A country’s struggle for identity can shape its strategic behavior. The missionary ethos of American civilization helps to explain its conduct as a global power. The resurgence of Islamism is essentially a quest for a fulfilling identity by an ancient civilization overwhelmed by the challenges of modernity. And Israel’s emphasis on its Jewish identity has become a formidable obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Putin’s defiant foreign policy is a response – mediated by an authoritarian political tradition, the reactionary tenets of Orthodox Christianity, and pride in Russia’s vast geography and natural wealth – to the humiliating loss of an empire. Seeing in Russia’s Cold War defeat the need to extol the non-Western roots of Russian history and tradition, Putin has fallen back on the same conservative values that emerged in response to the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, frustrating Peter the Great’s modernization efforts.
When the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, said during a recent Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi that “Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin,” he was expressing a profound Russian reality. In no other country has the ruler’s persona – from Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible to Lenin and Stalin – made such a deep mark on national history.
But Putinism cannot be reduced to sheer lust for power. Putin knows that Russia’s reemergence on the global stage must be underpinned by a counterpoint to American exceptionalism, a national identity based on a distinct conception of history and distinct ideals.
As Putin declared last year, the Soviet Union’s collapse dealt a “devastating blow” to Russia’s “cultural and spiritual codes,” and subsequent “attempts to civilize Russia from abroad” amounted to “primitive borrowing.” Instead of expecting a new national ideology to emerge on its own, Russia must pursue and develop its unique identity – with Putin leading the way.
Securing a place for Russia in a new world order is integral to establishing such an identity. To this end, Putin has maximized the foreign-policy value of Russia’s vast oil and gas reserves, enabling the Kremlin to build partnerships with rising Asian powers, especially China. If, as some Russian officials have proposed, Russia begins an identity-defining large-scale project to develop its immense territory east of the Ural Mountains, including Siberia and the Far East, it would have a unique opportunity to deepen these connections further.
More broadly, Putin’s defiance of US hegemony could attract support from countries and peoples worldwide that resent American-imposed values and norms. Indeed, for many international actors, Western notions of tolerance and political correctness – for example, acceptance of “non-traditional lifestyles,” such as homosexuality – are, in Putin’s words, an affront to the world’s “God-given diversity.”
But Putin is not merely preaching values. The annexation of Crimea and continuing destabilization of Ukraine advance his broader ambition of resurrecting Russia’s cultural and political dominance in Eurasia and much of the former Soviet space. In Putin’s view, the 1945 Yalta Agreement, which divided Europe into Soviet and Western spheres of influence, did not die; its borders simply moved eastward.
Tellingly, following a discussion of numerous global challenges at the recent Valdai meeting, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov identified a demonstration by ethnic Russians in Chișinău (Kishinev), Moldova’s capital, as the “most important question” to be addressed. Putin’s Russia is anything but shy when it comes to ethnic unity.
Of course, the West – particularly the US – bears its share of responsibility for the failure to find a diplomatic solution to the current showdown with Russia. Before a lasting peace can be achieved, the US will need to reflect on the mistakes that characterized its post-Cold War period of hegemony, when its unilateral military adventures and neo-imperial ambitions left it overstretched, highly indebted, and locked in perpetual war.
Without such introspection, the US and its European allies will probably continue to depend on economic sanctions to deter Russian aggression. But, though this approach could weaken Putin’s legitimacy by limiting his ability to deliver economic prosperity, it could also result in an anti-Western nationalist backlash. Moreover, as Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov has shown, sanctions can be presented as a blessing, forcing the Kremlin to diversify Russia’s commodities-based economy.
National identities cannot be negotiated away; but diplomacy can dilute their aggressive manifestations. It is time for Russian and Western leaders to devise a grand bargain for peace in eastern Ukraine, one that goes beyond the Minsk Protocol to address the questions of global security and arms control that have impeded cooperation on issues like Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program.
Russia does not need to upend the existing global order; it simply needs to find its place. And the US must let it.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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