A lot of digital ink has been spilled since 2014 on the topic of Putin’s personal ideology. Analysts struggle to figure out what it is he wants, and thus they begin examining the works of authors who supposedly influence his thinking, such as Ivan Ilyin. Putin is said to be trying to simultaneously restore the USSR and the Russian Empire. He supposedly believes in the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) as a distinct civilization. So the theory seems to be something like this: If we can, with the help of numerous Russian studies scholars, somehow unravel his thought process, perhaps Western leaders can find his rational side and thus strike a compromise with him which will satisfy all parties. Sounds reasonable enough. In fact, Western leaders just might get lucky and see Putin and his regime swept from power by a herd of rainbow-farting unicorns descending from the heavens. This is Fantasy Time now, right?
In all seriousness, here’s the extent to which ideology actually matters — it motivates and guides Putin’s underlings. Propagandists like Dugin and Kiselyov, agents like Borodai or Strelkov, and all sorts of state workers, military officers, police officials, and virtually everyone else who has a hand in propping up the regime. The ideology varies from person to person, but there are common themes, probably the most common among them being the idea that Russia has its own “special path,” which is the go-to excuse for explaining anything from why Russians can’t have a normal republican democracy with competitive elections to why the roads are falling apart. As for Putin and the people closest to him? They believe in nothing beyond preserving their own power, and by extension, their own hides.
Not convinced? Look at it this way, if Putin had some kind of developed ideology, it would have leaked out to us as result of discussions with world leaders or their diplomats. Yet as Merkel famously remarked after one such meeting, Putin seems to live in a “different world.” I don’t believe this would have been her reaction if he gave her a detailed lecture on geopolitics or a political rant rooted in a coherent ideology. In that case there’d be more to report. The fact is that Putin doesn’t have an answer for why he does what he’s been doing in Ukraine because prior to 22 February 2014, he most likely had nothing but, at best, contingency plans. Taking the Crimea and fomenting unrest in the Donbas were both reactionary moves with little forethought. This is what Putin does these days. He thinks tactically without long-term strategic thinking, and he’s ever the opportunist. If his actions were rooted in some kind of ideology that he sincerely believed in, he would have been making speeches about returning the Crimea or freeing the Donbas years ago. Yet instead, the Russkiy Mir, Novorossiya, and Russia as a distinct civilization are all suddenly things after the fact. Sure.
What Putin wants is simple, or more accurately — what he doesn’t want is simple. He doesn’t want to be held accountable for his actions. At some point in his long career, he surely came to the realization that if Russia were a republic with competitive elections and parties, where the whole political system wasn’t based around his figure, he would inevitably have to leave power. This would mean losing control over the state security apparatus, the military, and the courts. Whoever his successor might be, even if they came from his party, they could turn on him. They’d have access to mountain of dirt on the ex-president and his affiliates, and the means to fabricate more if necessary. Why they would do such a thing isn’t hard to imagine. He could be delivered up as a scapegoat in the event of an economic crisis, something Putin himself must have seen on the horizon years ago, for example.
What this means for the West
Once you understand that Putin’s ideology, what he really wants in fact, is in reality self-preservation, it truly shows how naïve Western leaders are in dealing with him. Putin’s actions in Ukraine and in NATO airspace are largely aimed at reassuring his newfound base. Backing down is not an option. To understand why, consider the following scenario:
Suppose Putin totally backs down, pulls out of Ukraine, even out of the Crimea, and apologizes profusely. European governments and those of the US and Canada welcome his change of heart and offer their own apologies for previous misunderstandings. All parties swear to build a new world, where Russia and the West cooperate together for the good of the Russian people and all those nations in between that space. Yeah I know — rainbow-farting unicorns again. Just bear with me here.
How would ordinary Americans react to this? Aside from political pundits trying to score points in America’s internal political arena, most Americans simply wouldn’t care. Given the short time this “new Cold War” lasted, I think most of them would just be confused. “Hey, weren’t all the networks saying Russia’s our enemy again? What was the deal with that?” After similar comments most would revert back to busying themselves with local and national politics, entertainment, professional sports, and video games. Americans simply do not care about Russia. They haven’t really cared since 1991.
This would not be the reaction in Russia, however. This would be the ultimate humiliation, perhaps worse than losing the Cold War. See one interesting fact about the Cold War is that Soviet people really didn’t hate Americans that much. The kind of anti-American hate the Kremlin media and troll armies have been stoking in recent years is far beyond the animosity of the Cold War. You can see it in the propaganda and the personal anecdotes of people who visited the USSR.
These days, however, you have millions of people, young and old, who are convinced that the USSR fell, thus humiliating Russia, all because of the US, Gorbachev, and at most a handful of other “traitors” like him. This narrative of humiliation finds easy purchase as the Russian economy started to erode and ordinary Russians started to see fewer prospects for their future. The back-stab legend is far preferable than admitting their own role in the Soviet collapse.
The end result of all this is that many Russians, and far more in recent years, actually don’t want friendly relations with the West, or at least not with the US. They’ve been convinced that the US is Russia’s historical enemy, in some cases going back to the 19th century, an idea that is preposterous to anyone with even a minimum of knowledge on the subject. It’s not enough for Russia to work and build itself up in order to enjoy the living standards of the West, thus equaling or even exceeding the US in that respect. No, the US must lose. The US must break up, be humiliated. Her sons must die young and her daughters prostituted. Eye for an eye, as they see it. The US losing is far more important than Russia winning, in fact. Hence the endless wishful thinking and hoping for the collapse of the dollar and the US economy, with no regard for the impact this would have on Russia. Hence the joy at imagining a nuclear strike against Washington without any inkling that this pretty much means the end of Russia as well.
The American can watch this whole conflict disappear from the TV screens in 24 hours, even if it means the US and EU abandoning Ukraine, because the fact is Russia never really did anything to America. At most, they backed some factions in proxy wars in which Americans died, Vietnam being the best example. Red Dawn never happened. By contrast, while Americans didn’t really do anything to Russians, their media, politicians, and ideologues have managed to convince them that they did. They destroyed the Soviet Union and brought on the Wild 90’s. Russians had no agency in the whole mess. They were just innocent victims.
Given the nature of Putin’s new base and how they view things like popular protest as a method of forcing political change, it’s unlikely that people would take to the streets and demand Putin’s head if he backed down. However, some far more important people closer to the president might see this as weakness, and now they know there’s a massive, enraged base out there who wants Putin’s blood. This would be an opportune time for some kind of coup.
Now the difficulties of finding a settlement with Putin become clear. Any attempt to normalize or improve relations with NATO, and in particular the US, will be seen as bowing down to the West. The base knows no other relationship. Putin and his friends have painted themselves into a corner with their own propaganda, leaving them no easy way out. Of course Putin does still wield the most power in the country. If he so desired, he could require Russian schoolchildren to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” every morning and there’s little the Russian populace could do about it. As time goes on and the economy worsens, however, his ability to do whatever he wants, no matter how unpopular, might erode significantly. Officials in far off regions, or even those closer to Moscow, might sense weakness and start vying for more authority. At the very least they might start ignoring orders and engage in empire building. People close to him might start forming cliques and going over his head. It’s not a light risk for him to take.
Obviously I don’t presume to have a solution to offer American or European leaders in dealing with this matter. They have their interests, and I have mine. What they ought to realize, however, is the true nature of Putin’s desires, and not get too caught up in pondering geopolitical theory or the works of obscure Russian ideologues. They certainly shouldn’t look to pre-20th century Russian history or even worse, Russian literature, for the answers.
Indeed, this should be taken as good news, because it means on some level Putin is very rational- survival is rational. At the risk of offending dozens of Russian studies professors, grad students, and undergrads, I tell you that understanding Putin far simpler than some claim. Putin isn’t trying to restore the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, nor is he trying to make the “Russkiy Mir” a reality. He certainly doesn’t give a damn about the “Russian-speakers” in the Donbas either. All things considered, Putin wants to save his own skin. Any solution should start from there. Either that, or Western leaders can finance the creation of rainbow-farting unicorns and see where that takes them.