Vladimir Putin's quest to build an anti-liberal empire

The Russian president aims to gift the world a spectacular legacy: the triumph of a new, post-democratic paradigm in opposition to universalism. 

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Vladimir Putin arrived at the G20 in Osaka, Japan, as the victor of an ideological world war. This was in part due to the Russian president’s distance from his home country: for a few hours he was able to separate himself from Russia’s social and economic problems, which he has not successfully resolved, and to forget the people who have lost trust in him.

Putin took advantage of his presence among world leaders to assume his favoured role: that of the international relations strategist, the philosopher of history. He is indeed certain that the ideology he has spent years developing is gaining popularity – and even triumphing – everywhere: China, Turkey, India, Brazil, the US and Europe. “Putinism” might be alienating citizens at home, but it has revealed itself to be an excellent export.

Vladimir Putin is first and foremost offering a brutal diagnosis of the world since the end of the Cold War: a world of Western domination, which he views as both hypocritical and unjust. In his interview with the Financial Times, the Russian president referred to this ideological, political and economic hegemony as “the liberal idea”, declaring that it had become “obsolete”. As such, he is not only targeting economic liberalism – an ideology which, after all, he himself pursues in Russia – but also political liberalism: a system based on the rights of individuals and civil society.

To understand what Putin thinks and wants, it is essential to grasp what he means by “liberal”: that is, individuals who have been “Westernised”. In other words, they have been “zombified” by the idea of human rights, by an open-mindedness to “the other”, and by mass consumption; they are reduced to inconsequential, cowardly, selfish beings who are unable to sacrifice themselves for their motherland and who have forgotten their origins. Putin relentlessly denounces this phantasmic “liberal” being and liberalism’s anthropological, religious, social and geopolitical dimensions.

According to Putin, all the world’s recent problems originate with the “liberal idea”: the reverence of sexual minorities and gender theory; the promotion of migrants (who, Putin says, “kill, plunder and rape with impunity”) over true citizens; the neglect of religion, which has caused the collapse of “traditional values”; the rise of imperialism masquerading as “humanitarian interventionism” in Iraq, Libya and Venezuela; and the West’s blind approval of globalised economic liberalism, a system that enriches only a minority of the population.

Since the mid-2000s, and in a more aggressive fashion since his 2013 conservative turn, Putin has counterposed an alternative vision, which rests upon three pillars: tradition-based conservatism, praise for the “Russian way”, and the concept of “Eurasia”, which treats Russia and its close neighbours – Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and the other post-Soviet states – as a  “continental entity”.

The FT interview exemplified Putin’s chosen status as the leader of the opposition to political correctness. At ease with his conservatism, he poked fun at the “five or six gender roles” promoted by liberals, criticised “homosexual culture” (as it is known in Russia) and enthusiastically celebrated Europe’s roots in Christianity.

The “Russian way” of development, the second pillar of Putin’s ideology, aims to seduce those anxious about the homogenisation of the world and the disappearance of national cultures. Putin often quotes anti-Western and anti-modern thinkers, such as the Tsarist-era Konstantin Leontiev, who suggested that the West had replaced saints with elected officials.

By referring to the “Eurasian” trend – an intellectual movement founded in the early 20th century that emphasises Russia’s civilisational proximity to Asia and its detachment from western Europe – Putin justifies Russia’s alliance with China. In the interview, he invoked the philosophical differences between China and the West, praising Chinese flexibility and patience in international relations in contrast to Western nervousness and rigidity.

Putin suggests that Russia’s foreign policy mirrors China’s long-term strategic dexterity, ignoring the brutality of Russian military interventions in Chechnya, Crimea, Syria and elsewhere. In championing a vision based on conservatism, a non-Western model of development and the Eurasian dream, Putin is appealing to all the world’s discontented people to rally behind him.

The rise of Donald Trump aids Putin’s vision: the US president’s policies have marked the retreat – and possibly the death – of the “liberal idea”. This idea, Putin said, only profits a minority and is in direct contradiction to the interests of the majority of the population. He denounces German chancellor Angela Merkel for her openness to migrants, and hopes for a hard Brexit and the election of Marine Le Pen as French president, as well as for secessionist movements and popular revolts in Europe and across the world.

To Putin, the rise of populism is proof of the validity of his global analysis: he believes nationalist and authoritarian regimes, based on “tradition”, will eventually supplant democracies based on individual rights. For this reason, he encourages any actions or words that bring disruption to the liberal world.

Before the end of his 20-year reign, which he knows could be near, Putin wishes to gift the world a spectacular legacy: the triumph of a new, post-democratic paradigm in opposition to universalism. It is clear that the Russian president will use all the powers at his disposal to advance this goal, including “fake news” and information war, cyber attacks, subversion and even outright violence.

Putin is mindful of the Russian people’s increasing antipathy to his vision. The only way forward for him is to continue to pursue, without compromise, his power struggle with the “liberal idea”. 

Michel Eltchaninoff is the author of “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin”. This article was translated by Pauline Bock

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion