Back from the Finland Station
Russia's Counter-Revolutionary Regime
There’s been a lot of puzzlement and dispute in the Western public over the “sources of Russian conduct,” to paraphrase George Kennan’s famous 1947 “X article.” Why would Putin, so long presented in the West as a savvy—albeit ruthless and duplicitous—statesman, engage in such a reckless adventure? How does he expect things to end well? What are his next steps? Is there a possible off-ramp? One particularly controversial set of explanations comes from. University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, whose doctrine of offensive realism presents the “Great Powers” as instrinsically aggressive and power-maximalizing entities. Mearsheimers’s argument roughly goes like this: the West’s expansion, with its offers of EU integration and NATO membership for Ukraine, into Russia’s sphere of influence was highly provocative and likely to generate some kind of retaliation from Russia. But Mearsheimer believed that Putin was “too smart” to invade Ukraine, a move that he saw as playing into the West’s hands, and would probably just try to destabilize the country politically or to take limited military actions.
I don’t want to wade directly into the controversy over Mearsheimer. I think he’s already been extensively criticized; sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly. What I’d like to do is offer a different explanation of the path to war, one that I think has some consonance with, but also some significant departures from the “realist” picture that Mearsheimer advances. I should probably say that I’m not a scholar of any of the fields in question here, and just offering my (semi-)educated opinion. Neither is my interpretation original: it draws heavily on existing scholarship and the work of observers on Russia’s politics.
My main issue with “realism” is that it presents a rationale of behavior for all states and for all time—“Great Powers have always and will always do this sort of thing.” As such, it’s quite abstract and doesn’t always include a lot of attention to the particular historical circumstances of the nations in question.
In Mearsheimer’s telling, the triggering event for the current crisis was in 2008:
I think all the trouble in this case really started in April, 2008, at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, where afterward NATO issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO. The Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand. Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just NATO expansion. NATO expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes E.U. expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat.
Two things here: I think Mearsheimer is correct about the Russian regime viewing the situation in existential terms, but I think he is wrong about the central issue being NATO itself — a little below in this interview, he says “If there were no NATO expansion and no E.U. expansion, and Ukraine just became a liberal democracy and was friendly with the United States and the West more generally, it could probably get away with that”; I’m not so sure about that — and I think we should situate the triggering event somewhat earlier. (Don’t worry — I’m not going to go into a detailed exposition of the reign of Nicholas I or anything like that this time.)
My argument is that the Ukraine war is the part of process of transformation and radicalization of Putin’s regime that took place after the “color revolutions” of the 2000s: most, if not all, of the behavior of the state can be understood in the light of preventing a revolution in Russia.
There’s one central political trauma for the leadership class in Russia that guides their approach to all policies, foreign and domestic: the collapse of the Soviet Union. In somewhat contradictory fashion, this is connected to another great political trauma: the October Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union. Both of these events are understood to be occasions for chaos, destruction and the humiliating diminution of Russia’s place in the world. Of course, there are more self-interested motives at play, as well: a revolution would necessarily mean the end for the ruling class of Russia, at best a period of humiliation and impotence like the 1990s, and probably a much grimmer fate. A repeat of 1991 or 1917 is what the Russian leadership fears most and revising the supposed consequences of those events is an overriding concern: remember, for instance, how Putin harped on the “Bolshevik” origins of modern Ukraine. The central mythic image of this political consciousness is Lenin’s famous train ride to the Finland Station in St. Petersburg: the leadership class has adopted this old White Russian canard that Lenin was a foreign agent, sent deliberately to wreck Russia. It is this insistence on a specifically foreign origin, rather than the domestic sources of unrest is important to keep sight of.
With this framework in mind, let’s take a look at the Russian response first major Post-Soviet democratic revolution in the region of this era: the Rose Revolution in 2003 that unseated Shevardnadze. Here is the scholar Robert Horvath:
The anxiety about ‘velvet revolution’ among Russia’s political elite dates to the ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia, the first of the new wave of democratic revolutions in the post-Soviet space. For the new Georgian leaders, ‘velvet revolution’ was not merely a strategy but also a slogan that asserted their claim to a place in Europe at a moment when the European Union was preparing to admit East Central European states that had been crucibles of ‘velvet revolutions’ in 1989. At the height of mass protests in Tbilisi on 21 November 2003, Mikheil Saakashvili boasted that ‘today we are witnessing a European-type, velvet bloodless, democratic and nation-wide revolution which aims at the bloodless removal of President Shevardnadze from his post’.3 It was not a term that the Kremlin was prepared to accept. Days after Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation as Georgian President, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Polish journalists that ‘the classification ‘‘velvet revolution’’ in this case is unacceptable, first because I don’t think it was a revolution, and second, because there was no velvet there’ (Zaitsev 2003, p. 5). During Saakashvili’s first official visit as Georgian President to Moscow in February 2004, the only sign of tension was Putin’s insistence on calling the events in Tbilisi a ‘coup’ (perevorot’) rather than a ‘velvet revolution’ (Egorov & Charodeev 2004, p. 2).1
This line was quickly joined by the propagation of conspiracy theories about the foreign origins of the revolution:
This rejection of the revolutionary discourse of the new Georgian leadership was reinforced in the Russian media with conspiracy theories about the decisive role of foreign intervention in the upheaval.4 On 30 November 2003, the Rossiya television station broadcast a purported expose´ of the Georgian revolution. It featured an interview with Shevardnadze, who dismissed the notion that his ouster should be understood as a ‘velvet revolution’: ‘in reality this was a coup’ that resulted from foreign subversion. ‘There is’, he argued, ‘a whole conception on how to conduct elections in order to get different people into government’. He identified two instigators of this scenario. First, George Soros’s Open Society Institute had funded Georgian analogues of the youth and media organisations that had fomented the Serbian revolution. Second, US-funded election monitors had produced the exit polling that cast doubt upon the integrity of the electoral process.2
With the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 that brought down the reign of Leonid Kuchma and the protests shortly thereafter in Russia itself, followed closely by the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, these concerns about revolution took on a more dire cast for Moscow. The response to them began to shape not just the policy choices but the nature of regime itself, which gradually transformed from a passive hybrid regime with authoritarian features to a more mobilized authoritarianism: the force of civil society was preemptively brought to bear on potential revolutionary threats. To accomplish this, the regime employed so-called “political technologists” like Sergei Markov and Gleb Pavlosky, whom Unpopular Front readers may remember. Pavlovsky, who had been an advisor to Yanukovych and was personally stung by the Orange Revolution, advocated the position of active counter-revolution or “punching the revolution on the snout:”
In a long interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he explained that he had lived all his life ‘in an intimate relationship with revolution’, shaped by the experience of growing up in a revolutionary state and by the ideas of dissident intellectuals critical of revolution: ‘I felt that they had their half of the truth about Russia. In other words, Lenin plus Joseph de Maistre. The Russian political tradition from Pushkin and Chaadaev to Pasternak, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn and Zinoviev, is entirely anti-revolutionary’. For Pavlovskii, the main lesson of modern revolution was that it engendered a euphoric totalitarian mass, which was destined to crush the individual. Even in Kyiv, the goodnatured crowds in the Maidan had given way to strident nationalists. In the face of this menace, he had decided to shift his focus from politics to counter-revolution, and ‘to develop a kind of ‘‘know-how’’ on the prevention of revolution’, nurturing ‘the ‘‘counter-revolutionary properties’’ of our state and society’.3
This “political technology of counter-revolution” included the mobilization of civil society with initiatives like Nashi, a pro-regime youth group designed to counter the youth groups that contributed to the color revolutions. The regime also began to engage in more aggressive propaganda, and more direct management and repressive intervention in NGOs and political parties, and “consolidation of elites under the banner of a state ideology.” (Elite fracture being identified as a key cause of the revolutionary situations in the “color revolutions.”)
These measures may have temporarily staid off the spread of revolution in Russia, but the wave of revolution crested again in the Arab Spring. The regime looked with growing consternation at the course of the revolts in the Middle East, especially after the return of mass protests to Russia that greeted the announcement of Putin’s intention to run for president again in 2012. Those protests lead to a counter-wave of repressive measures including the “foreign agents” law, the infamous “gay propaganda law,” (homophobia has been a part of Putin’s anti-color revolution since much earlier) and the increased reliance on harassment, intimidation, and violence against journalists and activists. With accession of Patriarch Kirill, the old alliance of Kremlin and Church began to be explicitly revived, both for the defense of conservative social values at home and the historical claims of Russia as the defender of the Orthodox faith abroad.
Russia drew together a kind of informal coalition of authoritarian states. In 2014, at the Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), defense minister Sergei Shoigu and Forein Minister Sergei Lavrov presented the “color revolutions” concept and popular uprisings in the light of security policy, as an aggressive form of Western interventionism. In attendance were “the Iranian defense minister, the Egyptian deputy defense minister, the chief of defense from Myanmar, and deputy chiefs of defense from Vietnam, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a large delegation from China.” Then there was the beginning of Russia’s open defiance of the West in foreign policy with the decision to militarily support Bashar al-Assad’s “legitimate” regime in Syria.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia In Foreign Affairs and member of the faculty of the Moscow Higher School of Economics interprets it like this:
Putin now believes that the modern world is an unforgiving playmate. His attempts to integrate into that world on equal terms, that would benefit Russia, that were evident during his first presidency and which stagnated in his second, brought him to the conclusion of his third term, that integration was futile. First, because they did not want to let him in, and then because of the growing reason that there was no longer anything to integrate into. The system was breaking up, and Putin could sense this acutely, because for him, just like other Russian politicians of his generation, the central life event was the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. Vladimir Putin understands, far better and more deeply than Western politicians, how deeply everything is interconnected and how dangerous it is to take decisive action without pondering the multiple possible consequences. This is the foundation of his sincere commitment to the status quo. The same goes for foreign and domestic policies: better not to touch anything, as any form of innovative interference could trigger a collapse.
Still, nothing is working. The revolution keeps relentlessly creeping towards Moscow: the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine lead to the Revolution of Dignity, prompting Putin’s annexation of Crimea and fomentation of the war in the Donbass. The possible success and permanence of the revolution in Ukraine is probably the gravest threat yet to Putin’s regime, which I believe explains the desperation and extremity of the measures it has taken against it, now including outright invasion. Ukraine is the product of revolution in several senses and therefore a total anathema: in Putin’s eyes, it's product of the Bolshevik revolution’s despoliation of the Russian Empire, then the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then it consolidated under Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan. It’s worth noting another round of protests in recent years broke out in Moscow, along with massive demonstrations in its traditional sphere against Lukashenko in Belarus and the unrest in Kazakhstan. Desperate times called for desperate measures: whatever instinctive fear of “innovative interference” on the part of Russian leadership, the Ukrainian situation now had to be handled directly. Otherwise, other dominoes may soon begin to fall.
If we accept the notion of Russia’s overriding counter-revolutionary stance in foreign and domestic affairs, how should we assess the war itself? For the moment, a total reversal of the revolution in Ukraine seems beyond Russia’s military capabilities, but they may have still “punched the revolution on the snout” to use Pavlovsky’s term. Domestically, for the time being at least, the war appears to be doing the trick: it’s rallying the population to the regime against a foreign enemy, consolidating the elite by calling them back from its soft life abroad or forcing them to flee, and providing the occasion for more openly repressive measures against protesters and dissidents. Unfortunately, sanctions and the appearance of being against the world may only further reconcile the population and regime. On these counts the regime’s counter-revolutionary mission is least partially succeeding. But popular mobilization of the population and the contingencies of war itself brings its own risks. Faced with a possible defeat of its armies in the field, whether or not the regime should also fear an aroused population, fed on patriotic gore but little real meat, is another question. Cautioning against “regime change” language makes sense to avoid escalating the war into cataclysm, but Putin’s understanding of the nature of regime change is quite expansive and his “political technologies” for preventing revolutions now include aggressive wars and, as is becoming clearer by the day, massacres.
“Putin’s ‘Preventive Counter-Revolution’: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution,” Richard Horvath, EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES Vol. 63, No. 1, January 2011, pg. 3
Ibid., pg. 15