The tragedy now unfolding in Ukraine serves as a painful and powerful reminder of one of the foundational lessons of modern history. Ideological and faith-driven fixations, whether in foreign or domestic affairs, lead to bad policy. Evidence-based policies do not necessarily guarantee success, but their built-in pragmatism allows for adaptations that take into account changing conditions and new facts. Faith and ideology, by contrast, seek to impose values grown from the bedrock of inflexible principles. They tend to blind policymakers from seeing reality as it is.
The hecatomb into which Adolf Hitler led Germany and the world was the direct result of his belief in German racial superiority and his defiance of science’s capacity to feed the German volk without resorting to the conquest of a vast Lebensraum. The solution lay in turning Germanic Wagnerian mythologies into executive policies of world domination. Joseph Stalin, the head of another ideologically based regime, prevailed precisely because he departed from absolute imperatives and founded his war objectives and the nature of his alliances on cold, rational self-interest. His was a Patriotic War, not a campaign for world revolution.
Closer to our days, George W. Bush believed that his presidency was part of a divine plan, and that the events that led him to war were defined by “the hand of a just and faithful God.” Inevitably, Bush’s wars clashed against the Middle East’s harsh realities.
British delusions of exceptionalism lay also at the root of Brexit. Led by a vanguard of zealots, Brexit was a leap of faith, an adventure where politics got trapped in an ideological straitjacket, a sprint into the unknown. Still clinging to an anachronistic view of Britain as a sovereign global power, the Brexiters believed that unleashing from the EU’s stifling regulations would restore Britannia to her place as a global power. And, as is always the case with ideological zealots, details and technicalities were haughtily dismissed. Brexiter Michael Gove disdainfully derided “the experts.” Predictably, Britain is adrift today as she hasn’t been since the 1970s.
Fantasies about a nation’s exceptionalism are not necessarily just the product of leaders’ whims; they spring from the nation’s history and collective spirit and, no less importantly, they also define the nation’s strategic comportment. Accordingly, the missionary zeal of American civilization and the persistent Puritan ethos of “the shining city upon a hill” have been the cause and pretext of US imperial undertakings. Even though realpolitik has forced America to coexist, and frequently connive, with dictatorships, its imperial overstretching has fundamentally been the result of the drive to convert faraway lands to America’s value system. In Vietnam and throughout South and Central America, this meant fighting communism; in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was about fighting terrorism and exporting democracy.
War, the curse and engine of history, is back. In Ukraine, it has forced the West to unite in a common struggle against Vladimir Putin’s violent revisionism. But, in its quest for a distinct identity, Europe had been, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the threat of a great war in Europe, estranged from America’s imperial ways. The deeper roots of the rift lay in what Denis de Rougemont saw in 1946 as the gulf that had opened in the realm of collective mentalities between “young America, the homeland of the future” and “old Europe, the homeland of memory.” America represented “dynamism relieved of the weight of tradition” while Europe with its “ancestral quarrels that go around in circles” was always busy escaping the ghosts of her past. As from the end of the Cold War, Europe reacted to America’s imperial ways through a new mission civilisatrice embedded in international law and institutions, in the predominance of the principles of compromise and reconciliation, and in an almost religious belief in universal peace. America’s biblical self-assurance in a transcendental destiny clashed with a continent that, since the creation of the European Union, has seen itself as the first empire in history to have been built by consensus, compromise, and negotiations.
But, through his annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine seven months ago, Vladimir Putin has shown that Europe has been living in a fantasy, post-historical world where military power does not matter, nationalism is a force that can be tamed by subsidies, and leaders are supposed to be law-abiding, well-mannered gentle folk.
Putin is one in a long line of leaders who brought mayhem to the world and to their own people in the name of historical delusions and faith-driven convictions. His war in Ukraine, not unlike Brexit or America’s imperial wars, is driven by Russia’s own brand of exceptionalism, now translated into a Sisyphean effort to break history’s iron law about the rise and inexorable fall of empires. Vladimir Putin’s “programmatic” speech on the occasion of the annexation to Russia of Ukraine’s Eastern provinces was not a sudden outburst of anti-American rage. Putin has been developing in recent years a body of political thought aimed at confronting America’s hegemonic presumptions with Russia’s own narrative.
I heard Putin’s narrative at a dinner in Sochi for a small group of guests in 2015. To him, Russia’s conflict with the West is not just a clash over geostrategic aspirations. It is rather a profound civilizational rift, a collision between the West’s supposed universal values and Russia’s quest for a distinct identity. George Kennan, the man who as early as 1946 determined America’s Cold War strategy, saw the origins of the rift in the clash of titans between the Soviet Union and the West that was, he believed, “written into the genetic code of the Soviet Union.”
The West was never an innocent bystander in this ideological clash, for it has always believed that peace with Moscow is determined by whether Russia looks for a place in the Western orbit or clings to the traditional values shaping Russian civilization. Putin’s defiance of the major achievement of America’s Cold War victory—a European security architecture based on the integration of the whole of Eastern Europe into the Western sphere—comes with long explanations of Russian history, Orthodox Christianity, Russia’s distinct culture, and the ethos of a mighty country proud of the vastness of its geography.
Even though Putin’s geostrategic ambitions amount to a clear attempt to undo the collapse of the Soviet Union, to him “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,” his ideological sources of inspiration go back to the Czarist era. It is there that he looks for an old-new galvanizing ideology to supplant the defeated communist Weltanschauung. His dead mentor is the Christian-fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whose remains Putin repatriated in 2010 from Switzerland where he had lived and died as a sworn enemy of the Bolsheviks. Conspicuously, Putin has also repatriated for reburial the remains of White Russian commander and general, Anton Denikin, and those of Ivan Shmelyov, the author of idyllic recreations of life under the Czars.
Putin wants Russia to skip the memory of the Soviet period and link instead to the history that started in the early Middle Ages in Rus, with Kyiv being the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy—in 2016, Putin inaugurated with great fanfare a monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, the late 10th century ruler of Kievan Rus who also converted to Orthodox Christianity—and continued in to the Romanov Empire and modern Russia. Putin does not see himself as the heir of Lenin and Stalin; he is a “White” not a “Red” Czar obsessed with the recreation of eternal Russia and the Romanov legacy with its cultural richness and the imperial military glory. Putin’s major institutional ally in his nationalist endeavor is the Russian Orthodox Church, whose hierarchy still sees the victory of Bolshevism in 1917 as the triumph of atheism, or as a Jewish Masonic plot to destroy “Holy Rus.”
Alexander Pushkin’s most famous work, Eugene Onegin, alludes to Russia’s turbulent history straddling East and West. But with Putin, the pendulum has swung back to Russia’s intimate history and traditions. He has drawn from Russia’s Cold War defeat the same conservative values that Tolstoy idealized as Russia’s response to the Napoleonic invasion. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a monument to how Russia’s Fatherland War frustrated Peter the Great’s westernizing project by driving Russia back to the traditional values of Russian Orthodoxy and the virtues of the common Russian, thanks to which General Mikhail Kutuzov defeated the French Emperor. Isaiah Berlin’s essay on “The Hedgehog and the Fox” brilliantly interprets Tolstoy’s novel as an ode to the natural virtues of simplicity, intuitive wisdom, and Christian ethics of the uncorrupted Russian peasant. Tolstoy’s Russia, which defeated Napoleon, is Putin’s Russia, the antithesis of the decaying West.
Putin comfortably relies on the imperial traditions of Russian literature. Just as Lermontov’s poetry constructed an imperial, colonialist Russian perspective on the Caucasus, Pushkin did so on Ukraine, notably in his historical poem Poltava on how Tsar Peter the Great tightened Russian control over Ukraine, a historical moment that Putin invoked in a speech last June. To Pushkin, Ukrainians, such as their 17th century national hero Ivan Mazepa, were to be pitied and despised. A similar message comes from Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian by birth who switched his identity to a Russian imperial one and used his talent to prove, most notably in his historical novella Taras Bulba, that Ukraine needs to be civilized by the Russian empire.
To Ivan Ilyin, Putin’s mentor, Bolshevism’s sinful rise was also the victory of a multiethnic empire that diluted the Russian ethnic purity of the fatherland. And, indeed, Putin has made Russia’s dwindling demography into a key political concern. Admittedly, demography has often been central in determining national policies in other countries as well. France after World War I encouraged natality as a way to combat Germany’s military superiority. And, in Israel, cleareyed analysts rightly warn the country’s leaders of the specter of a demographic doomsday whereby Jews would become a minority should Israel annex the West Bank. Demography, perhaps more than territory, has historically been a defining tenet of Zionism.
Russia’s demographic crisis is particularly acute, though. With a fertility rate among the lowest in the world, an abortion rate among the highest, and life expectancy declining at an alarming rate, Russia, the vast continental empire, is now practically depopulated. Consequently, for someone like Putin who believes population to be synonymous with power and grandeur—in January 2020, he assured his countrymen that “Russia’s destiny and its historic prospects depend on how numerous we will be”—the integration into the fatherland of millions of ethnic Russians who live outside the bounds of the Russian Federation is a vital policy item. The Russianization of Ukrainians that are being now forcefully displaced from their lands into Russia is, then, revealing. Putin’s demographic anxiety has developed into an obsession of creating territorial contiguity with Russia’s ethnic minorities beyond Russia’s borders, a strategy that is clearly reminiscent of Hitler’s grab of the German-speaking Sudetenland and Austria’s Anschluss.
The cult of World War II that Putin promotes as the greatest moment of the Soviet family in its heroic battle against fascism has practically become in Russia a surrogate religion that is meant to bear on Russia’s place in today’s global power puzzle. In 2014, Putin even passed a “memory law” criminalizing the dissemination of “false information” about the Soviet Union’s actions in the war, and in June 2020 he found time to offer his own distorted interpretation of the war in a 6,000 word article. In Putin’s order of things, the post-World War II division of spheres of influence in Europe that was decided in Yalta should supplant the post-Cold War liberal US-led system.
Putin’s blast of America’s unipolar world is not an exclusively Russian obsession. It resonates beyond Russia’s borders in the multipolar world that we live in. Even if eventually defeated in Ukraine, Putin’s defiance of America’s “mindless pursuit of hegemony” has the potential of rallying behind his flag other alienated nations and civilizations. Throughout Asia, notably in China and India, and Africa as well as in the heart of Europe and in the United States itself, authoritarian rulers, populist leaders, and Christian fundamentalists are endorsing a value system that is inimical to that of the liberal West. “Democracy Under Siege” is how Freedom House recently defined our times. The international balance, it concluded, is shifting in favor of tyranny. Nor has America’s own faltering democracy set an edifying example to the world. Its archaic, dysfunctional democratic institutions have still to adapt to her responsibilities as a world power and toward its own citizens. The collapse of America’s post-Cold War hegemony, resulting from what Edward Gibbon attributed to the Roman Empire as “the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness,” has created a malady that is a civilizational affair as much as it is a geostrategic repositioning by global powers.