When Vladimir Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry professed bewilderment that such imperial aggression could happen in the modern age. It was like something out of “the 19th century.” Kerry’s reaction to Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine was equally baffled, as the patrician American diplomat lamented that the war would distract Putin from working with him on climate change. Common to both reactions was the astonishment that the material calculations and preoccupations of Western democracies might be blown away by a resurgence of old-fashioned tyrannical ambition.
As I show in Tyrants: Power, Injustice, and Terror, the writing had been on the wall for years regarding Putin’s grand geopolitical ambition to reestablish Russia’s control over at least some part of its former Warsaw Pact possessions, without much regard for the desires of the people who live there. Just as Putin’s previous conquest of Ossetia and Crimea shocked people into realizing that tyrannical ambition has not been outmoded by the progress of history, but is a recurring and permanent feature of human psychology and the political landscape, his current aggression again leaves people shocked that such terrible atavistic seeming actions are part of the world we are living in. It is precisely the comparative peacefulness and prosperity of the democracies that lulls us into an unawareness that wolves like Putin and Xi Jinping are always prowling just beyond the perimeter of free self-government. Putin’s latest aggression—this time aimed at the very heart of Europe—may have the salutary effect of shocking us into looking the threat of tyranny straight in the face.
Thinking that tyranny is somehow outmoded comes from the “rational actor” school of international relations, rooted in Thomas Hobbes’ materialistic interpretation of political life as motivated exclusively by economic self-interest. Those who aspire to tyranny and conquest are in the grip of “vainglorious” delusions and must be brought to realize that what they really want is safety, wealth, and the chance to enjoy it as they see fit.
Following Hobbes, we naively suppose that tyrants like Putin need only be persuaded that, like all states, they want a bigger piece of the economic pie. Once they realize that the risks of going to war—the material destruction and loss of lives—far outweigh the opportunity for profit, even the scariest seeming tyrants will see that they are better off peacefully negotiating for greater economic advantage and then taking their front-row seats at Davos to bask in the approbation of their peers. Surely, Putin must realize that the strains that war with Ukraine will place upon Russia’s frail economy will greatly undermine his popularity and retard his country’s modernization, and leave him an “international pariah,” as President Joe Biden recently warned. Better to give the Russian leader a morsel of what he wants—say, the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine—until it sinks in that further aggression is neither in his nor Russia’s economic interest.
The rational actor theory isn’t always wrong. But it has been contradicted repeatedly by leaders who are willing to risk everything for the prospect of honor and victory, not regarding these ambitions as “vainglorious” delusions but rather as the stuff of historical greatness. The last century witnessed the rise of history’s most tyrannical aggressors, including Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Khomeini. In every case, rationalist-oriented Western policymakers thought that the economic self-interest of tyrants would deter them from all-out war. When Britain and France offered to give Hitler the Sudetenland, they believed this offer would slake his hunger for all of Czechoslovakia and give the Czechs a reprieve. Instead, it encouraged him to further aggression. Similarly, hopes for peaceful coexistence and detente with the Soviet Union were shattered by Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan. As it turned out, the Soviet Union being an economic basket case was not as important to its leadership as restoring revolutionary elan through foreign conquest, as had been done when the Red Army rolled over Eastern Europe after World War II.
The same is true of Putin today. It’s not that he doesn’t want prosperity for Russia. His early popularity was based on stabilizing the ruble. But the economy must rightfully take a distant second place to restoring Russia’s national pride and dignity after what he views as the “catastrophe” of the Soviet empire’s humiliating defeat in the Cold War. Our foreign policy experts too often forget that dictators like Putin don’t have to worry about public opinion and economic performance the same way that democratically elected leaders do. Rulers for life, they can put these to one side for prolonged periods of time in service of the greater goal of national honor.
Although Putin’s ambition is to restore Russian control over its former Warsaw Pact captive states, he in no way wishes to restore the Soviet regime itself. Russian history has long been riven by a cultural conflict between those who look to Europe, the West, and the Enlightenment as the path that Russia should follow and those who are loyal to Slavic nationalism, which is deeply religious and not interested in economic prosperity. In literature, this divide was typified by the different outlooks of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, which Tolstoy crystallized as the difference between St. Petersburg and Moscow. During the era of anti-Soviet dissidence, this split was typified by Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Putin is in the Slavophile camp. A devotee of Berdyaev, a Slavophile critic of Marxism-Leninism, Putin believes that Soviet communism was an import of European rationalism that poisoned the authentic Russian soul, which has nourished the country’s national and artistic greatness.
Does the Russian soul really matter to Putin? As I wrote in Tyrants, modern tyrants and conquerors since Robespierre have been bolstered by an ideology. Slavophile thought is crucial to Putin’s worldview, including both Berdyaev and also the modern writer Aleksandr Dugin’s ideology of “Eurasianist National Bolshevism.” Dugin, an academic and popular pundit, tried to rescue what he saw as the authentically Russian agrarian populist impulse behind the original Bolshevik Revolution from its betrayal by Lenin’s “scientific” socialism imported from European thought, calling instead for a “revolution of archaic values” based on the blood and soil traditions of family, rural life, and religious faith. Putin commissioned Dugin to overhaul the Russian education system to remove all traces of Gorbachev-era glasnost and perestroika, which both believed were signs of creeping Enlightenment rationalism and materialism corrupting the Motherland.
Dugin gave Putin the ideology he needed to reject the tainted European strain of Soviet communism while rehabilitating it as a great patriotic people’s movement, including the rehabilitation of Stalin in his role as wartime champion against Hitler. This ideology also enabled Putin to make what is to him a coherent argument that, while the Soviet communist regime will never be restored, the Slavophilic populism that was its true lifeblood can be—a national tribalism extending to all Slavic peoples including Ukraine, Poland, and the Balkans, who must be gathered back into the Russian fold.
Noteworthy also here is Dugin’s fascination with Martin Heidegger, who lent his prestige as Germany’s leading thinker in the 1930s to enthusiastic support for National Socialism. Heidegger viewed the German Volk as placed between the “pincers” of the two global technological superpowers, America and Russia. Out of this struggle, the German people must reclaim its pre-modern destiny and lead all “the peoples” out of the grip of the rationalist global order back to their tribal roots. Dugin transferred this role of the salvational people from Heidegger’s Germany to Russia, whose spiritual values will liberate people everywhere from capitalist materialism.
Here is where Putin’s grand geopolitical map for Russia becomes more clear. Dugin argues that Russia’s salvational role in the world must begin with its gradual recovery of its lost Slavic brethren in Ukraine and Moldova. But that is only the beginning. The long-range goal is world war between Russia and the United States, the leader of the “bourgeois” West. Preparing for that war involves Eurasianism making an alliance with radical Islam. For Dugin, the hostility of Islamists to Christianity is outweighed by their loathing for Western materialism and individualism. In Dugin’s view, Russia’s eventual victory over the United States and the capitalist system will also liberate ordinary Americans from their greedy Wall Street overlords. He addressed an open letter to “the American people” stressing Russia’s solidarity with them.
How much of Dugin’s agenda for eventual world conquest does Putin actually embrace or believe he can realize? It is impossible to tell. That said, his thrust into Ukraine, a sovereign state whose territorial integrity was guaranteed by the United States and United Kingdom, displays a riverboat gambler’s recklessness that seems to be a departure from his earlier preference for biting off a chunk of another country and then pausing to digest it while assuring the West that his demands had been satisfied for now.
Putin is therefore a rational actor only to a point, and in a very different way from how that is understood in the West. His aims are for Russia to be honored, feared and powerful. He is no Hitler or Ahmadinejad, willing to pursue his imperial ambitions to the point where he and Russia risk going down in flames in a final Götterdämmerung, like Hitler in his bunker. But Putin is ready to go a very great deal further in pursuing his ambitions than elected democratic leaders are—a fact that he knows, and which he believes gives him a key advantage in his confrontation with the West. He is willing to march up to the very edge of a general war in Europe, or perhaps even cross that line, and he is willing to put the Russian people through extreme material deprivation rather than settle for a slice of the pie as measured out by foreign powers. Honor and national pride come first. That is why we need to remind ourselves over and over again that the ambition to tyrannize and a lust for honor at the expense of material self-interest are unalterable features of human nature.
Waller R. Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and co-founder of the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of Tyrants: Power, Injustice and Terror (2019) and Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, which will be published in spring 2022.