What does Vladimir Putin want? In Western “think tanks” and chancelleries, the question has been making the rounds for almost two decades as “Tsar” Vladimir’s star has continued to rise.
One answer may be that Putin sees post-Soviet Russia as a character in search of a role in a script it did not write.
The brief tactical alliance dictated by the Second World War notwithstanding, under Lenin and Stalin the USSR regarded the US and its “capitalist” allies as enemies.
Then, leaders from Nikita Khrushchev to Leonid Brezhnev saw the post-World War system as a duopoly defined by the Yalta accords and the subsequent grammar of the Cold War. They regarded the United States as an adversary but did not wish to upset a system that guaranteed the USSR parity as a “superpower.”
Mikhail Gorbachev tried to redefine the USSR’s position as a partner for the US and its European allies. Adopting the concept of “universal values” he de-emphasized the role of ideology.
Boris Yeltsin developed Gorbachev’s analysis further by trying to re-cast the Russia that re-emerged from the debris of the Soviet Empire as an ally of the “capitalist camp.”
However, a good part of the Russian elite started to feel that the end of the Cold War did not guarantee their nation the place it deserved in the global system. Strategies based on Russia acting as enemy, adversary, partner and ally of the West had all failed.
Putin became the symbol of the new elite’s quest for a new role for Russia. Over the years, Putin has tried to redefine Russia as an adversary of Western powers led by the United States.
Putin’s strategy catered for some of Russia’s deep-rooted needs.
From its earliest stages as a nation, Russia has been an ideological construct defined against real or imagined enemies.
First, Russians had to shake off the Tatar yoke and become the core-nation of a Slavic confederation. The onion-shaped cupolas that adorn the cathedral of Saint Basil on Moscow’s Red Square symbolize the turbaned heads of Tatar chiefs cut off by Ivan (The Terrible).
Russia defined itself as the “Third Rome” and claimed Moscow as the final “bastion of Christianity” after Rome fell to Catholics and Constantinople to Muslims. Pan-Slavism, a cocktail of nationalism and religious zeal provided the ideological template.
Pan-Slavism, developed by people like Aleksey Khomyakov among others, emphasized Russia’s “specialness”, as a nation chosen by God to spread the Good News. “We are a New Testament nation,” Khomyakov liked to boast.
The trouble was that, from the beginning, while it wanted to be itself, Russia also dreamed of becoming another. That dream of otherness was reflected in the Westernization movement symbolized by Peter the Great who hoped to make Russia a Western nation.
Russia’s political schizophrenia is nowhere better reflected than in the complex of palaces that constitute the Kremlin, the seat of Russian power since the 13th century. Initially erected as a wooden structure to house the Tsar’s guard, the Kremlin was intended to intimidate in a very Russian way. Over the centuries, however, it was redesigned to reflect Russia’s dream of otherness. New stone structures copied from Italian Renaissance buildings, especially in Bologna, were erected within six-meter high walls. The complex expanded into a 62 acres “city within the city” with giant-size reception halls, endless corridors, and nooks and crannies to entice fear and fantasy in equal measures.
The fears reflected in the Kremlin’s memory are not abstract concepts. Its capture by Boris Godunov, the usurper Tsar of Tatar origin, sounded a warning that reverberated for centuries. Worse still, the heart of Russian power was seized by Polish conquerors and then by Napoleon. Russians had to burn much of it to make sure that the French invader ended up with a hollow victory.
Today, claims of Western, especially American, “conspiracies” provide the fear ingredient of the Putin ideology. Russians are told the US is trying to undermine their nation by sowing dissension, creating opposition groups, and inciting the youth to rebellion through pop groups such as Pussy Riot. Worse still, so the Putin message runs, the US is “invading” Russia through Christian evangelists who hope to destroy the Orthodox Church.
Putin fears that the US might try to topple his regime through a “velvet revolution” of the kind that produced regime change in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, among others. This is why he is determined to prevent regime change in Syria even if that meant derailing Moscow’s relations with Arab nations.
The Putin narrative also claims that the “conspiracy” includes an Islamic ingredient. The plan, we are told, is to help Russia’s Muslim citizens become a majority in a few decades. Today, Muslims account for 25 percent of Russia’s population of 140 million. However, thanks to higher birth rates Muslim numbers are rising by 2.3 million while the Orthodox Russian population is falling by around 800,000 annually. Muslim numbers are also on the rise thanks to conversions, including by many Orthodox Russians.
Fear of Islam is fanned through racist groups such as Alexander Belov’s “Movement Against Illegal Immigration.” Since the overwhelming majority of Russian Muslims are Sunnis, Putin regards Shi’ite-majority Iran as a natural ally. Neither Putin nor Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei want to see regimes based on Sunni majorities achieve power in their geo-political habitat from central Asia to North Africa.
Russia has always been torn between the Asiatic and Western halves of its national identity. As a result it has not been fully accepted by either side as a legitimate family member. Emphasizing one aspect has always provoked violent reaction from the other. Only a Russia that assumes the totality of its identity can hope to dispel the fears and fantasies that have marked its history, often with tragic results. Many, including some within the ruling elite, understand that.
I am not sure Vladimir Putin is one of them.