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In Russia, It’s the Realists vs. the Ethno-Nationalists

Neither will bring them any closer to the much-hoped-for “deal” with Trump.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in Russia in Vzglyad on January 13. It was translated by Paul Grenier under the aegis of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy dialogue project.

Dmitry Drobnitsky, in his article “The foreign policy objectives of the party of internal development,” raises a question about the sort of ideological baggage we bring to bear when we talk about reaching a “grand bargain” with the United States.

The possibility of such a deal is increasingly the subject of discussion in Russia. In the West, some fear the very idea, while others see in it the hope of a finding a way out of the impasse in which Russian-American relations currently languish.

Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Eastern Europe—the countries the well-known political analyst Jeremy Shapiro referred to in a recent article as “the countries in between” Russia and the Euro-Atlantic—will figure both as the central subject of this hypothetical transaction, and as the most important obstacle to it.

Russia and the Western world confront each other over this question armed with two opposing philosophies: in Russia’s case, geopolitical realism; in the West’s, liberal fundamentalism.

According to the West’s liberal belief system, each and every country has the right to join the economic and military-political bloc to which it culturally gravitates, and no great power that happens to be located in the neighborhood can stand in its way.

Liberal fundamentalists describe the Ukraine conflict as a drama transpiring in the spirit of Anna Karenina: Anna-Ukraine wanted to get away from her odious husband, Russia, in order to be with her lover, the West. And then, to take revenge on his unfaithful wife, the jealous husband seized from Anna her beloved child, Crimea.

Russia, for its part, presents the situation entirely differently: NATO, blithely ignoring all its previous commitments, kept moving closer and closer to Russian territory, and Russia, in response, had no choice but to take tough measures to defend its security.

What’s most problematic here is that Russia’s political elites keep failing to give a clear, convincing response to the liberal fundamentalists because Russia’s representatives themselves are approaching this issue from opposing political-philosophical perspectives. And the clash between these perspectives prevents Russia from formulating for itself a consistent political framework and then bringing that framework to bear in its dispute with its opponents.

Clearly, liberal fundamentalism is incompatible with the imperatives of Russia’s security. One way or another Russia needs to reduce the pressures exerted on it by that liberal fundamentalism. But it is no less clear that we are dealing here with a fairly robust belief system, one that does not lend itself easily to deconstruction.

As soon as Russia starts to protest against the expansion of NATO, or something of that sort, it is immediately accused of wanting to resurrect the old anti-democratic doctrine of “spheres of influence.” Howls of protest arise in the international community, and the ghosts of Yalta, Munich, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are immediately raised.

Unfortunately, there are no Western leaders willing to expose themselves to the risk of constant battering at the hands of human-rights advocates.

If we wish, then, to say something intelligible to our counterparts, we need to come to an agreement among ourselves first.

In our country, what one might call the “Crimea belongs to us” camp is in fact dominated by two very different parties. On one side, you have the sober “realists.” On the other: ardent Russian irredentists and advocates of the so-called Russian World.

Both parties treat each other with ill-concealed contempt.

Realists say they are ready to accept the “Crimea’s ours” construct for reasons of defense, and because they understand perfectly well the danger of NATO and ABM missile-defense systems moving right up to Russia’s western borders. As for all sorts of appeals to the “divided Russian nation” crying out to have its divisions healed, they find arguments of this sort unconvincing.

For the realists, what makes territorial integrity so important is not that it is some sort of irrefutable dogma, but rather that it represents a very important foundation of the modern world order, and for that reason should not be discarded lightly.

Naturally, fervent advocates of the Russian World, the supporters of the ethno-national unification of Russians, are quite deaf to exhortations about the priority of international law, and for them the realists do not even rise to the level of being temporary fellow travelers: they are annoying opportunists of the “Russian cause.” From their perspective, it is only thanks to the combined influence of all these realists that the political establishment did not allow the “Russian spring” to blossom into a “Russian summer.”

The above-described dualism within our “Crimea’s ours” camp—this split between realists and ethno-nationalists—mirrors the dualism of modern political language with its arbitrary juggling of the “territorial integrity of states” and the “right of all peoples to self-determination.”

All states allow themselves to make use now of one, now the other of these two formulations. Examples of double standards in this regard abound.

And yet it is clear enough that the global order has need of both of these principles. Territorial integrity as a principle prevents the uncontrolled disintegration of state structures on an arbitrary basis. As for “the right to self-determination”—this is the unavoidable consequence of how, in legal terms, the world community defined the process of decolonization that began with the separation of the Greek and Slavic states from the Ottoman Empire, and that was completed, perhaps finally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, neither realism in its pure form nor ethno-nationalism can successfully serve as the language of negotiations with the United States over the fates of border states.

Neither realism nor ethno-nationalism will bring us any closer to the much-hoped-for “deal” with Trump.

Any arguments proffered by our realists are quickly beaten back by the liberal fundamentalists, who point to the need to respect the desire of peoples to freely unite with the Euro-Atlantic system, without reference to any considerations put forward by “odious” Russia.

These nations wish to join the community of free nations, our rhetorical opponents say; and who, and on what basis, can prevent them from doing so?

The arguments put forward by our ethno-nationalists are unsuitable as a negotiations tactic. Their purpose is to avoid doing a “deal,” to instead continue the conflict; they represent an alternative to the very notion of a deal.

We find ourselves in the following position. If we don’t adapt the Russian World position, there is no way to force the other party to the negotiating table; and yet precisely by hewing to this same Russian World position, it is impossible to actually negotiate.

Alas, the very logic of realism dooms inhabitants of the Russian World outside of the Russian Federation to a forlorn, shadowy existence in territories recognized by no one.

It is clear that if Russia wants to do a deal with the West it needs a third philosophical position—one that goes beyond both realism and ethno-nationalism. The introduction of such an alternative into political discourse would itself already bring about a major upheaval in the system of international relations.

We may call this third position “civilizational realism,” and its point is to make so-called multi-polarity comprehensible by viewing it as the representation of a multiplicity of varying civilizational poles, each with its own orbit and its own cultural and political gravitational field.

By “civilizational poles” we mean those states that have the capacity to attract other surrounding peoples into their orbit.

Some will enjoy this capacity more than others—clearly, the Euro-Atlantic states exceed all others in this regard. And yet, while the gravitational capacity of other states may be less, it exists all the same. Russia, for its part, definitely does have such a capacity.

What is more, this capacity is not exclusively a matter of ethnicity. Russia pulled into its orbit South Ossetia and Abkhazia, having removed them from a pro-Atlantic Georgia. It still retains within its orbit the Pridnestrovie area, with its international composition inherited from the Soviet era. And finally, in recent years certain Central European states, who for whatever reason find themselves less and less satisfied with the Euro-Atlantic bloc, have also gravitated in the same direction. The clearest example here is Hungary.

To be sure, the attractive capacity of Russia as a civilization has nowhere shown itself more clearly than in Russian Crimea and Sevastopol.

This was demonstrated with particular force in the speeches of Alexei Chalyi and his supporters about Ukraine signing the association agreement with the European Union. At the time when this question had become the subject of heated polemics inside Ukraine, the future Sevastopol “separatists” declared in no uncertain terms that, from the perspective of their city of Russian military glory, a civilizational unification with Europe to the detriment of cultural ties with Russia was completely unacceptable.

In other words, what we observe in this instance is precisely a civilizational rebellion against the Euro-Atlantic bloc, and not just an uprising against “Ukrainization,” defined as the imposition on Russians of an alien ethnic and cultural identity.

The key insight revealed to us by “civilizational realism” is that there exists a certain category of states for which complete incorporation into one or another single civilizational association spells their certain territorial disintegration, or else a civil war involving neighboring countries, which will also, in the end, lead to their disintegration.

An important additional point: it’s not just about “hybrid wars” in which
“civilizational poles” wage war against one another by means of their followers (even if not fully admitted as such).

Very often, it is namely these “followers” who pressure the “core states” to intervene in the internal conflict of a neighboring “divided” country and thereby protect themselves from being eliminated at the hands of a federal government oriented toward another civilizational pole and eager to get control of the situation by stamping out the rebellion.

If there had been no uprising in Sevastopol subsequently supported by Crimeans, it is difficult to predict how the fate of the peninsula would have developed in 2014.

Therefore, “civilizational realism” deals not with some kind of fiction born in the headquarters of this or that special service. It deals with actually existing political realities, which can be manipulated but are very difficult to simply invent.

Meanwhile, “civilizational realism” should not be equated with “civilizational fundamentalism”—it should not, in other words, be considered a position that considers it necessary to pull into one’s own orbit the largest possible number of peoples and territories. It is not, in Russia’s case, about expanding the geopolitical limits of its civilization to the boundaries of the Russian Empire during its heyday.

In fact, the “realistic” component of this geopolitical position suggests that preservation of the status quo is preferable to the destruction of the status quo. An order, whatever it happens to be, is better than instability and chaos.

However, the territorial integrity of these “border” states will be under threat—not as an exception, but unavoidably, as the rule, unless certain conditions are observed, among them the observance of certain security parameters. Secondly, supporters of European expansion must at the very least take into consideration the needs for cultural self-determination of supporters of what, for lack of a better word, we may call “Russia-centric integration,” though within the framework of sovereign states.

At the level of the abstract theory, all that has been said thus far is more or less clear. It is less clear how to make this abstract theory an acceptable language of diplomatic communication.

Already we see a steady stream of articles declaring that Donald Trump—oh, the horror!—is a supporter of Samuel Huntington’s ideas (and it must be added that the ideas of the author of The Clash of Civilizations are shamelessly twisted; these articles credit Huntington with postulating ​​an eternal, inevitable conflict between the West and the Islamic world, when such thinking was absolutely foreign to his entire worldview).

Unfortunately however, there is simply no other option. A pure realism that has no interest in matters of identity, and has no wish to take into account the opinions of national communities, truly does degenerate into great-power cynicism. A pure ethno-nationalism inevitably does turn into a revolutionary doctrine bent on undermining the existing world order.

There is only one way to save this order, to prevent it from sliding into either the hegemony of a single power or the chaos of a war of all against all: we must replace the dominant political language with one that is more adequate.

Washington and Moscow can find much to agree on in the event that they begin to look at political reality from the viewpoint of “civilizational realism.”

The practical conclusion to be drawn here is fairly simple—countries such as Ukraine, Moldavia, and Serbia cannot be fully integrated into any one civilizational system: these countries are located within the gravitational fields of two different centers of political and cultural attraction.

To preserve them, a special political form is required that combines neutral status and a federal structure.

And yet we cannot confine ourselves here to discussing the futures of specific countries only: what is needed is a demilitarized belt of the states separating Russia from the Euro-Atlantic alliance.

The primary axiom of “civilizational realism” should be that civilizations should not come into direct contact geographically, and in those cases where such contact already de facto takes place, it is necessary to minimize the negative consequences of this contact as much as possible.

“Civilizational realism” should become the foundation of our understanding of current political processes. As such, it will enable us to create a new conceptual understanding of security in the 21st century, one grounded in a more truthful geopolitical basis.

Such a foreign-policy position also provides the necessary ideological foundation for the foreign-policy program of our hypothetical “party of domestic development” about which Dmitry Drobnitsky has written.

Unfortunately, two short newspaper articles hardly suffice for its worldwide promotion. What we need is a revolution in the theory of international relations, one that demonstrates that civilizational “gravitational fields” are a fundamental reality of the modern world. And then, on this foundation, to engage in dialogue those American and European intellectuals who are unafraid of being branded followers of Huntington, and even of Patrick Buchanan.

Boris Mezhuev, professor of history of Russian philosophy at Moscow State University, is editor-in-chief of Politanalitika, a publication of the Institute of Socio-economic and Political Research, and the author, among other works on Russian politics and geo-politics, of Perestroika-2: The Experience of Repetition (Moscow, 2014).