“Vladimir Vladimirovich, is war coming?”
The question is asked in the first frame of “Myroporyadok” (“World Order”), a manifesto-style documentary aired in the last days of December on Russian state television. And in the following two-plus hours, President Vladimir V. Putin, aided by diplomats, policy analysts, conspiracy theorists and retired foreign statesmen, attempts to provide an answer.
Though the Russian leader resists sounding the alarm, the audience is nonetheless convinced that if nothing changes in the coming months, the Big War could be imminent. And the Kremlin isn’t doing much to dissuade them: Days after the film’s airing, its new national security strategy, which declares NATO and the United States as fundamental threats to Russia’s future, was unveiled.
“Myroporyadok” is a powerful expression of the Kremlin’s present state of mind. It views the world as a place on the edge of collapse, chaotic and dangerous, where international institutions are ineffective, held hostage to the West’s ambitions and delusions. Nuclear weapons represent the sole guarantee of a country’s sovereignty, and sovereignty is demonstrated by a willingness and capacity to resist Washington’s hegemonic agenda.
The film’s story line focuses repeatedly on NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, the West’s misuse of a United Nations no-fly zone in Libya and the West’s insistent meddling in the domestic politics of post-Soviet states. This is all done to prove the film’s central point: that the West may carry on about values and principles, but all of that masks a realpolitik aimed at world domination.
Some of the accusations have merit: The United States certainly bears considerable responsibility for the catastrophe in the Middle East. Some are patently false: Not every popular revolt in the world is a covert C.I.A. operation. But all of them carry more than a whiff of exaggeration. America, after all, is neither as powerful nor as malevolent as the Kremlin supposes.
The central contradiction in Moscow’s view of American foreign policy is its failure to reconcile its insistence that America is a declining power with the tendency to explain everything that happens in the world as resulting from American foreign policy actions. Is Washington failing in its effort to bring stability to the Middle East? Or is keeping the region unstable the real objective of White House strategy? Improbably, Moscow believes in both.
More important, the film is a challenge to the widely accepted view of Mr. Putin as a coldblooded realist, a cynic who believes in nothing but power and spends his days poring over maps and checking his bank statements. In “Myroporyadok,” we find Mr. Putin the angry moralist who, similar to European populists and third-world radicals, experiences the world through the lens of humiliation and exclusion. As Mr. Putin’s close adviser, Vladislav Surkov, once wrote: “We still look like those guys from the working part of town suddenly finding ourselves in the business district. And they’ll swindle us for sure if we keep stumbling backward and dropping our jaws.”
Such exclusion fuels distrust and the tendency to view the world as a family drama structured around love, hate and betrayal. It is this sensitivity, rather than 19th-century realpolitik, that explains most of Moscow’s policies in recent years.
Russian-Turkish relations are a case in point. Rather than adhering to any foreign-policy realism, the Kremlin seems to have adopted a policy of Great Power sentimentality. Until two months ago, Ankara was Russia’s strategic ally in its struggle for a multipolar world. Turkey had been a brother-in-resentment, the only NATO member that refused to join in sanctions against Moscow after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ankara occupied a central place in Moscow’s energy diplomacy.
But it was enough for a Turkish missile to hit a Russian plane on the Syrian border, and suddenly the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not a friend anymore, but a traitor who was “aiding terrorists,” Mr. Putin said, sounding personally offended.
At the heart of Russian foreign policy sentimentalism is a tendency to view relationships between states as relations between leaders. It is this highly personalized view of the world that helps explain why Mr. Putin, the man who seeks to defeat America, is such an enthusiastic supporter of Donald J. Trump, the “brilliant and talented leader” who promises to make America great again.
Mr. Putin’s predilection for Mr. Trump has nothing to do with the Kremlin’s traditional preference for Republicans. It also can’t be explained by the fact that had Mr. Putin — a physically sound, aging, gun-loving and anti-gay conservative — been an American citizen, he would have fit the profile of a Trump supporter. Nor is it a function of tactical considerations: that the nutty billionaire would divide America and make it look ridiculous.
Rather, Mr. Putin’s puzzling enthusiasm for Mr. Trump is rooted in the fact that they both live in a soap-opera world run by emotions rather than interests. Perhaps Mr. Putin trusts Mr. Trump because the American businessman reminds him of the only true friend the Russian president has had among world leaders, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
In “Myroporyadok,” there is a lot of discussion about new rules and institutions, about Yalta and about the United Nations. But its message is clear: In a world where hypocrisy holds sway, only angry outsiders can be trusted.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.
First published in New York Times, January 12, 2016.
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