Russia continues to elude the West. The United States of America – still leading the West – continues to excoriate Russia. Only a little over six months ago Donald Trump had entered the White House with an intent of improving Russo-American relations; yet so long as his name is not unequivocally absolved with regard to his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, there cannot even be a prospect of progress. The greatest geopolitical danger today is not another Cold War, but its sheer impossibility; that is to say, a genuine possibility of an outright conflict. A national rhetoric sometimes lays a narrative into motion which can seldom be controlled by statesmen who, in turn, become responders instead of regulators. This motion of national rhetoric has a sway over the actions of statesmen. History is now ripe for another conflict because the political actors mistrust one another in spite of their desires to contrary. This is due to the inexorable logic of nation-states. Most wars are unwanted: they still occur because a nation is unable to predict its opponent’s next action. This inability of prediction is borne largely by misperception. Misattribution of motives, coupled with misunderstanding of the opponent’s perspective, result in mutual exacerbation. Policymakers and scholars have hitherto been unable to comprehend Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This incomprehension has only swelled because the Western policymakers have continued in their useless task of psychologising Putin. The policies of Putin are more than about the person of Putin: they reflect the geopolitical cosmology of Russia, and they yield to the ethos of Russia. If Putin was overthrown tomorrow, the same geostrategic problems will persist. The Western policymakers should therefore strive to understand the dynamics which created the possibility of a figure like Putin. These dynamics are at once ephemeral and eternal, historically contingent and culturally permanent.

In that cold November of 1989 the stones of Berlin Wall lay ruined upon the rubble as millions throughout Eastern Europe rejoiced and Western leaders sighed of relief. The rapidity with which that seemingly mighty spire of Soviet Communism crumbled stupefied scholars and politicians alike. George Kennan’s prophecy seemed to have been fulfilled. Francis Fukuyama extolled the banner of Hegelian universalism: the Western libertarianism was thought to have triumphed. Capitalist democracy was expected to conquer the world in not too long a time. The Western policymakers felt proud, and thought that Russians were pleased. In fact though most Russians were content with the fall of communism, they also felt humiliated. They instinctively knew that they were no longer a Great Power.

History is a good antidote to hysteria. Russians took refuge in their history. Every change is limited by Time: the present cannot escape the past. As even the progressive E. H. Carr, that Olympian scholar of Russia, once said: ‘Nothing in history that seems continuous is exempt from the subtle erosion of inner change; no change, however violent and abrupt in appearance, wholly breaks the continuity between past and present’. [1] With the fall of communism, the old ethos of Russia burst forth. ‘Russianness’ intersected with the fall of Berlin Wall, thereby paving a way for a Putinesque personality. The instigation of Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts were, in retrospect, inevitable once the great glacial conflict had subsided.

The rhetoric of belligerency has been an integral part of Russian foreign policy since the time of the Tsars. There is, however, one crucial difference between Cold War and post-Cold War Russia: the Russian elite is no longer enthralled by a spurious ideology. They do not crave to dominate the world. They have neither an appetite, nor a will, to submerge the world into the fanning flames of some ideology. He who wants to understand Putin’s geostrategy, or at least his geopolitical tactics, must first wash his eyes with cold water. He must realise that the Cold War analogies border upon anachronism. Putin is not merely another Soviet leader. He is not an expansionist for the sake of an ideology. Putin has summoned the old Russia, the pre-Soviet Russia, the ‘real Russia.’ This Russia is, in many ways, a mythical Russia: a mystical earth which rejects liberalism and materialism of the West. Putin has put into action an unarticulated emotional longing for the unity of Slavic peoples. Within the Russian soul, there has always been a fervent emotional craving for the cultural Slavic unity. This cultural longing has been morphed in a military action which many, if not most, Russians hope will someday lead to a political unity. Historical humiliations make Russians crave after a political and cultural intimacy with Eastern Europe. The current Russian regime is frustrated for myriads of reasons, but these frustrations are more than political or economic: they are cultural.

Prestige is now at stake. The current conflict between Russia and the West is geoprestigious. Prestige is the grandfather of all wars. Putin’s geoprestigious strategies are predicated upon new geopolitical realities. Geoprestigious policies allow the Russian political elite to secure its power internally by expanding Russian influence externally within the immediate region. It secures the future by intertwining opportunities of the present with unfulfilled hopes of the past. It achieves this goal in not merely political or ideological terms, i.e., the One versus the Other or the Good versus the Bad or the Legitimate versus the Illegitimate. Geoprestigious policies are pursued to correct perceived historical injustices. The leader is able to control and redirect a collective consciousness of people by promising betterment and prestige. The aims are not concerned merely with economic profits or even geographical expansion. They are visceral and emotional. Leaders often use a rhetoric of sovereignty at risk. Putin’s chauvinism is just another manifestation of Russian elite’s inferiority-complex which was, as often noted by Kennan, even suffered by the Tsars. Geoprestigious policies are seen as viable option to coagulate domestic policies while simultaneously congealing the regime’s power and correcting perceived historical injustices.

Russia is, along with China and Britain, one of the last few great organic nations on earth to have survived modernity. The hatred for Western individualism and materialism is ingrained in the soul of Russia. Throughout their long history, Russians have longed for pan-Slavic unity. Depending upon one thinker to another, this Slavophilism has taken several forms, though it can be categorised into two broad camps: some have explicitly demanded pan-Slavic empire to counter the Western hegemony whilst others have believed that their separate spiritual civilisation can save not only of the Slavic peoples from materialism but might well salvage the Westerners also.  Fyodor Tyutchev, a Slavophile statesman and poet, had long ago thought that the West, where ‘faith [has been] long lost and reason [is] reduced to absurdity’, was doomed.[2] Slavic nationalism has always been primarily linguistic. It was first fully conceptualised by a Croat priest, Juraj Križanić. Cultural federation of the Slavic peoples has been a political desire for the Russians at least since the time of Tsar Alexander I and Pavel Stroganov.[3]  In the age of Romanticism, under the influence of Herder, this principle of cultural nationalism was further elaborated by two eminent Slovak intellectuals and poets, Ján Kollár and Pavel Šafárik. Slavophilism has reverberated throughout Russian history. Even today, it makes Russian hearts beat a little faster.

The makers of events and opinions in the West had often been puzzled by a figure like the late Solzhenitsyn. He was admired as a Soviet rebel and he was considered to be a prophet, yet he could not make himself be understood to the Westerners. The Westerners could not appreciate his instinctual Slavophilia. The Western policymakers must not delude themselves into thinking that by festering a progressive alternative to Putin, they can simply rid Russia of its pan-Slavist impulses. Throughout Russian history, liberals or revolutionaries like Chaadayev and Herzen and Bakunin were no less Slavist than the conservatives or reactionaries like Khomiakov and Kireyevsky and Danilevsky. Indeed liberals in Russia have evoked Slavism more often than their official governments. Tsarist Chancellors like Nesselrode and Gorchakov were suspicious of Slavism – as were conservative intellectuals like Karamzin and Leontiev – whilst Slavism was hoisted by Pushkin and Chaadayev, Herzen and Bakunin. Slavism is not just political identity, but a spiritual – almost messianic – force. It is therefore liable to be used or abused by reactionaries and radicals alike.

Slavophilism is not necessarily exclusivist, but Slavophiles reject universalism. For them universalism is only rootless imperialism. Aleksey Khomiakov, perhaps the most learned Slavist philosopher, was fundamentally against Western libertarianism. Deriding unrestrained individualism, he postulated that a human being ‘is related to society as part of the whole, as a limb to the body, as a plant to the soil’.[4] This conservatism of Khomiakov was later echoed by the liberal Belinsky who lamented the lack unique national literature: and this lamentation culminated in works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Sholokhov and Solzhenitsyn. Slavophiles had their own view of the enlightenment, prosveshchenie, which was preeminently spiritual. Their prosveshchenie, rejecting libertarianism and individualism, is markedly different from German or French or even Scottish enlightenments. Ivan Kireyevsky, for example, rejected Western social and political organisation because it propelled ‘egoistic existence’.[5]

Slavism, and therewith disdain for Western materialistic civilisation, has had a durable intellectual tradition in Russia. Russian liberals have seldom been of universalist disposition. Peter Chaadayev, that anguished liberal, may have regretted Russia’s Byzantinism and lack of Hellenism, but he could not recommend Westernisation as a solution to the problems of Russia.[6] Even Herzen, in the sunset of his days, had come to think of democracy as a system not much better than the ‘equality in servitude’, incapable of tolerating ‘any other orthodoxy’.[7] Conservatives like Khomiakov and Kireyevsky had followed Nikolai Karamzin – the father of Russian conservatism and modern historiography – in condemning the reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Their reforms, according to Karamzin, were untrue to Russianness: they were inorganic. ‘Truly’, he wrote in his Memoir of Ancient and Modern Russia, ‘Petersburg is founded on tears and corpses’. And Catherine, too, he continued, ‘sought in laws theoretical perfection, but failed to consider how to make them function most smoothly and usefully. She gave is courts without trained judges; she gave us principles but without the means with which the put them into practice. Many of the harmful consequences of the Peterine system also emerged more clearly in the reign of this queen’.[8]

These cultural insights – that Karamzin thought political reforms to be harmfully artificial, that Khomiakov thought Western libertarianism to be immoral, that Kireyevsky thought Orthodoxy to be inextricable from the soil of Russia itself – are not mere sociological abstracts. They have concrete impact upon Russian foreign policy insofar as they denote Russianness. Russians have perceived themselves to be not only different from the West, but also misunderstood and humiliated by the West. An elucidating historical case is that of Mikhail Katkov. A leading journalist in the reign of Alexander III, Katkov began his career as a fledging liberal but became a fervent conservative. When Russian military was victorious over the Ottoman Empire in October 1877, they had gained almost all of Bulgaria and imposed the Treaty of San Stefano upon the vanquished. Great Britain – a nation which was then the enforcer of the balance of power – could not tolerate geopolitical disequilibrium. Benjamin Disraeli was openly prepared for a European war if the Turkish integrity was not conserved and Russian ambition was not curtailed. Members of the Russian elite, and the pan-Slavist press, were certain that they would be supported by Bismarck’s Germany as its still-recent unification was achieved with Russia’s discreet assistance. Yet Bismarck valued Britain’s friendship, therewith European peace, more than he valued an expansionist Russia. Russia’s military triumphs were lost at the diplomatic table. Many in Russia blamed Britain for their humiliation at the Congress of Berlin the summer of 1878, but Katkov knew that Disraeli could not have humiliated Russia without Bismarck: ‘Germany paid us for our services with friendly words, but lacked interest in our successes… [O]ur concessions were directed by the policy of the disinterested Iron Chancellor’.[9] Not for the first time, nor the last, would Russians feel again this inveterate insecurity.

The pan-Slavist impulse, therefore, cannot be just wished away. It flourished in both the Tsarist Russia and Communist Russia. The goal of the West should not be to supress Slavism because this peculiar Russian ethos cannot be suppressed. The goal of the Western policymakers should be to contain its potential military prowess. Putin will remain in power because he has made Russians proud of their heritage. He has given them an aura of prestige. Even the most dissenting Russians grudgingly respect him – and respect is always tinged with fear – but they are not devoted to him as they were to the Tsars. Putin is an arch-realist. He will not blindly follow the spiritualism that had destroyed Nicholas II. He will not simply follow the ramblings of a neoreactionary like Aleksandr Dugin. Many commentators in the West have been mistaken into thinking that Dugin is Putin’s trusted advisor, and the conflict over the fate of Utopian Eurasian Empire is inevitable. Putin indulges such conceited thinkers like Dugin, just as Bismarck used to indulge Treitschke. Dugin is a postmodern Danilevsky. Nikolai Danilevsky was an icy philosopher-scientist of immense intellectual intensity. He had articulated pan-Slavism so pungently that even Dostoevsky admitted that he himself could not write ‘so harmonious[ly], logical[ly], and scholarly’.[10] If Leontiev was a Russian Nietzsche, then Danilevsky was a Russian Spengler. Dugin-Danilevsky Slavism differs from the Slavophilia of Khomiakov and Kireyevsky or Herzen and Dostoevsky insofar as the latter believed in voluntary cooperation between the Slavic peoples. Dugin, following Danilevsky, is a materialist who is prepared to adopt Western technology for the sake of achieving Eurasian Utopianism. Dugin, like Danilevsky, is a pseudo-conservative because he sneers moderation. Genuine conservative statesman in Russian history, like Pobedonostsev and Stolypin and Witte, were always suspicious of pan-Slavism: they thought it was a utopian – and rather expensive – dream of intellectuals.

There are two universal laws of foreign policy: first, foreign policy is predicated upon domestic politics; second, unsuccessful foreign policy eviscerates domestic tranquility. If Putin ceases to be a realist and follows the calling of pan-Slavism too far, then his victories will sow the seeds of their own defeat. Putin, like Bismarck, will unleash forces which would be out of his control. Like Bismarck, he will be associated with every major policy, and consequently would secretly distrust even his closest advisors. Like many an almighty leader, he will sit at the top proudly but nervously. Succession of power has been the perennial problem of Russian polity.

Russia itself is amidst a crisis: this crisis is not existential, but cultural. This Russianness longs for unity between the Slavic peoples. Yet Russia is now incapable of being fully Byzantian or even fully Slavic whilst it remains congenitally contemptuous of Western libertarianism. Although they are emotionally repelled by it, Russians have tasted materialism and they have liked it. The danger, therefore, is that the national crisis can lead to international conflict.

Those who dismiss Putin as a megalomaniac also droop over his every word, believing him to be the absolute master of his nation. Putin regrets the collapse of the former Soviet Union only insofar as he regards it as ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe of the century,’ which eventually led to ‘the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself,’ and ‘[t]en of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory’.[11] By including these ‘co-citizens and co-patriots’ within the Russian fold again, Putin wishes to solve the internal cultural crisis of Russia, i.e., to impede ‘the epidemic of disintegration’.

The question for Western policymakers is the following: should Russia be allowed to become a regional Power? Those who want a global equilibrium may well desire this for the sake of peace, but this generates its own problems: Russia will become a regional Power at the expense of its unwilling neighbours. No nation has a right to take another nation against its will. But is the West, is America after its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, willing to ‘pay any price or bear any burden’? That brief moment of unipolairty, after the Cold War, had passed even before America had time to rejoice its hegemony. All now utter and accept the cliché of multipolar international order. Multipolarity world does not mean, at least in the medium term, that the United States ceases to be a hegemonic power. Indeed hegemony can be synchronised with multipolarity. Should Washington decide to formulate a new policy towards Russia, it would well to consider two hypotheses:

  1. Russia never was, is not, and will never be a Westernised democracy. It is too large a country. If Russia was to be democracy, it would have to be decentralised, and this would undermine the prestige and authority of the central government in Moscow. To be it simply: it is not in Russia’s interest to have a democracy. If it were to have a democracy in the future, then it would be one peculiar to its own history, culture and traditions. Some universalists may reject such historical essentialism, but in times of crises, an opponent’s next move can best be predicted through the prism of history.
  2. Russians desire cultural unity between the Slavic peoples. To achieve this goal, the Russian elite, especially under Putin, will not be reticent to use military tactics. In the long term, Russia wishes from its neighbours a kind of arrangement Britain had with its former so-called ‘white Dominions’. After 1926, Britain had confirmed independent status of its ‘White Commonwealth’ nations like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa. They remained united by their symbolic loyalty to the British Crown. These nations had their own domestic policies, but they often consulted their mother country on foreign affairs. Moscow similarly seeks the cultural unity of the Slavic peoples and wishes to be consulted by them with regard to foreign policy.[12]

Of course, the postulation that Russia will never be a Westernised democracy or that it will never discard its Slavist impulses does not mean that the West should aid reactionary forces in Putin’s Russia or that it should simply let Eastern Europe be conquered by Russia. The West, and especially American policymakers, must be cognisant of the sources which have propelled Putin’s foreign policy. The lack of genuine understanding of Russia’s cultural history has led the Western foreign policy into a severe crisis.

The West and Russia will always remain diplomatic rivals because their unique cultural developments result in their different conceptions of international order. But diplomatic rivalries need not lead to existential conflicts. Diplomacy entails outwitting an opponent without humiliating him. An opponent can be more easily outwitted with engagement and understanding instead of inter-isolation. Inter-isolation cannot but lead to conflict. The Western, primarily American, policy towards Russia will remain at fault so long as it ignores the fundamental cultural differences between these two civilisations.  The most difficult task of Western geostrategy is to deflect pan-Slavist imperialism without deflating Russia itself.


[1] E.H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia: Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926 (New York, 1958), p. 3.

[2] Tyutchev quoted in Hans Kohn, Pan-Slavism: Its History and Ideology (New York, 1960), p. 155.

[3] Kohn correctly observed that ‘Pan-Slavism did not originate as an imperialist movement with the Russians… It was the non-Russian Slav world in its national awakening while felt the need for closer cooperation’ (Ibid., pp. xiv-xv).

[4] Quoted in Susana Rabow-Edling, Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism (Albany, 2006), p. 53.

[5] Quoted in Ibid., p. 94. See also Nicholas Riasanovsky, Russia and the West in the Teaching of the Slavophiles: A Study of Romantic Ideology (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), pp. 34-46; V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy (New York, 1953), vol. 1, pp. 213-23.

[6] See Raymond T. McNally, Chaadayev and his Friends (Tallahassee, 1971), pp. 95-96.

[7] Quoted in Kohn, p. 169.

[8] Karamzin, Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, ed. Richard Pipes (Cambridge, 1959), pp. 126, 134.

[9] Karel Durman, The Time of the Thunderer: Mikhail Katkov, Russian Nationalist Extremism and the Failure of the Bismarckian System, 1871-1887 (New York, 1988), p. 244.

[10] Quoted by Kohn, p. 191. See also Robert E. MacMaster’s Danilevsky: A Russian Totalitarian Philosopher (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), especially pp. 119-26, 178-83, 300-03.

[11] Quoted in Fyodor Lukyanov, ‘Putin’s Russia: The New Quest for Peace’ in An International Quarterly (2009), p. 126.

[12] Michael Rywkin has acutely observed that this ‘translates into a reluctance to clearly place the former Soviet republics, which Russia shed in 1991, in the category of genuine foreign states. The “disloyalty” of former Soviet Bloc countries is still resented and suspicion of Western intentions remains visible’ (‘Russian Foreign Policy at the Outset of Putin’s Third Term’ in American Foreign Policy Interests (2012), p. 233).