ZOiS Spotlight 11/2022

The Ideology Behind Russia’s War

by Katharina Bluhm 23/03/2022
Rally on occasion of Russia's annexation of Crimea in Simferopol, Crimea on 18 March 2022. IMAGO / SNA

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was long regarded as a proponent of Realpolitik, whose actions, while ruthless, were interest-led. He liked to describe himself as a pragmatist and, since 2012, “a pragmatist with a conservative perspective” for whom regime stability was the priority, well ahead of risky reforms. Ideology appeared to be merely a propaganda tool, a “false consciousness” that diverted the public’s attention away from thoughts of improved living standards, stalled since the annexation of Crimea. Patriotism supposed to supplant the “social contract” with Putin. However, neither Putin’s wily pragmatism nor his purely instrumental use of ideology sits easily alongside the miscalculation of his blitzkrieg against Ukraine. Even if Russia is successful in subjugating Ukraine, at least for a time, this misjudgement of his country’s military capabilities, of the reaction from the West and, above all, of the resistance of the Ukrainian people has proven to be disastrous. So is he a victim of his intelligence apparatus, which only told him what he wanted to hear, and his own propaganda machine?

In the West, attempts have been made to explain Putin’s miscalculation in terms of his isolated position at the top, narcissistic personality disorder or, indeed, ideology. There is suddenly much talk of ideology, of Eurasianism, the “Third Rome” and Putin’s Great Russian aspirations. But once again, there is a tendency, in these public discourses, to jump to conclusions. Firstly, we are looking at events with the benefit of hindsight. And secondly, mention is made, yet again, of individual ideologues who supposedly have the ear of the autocrat and commander-in-chief. Names recently mooted include Putin’s close confidant, the banker Yuri Kovalchuk and, above all, Aleksandr Dugin – the Russian New Right ideologue most familiar to the West. However, the revanchist Eurasian and “conservative revolutionary” – as influential as he was in the early 2000s – was never the only one of his kind; indeed, he was always a controversial figure and his significance waned over the years.

Towards a state ideology

In order to understand the role of ideology in today’s neo-imperial and authoritarian Russia, it is essential to recognise that ideological production is a complex process with its own dynamics and that its constant reference points are Russia’s powerful elite and “the West”. As we examine this process, our attention turns to the long-standing controversies over what “Putinism” means in an ideological sense. The current state ideology, which is enshrined in the amended 2020 constitution, the 2015 and 2021 security doctrines and in many other official documents, marks the completion of this complex process; the war against Ukraine is its endpoint.

The starting point was a revisionist counter-movement which emerged in the late 1990s against the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but also against the neo-liberal economic reforms – enforced by authoritarian means – of the Yeltsin era, the new financial and resource oligarchy, Russian cronyism and turbo-capitalism, rampant corruption, the amoral consumer society, and Russia’s integration into the globalised economy as a raw materials supplier and capital exporter. It involves “conceptual ideologues” (mostly men), as well as journalists, writers, celebrities from the arts and culture, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Christian fundamentalists and activists. “Restoring Russia’s future”, “Counter-reformation” and “Russian Doctrine – A New Weapon of Consciousness” were titles of the conservative movement’s manifestos. Their common denominator is not only their aspiration to restore elements of “historic Russia”, but also their broad-based anti-neoliberalism and rejection of the West as a politically, economically and culturally dominant transatlantic structure. Under the conditions imposed on Eastern Europe in the 1990s under the Washington Consensus, catch-up development is impossible, according to the general consensus within this conservative movement, from which Putin somewhat hesitantly took some ideas. The revanchist Eurasian Aleksandr Dugin is undoubtedly one of the prominent figures in this movement, but at no point was he its intellectual leader.

War as a panicked correction of history

The current onslaught against Ukraine by Russia’s military-industrial complex under Putin, with the silencing of other elite factions who quite obviously were not involved in preparations for the war, can be interpreted as the seizing of a seemingly favourable opportunity. However, the fact that this risk was taken at all can be seen, first and foremost, as a panicked reaction to the possibility that the last chance to correct history might be missed. But this is not about returning to a previous state; it is about looking to the future.

With China in the ascendancy in recent years, there is a growing fear that Russia will be left behind by the new major powers while the declining “West” continues to expand into the post-Soviet space. Both threaten the fundamental principle that in order to remain a sovereign power – which, from a Russian perspective, means being a great power – Russia needs its own geo-economic space. Immanuel Wallerstein, whose book “After Liberalism” is one of the most-quoted works by a non-Russian author alongside Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, separates the modern capitalist world economy into the core, the periphery and the semi-peripheries. According to the Russian conservative counter-movement, Western liberalism negates Russia’s opportunities to become a political, economic and cultural core in the changing world order and thus preserve its status as an empire. This negation is seen as a threat to Russia’s existence and internal cohesion. It is a view which undoubtedly finds the popular resonance that propaganda needs if it is to work. Russia thus acquires a new, historic, post-colonial, indeed metaphysical mission, namely “de-Westernisation” and the “de-Europeanisation of the world”. As he himself recently stated, Putin wants to draw “a line under the global dominance of Western countries in politics and the economy”.

Great Russian nationalism, under whose banner Russia embarked on a war against a “fraternal nation”, has nothing to do with interest-led politics. It takes no account of the economic interests of Russia’s key export-oriented industries, nor is it alarmed by the brain drain caused by the exit of the cosmopolitan “creative class”. It will lead to Russia’s greater dependence on China. But above all, the invasion counteracts the Eurasian idea that gained currency in the 1990s in response to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Dugin’s revanchist Eurasianism was merely a variant of this. The point is that serious-minded Eurasianism should be inclusive and exert some appeal for the semi-periphery and periphery. Violence is not a suitable means to achieve this, even though the Russian governments demonstratively tries to provide incentives for the members of the Eurasian Union by excluding them from its export stop on crops. Whether the proposal of the Eurasian Union Economic Commission to introduce a Eurasian ruble as the beginning of a financial system independent of the dollar will be a success also remains to be seen.

Katharina Bluhm is a Professor of Sociology and Head of the Institute for East European Studies, Freie Universität Berlin.