What Does Vladimir Putin Want?
Ideology, Movement and Destruction
Vladimir Putin visits a command post of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria. With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, January 7, 2020. Source: http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62545/photos
Curiously enough, there is little in-depth work on what Vladimir Putin wants, in other words his ultimate goals. More precisely, many remain at the surface of things or the momentary manifestations of this alleged will. It will be easy, in fact, to establish that the Russian regime intends, if not to reconquer, at least to dominate Ukraine, preventing it if possible from being a democratic and free regime, in any case by neutralizing it. This is also true of Belarus and Georgia, as well as the Caucasus, where it has de facto control over Armenia and has gained a foothold in Azerbaijan. One can also consider that it intends to destabilize Africa, to weaken the Western democracies and the European Union and to push as much as possible all the movements opposed to political liberalism. Finally, it intends to corrode and ultimately undermine the rules of international law and to strengthen dictatorial and criminal regimes wherever it can, first and foremost in Syria, but also in Venezuela, Cuba and Myanmar—this support is even a matter of principle for it. All this is true, but it remains a description, not an analysis.
Many have also argued, not without reason, that Putin was essentially trying to reclaim the empire lost with the fall of the Soviet Union and wash away, through war, what he had described as a “humiliation.” This has sometimes been portrayed as a rather classical neo-imperialism or a form of re-colonization of countries that had regained their freedom. In order to combat Russia’s collapse—which, by the way, was due to his regime’s destruction of the economy through corruption and the consequent favoring of the windfall economy—he would have felt the need for this new extension. Russia’s so-called “greatness” is not linked to the exemplary nature of its state, the strength of its industry and research and the well-being of its citizens, but to the deployment of its military force, to conquest and oppression. All this is, again, indisputable, but does not fully express what Putin wants.
We must therefore try to turn to the heart of things or to what, to borrow the expression from Machiavelli, he called the “verità effettuale della cosa” (The Prince, chapter XV), in other words, the very logic of the regime as Putin has progressively established it over the last 22 years. If one remains with the agreed idea that a certain form of rationality in the objectives would govern this regime, one is condemned to understand nothing about it. A similar mistake would be to remain fixed on its objectives in terms of territory, military presence (bases in Tartus and Hmeimim in Syria, for example) and areas of influence, or on its diatribes against NATO, which it knows perfectly well is not a threat to a peaceful state. Even the weakening of Western liberal democracies is not an objective; it is at best a secondary objective, in other words a means in an overall strategy. Should we then argue that global hegemony, or even hegemony limited to Europe and a few other areas (Middle East, Africa) would be an objective? Here again, they should be seen as components of a strategy, rather than as the strategy itself. The current Russian regime does not have the means for such domination, including in Ukraine—and even less so elsewhere. What Putin wants is probably infinitely more terrifying—and, defying as it is, perhaps that is why some Western leaders do not want to see it and continue to believe that a space for “dialogue” is possible, as in rivalries such as the nineteenth and previous centuries have offered many examples.
To remain in such a position, as if in retreat, would therefore be to identify only the surface eddies, without grasping the tectonic movements. To do this, one must take the concept of ideology seriously, but also grasp the specificity of the ideology that Putin has progressively adopted according to the evolution of the world, his perception of his enemies and the internal conditions of the exercise of power. It is necessary to understand the movement and the fact that it is precisely a movement, and what it tends towards: destruction.
The de-ideologized ideology or the quintessence of the ideology
To find an example of a radical opposition to Western democracy of a proselytizing nature, we must turn to the instrumental constitution of an ideology by the Putin regime. Our hypothesis is that it tells us something about the very concept of ideology, which is itself polemical, and perhaps makes it the quintessential “postmodern” ideology. Putinism could perhaps be the first nihilist ideology. But we must above all grasp this ideology by its concrete effects; a pure ideology always has the vocation to apply its program—from Lenin to Hitler. It is in the light of its nature that it makes intelligible the way in which it upsets the very nature of international relations, obliging us to revise in part the schemes that have guided us until now.
Gradually, therefore, an ideology has emerged to replace the vanished communism that, because it is intrinsically linked to a man who has held Russia for 22 years, we will call Putinism (Francis Fukuyama had already used this term, but without, in our opinion, grasping its full scope). This ideology has also given itself the means to spread and to fight. It is made up of puzzle pieces that have been progressively assembled without a clear project structuring it at the beginning of the Putin era.
It is largely through the tactical exploitation of his opponents’ faults that the Russian president has been able to give his ideological project the scope it has today. Because it was accompanied by the successful use of armed force, this ideology eventually won over the minds of authoritarian leaders and crowds, giving it a power and federative capacity that its mere statement would certainly not have had. Just as Soviet communism would not have been favored by millions of people around the world without the establishment of zones of influence and its ability to threaten, Putinism would have remained marginal without its ability to impose its agenda through its attacks in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and Belarus. It is the success of the Kremlin’s military operations and its ability to block the application of international law, notably through its 16 vetoes at the UN over Syria, that have reinforced this ideology. It is our failure and our imperviousness. It is, combined, these elements of power, ideology and radical questioning, without serious opposition to our rules, that have allowed the master of the Kremlin to become the systemic threat to the world order and democracies that it is today.
For a political practice to become an ideological design, four elements are needed.
First, there must be an instrumental purpose that corresponds to domestic and foreign policy objectives. No one forges an ideology if it is useless for concrete purposes.
Then, it is necessary that it is available and that, in the historical and mental substratum, there are elements that lend themselves to an ideological enterprise—and from this point of view, such pre-existing data, of diverse sources (as much communism as nationalism) can be mobilized. These data can be both narrative fragments and discursive patterns.
Third, there must be a layer of ideologists and relays capable of providing coherence to the ideology and helping to disseminate it to the public within the country and abroad, while deploying heavy means to dismiss or marginalize dissident voices.
Finally, power must have the latitude to act, both internally and externally, not only to assert its discourse, but above all to “prove” its effectiveness through action.
Putinism has adopted these four rules. In order to establish his hold on Russian society and to forge his aggressive policy abroad, Vladimir Putin needed a narrative that gradually took shape. Then he found ideological elements in the Soviet narrative as well as in nationalism, orthodoxy, traditionalism and anti-liberalism that could be developed for internal use and beyond Russia's borders. He had the benefit of multiple “ideologues” who could help him design his narrative and he was also able to develop, with resources disproportionate to the state of the Russian economy, a powerful propaganda apparatus at home and abroad. Finally, as its ideology became more and more coherent, it began to test its capacity for action, with great success, by taking advantage of the West’s deafness and lack of strategic intelligence.
The reasons for the West's inaction in the face of the Russian regime are certainly linked to multiple causes that have often been noted: cowardice, the economic interests of certain actors, compromise, even corruption, the relays of influence present in certain circles and idiocy. But there are also more essential reasons.
The first, which largely encompasses the others, is that the ideological nature of Putinism as it is today has not been understood. By placing it in the category of populisms or “authoritarianisms”, we contribute to de-ideologizing it. Yet it has its own characteristics that make it non-reducible to other forms of reference. Now, by not understanding its ideological nature, we logically lack certain means to fight it.
Secondly, the category of ideology is absent in the minds of some analysts, especially in security affairs and international politics. They see it as a kind of “superstructure,” to use Marxian concepts, which they detach from the practice of power. Or, to put it more simply, many still consider the country and its historical and geographical data more than the regime. This was already a tendency, denounced by Raymond Aron, at the time of the USSR.
Thirdly, many still keep in mind, even if they receive the concept of ideology, the image of the USSR as the ideal-type of ideology and they measure the strategic danger by this yardstick. They may thus consider that NATO, in particular, had good reasons to be constituted since the Soviet ideology had, by nature, the nature of a military threat of which the Warsaw Pact later became the illustration, but that it was another time. Some people still believe that the fall of the Wall made it disappear, at least as a global threat. They can even see the danger posed by Putin’s Russia without perceiving it as a threat of the same nature, to the point of marginalizing it as a reason to defend NATO’s existence.
Finally, even among those who are aware of such a danger, the link is not always made between, on the one hand, the Kremlin’s internal and external atrocities, war crimes, and even crimes against humanity, the institution of a mafia state, and, on the other hand, ideology. They act as if, whatever the circumstances, a crime syndicate must always do without an ideology as an adjunct to its crimes. However, kleptocratic organization and mafia practices can also be based on an ideology that promises them to thrive. The existence of material interests of a gang in power is not antinomic to it. Ideology—after all, the young Marx of the time of The German Ideology said it already in similar terms—is a form of screen that presents the inverted image of reality.
The logic of the movement
Putin’s ideology was thus built up gradually and did not already exist fully armed in the head of the master of the Kremlin when he came to power in 2000. In its application, by opportunism rather than, at least at the beginning, by deliberate strategy, it has made its own a principle where Hannah Arendt saw a key principle of totalitarianism: movement. Putinism needs such movement. Of course, it does not reproduce the techniques of Stalinism’s incessant purges and terror from the bottom up, nor the form of mobilization of an atomized society like Nazism. However, it is accompanied, especially in recent years, by a double movement: internally, by an increasingly brutal, radical and total repression, not to mention the ever greater militarization of society from the earliest age; externally, by incessant aggression or destabilization actions and on new fronts.
The first component of this ideology borrows from the pattern of all dictatorial, even totalitarian regimes: the close correspondence, if not symbiosis, between the leader, the people and the nation. All the opponents of the supreme leader are therefore supposed, by construction, to be enemies of this “people” and traitors to the motherland. They are therefore deemed doubly illegitimate in that they are opposed to the dual community of the people and the nation. They are consequently placed outside the people and therefore impure since the people are purity incarnate, but also “enemies” since by fomenting a “plot” against the fatherland they reveal that they are driven by hostile interests, in other words foreign. Like any ideology, Putinism had to be a system closed on itself, “irrefutable” in the sense of Karl Popper and containing in itself the explanatory premises both of its action and of the intentions, by definition malignant, of its adversaries who had to be eradicated. On the international level, this also led ipso facto to the legitimization of wars in the name of the sacredness of the fatherland and the unity of the people. This very search for the alleged purity of the “Russian people”, the need to make the “real nation” (that of Russianness in its language) coincide with the “ideal nation”, itself leads to this incessant movement—which is certainly also a distraction in the face of social and economic disaster.
Ideological syncretism is no less ideological than an apparently linear ideology such as communism, fascism or Nazism—which were far from being completely linear. Without doubt, it reaches a form of apotheosis with Putinism. It borrows elements not only from Soviet communism, but also from classical nationalism, fascism, Nazism and authoritarian conservatism. It deploys the tricks of historicism by rewriting history and geopolitics in its original, i.e. geographical, version. It uses orthodoxy in the manner of regimes of divine right. He seizes upon theories of race when necessary—even when he calls it “Russian people”. Of course, it deploys all these artifacts with the redoubled power of modern communication tools. Like other ideologies before it, it does not hesitate to support, outside its borders, all regimes or political groups that might be interested in using the same substratum from which everyone can draw ad libitum. This second element is part of the same thirst for “movement”: the very fact of playing on the internal pluralism of its ideology allows Putin and his henchmen to multiply the fronts and to always find a new hunting ground, either to attack or to seduce. This pluralism is, in a way, more advantageous than a uniform ideology.
In Putin’s own ideology, law, especially international law, is a primary adversary insofar as it is an obstacle to its concrete application. This was certainly not the first historical manifestation of it: Hitlerism, in its time, largely contributed to its destruction. But precisely because it was Hitlerism, and after the crime of crimes, it was possible to refound the law against what was its absolute antonym. Soviet communism, on the other hand, has kept this right in a purely formal form.
This ideology called Putinism, however, is specific in that it does not aim at the construction of an alternative order, but at the systematic destruction of any order. Undoubtedly, this is the specificity of Putinism, which explains why it is irreducible to any seizure in the classical terms of rationality: it is a de-ideologized ideology, that is to say what we have called pure ideology, if not quintessential, in comparison with the classical ideologies. In that, it contributes to destroy in a radical way the rules that the civilized West had established precisely on the ruins of Nazism. Putinism completes, as it were, this principle of movement by the permanent search for instability, which is its true objective.
To apprehend this concept of de-ideologized ideology, it is necessary to perceive that the recourse to ideology does not mean the existence of a linear doctrine of intervention, a “grand plan” strictly articulated in time and a concrete strategy. There is no corpus or global theory behind what Putin and his people are doing in terms of either external action or propaganda. Putin does not need a Clausewitz and, as has been noted, what some call the “Gerasimov doctrine” is not a doctrine at all. Putin’s “postmodernism” is that he does not need a structured corpus to commit his misdeeds.
A certain form of intellectual laziness, combined with a poor knowledge of the nature of the Russian regime, leads one to perceive his actions as the result of a classical strategy. In addition to the fact that some people continue to draw their references from the methods of action, if not the aims, of the post-war USSR, and see in it a kind of updating of the Cold War, they treat the Kremlin’s foreign policy by applying the same schemes as for China or Turkey. They see in the schemes of “great powers politics” the unbreakable matrix that they attempt to apply to the Kremlin’s undertakings. They will therefore take up as such the notions of interest, territory, zones of influence, access to the seas, balance, etc., as if they could enclose, and thus reduce, the specificities of these.
They therefore infer that it is possible to put a stop to them by negotiating and by what is called a give and take. This is where they have understood nothing of the logic of the movement—which is also the movement of the logic of this ideology. Perpetual motion leads first to loss of balance—then to madness.
To think the inconceivable
An enterprise of destruction becomes possible when ideology becomes its own end and takes the place of strategy. From the moment when ideology does not indicate any other end than the destruction of the adversary, without even trying to install a regime of durable domination on its ruins, it can be satisfied with a hammer without needing a trowel. Its project is not that of a foundation, but precisely of a de-foundation.
The goals and the modus operandi are one and the same: by no longer even trying to seriously conceal its crimes—the propaganda is so crude that its initiators show that they are not trying to be believed—the impunity of the crime (the goal) and its execution (the modus operandi) become one. The fact that the crime is no longer even named, even though it is the supreme offense (war crimes and crimes against humanity) for the upholders of the international order, seems to confirm a posteriori the effectiveness of this strategy.
In the face of one who has no serious ultimate goal, the inability of the Western world to reason outside the classical scheme of the link between means and end reinforces the destructive character of the Putinian ideology. Indeed, the undermining of international law, the disintegration of international organizations and, in general, the liberation from all rules constitute an ideological strategy that says nothing about the ultimate goal. To see it as a simple means of defending interests, strengthening power or obtaining military gains misses the reality of the enterprise. What Putin seeks is not defined by any form of positive goal that could be visualized: it is not even the domination of one area or the subjugation of another; it is neither the new Rome of realized communism, nor the thousand-year Reich. It is the only movement that ends up defining it, not the stability of a hold.
Without doubt the term nihilism seems historically and intellectually dated. It refers to authors that we hardly read anymore and that almost nobody claims to be. We saw it briefly reappear on the intellectual scene when the French philosopher André Glucksmann proposed it, in a book Dostoyevsky in Manhattan, to characterize the ideology that animated the authors of September 11. But the interpretation seemed of little use in tracking down the motives, preventing other terrorist acts by the Islamist movement and fighting against radicalization. On the domestic scene, it is such a purely destructive purpose that animates certain radical movements, but it is doubtful that there is an ideological project behind these groups built around premises and an end.
It is however the concept of nihilism that ultimately allows us to approach the ideology developed by Putin and his circles. We must return to the four definitions of the word which, each one, offers a part of the apprehension of Putinism.
There is a form of nihilism, intellectual, which philosophically proclaims that there is no foundation to hold on to and that, therefore—the inference being questionable—there is no unquestionable directive for action. There is a second, moral one, which intends to signify that, in the end, nothing is worthwhile and that, consequently, everything is in some way permitted. A third, political, intends to put down the system of domination based on principles and values and to establish an order without coercion. A fourth, praxeological, wants there to be no rules limiting human action, individual and collective, other than the will of those who are in a position to express one.
To understand what Putin wants implies combining these four interpretative dimensions.
On the first, because his ideology is syncretic and borrows without coherence from various currents (nationalism, Sovietism, Orthodoxy, anti-Semitism, Panslavism, Eurasianism, etc.), the absence of a single foundation means that it is no longer a foundation at all and that the regime can dispose of the foundation, at a given moment, that serves it best. As the foundation becomes labile, the action no longer has a reference.
On the second interpretation, the penetration of crime into the heart of the system and the domination of secrecy give absolute authorization to the agents of the regime, who will not only be covered, but will also be able to count on propaganda organizations to create confusion—this has been verified from the downing of MH17 to the chemical massacres in Syria, from the war crimes of the Wagner group to the assassinations of dissidents.
On the third, the desire to destroy all norms related to international law realizes what Putin intends to do: an order where no one can oppose his actions and where all crimes are allowed.
As for the fourth, it is only the transposition of the principle according to which the right is the force that no right can limit.
If everyone in the West continues in his or her irresolution to act, this could become a prophecy.