Russia, Ukraine, and the Ideological Roots of Conflict

David Pan
The extended nature of the war in Ukraine stems from the long-term political and ideological developments that have led up to it and will continue to dominate it. In Russia, the government has maintained support for the war through the promotion of a civilizational narrative about Russian culture that has been established over the last twenty years. As Marcin Skladanowski describes in “Criticism of Western Liberal Democracy by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus'” (Telos 193), the Russian Orthodox Church has set up the conflict between Russia and the West as a moral one, in which Russia defends a divinely grounded morality against the amoral secularism of the West. This religiously grounded idea of a civilizational conflict exists alongside a philosophical explanation. In “The Ethnosociological and Existential Dimensions of Alexander Dugin’s Populism” (Telos 193), Michael Millerman describes Dugin’s Heideggerian attempt to establish civilizational differences between peoples as the basis for an anthropological theory of human existence. As Nikolai-Klaus von Kreitor recounts in Elements of the New Russian Nationalism” (Telos 96), Dugin was already at work in the early 1990s on such ideas when he developed Carl Schmitt’s theory of the Grossraum in order to criticize U.S. imperialism and justify a Eurasian regional hegemony to counter the dominance of the Western liberal order.

While these intellectual currents have created a rationale for Russian opposition to the West, it has been the political return to totalitarianism that has led to the prominence of these theories to the exclusion of competing accounts of Russian identity. As Robert Horvath argues in “The Putin Regime and the Heritage of Dissidence” (Telos 145), the voices of Russian dissidents have consistently maintained the importance of civil rights over the years, but they have been suppressed more and more through Vladimir Putin’s reestablishment of the totalitarian methods of the secret police. Before Putin, the tumultuous 1990s saw a proliferation of different political perspectives, and Lev Gudkov details in “Russia—A Society in Transition” (Telos 120) the way in which Putin’s rise was based on a national populist rhetoric rather than the articulation of any defined political program. Once in power, he reestablished the primacy of totalitarian state institutions that had never lost sway. This development confirmed Paul Piccone’s prognosis in “The Perseverance of Stalinism” (Telos 131) concerning the difficulty of replacing totalitarian institutions, which, according to Gudkov, were buttressed by psychological mechanisms built up during the Soviet years as an adaptation to prolonged institutional violence.

By contrast, as Matthias Schwartz argues in “Servants of the People: Populism, Nationalism, State-Building, and Virtual Reality in Contemporary Ukraine” (Telos 195), Volodymyr Zelensky offered a form of anti-state populism that eschewed Ukrainian nationalism in order to maintain a suspicious attitude toward state institutions while affirming a commitment to family values as the primary basis for social life. While the proliferation of alternative viewpoints in the 1990s in Russia could perhaps be dismissed as an aberration, the relative success of Zelensky’s anti-state populism in the Ukraine seemed to pose an ideological threat to the vision of a Russian civilizational order. Tim Luke (Telos 199) has pointed out the mythic aspects of Russia’s civilizational narrative. By contrast, Mark G. E. Kelly (Telos 199) has tried to buttress it, while designating the escalation of war as the “fulfillment of U.S. foreign policy.” Yet, in my view (Telos 199), the United States has renounced many of its liberal interventionist ambitions and become a defender of a nation-state order grounded in the principles of popular sovereignty and national self-determination.

Contrary to John Mearsheimer’s realist view that the war is simply another move in a game of great power politics, the larger ideological conflict pits the idea of great power regional hegemony against the principle of nation-state sovereignty. Power is not neutral, and order is based on ideology. The outcome of the war will be significant because it will establish the ideological ground rules for global order for the twenty-first century.

Categories: Geopolitics

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