Putin and the Neoconservatives
It began in February a year ago. President Vladimir Putin of Russia found himself engaged in what seemed a simple defensive battle against American intervention in Ukraine. He is now under siege by the U.S. and NATO. The Western powers promoted the advancing “color revolutions” in states neighboring Russia, culminating in the coup in Ukraine and the small war that followed. Events did not go as the State Department and NATO planned, and now they are looking for revenge.
Germany and France intervened at Minsk to block a further American intervention with new arms for Kiev. A truce prevails for the moment. However, NATO has launched an exceedingly imprudent program to encircle Russia with demonstrations of force.
This includes shows of military power in recent days in Poland and the Baltic states, continued last week in Romania, and scheduled to be staged in the near future in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Washington has also been reaching out to Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan with political and economic inducements meant to block Russia’s Eurasian trading and development ambitions.
The Russian president claims that his real political ambition is to restore to Russia the culture, religion and historical mission of its past. Reunion with Crimea was a prize offered him by a clumsy American intervention in Ukraine. It was not an invitation to aggression but rather an opportunity for Putin to advance his mission at Washington’s expense. He wishes to remake the “New Russia” that existed at the end of the Romanoff era.
He has restored the Orthodox Church to the primacy it then occupied, and interestingly enough has distributed among his senior officials the works of Christian philosophers of the pre-revolutionary period (and later, of those in exile), including Nicholas Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin, and has promoted philosophical-historical reflection among these officials, summoning them to a major conference last year in the period following the seizure of Crimea. The subject of the conference was the destiny of Russia.
Putin has denied that he wishes to impose a religio-ideological state doctrine in the place of Marxism, but he does wish to sponsor the reintroduction of Russian elites to the national past and its historical culture. He wishes to see a sovereign democracy that is “qualitative” rather than arithmetical or quantitative. This is not likely to find willing listeners in the West today.
The French writer Michel Eltchaninoff suggests a comparison with the “new state” created by Antonio Salazar in Portugal between 1933 and 1974, usually called fascist but, while authoritarian, should more accurately be described as conservative, religious and nationalist. It is a response to what Putin views as the decadent and “anthropocentric,” or egoistic and materialistic, modern West.
Politically, Putin is moved by pan-Slavism and the Eurasian attachments of historical Russia, and seeks alliances and support from West Europeans of the politically incorrect persuasion, which to some extent he is finding. All this has nothing to do with the “Hitlerian” comparisons and accusations of aggressive war and expansionist intentions toward the West of which he was accused by Western governments and press during and after the Ukrainian crisis.
Against him stands the American foe. The energy behind the coup in Ukraine and the proposals to deploy Western arms there and relaunch the crisis is generally, and I think correctly, recognized as the work of the neoconservative alliance in Washington to which President Obama seems to have sub-leased his European policy.
This group includes the European affairs office in the State Department, senior Defense Department and NATO officials, certain Washington think tanks and elements in the national press.
The nature and aims of their program are fairly well known in American political circles, but not in Europe. Anne Norton’s 2004 book, “Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire,” provides a splendid introduction.
Intellectually, neoconservatism has been a movement that embodies, among other influences, ideas of two German philosophers, Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. Strauss, born in Germany, a classicist, migrated to America and taught at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, having a great influence upon students who were to become important enemies of the prevailing secular liberalism in American intellectual and political life.
Schmitt was an influential political scholar who defended the concept of the unlimited power of the state. He became a Nazi Party member in January 1933 and held important academic posts in Germany during the Second World War. His work enjoyed a revival in America during the George W. Bush administration and after. It influenced that administration’s controversial concepts of “unlawful combatants” exempt from international legal rights, the practice of “enhanced interrogations,” among others.
The foreign policy ambitions of the movement have been expressed in various efforts to build a political movement to create “a new American century.” Although this no longer is made explicit, the programs of the neoconservatives in Washington envisage the United States becoming a “New Rome,” exercising its unmatched military power “against civilization’s opponents” in order to revive classical values and eventually establish a universal American dominion—a New Rome.
The resemblance of President Putin’s ambitions for his Russia to those of the neoconservatives in the contemporary United States bear a striking formal resemblance in the wish of both to recall a romanticized past. The means they are willing to use resemble one another as well. That is a troubling conclusion.