Putin’s Empire of the Mind
How Russia's president morphed from realist to ideologue -- and what he'll do next.
A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Russian imperialism.
When Vladimir Putin first came to power in 1999, he talked ideologically but acted rationally. He listened to a range of opinions, from liberal economist Alexei Kudrin to political fixer Vladislav Surkov — people willing to tell him hard truths and question groupthink. He may have regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, but he knew he couldn’t re-create it. Perhaps the best metaphor is that while he brought back the Soviet national anthem, it had new words. There was no thought of returning Russia to the failed Soviet model of the planned economy. And as a self-professed believer who always wears his baptismal cross, Putin encouraged the once-suppressed Russian Orthodox Church.
He was a Russian patriot, but he also was willing to cooperate with the West when it suited his interests. One of the first leaders to offer his condolences after the 9/11 attacks, Putin shared Russian intelligence on al Qaeda with the United States. He did not hesitate to protect Russia’s interests against the West — in 2008 Putin undercut any thought of NATO expansion into Georgia by launching a war against its vehemently pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili — but Putin’s challenges were carefully calibrated to minimize repercussions while maximizing gains. He shut off gas to Ukraine, unleashed hackers on Estonia, and, yes, sent troops into Georgia, but he made sure that the costs of asserting regional hegemony were limited, bearable, and short term.
But that was the old Putin. Today, the West faces a rather different Russian leader.
After all, the annexation of Crimea, by any rational calculation, did not make sense. Russia already had immense influence on the peninsula, but without the need to subsidize it, as Ukraine had. (Russia has already pledged $1.5 billion to support Crimea.) The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s position in the Crimean seaport of Sevastopol was secure until 2042. Any invasion would anger the West and force it to support whatever government took the place of Viktor Yanukovych’s administration in Kiev, regardless of its composition or constitutionality.
In Putin’s actions at home as well, the Russian president is eschewing the pragmatism that marked his first administration. Instead of being the arbiter, brokering a consensus among various clans and interests, today’s Putin is increasingly autocratic. His circle of allies and advisors has shrunk to those who only share his exact ideas. Sober technocrats such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu played seemingly no role in the decision-making over Crimea and were expected simply to execute the orders from the top.
This has become one of the new themes of Russian politics: the conflation of loyalty to the Kremlin with patriotism. It says much that dissidents at home, from journalists failing to toe the official line to protesters on the streets, are castigated either as outright "foreign agents" (every movement, charity, or organization accepting foreign money must register itself as such) or else as unknowing victims and vectors of external contamination — contamination, that is, from the West, whose cosmopolitanism and immorality Putin has come to see as an increasing threat to Russia’s identity. As a result, Putin’s relationship with Russia’s elite — now often foreign-educated, usually well-traveled, and always interested in economic prospects abroad — has become tortuous. Having provided members of the elite with opportunities during his first presidency, Putin not only mistrusts the elite now, but sees it as unpatriotic. Some $420 billion has flowed out of Russia since 2008, and in 2013, Putin decried those who were "determined to steal and remove capital and who did not link their future to that of the country, the place where they earned their money." In response, he launched a program of "de-offshorization" that has prompted major Russian telecom, metals, and truck-manufacturing companies to announce their return to Russia. And Alexander Bastrykin, the powerful head of the Investigative Committee and one of Putin’s closest acolytes, promised a crackdown on schemes designed to transfer money out of the country.
These efforts are representative of a broader reconsolidation that requires the West to stay out of Russia’s politics and that prevents its ideas and values from perverting Putin’s country. In this context, Yanukovych’s ouster from the Ukrainian presidency was the inevitable catalyst for a decisive expression of a new imperialism. From the Kremlin’s perspective, a Western-influenced and -supported opposition movement in Kiev rose up and toppled a legitimate leader who preferred Russia over the European Union, in the process threatening the liberties and prospects of the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s east.
Perhaps the world should have paid more attention when Putin made 2014 Russia’s "Year of Culture." This was to be when the country celebrated its unique identity — a year of "emphasis on our cultural roots, patriotism, values, and ethics." It was nothing less than a recipe for a new Russian exceptionalism, one that Putin himself would craft and impose. Seen in those terms, the turmoil in Ukraine did not merely allow him to step in — it demanded it.
The imperialism that has sprung from Putin’s revived emphasis on Russian identity cannot neatly be compared with either its tsarist or its Soviet forebears. The tsarist empire was driven by an expansionist logic that would gladly push Russia’s boundaries as far as they could stretch. Although multiethnic, there was no question that ethnic Russians were the imperial race and that others — with a few exceptions, such as the Baltic German aristocrats on whom Tsar Nicholas I relied — were second-class subjects. This was Russkii, ethnic Russian, not Rossiiskii, Russian by citizenship. By contrast, Soviet imperialism embodied, at least in theory, a political ideology greater than any one people or culture and a rhetoric of internationalism and evangelism.
Putin has spent considerable effort in forging a new Rossiiskii state nationalism. Absent is the visceral anti-Semitism of the Russian Empire, and the widespread racism and hostility visible within much of Russian society is not reflected in government policy. Nor does the president seem interested in expanding direct Russian rule (as opposed to political authority) or in exporting any particular political philosophy to non-Russians. At the same time, Putin thinks that "the [ethnic] Russian people are, without a doubt, the backbone, the fundament, the cement of the multinational Russian people." In other words, though ethnic Russians do not rule the state, they do provide the foundations for the "Russian civilization" on which it is based.
Putin’s reference to Russia as a "civilization" signals itself a return to the time-honored belief that there is something unique about Russia rooted not only in ethnic identity but in culture and history — a belief that began when the country became the chief stronghold of Eastern Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople. As he put it in his 2012 state-of-the-federation address: "In order to revive national consciousness, we need to link historical eras and get back to understanding the simple truth that Russia did not begin in 1917, or even in 1991, but, rather, that we have a common, continuous history spanning over 1,000 years and we must rely on it to find inner strength and purpose in our national development."
< span class="pull-quote">Putin’s conception of what it means to be Russian combines the stern-jawed heroics of the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad with the exuberant loyalty of the tsar’s own Cossacks, while excluding the humanism of Andrei Sakharov and the ascetic moralism of Leo Tolstoy. It is a version of Russian history and philosophy cherry-picked to support Putin’s notion of national exceptionalism. In fact, he recently assigned regional governors homework, writings by three prominent 19th- and 20th-century intellectuals: Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin. These three, whom Putin often cites, exemplify and justify his belief in Russia’s singular place in history. They romanticize the necessity of obedience to the strong ruler — whether managing the boyars or defending the people from cultural corruption — and the role of the Orthodox Church in defending the Russian soul and ideal.
In this, Putin is directly drawing on a classic Russian dichotomy between autocracy and anarchy, as well as on the country’s experiences during the 1990s, when there was no strong, consistent central rule and the country was beset by rebellion, gangsterism, poverty, and geopolitical irrelevance. In his 2013 state-of-the-federation speech, Putin made the connection between authoritarianism and social order, admitting, "Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state."
THIS IS THE CENTER OF PUTIN’S IMPERIAL VISION: The pragmatic political fixer of the 2000s now genuinely believes that Russian culture is both exceptional and threatened and that he is the man to save it. He does not see himself as aggressively expanding an empire so much as defending a civilization against the "chaotic darkness" that will ensue if he allows Russia to be politically encircled abroad and culturally colonized by Western values at home.
This notion of an empire built on the basis of a civilization is crucial to understanding Putin. There are neighboring countries, such as those in the South Caucasus, that he believes ought to recognize that they are part of Russia’s sphere of influence, its defensive perimeter, and its economic hinterland. But, he stops short of wanting forcefully to bring them under direct dominion because they are not ethnically Russian. Even when Moscow separated the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008, for example, it set them up as independent puppet states; it did not annex them into the Russian Federation.
Putin does insist, however, that Moscow is the protector of Russians worldwide. Where there are Russians and Russian-speakers and where Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox faith hold or held sway, these are nash — "ours." Despite his mission to "gather the Russian lands" like the 15th-century’s Prince Ivan the Great, this does not necessarily mean occupying Crimea today, Donetsk in eastern Ukraine tomorrow, and Russian-settled northern Kazakhstan the day after, but it helps define what he thinks is Russia’s birthright. In his defense of the annexation of Crimea, he said that the Soviet Union’s collapse left "the Russian nation … one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."
Crimea, after all, is historically, ethnically, and culturally Russian, which is why, after its residents voted in favor of annexation, Putin approvingly noted that "after a long, difficult, exhausting voyage, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their native harbor, to their native shores, to their port of permanent registration — to Russia." By contrast, the case to reach out to Transnistria in Moldova, for example, or even eastern Ukraine, is less clear. The Transnistrian Russians are relatively new colonists, arriving after World War II, and eastern Ukraine has Russian cities, but also a Catholic, Ukrainian countryside.
Putin is putting as much effort into defending his vision of "Russian civilization" at home as abroad, and he has drawn a direct connection between the two. In the past, he was a patriot, a Russian Orthodox believer, and a social conservative, but he saw the difference between his own views and state policy and was little interested in enforcing a social agenda. Indeed, he warned in 1999 that "a state ideology blessed and supported by the state … [means] practically no room for intellectual and spiritual freedom, ideological pluralism, and freedom of the press — that is, for political freedom."
But what he once merely frowned upon, Putin now wants to ban. The conservative backlash, with laws against gay "propaganda," the heavy-handed prosecution of members of punk band Pussy Riot after their "blasphemous" performance in a church, and renewed state control of the media, all speak to a new moral agenda — a nationalist and culturally isolationist one. Just as Putin has been trying to "de-offshorize" the Russian elite, he is now launching what could be called a "moral de-offshorization." His more recent pronouncements have been full of warnings about the "destruction of traditional values," threatening the moral degradation of Russian society.
The Russian Orthodox Church thus comes increasingly to the fore as a symbol and bastion of these traditional values and all that they mean for the new imperialism. Russian Orthodoxy was never an especially evangelical faith, concentrating on survival and purity over expansion, and much the same could be said of Putin’s worldview. In Putin’s previous presidency, the church was supportive, but just one of many of his allies. Now, though, from the pulpit to television news programs, the church is one of the most consistent and visible supporters of Putin’s state-building project. When interviewed on the subject of Crimea, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, one of Putin’s cassocked cheerleaders, asserted that the church has long believed that "the Russian people are a divided nation on its historical territory, which has the right to be reunited in a single public body."
IN 1999, SOON BEFORE HE BECAME ACTING PRESIDENT, Putin released a personal manifesto in which he admitted that Soviet communism was "a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilization." Now, he is looking for exit ramps from that mainstream. Speaking in 2013 at the Valdai International Discussion Club, he warned against "mechanically copying other countries’ experiences" because "the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia." It is a quest that he has taken upon himself in the name of personal and national greatness: A people with a destiny cannot be allowed to let him, themselves, their country, and their mission d
All this helps explain the difficulty that Western governments have in understanding and dealing with him, especially this most aggressively cerebral U.S. administration. It seems that much is lost in translation between the Kremlin and the White House. Putin is not a lunatic or even a fanatic. Instead, just as there are believers who become pragmatists in office, he has made the unusual reverse journey. Putin has come to see his role and Russia’s destiny as great, unique, and inextricably connected. Even if this is merely an empire of, and in, his mind — with hazy boundaries and dubious intellectual underpinnings — this is the construct with which the rest of the world will have to deal, so long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.