An expert on democracy assistance, McFaul encountered resistance to his ideas within the Administration, Remnick reports:
During one argument among aides in the White House, McFaul took the position that nations need not wait for the development of a middle class before building democratic institutions. As McFaul recalled, “Somebody said, ‘That’s interesting, but that’s not what the President thinks.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting, but if that is what he thinks he is wrong.’ It was a jarring moment, and I thought I might even get fired.” He recalled arguing with Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, about the issue. “Donilon would tell me, Obama is not really interested in that stuff. He’s just a realist.” And yet McFaul, who is not shy about suggesting his own influence, pointed out that Obama gave speeches in Cairo, Moscow, and Accra, in 2009, “making my arguments about why democracy is a good thing. . . . Those speeches made me more optimistic, after all those colleagues telling me he is just a realist.”
“Obama has multiple interests he is thinking about,” McFaul went on. “He has idealist impulses that are real, and then impulses about concerns about unintended consequences of idealism. We were in the Roosevelt Room during the Egypt crisis, and I asked, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘What I want is for this to happen quickly and the Google guy to become President. What I think is that this will be a long-drawn-out process.’ ”
Reminick profiles several of Russia’s leading ideologues and details the disturbing prevalence of anti-Western illiberal conspiracy theories that inform the regime’s policies.
Dmitri Kiselyov, the head of Russia Today, Putin’s newly created information agency, and the host, on Sunday nights, of the TV magazine show “News of the Week,” is a masterly, and unapologetic, purveyor of the Kremlin line, he notes:
“Putin now talks more about ideology and about the system of values and the spiritual origins of Russia. In this sense, he, too, is a person of tardy development. He became President unexpectedly. He had no preparation for this role. He had to respond to challenges in the course of things. At first, he had to reconsolidate the state. Now he has inspired a new energy that can be drawn from the national character and the system of values that are rooted in our culture.”
“People in the West twenty-five years ago were surprised by how calmly Russians seemed to absorb the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Boris Mezhuev, the conservative columnist, said. “It seemed to them as if we had voted on it! But in no time at all people were told that everything they had worked for was nonsense. They were told that the state they lived in was based on an unfair idea, that ideology was a myth, the West was only a friend—a complete reversal of ideas. The West underestimated the shock. Only now are we facing the consequences.”
There is an air of defiance, even a heedlessness, to Putin’s behavior, Remnick suggests:
As the conservative commentator Stanislav Belkovsky put it to me, “It was clear that the actions in Crimea would lead to sanctions, capital flight, and a deterioration of Russia’s reputation, but nobody supporting the aggression thought twice. The imperial horn has been sounded. But we are a Third World kleptocracy hiding behind imperial symbols. There are no resources for a true imperial revival.”
Aleksandr Prokhanov, a far-right newspaper editor and novelist, is another influential voice, Remnick notes:
Together with members of other institutions associated with the Kremlin—the armed forces, the intelligence services, and the Russian Orthodox Church—he started an intellectual group called the Izborsky Club. In the nineties, Yeltsin had called on a group of intellectuals to help formulate a new “Russian idea,” one that relied largely on a liberal, Westernized conception of the nation. It went nowhere. Now, with such notions as “democracy” and “liberalism” in eclipse, groups like the Izborsky Club, Prokhanov says, are a “defense factory where we create ideological weapons to resist the West.” He said the group recently organized a branch in eastern Ukraine, led by the pro-Russian separatists. “The liberals used to be in charge in all spheres,” Prokhanov said. “Now we are crowding them out.”
Prokhanov is hardly an outlier on today’s ideological scene in Russia. Nor is the geopolitical theorist, mystic, and high-minded crackpot Aleksandr Dugin (right), who has published in Prokhanov’s newspapers. He was once as marginal as a Lyndon LaRouche follower with a card table and a stack of leaflets. He used to appear mainly on SPAS (Salvation), an organ of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now the state affords him frequent guest spots on official television.
“For all of Dugin’s extremism, he has, in the past decade, found supporters in the Russian élite,” Remnick notes:
According to the Israeli scholar Yigal Liverant and other sources, Dugin’s work is read in the Russian military academy. He has served as an adviser to Gennady Seleznyov, the former chairman of the Russian parliament. His Eurasia Movement, which was founded in 2001, included members of the government and the official media. He declared his “absolute” support for Putin, and when he pressed his political positions in public it was usually to take the most hard-line positions possible, particularly on Georgia and Ukraine. In 2008, he was appointed head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University. Dugin used to brag that “Putin is becoming more and more like Dugin.” And indeed Putin speaks more and more in terms of Russian vastness, Russian exceptionalism, of Russia as a moral paradigm.
“In my two years as Ambassador, I just met too many young, smart, talented people who want to be connected to the world, not isolated from it. They also want a say in the government. They are scared now, and therefore not demonstrating, but they have not changed their preferences about the future they want. Instead, they are just hiding these preferences, but there will be a day when they will express them again. Putin’s regime cannot hold these people down forever. I do worry about the new nationalism that Putin has unleashed, and understand that many young Russians also embrace these extremist ideas. I see it on Twitter every day. But, in the long run, I see the Westernizers winning out. I just don’t know how long is the long run.”