade-and-aid agreement with the European Union. Today, Ukraine is advertising Europe’s helplessness to influence events even in countries close to its borders.
Some governments, including Spain, Italy and the U.K. have been trying to strengthen ties with Moscow, which dipped to a low point in 2008 after Russia’s invasion of Georgia….Other EU countries, including Sweden, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia, have pushed hard to bring Kiev closer to the EU, seeing it as a major economic opportunity.
One senior European official said this week that at least half of the bloc has made an improvement in ties with the Kremlin a priority—ties that may be tested again when the EU tries to meet an August target to complete economic accords with the former Soviet states of Moldova and Georgia.
“The conditionality in the original EU association offer to Ukraine was informed by the lessons of the first, post-Cold War enlargement wave in the late 1990s,” says Ewald Böhlke of the German Council on Foreign Relations, reflecting the common view in Germany that more should have been demanded of countries such as Hungary before being allowed to enter the EU.
‘Arsenal of reaction’
“It would be easy to dismiss Putin’s conservative Comintern as another Sochi-style vanity project if it weren’t for the fact that Russia’s hard power is growing in parallel with its soft power,” notes Matthews:
For the first time in a generation Moscow called the shots on a major international diplomatic issue last year, when Sergei Lavrov’s plan to supervise Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament derailed US plans for military strikes on Damascus. Over recent years Moscow unsuccessfully backed local despots in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya — and they lost their heads, just like old Soviet clients from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. But with Syria that run of failure is finally changing. Moscow’s diplomatic protection in the UN, backed by Russian weapons, intelligence and military expertise, finally means something again.
“If Harry Truman wanted to make the US the arsenal of democracy, then Putin seems to have a similar plan for Russia to be the arsenal of reaction,” he writes.