The Errand-Boys of Europe

Pádraig Murphy

In Europe we are hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters. In Europe we were Tatars, while in Asia we are the Europeans. Our mission, our civilising mission in Asia will provide a tonic to our spirit and draw us on; the movement needs only to be started. ‑ Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary 1877-1881

Russian territorial expansion can be said to have begun with the foundation of Kievan Rus’ in the ninth century. There was a forced hiatus in that expansion, however, as it was seriously interrupted by the westward surge of the Mongol-Tatar invasions in the thirteenth century. This meant subjection of the Russian polity to what became known as the Tatar Yoke for more than two centuries. This, and Russian fidelity to Orthodox Christianity, meant that Russia did not experience the Renaissance. Ivan IV, known as the Terrible, was the first tsar to begin the process of expansion again. Significantly, he did so to the east and southeast of Moscow, his capital, taking Kazan in 1552 and Astrakhan on the Volga in 1556. (Russians would traverse Siberia and reach the Pacific already in the seventeenth century.) His subsequent campaigns to the west, against Sweden, Denmark, and a united Lithuania and Poland lasted for twenty four years, but ended badly for him. From his time until the reign of Peter the Great (1683-1725), Russian tsars were unsuccessful in getting European recognition as members of the Christian commonwealth and were, significantly, ignored in the Treaty of Westphalia, which laid the foundations of the European balance of power. Indeed, in the words of the great Russian historian VO Kliuchevsky, pre-Petrine Russia had an “inveterate antipathy” to the Western world as a whole.

Peter the Great would make Russia a factor to be taken into account in European politics. He did it by defeating Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in 1709 and thus gaining a foothold on the Baltic where, as is well-known, he was to build his “window on Europe” at St Petersburg. In order to achieve this, he took Russia through a transformation so traumatic that it has reverberated in Russian history ever since. Tibor Szamuely has gone as far as to say that this was “a new beginning” and that the whole history of Russian political and social thought can be seen as the history of the development of contrasting views of the Petrine reform. Seeing his country’s backwardness as threatening its security, and the solution as bringing it up to the level of Europe, from which the threat came, he brought all his autocratic power to bear in order to revolutionise the Russian social order, embedding in the process the absolutist model of the state which has been a recurring feature of the Russian polity. Peter’s reforms reached right into the most intimate levels of the society. Using draconian legislation, he forced changes in the most personal realms –beards were forbidden, as was the wearing of caftans. Women had to be included in social gatherings and the use of French was prescribed. In 1721 Peter formally abolished the Orthodox Patriarchate and created the office of Procurator General of the Holy Synod, a lay official, thus subordinating the Church to a government department. The state engaged in an onslaught on those parts of the Church that did not comply, thus creating the schismatics called raskol’niki.

Vladimir Putin is said to have a portrait of Peter the Great in his office. Angela Merkel is said to have a portrait of Catherine the Great, the next great modernising monarch, in hers. Catherine was born a German princess in a minor principality and reached power in St Petersburg after overthrowing her husband. Like many of her successors, she began as a reformer, but became more and more reactionary. In effect, she did more than any other tsar to reinforce the binding of serfs to the land, by privileging the landowners who supported her, to whom she transferred state peasants. She is estimated so to have transferred eight hundred thousand peasants during her reign. Despite this, she proclaimed that Russia was a European power, and corresponded with Voltaire, who regarded her Russia as an enlightened power, a civilising absolutism, wresting the country from obscurantist barbarism. Catherine it was who extended Russian power to the Black Sea, her lover, Potemkin, annexing the Crimea in 1783.

These two established the Russian pattern for the rest of the tsarist period. Becoming part of the European power system, the successive tsars saw themselves as taking their backward country into a European modernity by importing European patterns of society and technology, while repressing any notion that European civil or political rights might become part of the Russian patrimony. Russia was certainly in Europe, but could not be said to be of Europe.

Russia’s position in Europe reached its nineteenth century apogee with Tsar Alexander’s participation in the coalition that defeated Napoleon. The story goes that when someone congratulated Stalin on Soviet troops having reached Berlin at the end of the Second World War, he replied “But Tsar Alexander got to Paris”. At any rate, the impact of Europe, from Poland through Germany to France, on the young officers who had served in Alexander’s armies was extraordinary. Here they came across people and ideas that made a great impact on them, all the more so in that, thanks to the reforms begun by Peter, many of them could speak and read foreign languages, especially French. What is more, they could see what these ideas meant when realised in the societies they encountered, and how this contrasted with the picture they had been given in the propaganda they had been fed at home. They experienced societies in France and elsewhere – Spain, Piedmont, Naples –which had resulted from revolution, and came into contact with the Carbonari in Switzerland. Freemasonry, having been suppressed by Catherine, was allowed by Alexander to operate again, and was the context in which much conspiratorial activity, based on European-style freethinking, took place. Alexander himself, who began as an idealistic reformer, was an example. The result was the conspiracy known as the Decembrists, which led to a somewhat pathetic demonstration on the Senate Square in St Petersburg on December 14th, 1825, at the beginning of the reign of Nicholas I. The participants were immediately arrested and harshly sentenced, some to death, some to exile in Siberia. But it was the first chapter in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. The leaven of this abortive rebellion would remain active, resulting in 1849 in the conspiracy of the Petrashevsky group, in which Dostoevsky was caught up and famously subjected to a sham death sentence, commuted at the last minute to a sentence of exile to a penal institution in Siberia.

The ferment of the first half of the nineteenth century in Russia gave rise to three tendencies which have had a continuing influence on Russian perceptions of the West. The first could be called the legitimist position, based on an ideology of the state, which in the nineteenth century was embodied in the tsarist autocracy, and saw itself under Nicholas as obliged to intervene elsewhere in Europe in defence of the ancien regime. Its ideology was Uvarov’s 1832 doctrine of “official nationality”, the three pillars of which were autocracy, Orthodoxy and nation-mindedness. Second was a romantic nationalist tendency, drawing inspiration, as much of Russian ideology did, from German romantic philosophy, with this difference: it too prized Orthodoxy but also emphasised the organic Russian way of life in contrast to what was often presented as the effete West. One of its principal spokesmen, Konstantin Aksakov, characterised the followers of Peter the Great as “the errand-boys of Europe”. Finally, there was the constitutionalist position, which would develop into an advocacy of a Rechtsstaat, with all the protections offered to the individual by a truly European-based system.

The division became more sharp by the middle of the century, eventually becoming formalised into the categories of Slavophiles and Westernisers, both of whom rejected the actual autocratic system as it operated, it being either too polluted by Western ideas for the Slavophiles, or not liberal enough for the Westernisers. The Slavophiles idealised pre-Petrine Muscovite society, attributing most of the oppressive features of Russia to the bureaucracy created by Peter the Great which, in their view, was excessively staffed by Germans. They had little concept of the meaning of law, seeing it as a Western structure of dry formalism. Above all, they had a concept of Russia as an organic society, based on the Russian land and drawing on its immemorial, but non-intellectualised, Orthodox heritage. One of their principal ideologists was Nikolay Danilevsky. He wrote a tract in 1869 called “Russia and Europe, a look at the cultural and political relations of the Slavic world to the Romano-German world”, which applied biological and morphological metaphors to a comparative study of cultures. Here, the Slavic world was presented as youthful and energetic, others at the time, especially the “Romano-Germanic” as effete and degenerate. The Westernisers were very conscious of Russian backwardness, but not only or especially in economic terms. They looked to Europe as a model for the overcoming of this moral/legal retardation.

Already with Alexander I, Russia saw itself as having a droit de regard over the Balkans and later, over the fate of Christian communities in the progressively crumbling Ottoman Empire. This agenda was advanced first through Alexander’s Holy Alliance at the beginning of the century, essentially an understanding with Austria and Prussia in the interest of monarchic legitimacy. Later, under Nicholas I, Russian pressure on the Ottoman Empire led to a determination on the part of Britain and France to check its ambitions in this area. The result was defeat in the Crimean War, which showed that Russian great-power objectives were based on inadequate domestic foundations. Austria was seen in Petersburg as having taken advantage of the Russian defeat to advance its own position in the Balkans. The resentment at the defeat and at Austria’s opportunism found expression in an orientation of the Slavophile tendency to pan-Slavism, on the basis that Russia had the vocation of being the patron of all the Slavic peoples. As expressed by Aksakov in 1854, a new path of greatness and power was about to open for Russia, a great age was dawning, one of the greatest in world history, which would bring a lasting alliance of all Slavs under the supreme patronage of the tsar. Moldavia and Wallachia, present-day Moldova and Transdniestria, were inhabited by people “without any individual significance” and should be incorporated into Russia, which should also take possession of Constantinople. Further, “since ignoble and ungrateful Austria opposes us, and has broken off relations with Russia, she has released us from obligations and untied our hands. There too Russia will fulfil her mission of liberating the ethnically homogeneous and largely Orthodox peoples, she will naturally incorporate her former provinces of Galicia (present-day western Ukraine) and the whole Slavic world will breathe more easily under the patronage of Russia once she finally fulfils her Christian and fraternal duty.” This tendency was to remain central to Russian foreign policy until the First World War, reinforced, if anything, by the perception that Russia was not given its due in the Congress of Berlin of 1878 and, as we know, was a crucial contributory factor to the outbreak of the First World War.

Defeat in the Crimean War was to gave rise on the other hand to a reinforcement of the demand of the Westernisers for political reform in the direction of greater democracy on the European pattern. While the constitutionalists were for a time rather quiescent, the conviction that Russia needed to modernise became more and more apparent and this gave rise in due course to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The assassination of the Tsar in 1881 caused a backsliding in the direction of repression by the government, a pattern that was to be repeated after the defeat by Japan in 1905 and defeat by Germany in 1917.

The revolution of 1917 can, and indeed should, be seen as a result of Westernisation. Its very origins were in a European-based ideology, Marxism, and Lenin and the better part of the original leadership were steeped in the European debates on the bringing on of the socialist millennium. In its first phase indeed, it was considered that the revolution’s beginning in Russia was a theoretical anomaly and that it was only a prelude to the revolution in a country, probably Germany, that was properly ripe for it. The best construction that could be put on it by Trotsky in 1923 was that “the revolution was the final break of the people with Asianism, with the seventeenth century, with Holy Russia, with icons and cockroaches, not a return to the pre-Petrine period, but on the contrary an assimilation of the whole people of civilisation”. It very soon became apparent, however, that the revolution was not going to become more general across Europe. Stalin’s thesis of “socialism in one country” won the day, with the consequences for Trotsky that we know. Under Stalin, the USSR would develop as an autarkic, anti-Western polity.

Among the exiles from revolutionary Russia was Nikolai Trubetskoy, who fetched up in the 1920s in Prague, where he was a leading member of the Prague structuralists. Trubetskoy, like Savitsky and Vernadsky, subsequently given the label “Eurasianists”, gave much thought to what had led Russia to the catastrophe of the Bolshevik revolution. Clearly, although by constitution, so to speak, Westernisers – Vernadsky ended up as Professor of Russian History at Yale – they began to query in exile precisely what Westernism, in the shape of the Russian version of Marxism, had done for their country. In Europe and Humanity, published in 1920, Trubetskoy rebutted forcefully the idea that Russia and other non-European countries should look to Europe for political or economic models. Before the Revolution, he wrote, it was unheard of for most educated people to comprehend that their fixation on Europe was a historical mistake. The idea that Europe equalled civilisation was “a formula of chauvinistic cosmopolitanism”. It had to be understood, he said, that Europe was “the product of the history of a specific ethnic group”, and “the so-called European ‘cosmopolitanism’ should be called openly common Romano-German chauvinism”. Russia had not grasped this, but looked to Europe as a “higher culture” and a model. Such an attitude was unwarranted and was, moreover, impossible to realise, any attempt to do so being fraught with consequences that could not be foreseen. If this path of copying Europe were taken, it would mean abandoning the possibilities in Russia’s own culture and history and engaging in a Sisyphean task. Those thus engaged

must relate not to their own psychology, but to a foreign, Romano-German psychology. Without hesitation, they must adopt all that constitutes and is considered valuable by the Romano-Germans themselves, even if it contradicts their national psychology.

This cannot succeed, and, from the European point of view, they will always appear “backward”. Evolution on this model can only be by fits and starts, with every apparent advance succeeded by periods of stagnation. Europeanisation cannot be considered in view of this as anything but bad. But, as Europe is both militaristic and capitalist, the choice seems to be between being colonised and adopting European military technology in order to fight back. Confronted with this dilemma, Trubetskoy sees only one option: “Slavs, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Negroes and other tribes”, which constitute humanity, “not the humanity of which the Romano-Germans love to talk, but the real humanity” must fight back. Their first task is to win back their own Europeanised intelligentsia. This is the drama of world history. Trubetskoy proclaims in the last sentence of his book: “there is truly only one conflict: the Romano-Germans versus all the rest of the world, Europe and Humanity”. Trubetskoy’s ideas clearly echo previous Russian nationalist critiques of what was called European provincialism.

The evolution of the USSR under Stalin was towards increasing autarky, an aspect of the posture of “socialism in one country” which yet affected to have a mission to promote this brand of Russian socialism elsewhere. The result is well-known: while mutating through peaceful coexistence and detente, this autarky ended with the bankruptcy of this particular road to “socialism”, a bankruptcy which, by the middle of the 1980s could no longer be denied. Gorbachev’s motto in the later era of perestroika was a commitment to general European values under the rubric of a “common European house”. The attempt failed, not without bringing his own house, in the shape of the USSR, down. The collapse of the Soviet Union was actively promoted by Boris Yeltsin as a means of breaking the power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) which he saw, probably rightly, especially after the 1991 coup, as the most formidable obstacle to his objective of liberation of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin began by offering the constituent republics of the USSR all the freedom they could use, and conspired behind Gorbachev’s back to proclaim at Belovezhskaya Pushcha the independence of Ukraine and Belarus as well as of his own federation, which was the final coup de grace of the Soviet Union.

From 1991, Yeltsin and his new team embarked on a reform of Russia in accordance with a Western model. Under the heading of “shock therapy”, then in vogue, Western advisers flooded into the country in order to steer the economy on to a model called the Washington consensus, a policy advocated by Yeltsin’s chief economic adviser, Yegor Gaidar, on the basis that “We had no money, no gold, and no grain to last through the next harvest. It was a time when you do everything you can do, as rapidly as you can. There was no time for reflection.” The result was a reform that was blind and ideologically driven, now remembered by Russians as a time when they were impoverished and left without the social safety net which, for all its glaring faults, had been a notable feature of the Soviet system. As well as that, under the heading of privatisation, they witnessed a Wild East bonanza in the course of which some clever opportunists made themselves inordinately rich on the basis of what until very recently had been the property of the people.

Then there was NATO expansion. The Russians, starting with Gorbachev, thought that in exchange for going along with the peaceful reunification of Germany, they had received assurances from George HW Bush, secretary of state James Baker, German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and others that NATO would not expand beyond the territory of that reunited country. When nevertheless the decision to expand the alliance was taken in 1997, the then Russian foreign minister, Yevgeni Primakov, characterised it as “a big mistake, possibly the biggest mistake made since the end of the Second World War”. He was not alone. Such US luminaries as former defence secretary Robert McNamara, former senators Gary Hart, Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley, former national security adviser Admiral Stansfield Turner and Paul Nitze, architect of the American nuclear containment strategy, argued at the time in an open letter to President Clinton that expansion of NATO not only jeopardised the future of the arms control regime but would also “bring Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement”. Strobe Talbott, who was Clinton’s adviser on Russian policy, said in reference to the economic reform that Clinton should have used less shock and more therapy and, on NATO expansion, that the president should have been less precipitate.

There was more to come. The decision to bomb Kosovo without a United Nations mandate famously caused Primakov, by then prime minister, to turn his plane around on the way to Washington. Serbia is one of those fraternal Orthodox peoples in southeast Europe with whom, since the Slavophile 1850s, Russians – and many Serbs – consider there is a special relationship. The episode very nearly ended in armed confrontation at Pristina airport. The Bush junior administration made no secret of its low opinion of agreements, existing or prospective, on strategic nuclear arms with Russia, and withdrew from the ABM Treaty, considered by Russia – and not only Russia – as a keystone of international strategic arms agreements. It went further, and pushed through a proposal to deploy missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic under the pretext, when queried by the Russians, who saw their strategic arms being targeted, of forestalling a missile attack from Iran. The Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was passed in Congress in 1974, and imposed the facilitation of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union as a condition for granting the country most favoured nation treatment in trade, was still in place years after Israel had become the destination of a large influx of Russian Jews, who became an important factor in its politics. (It remained in place until December 2012, when it was finally repealed, but, as a quid pro quo, the Magnitsky amendment, another punishment aimed at Moscow, was adopted.)

Not far into Yeltsin’s period in office therefore, the West had lost much of its capital of credibility as an honest and fair partner with Moscow. The view in Russia was very often that Russians had made all the effort and that it had been in vain. (It is notable that Putin reprised many of these themes in his speech to the Confederation Assembly on the annexation of the Crimea.)Yeltsin’s team progressively shed its more pro-Western members. Symptomatic was the position of Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin’s first foreign minister, who began to appear naive, if not worse. In one now notorious incident, Kozyrev had asked the former US president Richard Nixon, “if you … can advise us on how to define our national interests, I will be very grateful to you”. Primakov, who succeeded him, was an expert on the Middle East and in essence a Eurasianist who saw Russia as a great geopolitical power. It has to be said, for all that, that when it came to the Commonwealth of Independent States, which was made up of the former republics of the USSR, apart from the Baltic countries, both Yeltsin and Kozyrev saw these countries as being an area of special Russian interest. Indeed, Yeltsin sought UN endorsement of a special Russian role in their regard.

In these circumstances, Eurasianism, which we saw emerging in the Russian diaspora in Prague in the twenties of the last century, got a new lease of life. The most prominent representative of this school in Moscow is Aleksandr Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University and leader of the Centre for Conservative Research. He is regarded as close to the military leadership and accompanied Putin on his visit to Turkey in 2004 – probably in acknowledgment of his emphasis on the importance of the Turkic peoples in his concept of Eurasia. Dugin is a disciple of Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), the geopolitician who introduce the concept of the “Heartland”, or the “world island”, the Eurasian land mass, and who theorised that “who rules the world island commands the world”. He contrasted this with the Sealand, essentially the geopolitical sector dominated by sea power – in his time, Britain, now, the United States. Dugin sees Russia as dominating the Heartland, the term he consistently uses. He explicitly harks back to the Slavophiles who, he says, had the concept of the Heartland, while the Westernisers did not, but also to the Eurasianists and their disparagement of Romano-German civilisation. The White emigration in Prague, he says, declared Russia not a part of European culture, but a separate “state world”, made up of a unique blend of western and eastern cultures. Trubetskoy and Savitsky saw the Anglo-Saxon world as a threat, an enemy and a competitor, and its claims to universality as a challenge. Savitsky saw the role of what he called Turania, the Central Asian mass populated by Turkic-speaking peoples, today’s Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan and most of Kazakhstan, as an essential part of the Eurasian “Heartland”. In Savitsky’s presentation, “without the Tatar yoke, there would be no Russia”. Dugin also cites Lev Gumilev (the son of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and a somewhat racist Russian ethnographer of the middle of the last century) as refusing to call the Mongol invasion the Tatar Yoke, instead considering the Golden Horde and the social decrees of Genghis Khan as the basis on which the Great Russians built their empire, while preserving their Orthodox identity and later building a world empire. “The whole of our history, geopolitical and social” is, according to Dugin, “linked in the closest possible way to extending our frontiers”. In his Geopolitika Rossii, published in 2012, he includes the following table, listing Russia’s expansion:

Acquired by Tsar              sq mile ’000              sq km
Vassily III 1479-1538    10    25,899
Ivan IV 1533-1584
   77           199,429 
Fyodor I 1584-1598     32            82,879
Mikhail 1613-1645     93            249,869
Alexei 1645-1676     7              18,129
Fyodor II 1605     8              20,719
Peter I 1682-1725     10            25,899
Anna 1730-1740     16            41,439
Elizabeth 1741-1762
   4              10,359
Catherine II 1762-1796     11            28,489
Paul I 1796-1801     25            64,749
Alexander I 1801-1825     9              23,309
Nicholas I 1825-1855     40            103,599
Alexander II 1855-1881     13            33,669
Alexander III 1881-1894     4              10,359
Total      359          929,805


The present situation Dugin sees as a collapse of what he calls the tellurocratic empire and a weakening of the Heartland, a tactical victory of the Sealand powers, the US, NATO and their allies. But Russia is the inheritor of the Mongol position of dominator of Mackinder’s Heartland, and the present-day Russia is not just something created twenty-three years ago, but destined by history to be the expression of land power on the planetary scale. The fall of Constantinople and the weakening of the Golden Horde made Moscow, and later the tsars, the successors of two civilisations, the Byzantine and Turanian. From then, Russians began to think of themselves as the Third Rome, that is, as bearers of a particular civilisational position, sharply contrasting with the Catholic civilisation of the West in every basic parameter. Today, from a geopolitical point of view, Russia represents more than the Russian Federation in its present administrative borders. The “Heartland” is much bigger, including practically all the CIS. The consequence is that, in order to secure its own territory, Russia must gain military control over a series of contiguous zones to the south and the west, and also the Arctic Ocean. Further, as the planetary tellurocratic pole, it has direct interests everywhere on the globe.

Dugin, while not claiming Putin as of his party – indeed, he is critical of Putin’s decision of 2001 to grant the US facilities in Central Asia – nevertheless clearly sees him as at present a champion of his theses. The change from Yeltsin is seen as symbolised by

Condemnation of the 90s course of the crumbling of Russian sovereignty and proclamation of sovereignty as the highest value of contemporary Russia.
Reinforcement of the destabilised territorial unity of Russia, including liquidation of the concept of sovereignty in legal acts of subjects of the Russian Federation and national republics.
Expulsion of the most odious oligarchs and criminal prosecution of others.
Open and at times unpleasant dialogue with the US and the West, with condemnation of double standards, and the hegemony of the US. Promotion of multipolarity and cooperation with all forces working against hegemony.
Change of the information policy of the basic national media.
Review of the relation to Russian history with respect and honouring of its most significant eras and figures.
Support of integrative forces in post-Soviet space and activation of Russian presence in the CIS countries and also formation or activation of integrated structures such as the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Single Economic Space.
Normalisation of party life by forbidding oligarchical structures to lobby politically in their interest through political parties.
Elaboration of a consolidated state energy policy, including pipelines as an instrument of geopolitical influence in Europe and Asia.

The culmination of Putin’s prime status in the Dugin canon was his intervention at the Munich Wehrkunde Conference in 2007, which seems to have shocked many in the West. Dugin represents Putin as having perfected his geopolitical views rather late, towards the end of his second presidential period, and as holding them rather emotionally. He summarises Putin’s Munich theses as follows:

For the contemporary world, the unipolar model is not only unacceptable, it is, quite generally, impossible.
The whole system of law of one country, above all, of course, of the United States, has overstepped its own boundaries in all spheres; in economics, in politics and in the humanitarian sphere it is imposing itself on other states.
The sole mechanism for the taking of decisions on the employment of military force as a last resort can only be the Charter of the UN.
NATO is moving its advanced forces to our state borders and we, strictly complying with the Agreement, in no way are reacting to this activity.
What happened to the assurances which were given by the Western partners after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?
With one hand charitable assistance is doled out, with the other, not only is economic backwardness maintained, but as well as that, profit is taken
An attempt is being made to use the OSCE as a vulgar instrument for the attainment of the foreign-policy interests of one or a group of countries in regard to others.
Russia is a country with a history of more than a thousand years and practically always availed of the privilege of conducting an independent foreign policy. We do not propose to change that tradition even today.

Dugin concludes with the reminder of Mackinder’s maxim that he who controls Eurasia controls the world, and his sentiment that Russia will either be great or it will not be at all. In all this he shows himself to be the twenty-first century avatar of the Slavophiles and pan-Slavists of the nineteenth, as well as, and this more directly, of the twentieth century Eurasianists. His citing of Mackinder is rather mechanical, schematic and, of course, self-serving. His theses run to extravagant paranoia at times, about infiltration of agents of influence, for example. Some members of Russia’s Eurasian school take this much further. IF Kefeli, for instance, a professor at an affiliate of Moscow State University, speaks in his work Geopolitika Evraziiskogo Soyuza of “the financial oligarchy [which] brings to life the strategy of a dissipated world order, based on money, the Federal Reserve, the groups of Rothschilds, Rockefellers and the Vatican, which is realising the financial colonisation of the world, covering this with a rhetoric of democracy and so on, subordinating all spheres of life to the integral movement of capital and the criterion of profit”. It should not be forgotten, however, that Zbigniew Brzezinski too is of the view that Eurasia is “the world’s most important continent by far” and that he cites Mackinder’s phrase, “who rules the world island (the ‘Heartland’), commands the world” in evidence. He is also insistent on the crucial position of Ukraine in this regard, and is well-known in Moscow for his claim that, without Ukraine, Russia would be unable to regain its past imperial dominance.

If Dugin, Kefeli and company rehearse Eurasian arguments with a Slavophile/pan-Slavist heritage, Dmitri Trenin is probably the most articulate spokesman in English for the westernising school in today’s Russia. He retired from the Russian army in 1993, and has been director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre since its inception. His most recent book on Russia has the telling title Post Imperium, a Eurasian Story. It was published in 2011, and events, particularly those of the end of last year and the beginning of this in Ukraine, have put question marks over some of his theses. His main justifications for calling Russia a post imperium, for instance, are that it declared its sovereignty before all other Soviet republics, except the Baltics; that from the outset, the CIS was not Russia’s third empire; it was just the opposite, an exit, not a continuation; that Ukraine identifies itself as part of Europe, not of some “Eurasia”, and that Russia allowed this to proceed primarily because, after four hundred and fifty years, its imperial élan was gone. The CIS he sees as essentially institutionalised summitry for leaders, and the Russian population, he maintains, couldn’t care less about the Central Asian part of it. Russia, he says, has been trying hard to establish itself in the top league of the world’s major players and as the dominant power in its neighbourhood while trying to keep itself in one piece, With 2 per cent of world GDP and about the same share of the world’s population, it doesn’t feature at the very top, but remains a great power. Putin’s approach means continuing as a great power, where democracy is only a legitimising instrument. The basis is personalised power networks. The Russian Federation is an authoritarian political regime, even if moderate and generally non-coercive. Trenin underplays some notorious Putin remarks, such as his claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. He denies that this was imperial nostalgia, and counters it with the Putin statement that “one who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart; one who wants to bring it back has no brains”. In Munich in 2007, he says, Putin was essentially trying to make the West accept new rules of engagement with Russia. Those could be summarised as “Accept us as we are; treat us as equals; and let’s do business where our interests meet”.

For all that, Trenin too takes seriously the problem posed by NATO enlargement, The 2008 Georgia war was, he says, a reaction to what was perceived as a deliberate US provocation ‑ Condoleezza Rice, he notes, had been in Tbilisi in mid-July ‑ but it had been carefully limited to teach Saakashvili and Washington a lesson. It was the prospect of NATO membership of Georgia which was crucial for Moscow. With this war, Russia had challenged not only the wisdom, but the moral authority of the West, which it sees as self-serving. In general, Trenin sees the whole NATO enlargement enterprise as damaging. It put paid to any prospect of real rapprochement to the West. “Between 1994 and 1997, the idea of Western integration was largely discredited, and a new incarnation of Eurasianism was back. Nikolay Danilevsky’s Russia and Europe, written in the bitter aftermath of the Crimean War, was reprinted in 1995 and became a bestseller. Geopolitics, in a traditional realpolitik version, was elevated to supreme statecraft. Aleksandr Dugin, heretofore an obscure and obscurantist writer, became salonfähig, that is socially respectable.

Trenin, it will be seen, is not on the whole optimistic about a rapprochement between this particular East and this particular West. These days, indeed, Westernisers are rather few in Russia – an estimate has put them at 15 per cent of the population and at that, they would be heavily concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg. Among them are those who, while being aware of, and recounting, all the negative developments since 1991, see a historical inevitability in such a rapprochement. Evgeny Bazhanov, for instance, the director of the foreign ministry’s diplomatic academy, who tellingly cites Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian philosopher of the early twentieth century:

The Russian people in the shape of a significant part of its intelligentsia … is the victim of false ideas, bordering on megalomania and paranoia, in regard to each and everyone ... It seems to them that all neighbours are insulting them, do not sufficiently bow down before their greatness and are plotting evil in their regard in every way.

Bazhanov remarks that this attitude to the West remains in the genetic code today. “Western values –from liberalism to recognition of the rights of sexual minorities – from Catholicism to Protestantism to scientific research enterprises to comfortable prisons for murderers, provoke in us suspicion, surprise and rejection. All the misfortunes of Russia are ascribed to the account of Uncle Sam and his fellow-travellers, who organise ‘colour revolutions’ and tsunamis and narcotraffic and the collapse of the world economy. In all probability the political scientist, who affirmed in a recent article that the gap between West and East in social questions was 40-60 years, was right.” On the Western side, he sees that, while no one any longer fears a Russian invasion, “our country is seen as not free, backward, sunk in corruption and other criminality, and boorish in regard to its neighbours”. He pleads for more consideration on each side, in view of the fact that there is no longer any military threat – it’s on its eastern border that Russia faces military build-ups. “Russia in the foreseeable future will need Western technology in large amounts, as well as investments and imports. Without them, we cannot build an effective market economy.” The ideological differences between Moscow and Western capitals are not unbridgeable, and a whole range of important factors will ensure that Russia remains on the democratic/free market course. These are, firstly, the lessons of history, the disastrous results of the rule of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century. Second, the principles of democracy are universally recognised, set down in the Charter of the UN and other important contemporary documents. Third, democratisation makes possible the growing cultural level of wide strata of the population. Finally, the modern economy also requires democratisation. “At the same time, the process of deepening and reinforcement of democracy in Russia will also be gradual and prolonged, which is only natural, considering the specifics of our historical experience, the dimensions of Russia, its multiethnicity, its multi-confessional nature, the unevenness of development of productive forces, etc.” The West, including Europe and the US, exerts a powerful magnetic attraction on Russia. He rejects the theses of unsurmountable cultural differences between Europe/US and Russia – there are differences between the Western countries in their approach to Russia, and it’s time to explain to Russians that international competition is a feature of normal existence “and is not a reason for panic-ridden conclusions and suicidal actions”.

There is thus a lively debate in Russia itself on the country’s orientation. The question is, where does the leadership stand in this debate? The answer is difficult, because not only has Russia become more autocratic under Putin, but the circle of real decision-makers has become ever smaller. According to some accounts, it may consist of no more than five people. But, reviewing the period since 2000, when Putin assumed power, it is plausible that it began with a continuation of a commitment to democracy and a market economy, associated with a growing resentment at lack of consideration on the part of the West to certain deep Russian concerns – NATO enlargement, treatment as a poor supplicant, disregard for what are seen as legitimate interests in the neighbourhood etc. Angela Stent cites a senior German official complaining of an “empathy deficit disorder” in Washington in dealing with Russia. The pathology that this caused became progressively more virulent in the intervening years, culminating in 2003 in the invasion of Iraq without any Security Council mandate, indeed, in open defiance of the UN. After this, the New York Times magazine’s Ron Suskind reported on a visit to the Bush White House in 2004 in the course of which he recounts that “an aide” (commonly supposed to be Karl Rove) “said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’… ‘That’s not the way the world really works any more’, he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’” If ever there were a declaration of hubris in defiance of the rest of humanity, not only abroad, but in the US itself, this was it. We can be sure it was carefully read in many capitals as a possible explanatory factor in the way they saw US policy going. It was to get worse, and there is no need to rehearse all the evils to which this approach to the comity of nations gave rise. Against that background, Putin’s outburst in Munich in 2007 should not have been a surprise. After that came the Georgia War. Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, was well known to be an impetuous man. He had made many friends in neo-con circles in Washington, and had, along with Ukraine’s Yushchenko’s, succeeded in having George W Bush railroad through, at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, a statement that both countries would become NATO members. In August of the same year, Saakashvili, either overinterpreting something he took as an assurance, or simply playing va banque, made the fatal decision to settle the South Ossetia question by shelling its capital, Tskhinvali. The response, for which, no doubt, Russia was prepared, was devastating for Saakashvili and for those whom he took to be his patrons in Washington. Condoleezza Rice’s presence in Tbilisi in July – regardless of denials ‑ was interpreted in Moscow as an egging-on of Saakashvili. So much for George W Bush. The Obama administration promised a new approach, and did indeed under Hilary Clinton, engage in what was called a “reset”. This did change much, not least, the kind of hubris that alarmed so many at the beginning of the century. But then, from Moscow’s point of view, Obama too began to over-reach in the Libya campaign where, although they took the trouble to get a Security Council Resolution to set up a no-fly zone, Britain, France and the US engaged in regime change which resulted in the murder of Muammar al-Ghadaffi. The Snowden affair, which resulted in Obama cancelling his plans to attend a G8 meeting in September, did the rest. These resentments were all reflected in Putin’s speech in Saint George’s Hall in the Kremlin on March 18th, which was a summary of the Russian case against the West since 1991. It was also not without a taste of the paranoia which has been noted in Dugin and Kefeli in the reference to the possible activities of a “Fifth Column”.

Thus the secular movement in the Russian leadership over the past fourteen years has been towards the Eurasian position – as Dmitri Trenin put it, the main publicist of this position has become salonfähig. Putin himself proposed a Eurasian Union, as a kind of calque on the EU, in 2012. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s view, as we have seen, is that, without Ukraine he cannot realise this. The events of late last year and this seem to show that this is also Putin’s view. However, there has to be a serious question over whether he can realise his objective with the means chosen. The first result of his annexation of Crimea is that he has overthrown the whole basis on which Europe has been articulated since the Helsinki Final Act, the foundation document of the OSCE, to which Russia and all other European countries are parties, and in which they guarantee the territorial integrity of the parties, and the inviolability of their frontiers. This has been a crucial element in the political architecture of the continent after the end of the Cold War. Russia’s action was also in repudiation of two treaties which she has signed, in 1994 and in 2009, guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Even in his own narrow “Eurasian” terms, what he has done in Crimea could be summarised in the German saying Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlag’ ich dir den Schädel ein – if you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll break your skull. As of now, only Belarus and Kazakhstan have signed up for the proposed Union. The fate of Crimea will hardly be an encouragement for others. In particular, Nursultan Nazarbaiev, the president of Kazakhstan, a co-author of the proposal, must be having second thoughts: there is a substantial Russian minority in north Kazakhstan. Russia will be left with the dilemma of an apparent, but not real, choice between East and West. As Bazhanov well put it, they will not be able to make a rational choice as long as progress towards democratisation and a market economy is perceived as acting the role of errand-boys of Europe/the West.

Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton and London, 2014
Dmitri Trenin, Post Imperium, A Eurasian Story, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, etc,. 2011
Robert Legvold (ed), Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century & the Shadow of the Past, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007
Iver B Neumann, Russia and the Idea of Europe, a Study in Identity and International Relations, Routledge, London, 1996
AG Dugin, Geopolitika Rossii, Gaudeamus, Moscow, 2012
IF Kefeli, Geopolitika Evraziiskogo Soyuza: ot Idei k Global’nomu Proiektu, ID Petropolis, St Petersburg, 2013
Evgeny Bazhanov, Rossiya i Zapad, in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, Moscow, December 2013


Correction 20/04/2014: The sentence beginning "Moldavia and Wallachia, present-day Moldova and Transdniestria,..." should begin " Moldavia and Wallachia, territories which nowadays are in Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine,..."
The author is grateful to Christian Suciu and to Horst Siedschlag for pointing out this error.

Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.