Russia’s Path to Premodernity

Jun 14, 2022 ROBERT SKIDELSKY

The Stalinist retreat from science and logic persisted following the Soviet Union’s collapse and is now the main tendency of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule. With his faith-based mythology, warping of history, and denial of facts, Putin’s withdrawal from contemporary Europe could not be starker.

LONDON – The Russian writer Pyotr Chaadayev said of his country that “we have never advanced along with other people; we are not related to any of the great human families; we belong neither to the West nor to the East, and we possess the traditions of neither. Placed, as it were, outside of the times,” he wrote, “we have not been affected by the universal education of mankind.”

That was in 1829. The “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill described Russia more than a century later, is no closer to being solved today. The philosopher John Gray recently wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is the face of a world the contemporary Western mind does not comprehend. In this world, war remains a permanent part of human experience; lethal struggles over territory and resources can erupt at any time; human beings kill and die for the sake of mystical visions.” That is why Western commentators and liberal Russians are baffled by Putin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Personality-based explanations for Putin’s actions are the easiest to advance – and the most facile. Putin is neither acting like an expert chess player, calculating every move, nor like a ruler unhinged by power or steroids.

Rather, Putin has a distorted, or at least one-sided, view of Russian history, and of what constitutes Russia’s special virtue. But this does not explain the widespread popular and intellectual support in Russia for his justificatory narrative regarding Ukraine. We are all to some extent captives of our national myths. It is just that Russian mythology is out of step with “the universal education of mankind.”

We expect Russia to behave more or less like a modern, or even postmodern, European nation-state, but forget that it missed out on three crucial ingredients of European modernization. First, as Yuri Senokosov has written, Russia never went through the Reformation or had its age of Enlightenment. This, Senokosov argues, is because “serfdom was abolished only in 1861 and the system of Russian autocracy collapsed only in 1917 […] It was then swiftly restored.” As a result, Russia never experienced the period of bourgeois civilization which, in Europe, established the outlines of the constitutional state.

Second, Russia was always an empire, never a nation-state. Autocracy is its natural form of rule. To its current czar, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a violation of Russian history.

The third missing ingredient, related to the absence of the first two, was liberal capitalism, of which Russia had only brief and limited experience. Marx insisted that the capitalist phase of economic development had to precede socialism, because any attempt to build an industrial economy on the archaic soil of peasant primitivism was bound to lead to despotism.

Yet, this is exactly what Lenin’s revolutionary formula of “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” amounted to. Lenin, a brilliant opportunist, was following in the tradition of the great reforming czars who tried to westernize Russian society from the top. Peter the Great demanded that Russian men shave their beards and instructed his boyars: “Don’t gorge like a pig; don’t clean your teeth with a knife; don’t hold bread to your chest while cutting it.”

In the nineteenth century, Russia’s relationship with Europe took on a new dimension with the idea of the New Man – a Western type inextricably linked to Enlightenment philosophy and enthusiastic about science, positivism, and rationality. He appears as Stoltz in Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov. In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), he is the nihilist “son” Bazarov, who champions science and rails against his family’s irrational traditions. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), which strongly influenced Lenin, imagines a society of glass and steel built on scientific reason.

Because of their shallow roots in Russian culture, these futuristic projections incited a literary peasants’ revolt. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, published in 1864, not only became one of the canonical texts of Christian Slavophilia, but also raised profound questions about modernity itself.

The Bolsheviks made the greatest collective attempt to bring the New Man out of literature and into the world. They, like Peter the Great, understood that transforming a society required transforming the people in it. They launched a concerted effort, with the participation of the foremost avant-garde artists of the time, to modernize people’s mindsets and nurture their revolutionary consciousness. Russians would become the scientifically and collectively minded New Men who would help build the Communist Utopia.

This was perhaps the biggest failure of all. With Stalin deeming socialism achieved in 1936, and state-mandated socialist realist literature and art exalting mysticism over science, Soviet dreams of a New Man remained just that. The retreat from science and logic survived the Soviet Union’s collapse and now is the animating tendency of Putin’s rule. His own faith-based mythology, unusual symbiotic relationship with the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, warping of history, and denial of facts, underscore the extent of Russia’s withdrawal from contemporary Europe.

In his 2003 book The Breaking of Nations, the former European Union diplomat Robert Cooper thought Russia’s future was still open. The signing of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and later Russian moves to join NATO indicated that “postmodern elements” were “trying to get out.” Whether the rapprochement was foiled by Western arrogance or Russian incompatibility will long be debated. By 2004, Putin had shed most of his liberalizing tendencies and began embracing traditionalism. In Cooper’s classification, Russia is a modern pre-modern state.

Following the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Czech writer Milan Kundera refused to adapt Dostoevsky’s The Idiot for the stage. “Dostoevsky’s universe of overblown gestures, murky depths, and aggressive sentimentality repelled me,” Kundera said. It is in these murky depths, behind the rational façade, that we can glimpse Putin’s war.

The Case for Nordic and NATO Realism

To be a realist in international relations is to accept that some states are more sovereign than others. “Strict realism” now requires that Sweden and Finland pause before rushing into NATO’s arms, and that the Alliance take a step back before accepting them.

LONDON – Finland and Sweden have announced that they will apply for NATO membership. But joining the Alliance is more likely to weaken than enhance their security and that of Europe.

Strategic neutrality has preserved Sweden’s independence and freedom from war for 200 years, and Finland’s independence since 1948. Has anything happened to justify ending it?

Swedish and Finnish officials point to two episodes. In December 2021, the Kremlin went from desiring Swedish and Finnish neutrality to, in essence, demanding it, sending a clear and threatening message that an independent foreign policy is a privilege, not a right, for Russia’s neighbors. More important, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally worsened the two countries’ security environment by increasing the risk that Russia will attack or seek to intimidate them. Since they cannot hope to defeat Russia in battle, singly or jointly, they must join an organization that can.

In expert-speak, NATO membership will “raise the threshold of deterrence.” Faced with the certainty of retaliation (including nuclear, if necessary), Russia will desist from attacking, or seriously bullying, Sweden and Finland. This argument strongly implies that, had Ukraine been a NATO member, Russia would not have invaded it, since, as the Swedish foreign and defense ministries point out, “Russia (or the Soviet Union) has never attacked a NATO ally.” But Sweden and Finland’s efforts to strengthen deterrence might be self-defeating, because NATO enlargement could raise the threshold of Russia’s willingness to invade them, at least before they become Alliance members.

Judging the wisdom of further NATO enlargement requires taking a view on two matters. First, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (however unjustified in law and brutal in execution) evidence of a general expansionary intent, or is it sui generis? Second, what responsibilities for maintaining peace fall on small countries that abut big countries?

History offers some guidance on both questions. After 1945, Stalin could have absorbed Finland into the Soviet Union, or ruled it through a puppet. Finland had been crushed in a war in which it fought on the side of the Germans – something Finns don’t like to be reminded of, though their alliance with Hitler came about only following Stalin’s 1939 invasion.

Still, Stalin was never interested in restoring Czarist rule over Finland. His concern was strategic. As Stalin said in 1940 following the Soviet Union’s “Winter War” with Finland, “we can’t move Leningrad, [so] we must move the borders.” What he demanded, and eventually got, was some 10% of Finnish territory, including a big slice of Karelia near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), plus some strategic islands.

After this land grab, Stalin guaranteed Finnish independence in the 1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, on condition that Finland promised to “fight to repel” any attack on the Soviet Union “through Finnish territory,” with help from the Kremlin if Finland agreed. Unlike the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite states, Finland was not required to join the Warsaw Pact when it was established in 1955.

There is a superficial parallel between Ukraine’s current tragedy and Finland circa 1939-48. Stalin made Finnish neutrality a condition of its independence, while Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that his main demand is that Ukraine renounce the goal of NATO membership.

But the differences between the two cases are greater. Although part of the Czarist empire, Finland was never part of “historic” Russia as Ukraine was, and contained no large Russian minorities. Putin regards Ukraine as an “inalienable” part of Russia, and blames Lenin’s establishment of a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for creating Ukrainian nationalism. So, while strategic considerations may have been uppermost in Stalin’s mind, it is reasonable to suppose – as Ukrainians and Ukraine’s Western supporters do – that Putin is using the threat of NATO expansion as an excuse to undo what he sees as Lenin’s historic mistake.

If Russia’s fear of NATO is genuine, Sweden and Finland’s membership applications will expose them to the risk of retaliation before they join, and it is at least debatable as to whether a NATO Article 5 guarantee will offer greater real security than neutrality does. If the Russia-Ukraine war is specific to Russian history, with NATO expansion only an excuse, it cannot be seen as a prelude to unlimited territorial expansion, though Putin’s remarks belittling Kazakhstan’s statehood are worryingly similar to his denials of Ukraine’s right to exist. Either way, the case for Swedish and Finnish NATO membership is not open and shut.

This brings us to the second matter, small countries’ responsibilities for peace. The former European Union diplomat Robert Cooper argues in his book The Ambassadors that “strict realism [is] required by small states with big neighbors.” And it is realism that seems to be lacking in the Swedish and Finnish governments’ current policy thinking. Consider the Swedish foreign and defense ministries’ assertion that “The Russian leadership operates based on … a view of history that differ[s] from th[at] of the West,” including “the aim of creating spheres of influence.”1

Attributing that Russian conception simply to totalitarian thinking amounts to a denial of any special obligation of a state to its people arising from its location in the international system – the reverse of Cooper’s “strict realism.” The doctrine of spheres of influence may be alien to today’s international norms, but not to international practice. No powerful state wants a potential enemy on its doorstep. This was (and remains) the basis of the US Monroe Doctrine vis-à-vis the Western Hemisphere. It is supposedly the basis of Russia’s strategic doctrine, though in practice Russia has preferred to have vassal states on its borders.

To be a realist in international relations is to accept that some states are more sovereign than others. The Finns acknowledged this after World War II. “Strict realism” now requires that Sweden and Finland pause before rushing into NATO’s arms, and that the Alliance take a step back before accepting them. Ukraine, whose brave resistance has set the limits on Russia’s territorial expansion, also must now be willing to negotiate some form of peaceful coexistence with its more powerful neighbor.

The False Promise of Democratic Peace

Clinging to the assumption that only dictatorships start military conflicts, proponents of democratization believed that the global success of their project would usher in a world without war. But this theory lacks a sound foundation and has produced one disaster after another when put into practice.

LONDON – Through persuasion, exhortation, legal processes, economic pressure, and sometimes military force, American foreign policy asserts the United States’ view about how the world should be run. Only two countries in recent history have had such world-transforming ambitions: Britain and the US. In the last 150 years, these are the only two countries whose power – hard and soft, formal and informal – has extended to all parts of the world, allowing them plausibly to aspire to the mantle of Rome.

When the US inherited Britain’s global position after 1945, it also inherited Britain’s sense of responsibility for the future of the international order. Embracing that role, America has been an evangelist of democracy, and a central US foreign-policy objective since the fall of communism has been to promote its spread – sometimes by regime change, when that is deemed necessary.

In fact, this playbook dates back to US President Woodrow Wilson’s time. As historian Nicholas Mulder writes in The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, “Wilson was the first statesman to cast the economic weapon as an instrument of democratization. He thereby added an internal political rationale for economic sanctions – spreading democracy – to the external political goal that…European advocates of sanctions have aimed at: inter-state peace.” The implication is that, where the opportunity offers, military and non-military measures should be used to topple “malign” regimes.

According to democratic peace theory, democracies do not start wars; only dictatorships do. A wholly democratic world thus would be a world without war. This was the hope that emerged in the 1990s. With the end of communism, the expectation, famously expressed by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article, “The End of History?,” was that the most important parts of the world would become democratic.2

US supremacy was supposed to ensure that democracy became the universal political norm. But Russia and China, the leading communist states of the Cold War era, have not embraced it; nor have many other centers of world affairs, especially in the Middle East. Hence, Fukuyama has recently acknowledged that if Russia and China were driven together, “then you would really be living in a world that was being dominated by these non-democratic powers…[which] really is the end of the end of history.”

The argument that democracy is inherently “peaceful,” and dictatorship or autocracy “warlike,” is intuitively attractive. It does not deny that states pursue their own interests; but it assumes that the interests of democratic states will reflect common values like human rights, and that those interests will be pursued in a less bellicose manner (since democratic processes require negotiation of differences). Democratic governments are accountable to their people, and the people have an interest in peace, not war.

By contrast, according to this view, rulers and elites in dictatorships are illegitimate and therefore insecure, which leads them to seek popular support by whipping up animosity toward foreigners. If democracy replaced dictatorship everywhere, world peace would follow automatically.

This belief rests on two propositions that have been extremely influential in international relations theory, even though they are poorly grounded theoretically and empirically. The first is the notion that a state’s external behavior is determined by its domestic constitution – a view that ignores the influence the international system can have on a country’s domestic politics. As the American political scientist Kenneth N. Waltz argued in his 1979 book, The Theory of International Politics, “international anarchy” conditions the behavior of states more than the behavior of states creates international anarchy.

Waltz’s “world-systems theory” perspective is particularly useful in an age of globalization. One must look to the structure of the international system to “predict” how individual states will behave, regardless of their domestic constitutions. “If each state, being stable, strove only for security, and had no designs on its neighbors, all states would nevertheless remain insecure,” he observed, “for the means of security for one state are, in their very existence, the means by which other states are threatened.”

Waltz offered a bracing antidote to the facile assumption that democratic habits are easily transferable from one location to another. Rather than trying to spread democracy, he suggested that it would be better to try to reduce global insecurity.

Though there is undeniably some correlation between democratic institutions and peaceful habits, the direction of causation is disputable. Was it democracy that made Europe peaceful after 1945? Or did the US nuclear umbrella, the fixing of borders by the victors, and Marshall Plan-fueled economic growth finally make it possible for non-communist Europe to accept democracy as its political norm? The political scientist Mark E. Pietrzyk contends that, “Only states which are relatively secure – politically, militarily, economically – can afford to have free, pluralistic societies; in the absence of this security, states are much more likely to adopt, maintain, or revert to centralized, coercive authority structures.”

The second proposition is that democracy is the natural form of the state, which people everywhere will spontaneously adopt if allowed to. This dubious assumption makes regime change seem easy, because the sanctioning powers can rely on the welcoming support of those whose freedom has been repressed and whose rights have been trampled underfoot.

By drawing superficial comparisons with postwar Germany and Japan, the apostles of democratization grossly underestimate the difficulties of installing democracies in societies that lack Western constitutional traditions. The results of their handiwork can be seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and many African countries.

Democratic peace theory is, above all, lazy. It provides an easy explanation for “warlike” behavior without considering the location and history of the states involved. This shallowness lends itself to overconfidence that a quick dose of economic sanctions or bombing is all that is needed to cure a dictatorship of its unfortunate affliction.

In short, the idea that democracy is “portable” leads to a gross underestimation of the military, economic, and humanitarian costs of trying to spread democracy to troubled parts of the world. The West has paid a terrible price for such thinking – and it may be about to pay again.

Think Twice Before Sanctioning Russia Further

Despite massive Western economic sanctions against Russia, the chance that they will lead to President Vladimir Putin’s ouster, or even to a drastic change in Russian policy toward Ukraine, is much lower than most people suppose. It is far more likely that punishing will neither stop the war nor secure the peace.

LONDON – The West has imposed massive financial and economic sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. But are the sanctions supposed to be a way to end the war? Are they a means of punishing Russia for its bad behavior? Or are they simply an expression of moral outrage?

This is the second time in less than a decade that Russia has been sanctioned for violating international law. Following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, the United States imposed economic sanctions aimed at “effectively making it a pariah state.” Clearly, this did not have the desired effect of changing the Kremlin’s behavior. Now a new barrage of measures in response to the assault on Ukraine has ramped up sanctions to an unprecedented extent. 1

The current restrictions on Russia include a ban on trade in critical technologies, extensive asset freezes and travel bans, the denial of major Russian banks’ access to international capital markets, travel bans and asset freezes targeting individuals, and the exclusion of Russian aircraft from international airspace. With the sequestration of the Russian central bank’s foreign-exchange reserves and the promised eviction of Russia from the world financial and trading system, oil and gas will remain the country’s lifeline to the global economy.

All of this might seem a necessary moral response to Russia’s lawlessness. But when relatively light-touch sanctions give way to heavy economic bombardment, two key questions should be asked. First, at what point do sanctions become a pathway to war rather than an alternative to it? Second, what are such measures expected to achieve, and how effective are they likely to be? So far, these questions have scarcely been asked, much less answered. 

Governments should consider the first question carefully before imposing sanctions on a great power, particularly one with nuclear weapons. If that power perceives a threat to its means of survival, there is a strong chance that it will fight to overcome the restrictions. 

For example, when the US imposed an embargo on oil and gas exports to Japan in August 1941, following Japan’s seizure of oilfields in Indochina, the Japanese responded by attacking Pearl Harbor. And after OPEC subjected the US to an oil embargo in 1973 in retaliation for American military assistance to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, President Richard Nixon’s administration threatened to invade and occupy OPEC member states’ oil fields. The embargo ended.

The sanctions imposed so far on Russia do not yet threaten the survival of the Russian state. But President Vladimir Putin may regard a Western attempt to cut off the remainder of Russia’s international trade, especially in energy, as an existential threat. 

As for the second question, the objective of economic sanctions is reasonably clear: to prevent or stop war by imposing unacceptable costs on the aggressor state. But while there is no doubt that the Western sanctions on Russia have greatly raised the costs to ordinary Russians of Putin’s war, no one expects that this will end the conflict. 

The West instead hopes that the costs of the sanctions to Russia’s elite will achieve this result. Rather than lose their wealth, the argument goes, the elites may overthrow Putin or force him to end the war. This is the only rationale for the current sanctions that makes sense. 

But the likelihood of Putin’s ouster, or even of a drastic change in Russian policy, is much lower than most people suppose. Essentially, it depends on Russia’s defeat in Ukraine, a prolongation of the conflict without any resolution, or a growing perception among Russia’s military that Putin has failed them. Far more likely is a ceasefire and at least the appearance of a Russian victory. In that case, economic sanctions will have done nothing either to stop the war or secure the peace.

A 2007 UK House of Lords report concluded that, “economic sanctions used in isolation from other policy instruments are extremely unlikely to force a target to make major policy changes.” Even sanctions’ rare success in forcing South Africa to abandon apartheid depended on two special circumstances, neither of which applies to Russia today: worldwide enforcement and South Africa’s inability to retaliate. Turkey, India, and China are the most notable of the states that have not sanctioned Russia, and potential Russian counter-sanctions include cutting off the oil and gas supplies on which most of Europe depends. 

But that is not all. Among the “other policy instruments” mentioned in the House of Lords report, the foremost is the “threatened or actual use of force.” In other words, the inefficacy of economic sanctions on their own to change state behavior implies a high risk that they become part of an escalator to war. That is why Western countries have so far not acceded to Ukraine’s request to impose a no-fly zone. 

Economic sanctions against Russia are supposed to be an alternative to war, but they can reasonably be expected to change the Kremlin’s behavior only by becoming tactical components of the conflict. The sad truth is that Western countries cannot help Ukraine except by threatening to go to war with Russia. But to admit this is to call into question the whole logic of their sanctions policy. 

More generally, economic sanctions have become a greatly overused tool of preventive diplomacy. By cutting off parts of the world from international commerce, they promote the formation of antagonistic blocs, and destroywhatever promise globalization still holds. 

Samuel Johnson famously observed that, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” His French contemporary, Montesquieu, spoke of the douceur of commerce. True, a lot of trade is criminal, and much of it benefits corrupt and oppressive governments. But forcing countries back to pre-modern economic conditions is not a formula for improvement.