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Putin’s war risks a “clash of civilisations” – the West must not fall into his trap

The realities of the world today cannot be adequately understood through a civilisational prism.

By Jeremy Cliffe

At the old historical core of Kyiv stands Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. You can often glimpse it in the backdrop of TV news reports from the Ukrainian capital, smoke from Russian missile strikes rising behind its green and gold domes. The cathedral was founded in 1011 by Volodymyr the Great, the Grand Prince of Kyiv and ruler of the Kyivan Rus’ to whom Vladimir Putin ascribed the supposed historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples in an essay published last summer.

The essay was nonsense (“A historian confronted with this sort of mess is in the same unhappy situation as a zoologist in a slaughterhouse,” as the historian Timothy Snyder memorably put it). But it revealed the world-view motivating Russia’s war. Putin sees Russia as an imperial “civilisation state”: the rightful home of a sprawling people, including Ukrainians, destined by culture and history to be together. His thinking is guided by the quasi-mystical theories of ideologues such as Aleksandr Dugin, who has argued: “The Russian Renaissance can only stop by Kyiv.”

It is now nearly 30 years since the American political scientist Samuel Huntington first argued that the “clash of civilisations” would be the main source of future conflict. His vision attracted criticism in those early post-Cold War years for, in the words of the historian Timothy Garton Ash, its “extreme cultural determinism”. The cultural critic Edward Said wrote: “It is better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions.”

[See also: There can be no more illusions about the nature of Putin’s rule – he is a war criminal]

Russia’s belligerence illustrates the force with which civilisational ideas have nonetheless roared back. From the oppression of the Uyghurs in China to the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, from the white nationalism of Trumpism to a vogue for “European values” in the EU, the fixation with civilisation today can hardly be overstated. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has noted, this wider international picture “probably encouraged Putin to make his gamble: a world where American hegemony is fading, where new great powers and ‘civilisation-states’ are bent on pursuing their own interests”.

Yet an invasion inspired by such ideas is now demonstrating their limits. Huntington wrote in 1993: “If civilisation is what counts… the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low. They are two Slavic, primarily Orthodox peoples who have had close relationships with each other for centuries.” In a similar vein, Putin seems not to have anticipated the strength of Ukraine’s resistance. The scenes of Ukrainians in the occupied city of Kherson forcing enemy armed vehicles into retreat by marching in large numbers behind the yellow-blue flag simply do not make sense from a purist civilisational view of the world.

You do not need to share the heady optimism of the 1990s or deny the enduring power of cultural heritage to find renewed value in the criticisms made at the time of Huntington’s thesis. Neither individuals nor the societies they form are slaves to the past. They move around; they mingle, interact, evolve, reorient themselves; events take place around them and reshape how they see themselves and their place in the world. To recognise these realities is to recognise that “civilisation” is so malleable as to have questionable analytical value.

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Kinship is a contingent process, not a law of nature. Take Ukraine. It may have emerged from the Soviet Union with close ties to Russia, but the circumstances and experiences of a new era created new realities. Its 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Maidan Revolution in particular helped to burnish its civic sense of itself as a distinct nation. Russia’s invasion of 24 February has only accelerated that process (not least thanks to Volodymyr Zelensky’s resolute leadership). Ukrainian-ness is evolving before our eyes; the ties of national fate, culture and, yes, civilisation are loosening and retying themselves in new patterns.

 This is just one of myriad realities about the world today that cannot be adequately understood through a civilisational prism. Consider also the transformative rise of evangelical Protestantism in Brazil and parts of east Asia; or the emergence of new hybrid identities within post-imperial western European societies; or Taiwan’s fusion of supposedly Western-style liberal democracy and cultural Confucianism.

[See also: Under Russian bombardment, Ukrainians are redefining nationalism]

 The rise of self-defined civilisation states in recent years has prompted suggestions that the “feminised, woke” West would benefit from greater civilisational oomph. Even now, with Putin’s macho behemoth struggling to meet its military goals in Ukraine, that temptation remains. Meanwhile, boneheaded cancellations of Tchaikovsky concerts and the like in the West show how easily solidarity with Kyiv could curdle into clash-of-civilisations thinking. It is also notable how few non-Western states are participating in sanctions against the Putin regime. If the West really wants to recruit India or Latin America to the long-term struggle for a world safe for democracy, the very last thing it should do is allow opposition to Russia to become the civilisational showdown of Putin’s imagination.

Instead it needs a retort to this simplistic framework that avoids naivety about the force of such ideas. Not a zero-sum contest between realist and idealist tendencies but a nuanced fusion of elements from both; a hard-nosed universalism aware of both its own limits and the deep undertow of culture and tribe. That, not liberal triumphalism or civilisational chauvinism, is the intellectual task of this dark moment.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain