The Real Code of Putinism
Today's Russia is in the most critical stage of its ideological design. Its beginning was laid in the article by Vladislav Surkov (aide to the Russian president) under the symbolic title "Long-lasting state of Putin." The piece was widely discussed by the expert community in Russia and abroad. Many took this article as a signal that Putin was not going to leave after his presidential term's expiration in 2024 and was preparing his domestic public and international community for this through his éminence grise (as Surkov is often called). However, with a detailed analysis of the processes that occur in modern Russia, one can come to deeper conclusions.
Vladimir Putin has ruled the country since 2000, and over these 19 years, influence groups around him have been fighting each other for a special position and status. Unlike most of his associates, Putin is indeed an ideologically motivated leader who perceives himself not just as a politician and an official, but as a sovereign, such as Peter the Great and Alexander III — the beloved emperors of the current Russian leader.
Being aware of the internal construction of Putin's philosophical vision, various people were trying to form an ideological concept that would reflect the mission and goals of modern Russia. Some wrote about the idea of a "special civilizational path." It suggested that Moscow would not copy the Western model of development and would not declare itself a part of the Asian world as well. Others sought to revive the long-forgotten formula "Moscow as the Third Rome" that in fact declared Russia the heir to the fallen Byzantine Empire. Some suggested a consensus option to combine Western and Eastern civilization codes. Undoubtedly, there are also groups that do not consider having any ideology important; they offer to copy certain points of the most successful government projects around the world. However, there is no question of whether Russia needs an ideology or not because Putin is absolutely convinced of the vital necessity of its existence.
There are several reasons for this approach. Firstly, the president understands that this is about his legacy. For a psychological type of leader like Putin, the way history remembers him is crucial. And it is not about love and admiration of the generations to come. It is difficult to find a politician in Russian and world historiography who could be given an unambiguous assessment. Discussions continue about everyone without exception, from Alexander the Great to Ronald Reagan. The key fact is the transformation when a mortal politician becomes an immortal image and an object of constant study for future generations. Secondly, the Russian leader is convinced that people who were born and raised in independent Russia should have clear guidelines in order to at least preserve the integrity of the country. So far, Vladislav Surkov was the one who truly managed to systemize the views and ideas of the president. Putin's aide divided the history of Russian statehood into four parts: the Rus' of Ivan the Third, the Russian Empire of Peter the Great, the Soviet Union of Vladimir Lenin, and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
The new ideology that is called Putinism is uniting principles and foundations that have remained unchanged throughout all the historical stages of the development of Russia. Its foundation is the concept of National Democracy. It implies that the process of democratization and the formation of an active civil society is inevitable but it should not be carried out according to any foreign model. The Russian nation, like any other, has its civilizational, social, and cultural features. Today, 190 peoples live in Russia, and most of them retain their language, traditions, and mentality. From this point of view, Moscow is always under the permanent threat of external forces using any interethnic disagreements for their purposes. If, for example, a political decision was made to allow same-sex "marriage" in the deeply conservative regions of the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and Siberia, riots would begin. And they would lead to the most unpredictable consequences. For a large part of the progressive West, this may sound wild. Yet for Russia, it is a matter of national security.
It is important to understand that Russia is not limited to Moscow or Saint Petersburg. These cities, like any major megalopolises, are centers of the dominance of progressive and liberal ideas. No one will argue with the fact that the United States does not begin and end in New York and California; there are also Texas, Tennessee, Utah, and other states. The victory of Donald Trump vividly demonstrated that it was conditional Texas and Kentucky that were the heart of America, not Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The situation is similar in Russia: Putin is guided by the mood of the regional majority, not the liberal minority of the capital. There are a lot of sensitive problems, and any Russian ruler has to maintain internal balance in order to keep the country's physical integrity. This is an extremely difficult task. At certain periods of time, Emperor Nicholas II, and then the last general secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, did not cope with this task. This resulted in the collapse of the Russian Empire and the USSR, respectively. Thus, the essence of Sovereign or National Democracy is in a banal formula: everything has its time. In other words, Putinism advocates an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary model of development.
The next crucial element is the inviolability of the mission to maintain territorial integrity. Why is this so important to Putin? The answer lies in the dynamics of extension and contraction of Russian territory. The Russian Empire was the third-largest ever-existing country after the British and Mongol Empires. It included the Baltic states, part of Poland, Bessarabia, Finland. Replacing the Empire, the Soviet Union became smaller, losing control of many territorial units. Then the collapse of the USSR led to the formation of 15 independent republics. Moreover, centrifugal processes were observed inside independent Russia in the '90s: two Chechen wars, separatist sentiments in Tatarstan, Siberia, and the Far East. Given this, Moscow has to be sensitive to any threats to territorial integrity because the next collapse will actually mean the end of Russian history. Based on this, the policy of territorial expansion (or "gathering lands") has strategic importance for Russia.
Most of the countries that were part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union performed two significant functions. The first is an external security function — pushing the borders of the Empire along the entire perimeter, which was of fundamental importance while conducting defensive wars. It is difficult to imagine how the results of the military campaigns of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1812 and Hitler's Germany in 1941–1945 would have developed without the factor of "deep borders." The second is the internal defense or controlled decay function. With the collapse of the Empire, countries located on the periphery and semi-periphery leave, and the core is retained — Russia itself with its internal subjects.
From here follows the next point of the concept of Putinism — returning the post-Soviet space to the sphere of strategic dominance of Moscow. To achieve this goal, it is important for President Putin to solve two tasks: to provide closer geopolitical integration of Belarus with Russia and to develop high-quality mechanisms of influence on Ukraine. The Russian leader is deeply convinced that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians comprise a unified nation that should be gathered under the leadership of the Kremlin sooner or later. This is how it was in the imperial and Soviet periods. The third task is to prevent the entry of traditional post-Soviet countries (the Baltic countries are not considered) into the North Atlantic Alliance.
In global politics, Putin sees his mission in revising the results of the Cold War. He is convinced that the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to the weakening of the center's influence, the indecisiveness of the authorities and the internal intrigues of hostile agents of influence. Putinism rejects any idea that Russia lost to the United States and should now forget about its geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, being a pragmatist, Putin realizes that today Moscow does not have sufficient resources to claim world domination. It is important for the Russian leader that the most powerful actors in the international community develop clear rules for the game. For Putin, the ideal model combines past systems. The basis should be sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in each other's internal affairs (Westphalian system), the balance of power (Vienna system), and separation of responsibilities (Yalta and Potsdam system). From the standpoint of Putinism concept, such an architecture will return Russia the status of great power and force the rest of the countries to reckon with its opinion and interests.
The fundamental feature of the new ideology is that Russia does not regard the West as its enemy. Moscow sees a certain way of the civilizational and political future of Europe where neoliberal philosophy has set the tone for the past twenty years. Today, other trends are visible. One of them is the strengthening of the right-wing conservative powers: Boris Johnson in Britain, the regime of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the party of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Euroskepticism in Italy, France, Greece, and Germany. The basic request of the new generation of European politicians can be described simply: more sovereignty, less dependence. Even leaders such as Emmanuel Macron state the need for an independent European security system. This is exactly what Russia wants to see in Europe. It is important for Putin that Europeans rely solely on their pragmatic interests in building a political and economic dialogue with Moscow. This narrative is becoming more and more popular in the Old World.
Areg Galstyan, Ph.D. is a regular contributor to The National Interest, Forbes, and The American Thinker.