President Vladimir Putin’s bloody assault on Ukraine nearly a month later still seems inexplicable. The rockets raining down on apartment buildings and fleeing families are now the face of Russia in the world. What could induce Russia to take such a fateful step, effectively choosing to become a pariah state?
Efforts to understand invasion tend to fall into two broad schools of thought. The first focuses on Mr Putin himself – his mindset, his understanding of history or his KGB past. The second cites developments external to Russia, primarily NATO’s eastward expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the underlying source of the conflict.
But to understand the war in Ukraine, you have to go beyond the political projects of Western leaders and the psyche of Mr. Putin. The ardor and content of Mr. Putin’s statements are neither new nor unique to him. Since the 1990s, plans to reunify Ukraine and other post-Soviet states into a transcontinental superpower have been brewing in Russia. A revitalized theory of the Eurasian Empire informs Mr. Putin’s every move.
The end of the Soviet Union disoriented Russian elites, stripping them of their special status in a huge communist empire. What should be done? For some, the answer was simply to make money, the capitalist way. In the Roaring Twenties after 1991, many were able to amass huge roving fortunes on an indulgent diet. But for others who had set their goals under Soviet conditions, wealth and a vibrant consumer economy were not enough. Post-imperial egos have keenly felt Russia’s loss of status and importance.
As Communism lost momentum, intellectuals searched for a different principle on which the Russian state could be organized. Their explorations materialized briefly in the formation of political parties, including furiously nationalist and anti-Semitic movements, and with more lasting effect in the revival of religion as the foundation of collective life. But as the state shrugged off democratic politics in the 1990s, new interpretations of the essence of Russia emerged, offering solace and hope to people struggling to regain their country’s prestige in the world. world.
One of the most appealing concepts was Eurasianism. Emerging from the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, this idea posited Russia as a Eurasian polity formed by a deep history of cultural exchange between peoples of Turkish, Slavic, Mongol and other Asian origins. In 1920, linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy – one of many Russian émigré intellectuals who developed the concept – published “Europe and Humanity”, a scathing critique of Western colonialism and Eurocentrism. He called on Russian intellectuals to break free from their fixation on Europe and build on “the legacy of Genghis Khan” to create a large Russian-Eurasian state spanning the entire continent.
Trubetzkoy’s eurasism was a recipe for imperial recuperation, without communism – a harmful Western import, he argued. Instead, Trubetzkoy emphasized the ability of a reinvigorated Russian Orthodoxy to provide cohesion across Eurasia, with careful care for believers of the many other religions practiced in this huge region.
Suppressed for decades in the Soviet Union, Eurasianism survived underground and burst into public consciousness during the perestroika period of the late 1980s. Lev Gumilyov, an eccentric geographer who had spent 13 years in the Soviet prisons and forced labor camps, became an acclaimed guru of the Eurasian revival in the 1980s. Mr. Gumilyov emphasized ethnic diversity as the driving force of world history. According to his concept of “ethnogenesis”, an ethnic group could, under the influence of a charismatic leader, develop into a “super-ethnos” – a power distributed over a vast geographical area which would clash with other units. expanding ethnicities.
Mr. Gumilyov’s theories appealed to many who were going through the chaotic 1990s. But Eurasianism was injected directly into the blood of Russian power in a variant developed by the self-styled philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. After unsuccessful interventions in post-Soviet party politics, Mr Dugin focused on building his influence where it mattered – with the military and policy makers. With the publication in 1997 of his 600-page manual, haughtily titled “The Foundations of Geopolitics: Russia’s Geopolitical Future,” Eurasianism moved to the center of the political imagination of strategists.
In Mr. Dugin’s adaptation of Eurasianism to present conditions, Russia had a new adversary – no longer just Europe, but the entire US-led “Atlantic” world. And his Eurasianism was not anti-imperial, but the opposite: Russia had always been an empire, the Russian people were an “imperial people” and after the crippling surrender of the 1990s to the “eternal enemy”, Russia could be reborn in the next phase of the global fight. and become a “world empire”. On the civilizational front, Dugin pointed to the long-term connection between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Empire. The fight of Orthodoxy against Western Christianity and Western decadence could be harnessed to the geopolitical war to come.
Eurasian geopolitics, Russian orthodoxy and traditional values - these goals shaped Russia’s self-image under Mr. Putin’s leadership. Themes of imperial glory and Western victimhood were propagated across the country; in 2017, they were welcomed at home in the monumental exhibition “La Russie, mon histoire”. Flashy exhibits at the exhibition showcased Mr. Gumilyov’s Eurasian philosophy, the sacrificial martyrdom of the Romanov family and the evils the West had inflicted on Russia.
What is Ukraine’s place in this imperial revival? Like an obstacle, from the start. Trubetzkoy argued in his 1927 article “On the Ukrainian Problem” that Ukrainian culture was an “individualization of All-Russian culture” and that Ukrainians and Belorussians should bond with Russians around the organizing principle of their common Orthodox faith. Mr. Dugin made things more direct in his 1997 text: Ukrainian sovereignty presented a “tremendous danger to all of Eurasia”. Full military and political control of the entire northern Black Sea coast was an “absolute imperative” of Russian geopolitics. Ukraine was to become “a purely administrative sector of the centralized Russian state”.
Mr. Putin took this message to heart. In 2013, he declared that Eurasia was a major geopolitical area where the “genetic code” of Russia and its many peoples would be defended against “extreme Western-style liberalism”. In July last year he announced that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people” and in his furious speech on the eve of the invasion he described Ukraine as a “colony with a regime puppet,” where the Orthodox Church is under attack and NATO is preparing for an attack on Russia.
This brew of attitudes – complaints of Western aggression, exaltation of traditional values over the decay of individual rights, assertions of Russia’s duty to unite Eurasia and subordinate Ukraine – has developed in the cauldron of post-imperial resentment. Now they infuse Mr. Putin’s worldview and inspire his brutal war.
The goal, clearly, is empire. And the line will not be drawn in Ukraine.