Putin’s new ‘values pact’
Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?
Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.
The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.
But what if Putin’s grand plan is more than just presiding over the re-united Russian territories? What if his long-term strategy is creating a new global conservative bloc, building an iteration of the Cold War that pits decadent, neo-colonial Western democracies against everyone else?
By beating the anti-West drum and turning the sanctions policy on its head, Putin seeks to mold Russians into an ever more obedient, patriotic public — forced to give up many of their post-Soviet amenities for the sake of glorifying mother Russia.
It seems to be working already. Under Putin, 63 percent of the population finally see their country as a “great power,” the highest percentage in recent years. In this Russia, which is separate from the West, Putin can firmly play the king of the jungle. His jungle, however, is not just Russia, but a whole new world order he wants to establish.
It’s clear now that by 2008, Russia, particularly Moscow, began to resemble Byzantium, the storied center of Orthodox Christianity — only with more supermarkets and Mercedes Benzes. A double-headed eagle, the imperial coat of arms that the Russian tsars appropriated from the Byzantine Empire, now appears everywhere: on subways, in government buildings, in Red Square, even at the Bolshoi Theater.
This was deemed historically apt. Moscow has been known as the “Third Rome” since the 1400s. When Byzantium collapsed, old Moscovia assumed its responsibility to lead Eastern Christians against Western decadence and toward spiritual heaven on earth. Now Moscow can re-assume this role.
Under Putin, the Soviets’ secular society began to rethink its place in a world in which conservative religious beliefs take precedence over civic norms. This helps explain why two members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot were sentenced in 2011 to almost two years imprisonment for performing their anti-Putin prank “prayer” in Moscow’s main Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Even given this harsh environment, the Kremlin’s new anti-gay propaganda law seemed too severe and unenlightened for a country that effectively participated in Western institutions — most notably (until Monday) the G8, a group of progressively developed nations.
Then, just before the Sochi Olympics, Putin announced that Russia will become a bastion of “conservative values.” He seemed to be following the Byzantium lead — aspiring to lead all nations, not just Christian, that suffer from the West’s “new colonialism.”
Putin had also skillfully reclaimed his place on the world stage by forcefully standing up to the United States. During the scandal over the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance, Putin was able to stick it to the Americans by granting asylum to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Putin also parlayed his role as key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into negotiating a surprise chemical weapons deal. Forbes selected Putin as the most powerful leader of 2013.
Reimagining the post-Cold War order by creating a new “Eastern” bloc to counter the dominant Western secular democracies is perhaps why Putin has continued to support the vile Assad regime in Syria. Now that Egypt has a new military dictatorship, which appears to prefer Russia to the United States, maybe Moscow and Cairo can form a new Warsaw Pact — based on conservative values, oil and arms. Iran might also sign on.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, would be a nice addition to this collection of anti-democratic states. Beijing has its own grievances with the West — the G-7’s tendency to moralize and lecture about human rights and a free press is just part of it.
Granted, this strategy might not work. China is eager to become a singular global leader and Iran appears to be trying to “reset” relations with the West. But who knows? If Putin can offer Beijing a territorial bribe — the most populous nation has been looking to “steal” land from Russia for years — and extend Tehran some nuclear expertise, it might seal the deal.
Yet even if Russia succeeds in becoming the new Byzantium by patriotically ignoring isolation and curtailing all Western influences, the result would still mean the end of Russia as we know it. Putin may be able to turn his post-Cold War grievances into a new Cold War ideology, and this may even allow him to hold onto power for some time. His ideology, however, offers no future, no constructive formula and no human benefits.
For all the West’s inconsistency and even hypocrisy since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, we have (for the most part) lived in the world of comfort and civility, not ideological fervor and militant rejection of legal and economic institutions. On a larger scale, this benefits all.
Sadly, Putin can’t make the same claim.
PHOTO (TOP): President Vladimir Putin waves during the closing ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 23, 2014. REUTERS/Phil Noble
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) prepares to sign documents as Sergei Naryshkin (R), speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, and Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Federation Council, look on during a ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow, March 21, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Chirikov/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II (C) and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, January 22, 2003. REUTERS/Pool/Ivan Sekretarev
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) looks at his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin