The world buzzes with headlines of Vladimir Putin and Russian action and reaction to world events. On the surface it seems virtually all Russian foreign policy responsibility is vested in Mr. Putin alone.
Certainly the Russian governmental decision making process is not bestowed solely upon one man, but it seems that little happens in Russia’s name that Putin does not endorse. Russia’s, and by extension Putin’s, actions and reactions tend to confuse and mystify us despite the rhetoric of various politicians indicating that they clearly understand Russian intentions. Actually understanding how Russia will act or react is as difficult as it has always been. In the West we tend to default to Winston Churchill’s famous epigram on forecasting Russian actions: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”
This frank admission by Mr. Churchill about forecasting Russian actions and reactions holds today. If a politician of Churchill’s grasp and intellect placed prognostication of Russian proclivity within virtually impenetrable concentric circles, why should we assume to be blessed with better equipped political actors on today’s stage? The answer is simple: we should not because we are not.
Churchill’s observation of Russian predictability is quoted so often we sometimes fail to remember that he did not stop with merely his observation of Russian inscrutability, and we can be thankful for it. He left Britain and the West with an insight into deciphering Russian will with his additional surmise that “perhaps there is a key” to Russian reaction to political stimuli. Wisely Churchill posited, “That key is Russian national interest.”
Churchill’s prescient observations were aired in an October 1939 broadcast and concerned his speculation on how Russia would act throughout the course of WWII. Offering insight into solving the Russian riddle Churchill shrewdly noted that Russia would not put aside anything that “would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.” It is very important to note that Churchill was not simply referring to what the Soviet leadership of Russia would do in a specific instance; he was looking instead to how Russia had historically acted, and he was predicting that Russia’s future actions would be in keeping with the major Russian interests exhibited in the past.
In 1939 Russia was faced with a Nazi threat to establish a physical presence on the shores of the Black Sea, occupy the Balkans, and subjugate the Slavonic population in Southeastern Europe. Churchill knew then what we should know now: Russia will act and react in traditional ways as it evaluates its national interests. Correctly interpreting Russia’s “historic life-interests” allowed Churchill to predict Russia’s future actions only a month into WWII. Nazi Germany and the USSR had signed a mutual non-aggression pact less than two months before Churchill stated his conviction that “Hitler, and all that Hitler stands for, have been and are being warned off the east and the southeast of Europe” by Russia.
Churchill knew that Russia would not allow its traditional geopolitical aspirations to be threatened without mounting a serious response. A precursor to the coming Nazi Germany-Soviet Russia death struggle came with the 1940 invasion of Romania by the USSR. This invasion underscored the conflict between the Russian “historic life-interests” and the strategically critical Nazi requirement for oil and other war material. Hitler had to see from Stalin’s actions that the USSR would be a competitor for the Balkans, and this knowledge, correlated with his view of “Slavic races”as Untermenschen and his ambition, propelled Germany’s massive preemptive strike against the USSR in June of 1941.
Hitler sowed the wind with his invasion of Russia, and Germany reaped the whirlwind of defeat and occupation. German defeat in effect gave Russia the Black Sea, the Balkans, and rule over the Slavonic people of Eastern Europe. With Germany’s defeat Russia’s traditional geopolitical interests gained a large measure of satisfaction.
Russia may be the most traditional actor of all the major and secondary powers of the earth. But the assertion that Russia acts according to traditionalist tendencies runs the risk of venturing into an academic definitional fog because of the strand of religious belief known as Traditionalism. The difference between “traditional” and “Traditional” is largely a spiritual demarcation.
Traditionalism, either lowercase or uppercase, implies a handing down or generational passing on of beliefs and/or practices and may be applied across a range of practices from cuisine to courting to fashion. Uppercase Traditionalists believe that spiritual and religious truths have existed from time out of mind and that only certain groups of selected and initiated candidates have been chosen to gain and maintain the pure revelations of Truth that Traditionalism possesses. Traditionalists do not confine their belief system to any specific religious expression, rather they claim that kernels of original (therefore pure) Truth still exist and can be discovered within the major religions. Hence, Traditionalists often embrace selected elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism within the exclusive claims of Traditionalism.
Although traditional religious belief and practice cannot be equated exclusively with Orthodox Christianity, Russia does have a strong and pervasive embrace of Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity is certainly traditional.
Russian culture is a very traditional culture, and Russian geopolitical interests run along recurring traditional strands. It is understandable that Orthodox Christianity and other religious expressions are considered traditional, but it would be a mistake to confuse the correlation of religious tradition between Orthodox Christianity and other Russian traditions. Although Russian religious and geopolitical traditions may be related, correlation of religious traditional traits should not be considered the cause of the traditional geopolitical interests of Russia a priori.
In addition to the recognizing the definitional fog surrounding “traditional” and “Traditional” (as if the common spelling is not enough) affecting those attempting to predict Putin’s future actions, it is important to recognize that distinctly anti-Modern, therefore anti-Western, sentiments are distinguishing elements in some contemporary adaptations of Traditionalism. Some influential members of the Russian political right, especially those identified as the “Russian New Right,” assert a connection with the Traditional strand of religious belief and practice.
Alexander Dugin, for example, is a Russian political philosopher who has been very closely associated with the ideas and teachings of the controversial Italian self-proclaimed Traditionalist, Julius Evola. Documentation of Evola’s association with Fascism is extremely alarming to some students of Traditionalism. Mark Sedgwick’s provocative history and commentary, Against the Modern World, devotes considerable attention to Evola, hence to the reasoning of Dugin and the anti-Modern bend of Evola’s disciples.
To an adherent, Traditionalism is right belief, and right belief guides right actions. If right belief and right actions include a distinctly anti-Western characteristic, then Russian actions under Putin should be of serious concern based upon Putin’s reception of Dugin and others of the Russian New Right. Leaders and diplomats of the West would be well advised to study the works of Dugin and other seriously right-leaning writers and thinkers and their influence on Putin and his political actions.
The West should not be so naive as to believe that the Traditionalist factions evident in Russia today are not significant forces. Evola and his interpretation of Traditionalism influences Dugin and the Russian New Right; thus Putin is influenced in turn. Important manifestations of the contemporary Russian New Right thought include beliefs that the West is dangerously materialist, morally corrupt, and godless. The Western tendency toward more direct democracy is viewed as promoting these damnable traits. Does this characterization of the West sound familiar? There is a certain resonance between these views and accusations in many Islamic criticisms of the West. It is hubris of the worst sort to treat these accusations of Russia or the Islamic world in any flippant way; perhaps a too light consideration even borders on the suicidal.
Russian traditionalist perspectives (its “historic life-interests”) are certainly geopolitical. The Russian Empire long coveted the Balkans and the warm water ports of the Black Sea and other access points to the Mediterranean and other seas. Imperial Russia aspired to become the single great Eurasian power — an empire stretching from Western Europe to India and perhaps farther. Does contemporary Russia under Putin aspire to less? One needs only to look to the plans and purposes of the Eurasian Economic Union to realize that there is an elephant (more appropriately a bear) in the room and that the bear is attempting to rearm in the grand style of the USSR.
It is a cultural and historical fallacy to project Western inculcated responses onto Putin’s Russia. A Coca-Cola sign displayed at a market in Moscow does not necessarily mean Russia is eager to be “just like us;” perhaps it means nothing more than there one may purchase a Coke. Russia (under Putin) will act and react purposefully, not as a Western actor, but as the Eurasian imperial power it aspires to be. Putin may, or may not, be genuinely influenced by Traditionalist beliefs of the Russian right, but he will act traditionally (that is, within Churchill’s “historic life-interest” understanding) as a Russian imperialist.
Some experts on Russian political behavior credit Putin’s actions to his being a practitioner of realpolitik, others to Putin’s having pronounced megalomaniac tendencies, still others to Putin’s being a product of KGB culture. While expert opinion should be considered, no opinion affords the traction provided by viewing Putin as a Russian leader steeped in Russian geopolitical tradition who is open to the aspirations of Dugin and the Russian New Right. Putin does not, as some pundits proclaim, desire a 21st Century return of the USSR; his imperial desire is a return of the Czarist Empire constructed to his specificiations — a Czarist Empire wielding the might of the USSR in its glory days and fulfilling the “historic life-interests of Russia” in a very real and recognizable way.
Mr. Churchill was right. Where geopolitics are concerned, Russia will act in historically traditional ways. To predict how contemporary Russia will behave, forget reading of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution; instead read Alexander Dugin.