The Stubborn Facts on Eurocentrism and the Russian National Identity Discourse

“Who would want to associate oneself with the zone of today’s Europe, where traditional values are destroyed, homosexualism is on the rampage, there is a migration crisis etc. Europe today is, in essence, a dying zone, where the population is unable to defend its cultural and religious identity. It is a post-Christian and post-European world, a graveyard of European civilization.”--Andrei Fursov, Nationalist Russian Historian

T
here is an intriguing phenomenon going on in academic and diplomatic-political circles as we speak, especially those circles who deal with the Russia-EU relationship, détente, the Cold War, the present impasse among the two blocks.

On one hand there are those experts who seem almost nostalgic for the Cold War when things were much simpler and complicated matters could be sorted out ideologically: democracy vs. tyranny, as one side saw it, or social justice vs. exploitative capitalism, as the other saw it. Those experts see Russian aggression everywhere, especially in the EU, spearheaded by the events in the Ukraine and Crimea, who was snatched away from the Ukraine. They say NATO has been derelict in responding appropriately.

One of those is Kasparov who has been highly critical of Putin for several years. He led the pro-democracy resistance to Putin’s regime in Moscow but fled to New York because he feared for his safety. He has been calling on Western democracies, such as the UK, the US, Germany and France, to stop negotiating with Putin because doing so only appears to validate his claim to power back home. In his book Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, Kasparov argues that leaders of the free world have appeased rather than confronted Putin since he ascended to the presidency in 1999 — allowing the Russian strongman to become a serious threat to liberty throughout the world.

On the other hand, there are those experts who claim that the West after the fall of the USSR and Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War missed an opportunity by not inviting Russia to join the table of the European NATO nations, in order to contribute to the prosperity and peace the EU had already enjoyed for half a century or so.

Those experts go around lecturing the non-experts, those who don’t understand the intricacies of such a relationship, that they have gotten it wrong on Russia and point to the present situation. The position is enigmatic since more often than not those critics will not reveal if their position is based on a neutral analysis or a hidden ideology hiding in plain sight. They prefer to make people wonder, all in the name of a more effective diplomacy. They say: “trust us; we are the experts and know best how to solve the riddle.” They call this posture “having an alias” but perhaps it might be better characterized as having the cake and eating it too.

Be that as it may, I will refrain here from returning to the probe into the Trump-Russia campaign-Russia, something being dealt to a large extent via a daily column in Modern Diplomacy titled The Caligula Presidency. Rather we shall take a hard look at Eurocentrism in the Ukraine and how it has impacted the strained relationship. To do so, as objectively and impartially as is humanly possible we shall first look at the stubborn historical facts based on documented events and scientific data, not on opinion, not propaganda, not disinformation or hidden alias (often parading as privileged expert information to which only experts and diplomats have access), not alternate facts; just the stubborn incontrovertible, ineluctable facts.

Let’s enumerate those facts: Russia has broken every arms control treaty pertaining to Europe. Russia’s recent snap exercises violate the Vienna Document. Russia has also broken the INF treaty and the EU has known about it since 2008 and has done nothing. It has “suspended” its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, an action that has no legal standing, and has allowed it to break the limits on forces in Europe. It also broke numerous treaties by invading Ukraine. Moscow also seems prepared to use its nuclear weapons, probably its tactical nuclear missiles, in a first-strike mode either against military targets or against European capitals.

By 2018, Russia will have reached the numerical limits of the new START treaty and will have to draw down to 1,500 strategic weapons as stipulated by the treaty. Based on current figures, this means Russia has to dismantle over 200 weapons within a year. To judge from previous Russian policy, this is not likely to happen. Russia’s priority defense project is modernizing its nuclear forces. A look at Russian nuclear and hypersonic weapons programs indicates that Moscow is also building weapons with which to threaten the United States and Europe.

The EU has so far failed to confront those hard facts. It has failed to recognize the hard reality that Europe may no longer be a theater of peace and that even nuclear war is now possible. It rests on the chimera of the “the end of history and ideology” within a global market. The EU may have to consider augmenting its conventional capabilities to prevent Moscow from thinking that it could with impunity pull off another fait accompli like Crimea, and confront NATO with nuclear threats. Real penalties for breaking arms control treaties must be considered. The present ones imposed after the annexation of Crimea are either ineffective or toothless.

Last, but not least, this fact needs to be acknowledged and confronted on both sides: every European government is presently under information attack by Russia which believes that, at least in that field, it is at war with the West. On January 18, 2005, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the Academy of Military Sciences, the official institutional locus of systematic thinking about contemporary war that “there is a war against Russia under way, and it has been going on for quite a few years. No one declared war on us. There is not one country that would be in a state of war with Russia. But there are people and organizations in various countries who take part in hostilities against the Russian Federation. Indeed, Russia has long believed that it is at war with the West. That essential fact should not be ignored.

After all, the ongoing revelations of the extent of Russian information warfare, subversion, coups and interference in the US and European elections are acts of war and are regarded by Russian writers on contemporary and information warfare as such. But they are also backed up by potent military threats that are used to intimidate Western audiences before a shot is fired.

It ought not be ignored that the EU has allowed this situation to develop by ignoring countless arms control violations, and these agreements constituted the foundation of European security after 1991. Any discussion and debate on this issue ought not neglect those stubborn facts.

In any case, what the two above described analysis fail to point out is that Putin and his oligarchs are putting forward an alternate form of Russian identity and ultra-nationalism which hasn’t been seen since the advent of the ideological Russian revolution a century ago but it has now a new twist: it is accompanied by a Eurocentric comparison which insists that Russia is not only different but better than Europe. In fact, within the wider context of the Russian political debate, the above described analysis would make no sense unless the Western mirror is utilized. All the reader needs to do to be convinced is take an attentive look at the above quote by Andrei Fursov.

It was the broad anti-Western consensus that made the annexation of Crimea and the support for the Donbas separatists possible and in some sense inevitable. Russian leadership has never stopped worrying about subversive Western influences. Against the backdrop of the urban protest movement of 2011–2012, the Euromaidan came to be interpreted as anything but Ukraine’s domestic matter: it was seen as instigated by the West and as a repetition of a future ‘colour revolution’ in Moscow.

This view, shared by the elites and by the pro-Putin masses alike, provided both the motivation and the legitimation for the dramatic foreign policy steps that followed. The Russian society sees itself as a victim of the West, which is aggressively promoting its own norms, institutions and values throughout post-Soviet space. The EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, NATO enlargement, US plans to create anti-ballistic missile defence, the supranational jurisdiction of the European Court for Human Rights, efforts at democracy promotion, support for LGBT rights movement and human rights in general are all seen as manifestations of Western expansionism.

To defend its sovereignty, culture and independent moral standing, Russia needs to protect its sovereignty in all possible ways, but in particular by emphasizing its unique values, strengthening ‘spiritual bonds’ within society and beefing up information security – a broad concept that includes control over media, social networks and private communications. If necessary, it also has to fight back to stave off the prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership and to make sure there are no NATO military bases in Crimea. It made sure of that in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.

As a result, positive identification with Europe, which was dominant in Russia in the 1990s, was replaced by a sudden reversal and distancing. While in late 1990s around two thirds of Russians believed their country must strive to become an EU member, this share dropped below 25 per cent after Putin’s re-election in 2012. Fifty-nine percent of Russians do not consider Russia a European country while only 17 per cent believe that Russia must develop in the same way as Europe. These are stubborn facts and sobering statistics.

From those statistics it can be safely be deduced that the Russian public shares the slogan ‘Russia is not Europe’, proclaimed by the Ministry of Culture in April 2014.

Nevertheless, it must also be acknowledged that Russian society would still prefer to see relations with both the West and Ukraine improve. Some aspects of the European way of life, such as economic prosperity and rule of law, still remain hugely attractive to the majority of Russians.

Moreover, even as the modality of the identification with Europe changes, Russian national identity discourse remains Eurocentric. While the overall success of the officially declared ‘pivot to Asia’ remains subject to a heated debate, identity-wise it has definitely not made Russia an Asian country.

Speaking in more general terms, the only way to insist on the uniqueness of Russian traditional values and spirituality is by contrast with what is perceived as Western or European values. That was the way Dostoevsky proceeded. Europe remains the primary Other, which is seen as a geographical space where history unfolds and as a model of social development and well-being. The Ukrainian conflict is viewed against this broad background, as resulting from the irresponsible expansionism of the West. Under this perspective even the annexation of Crimea is interpreted as an act of defense of one’s interests. The aggressors are the US, the EU and NATO. And if that is not rampant political paranoia, it’s hard to think of what else might be.

But there are problems with this consensus of blaming any conflict on the West’s aggression arrived at via a massive state propaganda. There is an economic crisis, corruption in the top leadership or oligarchy, significant inflation, blatant inequality.

The Kremlin astutely mitigates these negatives with xenophobic attitudes deliberately promoted as needed, but the vast majority of Russians would rather have good relations with their neighbors, the Ukraine, the EU and the US. What the Kremlin has indoctrinated into Russians is the belief that they should be unhappy as to how Russia is treated by those neighbors and rivals on the world stage. That is to say, Russia should be thought of and portrayed as the innocent victim or scapegoat.

In conclusion, those crucial questions arise: are we dealing with ethnic nationalism, Soviet imperialist nostalgia, religious cultural revival, civic patriotic fervor? And are all of these compatible with the current broad range of policies observable in Russia but never fully explained by the experts? Is that inability to explain the policies due to sheer confusion and the confusion deliberate? Or, are those policies buttressed by the fear of Western expansionism and the concern about the subversive effects of Westernization for the spiritual integrity of Russia as a nation?

Whatever the answer is to those questions, it may be wise for the experts to consider that the discourse on and alternative Russian national identity is and remains Eurocentric, that is to say, the task remains that of explaining how Russia may be different from Europe. Perhaps Dostoevsky may be considered a better guide in that respect than the likes of Putin and Fursov.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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