WHAT DOES VLADIMIR PUTIN WANT?

VLADIMIR PUTINBy Viki_B via Pixabey. The West has failed to grasp the deeply ideological nature of contemporary Putinism.

NICOLAS TENZER, PARIS

The West has failed to grasp the deeply ideological nature of contemporary Putinism. We must understand its nature, scope, and goals. We cannot confront a threat we don’t understand.

Curiously, little in-depth work examines what Vladimir Putin wants—his ultimate goals. Analyses tend to be superficial and focused on the latest manifestation of his will. It is easy to see that the Russian regime intends to dominate and neutralize Ukraine, preventing it from becoming a free and democratic regime. These are its goals in Belarus and Georgia, too, as well as the Caucasus, where it has de facto control over Armenia and a foothold in Azerbaijan, and Central Asia, where protests in Kazakhstan were immediately crushed by Russian troops. Likewise, Russia seeks to destabilize Africa, weaken Western democracies and the European Union, and encourage illiberal movements to the maximum possible extent. Finally, it seeks to corrode and ultimately render irrelevant international law, and to strengthen dictatorial and criminal regimes wherever it can—above all in Syria, but also in Venezuela, Cuba, and Myanmar. Supporting these regimes is, for Russia, a matter of principle.

All of this is true, but these are descriptions, not analyses.

Many have said, for good reason, that Putin seeks to reclaim the empire Russia lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. He aims, through war, to wash away the stain of what he has described as a “humiliation.” Some view this as a form of neo-imperialism, in which Putin seeks to recolonize the countries that were liberated. Some see Russia’s aggression as a ploy to distract the immiserated Russian public from the domestic failures over which Putin has presided and of which he is the chief author, characterized by a corrupt economy that serves to provide his cronies with windfall profits. Some point out that since Russians cannot repose their national confidence and sense of majesty in the exemplary nature of Russia’s governance, the vigor of Russian industry and scientific research, or the well-being of its citizens, all that is left is to them is the thrill of Russia’s martial vigor and its capacity for conquest and oppression. These observations are indisputable. But they do not fully express what Putin wants.

Many have cataloged the sources of the West’s passivity in the face of the Russian regime: cowardice, avarice, compromise, corruption, idiocy. But there is a more central reason for this failure. Above all, the West has failed to grasp the deeply ideological nature of contemporary Putinism.

We must explore what Machiavelli called the veritĂ  effettuale della cosa, the very heart of things.[1]The Prince, chapter XV. What is the logic of the regime that Putin has sought to establish over the past 22 years?

Those determined to believe that some form of rationality governs this regime are condemned to understand nothing about it. Likewise, it is a mistake to remain fixed on Putin’s material objectives—territory, military bases in Syria, areas of influence—or to focus on his diatribes against NATO (which Putin knows perfectly well is no threat to any peaceful state). Even weakening Western liberal democracies is not his ultimate objective, per se; it is at most a tactic in an overall strategy.

Might his objective be global hegemony, or hegemony in Europe and, perhaps, the Middle East and Africa? Again, these are components of a strategy, not the strategy itself. What’s more, the Russian regime does not have the means to achieve this, not even in Ukraine—even less so elsewhere.

What Putin wants is likely infinitely more terrifying—and perhaps that is why Western leaders don’t want to see it, maintaining stubbornly that “dialogue” with Russia is possible, and likening our circumstances to the power rivalries of the 19th century, as if Putin were secretly eager to play his role in a new Concert of Europe.

In geopolitics as in geology, one may sense tremors without understanding the movement of tectonic plates. Understanding the latter requires taking ideology seriously. In our case, it requires grasping the specific ideology that Putin has acquired, bit by bit, in tandem with the evolution of the world outside Russia, the domestic conditions he confronts, and his perception of his enemies. We must see the movement; and we must see that it is, indeed, a movement that tends in one direction—destruction.

THE ESSENCE

How does the regime view ideology, in general? For Putin, ideology is instrumental. It may be adapted to one’s needs. In this sense, Putin’s is the quintessential postmodern ideology, and perhaps the first nihilist ideology. Inherent to any pure ideology, from Lenin’s to Hitler’s, is the mandate to put it in practice. As every tree is known by its fruits, we can understand an ideology through its effects, and the fruit of Putin’s ideology is an upheaval in international relations that forces us to revise the ideas that have until now been our guide.

Communist ideology perished in Russia slowly, then all at once. The Putin era did not begin with a clear program to assemble a replacement ideology; but over time, like a puzzle assembled from fragments, one has emerged. We call this ideology Putinism because it is inextricably linked to the man who has ruled Russia for 22 years. Others, such as Francis Fukuyama, have used the term in a similar way, but they have not yet fully understood Putinism’s nature and scope. Like all powerful ideologies backed by power, Putinism spreads; Putinism fights.

Putin has succeeded in making his ideology a reality through the tactical exploitation of his opponents’ failings. Because he did this through the successful use of armed force, his ideology has seized the minds of authoritarian leaders and crowds. The mere explication of these ideas would never have achieved such respect for Putinism’s power and federative capacity. Just as Soviet communism could not have appealed to millions around the world without the establishment of Soviet zones of influence and the Soviet Union’s ability to threaten, Putinism would have remained marginal absent Russia’s ability to impose its agenda by violence in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, and beyond.

Beyond the success of the Kremlin’s military operations, Russia’s ability to obstruct the application of international law, notably through 16 vetoes at the UN Security Council in defense of the Syrian regime, has reinforced Putin’s ideology. Our weakness and imperviousness have allowed the master of the Kremlin to express this ideology through power and to become the systemic threat to world order and democracy that he is today.

THE FOUR CONDITIONS

Four conditions must be met for a political practice to become an ideological program:

  1. It must have an instrumental purpose that corresponds to domestic and foreign policy objectives. No one forges an ideology if it is useless for concrete aims.
  2. The ideology must be available, in the sense that elements of the historical and cultural substrate—narrative fragments, patterns of discourse—must lend themselves to the ideological enterprise. This was true of communism and nationalism alike.
  3. There must be a class of ideologists and propagandists who make the ideology coherent and disseminate it, domestically and abroad, while forcefully dismissing and marginalizing dissidents.
  4. Those who hold the ideology must act it out, internally and externally. It is not enough to proclaim it. It must be proven effective in action.

Putinism has evolved in keeping with these four conditions. To secure his hold on Russian society and justify his aggression abroad, Putin required an ideology; the one that gradually emerged drew upon familiar themes from the Soviet narrative, elaborated by useful motifs from nationalism, orthodoxy, traditionalism, and anti-liberalism, all developed both for internal and external use. Putin benefitted from a host of ideologues who helped him to design this narrative. Calling upon resources disproportionate to the Russian economy, he developed a powerful propaganda apparatus at home and abroad. As the ideology became more coherent, Putin began testing its utility in action, with great success, taking advantage of the West’s deafness and deficits in strategic intelligence.

He does not seek domination in one arena or subjugation in another; he does not imagine building a new Rome, or fully realized communism, or a thousand-year Reich. Only movement defines his ideology; there is no stable place it can end.

Many have cataloged the sources of the West’s passivity in the face of the Russian regime: cowardice, avarice, compromise, corruption, idiocy. But there is a more central reason for this failure. Above all, the West has failed to grasp the deeply ideological nature of contemporary Putinism.

They have failed to do so for several reasons. First, in categorizing the regime as “populist,” or “authoritarian,” they have denatured it, stripping it of ideological power. Putinism has aspects that cannot be reduced to these categories, however, and so long as we fail to understand the specific elements of Putinism that make it something more than populism or authoritarianism, we will be ill-equipped to fight it.

Many analysts, especially in security affairs and international politics, fail in general to take ideology seriously; they see ideologies—to use a Marxist concept—as a superstructure, detached from the real practice (and truth) of power. More simply, many view Russia, the country—its history and geography—as the significant unit of analysis, rather than the regime. This indifference to ideology is a longstanding analytic weakness, one Raymond Aron denounced in the days of the USSR.

Even the analysts who take ideology seriously have failed to spot the significance of Putinism because they imagine the USSR as the benchmark and the USSR’s ideology as an ideal type; they measure the strategic danger by this yardstick. They may believe, therefore, that NATO was legitimately formed because, by nature, Soviet ideology entailed a military threat, as the Warsaw Pact subsequently illustrated. But they imagine that was a bygone time and hold that the fall of the Berlin Wall made the global threat of Russia disappear. They can see the danger posed by Putin’s Russia, but they fail to grasp that it is a threat of the same nature, to the point that they do not see, in the ideology of Russia’s regime, a valid reason for NATO’s existence.

Even those aware of Russia’s danger do not always see the connection between the regime’s ideology and the construction in Russia of a mafia state, the Kremlin’s internal and external atrocities, its war crimes, its crimes against humanity. If pressed, they would say that a crime syndicate needs no ideology to commit crimes.

This is a mistake. Kleptocratic organizations and mafia practices can also be based on an ideology, one that promises them they will thrive. The material interests of a ruling gang are not antinomic to ideology. Even the young Marx appreciated this point; as he wrote in The German Ideology, “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”

THE LOGIC OF MOVEMENT

The Putin who took power in 2000 did not possess a fully elaborated ideology; Putinism has emerged piecemeal as much by opportunism as by deliberate strategy. It has made its own a principle that Hannah Arendt saw as a key principle of totalitarianism: movement.

Putinism needs movement. Unlike Stalinism, Putinism is not characterized by incessant purges and terror, from the bottom up; unlike Nazism, it does not mobilize an atomized society. However, especially in recent years, it is accompanied by a double movement: internally, with increasingly brutal, radical, total repression and the ever-greater militarization of society, from the earliest age; externally, with incessant aggression and destabilizing action, on new fronts.

The ideology borrows from the pattern of all dictatorial and totalitarian regimes: There is a close correspondence, even symbiosis, among the leader, the people, and the nation. All the opponents of the supreme leader are thus supposed, by construction, to be enemies of “the people” and traitors to the motherland. Opponents are thus illegitimate in multiple ways: They are opposed to the dual community of the people and the nation; they are placed outside the people; they are impure because the people are purity incarnate; they are “enemies,” since by fomenting a “plot” against the fatherland, they reveal that they are driven by hostile interests: They are, in other words, foreign.

Like any ideology, Putinism is by nature a closed system: It is, in the Popperian sense, unfalsifiable. It contains its own premises, both in action and intention; its adversaries are malignant by definition and must be eradicated. Externally, this legitimizes war in the name of the sacredness of the fatherland and the unity of the people. The quest to purify the “Russian people” requires that the “real nation” (defined by the Russian language) maps to the “ideal nation.” This necessarily leads to incessant movement—which is also a distraction from social and economic disaster.

A syncretic ideology is no less ideological than a more coherent ideology such as communism, fascism, or Nazism—which were far from completely coherent. Syncretism has reached its apotheosis with Putinism, which not only borrows elements from Soviet communism, classical nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and authoritarian conservatism, but deploys the tricks of historicism by rewriting history, exploits orthodoxy in the manner of regimes of divine right, and appeals when necessary to racial theories, as in Putin’s appeals to the “Russian people.”

Of course, Putin’s regime deploys these assembled ideological artifacts with the formidable power of modern communication tools. Like other ideologies before it, Putinism does not hesitate to support, beyond its borders, regimes or political groups that exploit the same substrate, from which everyone can draw ad libitum. This reflects the thirst for movement. Putinism’s inherent pluralism allows Putin and his right-hand men to multiply fronts; there is always a new hunting ground, new people, new places to attack or seduce. His pluralistic ideology offers him a vast advantage over adherents of more rigid and unified ideologies like communism. The USSR, for example, was obliged to find plausible fellow travelers—parties and people who at least paid lip service to Marxism-Leninism and the notion of the class war. Putinism can share a bed with the far-left and far-right alike, and it does.

Putinism’s primary adversary is the law—especially international law. The law is the greatest obstacle to the concrete application of Putinism. This is certainly not the first historical manifestation of such an impulse; Nazism was similarly motivated. (Soviet communism, on the other hand, made a great show, a pretense of respect for the law, even as it was lawless.) But precisely because Nazism gave rise to the crime of crimes, it was possible to refound the law, in its wake, against its absolute antonym.

Putinism is unique in that it does not aim to construct an alternative order. Rather, it seeks the systematic destruction of any order. This is the specific, unique aspect by which Putinism may be recognized. This is why we cannot understand the regime using the traditional vocabulary of rationality. Putinism is a de-ideologized ideology; that is to say, it is a pure, even a quintessential ideology by comparison with traditional ideologies. Putinism seeks to destroy, in a radical way, the rules and order that the civilized West carefully constructed upon the ruins of Nazism. Putinism completes Nazism’s principle of movement through a permanent search for instability—which is its true objective.

To grasp the notion of a de-ideologized ideology, we must abandon the idea an ideology entails a linear doctrine of action, a grand plan strictly articulated in time, a concrete strategy. Putin’s external actions and propaganda are not buttressed by a theory of international relations. Putin does not need a Clausewitz. What some call the “Gerasimov doctrine” is not a doctrine at all. Putin’s postmodern ideology does not need a structured corpus to commit misdeeds.

Owing to intellectual laziness, or to a deficient knowledge of the Russian regime, some perceive Putin’s actions as the expression of a traditional great-power strategy. They see in Russia’s actions echoes of the aims and strategies of the Soviet Union and thus view our present circumstances as something like an updated Cold War. They believe they can respond to Kremlin with the same tools they use for China or Turkey. Thus they take at face value, and focus upon, Moscow’s rhetoric concerning its interests, territories, zones of influence, access to the seas, and the balance of power—as if they could circumscribe Putinism and thereby reduce it to a manageable problem set.

They infer from this that it must be possible to put an end to the Kremlin’s predations by negotiating, and through give-and-take. They have failed to understand the logic of movement and the movement of logic. Perpetual motion leads, first, to loss of balance—then to madness.

TO THINK THE INCONCEIVABLE

When ideology replaces strategy and becomes its own end, an enterprise of destruction becomes imaginable. When this ideology has no aim beyond the destruction of the adversary—when it doesn’t even aspire to install a durable regime on the ruins—a hammer will do and there is no need for a shovel. Putinism does not aim to place the world on a new foundation. The aim is de-foundation.

The goals and the modus operandi then become one and the same. Putin’s regime no longer makes a serious effort to conceal its crimes. Its propaganda is so crude that clearly, no one means for it to be believed. Indeed, the point is that they are not trying to be believed. The impunity for a crime (the goal) and its execution (the modus operandi) become one. That those who uphold the international order no longer even name these crimes, even though war crimes and crimes against humanity are the supreme crimes, confirms a posteriori the efficacy of the strategy.

Confronted with an adversary who has no serious goal, the Western world has been unable to think beyond the traditional idea of a link between means and end. This failure has reinforced Putinism’s destructive character.

The undermining of international law, the disintegration of international organizations, and the liberation from all rules, generally, constitute an ideological strategy; they say nothing about the goal. To see these strategies merely as means to defend Russia’s interests, strengthen its power, or win military victories misses the truth of the enterprise. Putin seeks no positive goal that we can envision. He does not seek domination in one arena or subjugation in another; he does not imagine building a new Rome, or fully realized communism, or a thousand-year Reich. Only movement defines his ideology; there is no stable place it can end.

The term nihilism seems historically and intellectually dated. It calls to mind authors we hardly read anymore. Nobody claims to be a nihilist. We saw the word briefly flicker across the intellectual scene when the French philosopher André Glucksmann proposed, in his book Dostoyevsky in Manhattan, that it characterized the ideology of the authors of September 11. But this interpretation was of scant use in understanding the motives of the terrorists, preventing further terrorist attacks, or fighting Islamist radicalization. Domestically, to be sure, certain radical movements are animated by a purely destructive impulse, but one doubts that these scattered groupuscules truly have an ideological project with premises and a specified end. Nonetheless, it is the concept of nihilism that allows us, ultimately, to understand the ideology Putin and his circle have developed.

There are four forms of nihilism: intellectual, moral, political, and praxeological. The intellectual nihilist holds, philosophically, that there is no foundation of knowledge, and thus—through a dubious inference—no clear directive for action. The moral nihilist believes nothing worthwhile and therefore everything, in some way, permitted. The political nihilist disparages systems based on principles, values, and order. The praxeological nihilist wishes to be constrained by no rule limiting human action, individual and collective, beyond the will of those in a position to express it. In considering these four aspects of nihilism, we see what Putin wants.

We see the intellectual nihilism in Putin’s syncretic ideology, which borrows without coherence from any convenient current: nationalism, Sovietism, Orthodoxy, anti-Semitism, Panslavism, Eurasianism. The lack of a single foundation means there is no foundation at all. The regime can dispose of the foundation at any given moment, should it feel itself served by doing so. As the foundation becomes labile, actions lose their reference point.

We see the moral nihilism in the way crime has penetrated to the very heart of the system, the way crime is the system. We see it in the reign of secrecy that gives absolute license to the regime’s agents: Not only are they permitted everything, but they can also count on the regime’s propaganda organs to create a cloud of confusion in their wake. This we have seen in case after case, from the downing of MH17 to the chemical massacres in Syria, from the war crimes of the Wagner Group to the assassination of dissidents.

We see the political nihilism in Putin’s efforts to destroy every norm of international law.

This allows us to see what Putin wants: A reign of praxeological nihilism, an order where no one can oppose his actions and where all crimes are allowed, governed only by the principle, might makes right.

If the West remains irresolute and unwilling to act, this prophecy may be fulfilled.

Join the Cosmopolitan Globalist debate forum to discuss this essay. Resolved: Understanding Putinism as an ideology is essential to understanding Russia’s regime.

Nicolas Tenzer is a senior French civil servant and the founding president of the Paris-based independent think tank, Centre d’étude et de rĂ©flexion pour l’Action politique (Center for Study and Research for Political Decision). He teaches at Sciences-Po Paris. This is a revised edition of an article published at Tenzer Strategics.

References

References
1 The Prince, chapter XV.

1 Comment on "WHAT DOES VLADIMIR PUTIN WANT?"

  1. Alexander Kurz | January 18, 2022 at 3:04 am | Reply

    I suggest that we defend ourselves against Putinism by building an international order that does serve the interests of all that want to participate. We should design the principles of this order in a way that they appeal to nations beyond Western Europe and North America. And then we need to show that we are willing to hold up these principles, even if they run against our immediate interests.

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