War With Ukraine as Other Means to Speed Up Reversal of Russia’s ‘Civilizational Choice’
To Vladimir Putin, the war in Ukraine is obviously not an end in itself. Rather, it is one of multiple means by which he’d like to attain multiple aims. Of these, one appears to be somewhat overlooked and undeservedly so, in my view: It is to accelerate what Putin would like to be Russian elites’ clean break from a “morally bankrupt” and “declining” West, so that Russia can blossom as a separate civilization in alignment with the “great civilization” of a “rising” China. This is being sold both to Russia’s elites and to its general public as Putin’s grand vision of a once-in-a-century-or-more change of Russia’s “civilizational choice.” However, I argue in this research brief that, in reality, it is an exercise in realpolitik meant to position Russia in the emerging global order in a way that its rulers believe will be most beneficial to their country’s vital interests and for them personally.
Russia as ‘Inalienable Part of European Civilization’
Putin has not always wanted Russia to turn its back on the European civilization. It might be difficult to fathom today but, early in his rule, Putin used to publicly wonder when and how Russia could be integrated into the West, seeing such integration to be in Russia’s interest (though on Moscow’s own, preferential terms). The early 2000s saw him ask Bill Clinton and Lord Robertson when NATO would invite Moscow into the alliance, as well as continue his predecessor’s policy of harmonizing Russia’s laws and regulations with the EU’s in hopes of eventual membership. “Of course, Russia is a very diverse country, but we are part of Western European culture,” Putin said in 2000. The following year Putin—who views Russia’s Westernizing tsar Peter the Great as one of his role models—proclaimed that “Russia is an integral part of the European civilizational and cultural space.” And Putin was not alone in seeing Russia as part of Europe. One of his closest confidants at the time, Russia’s then deputy premier Sergei Ivanov, still described Russia “as an inalienable part of European civilization” as late as in June 2007. Some of the country’s policy influentials—including Sergei Karaganov, Timofey Bordachev and Igor Yurgens—also envisioned that Russia would eventually be integrated into Western collective structures such as NATO, per what many, including me, saw as a convergence of vital interests at the time.
Eventually, however, waves of NATO expansion and “color revolutions” convinced Putin, rightly or wrongly, that the West’s leading powers, while eager to integrate post-Soviet neighbors to Russia’s west and even south, were in no hurry to accept Moscow as an equal in their club. Equally important, Putin concluded, as suggested above, that Europe and the U.S. had entered secular decline, while China would continue rising; indeed, China ultimately sidelined Germany as Russia’s top trading partner. These perceptions must have gradually made Putin question whether Russia’s geopolitical choice in favor of the West—made by Peter the Great in the 17th century1 and revived by Boris Yeltsin in 1992—remained in the country’s interest.
Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 and Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008 were, perhaps, the first clear, loud signals that Putin was seriously considering a profound alteration of Russia’s “civilizational choice”—to downplay the country’s shared historical and cultural past with Europe and to emphasize the uniqueness of Russia as a separate civilizational state.2 In the words of Alexander Rubtsov, a leading scholar of Russia’s narrative of civilizational choices, the emerging “conflict with the West and the rhetoric of reorientation toward the East renders the problem of Russia’s civilizational choice relevant in a very clear key: Since Russia’s entry into the Euro-Atlantic ‘concert’ failed to materialize for various reasons, there must be a search for other reference points, including in the sphere of ideas—in treatises on history and on maps of the world.”
De-Europeanization of Russia
By the time Putin began to wonder whether changes in the global balance of power—marked by the changing fortunes of East and West—required Russia’s geopolitical reorientation (a right, which, in Putin's recent view, the Ukrainian leadership should not be entitled to), an ideological foundation for such a pivot had already been laid. The best-known of its idealogues was the relentless Eurasianist Alexander Dugin. But even some of Russia’s leading thinkers who had previously envisioned a Russia integrated with the West, sensing change in the Kremlin air, began to argue that Russians should turn their backs on what they saw as a declining European civilization, at least in the short term, and focus on developing as a “civilization of civilizations” in Eurasia, embracing China and the rest of the rising East. (More recently, other pro-Kremlin thinkers have gone even further, with retired Russian ambassador and Karaganov’s colleague at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Alexander Kramarenko claiming that “the conflict between Russia and the West has had a cultural and civilizational dimension dating back to the Great Schism of 1054” and that this conflict “throughout its duration, regardless of instances of convergence, of which there were plenty even in the 20th century, … was cultural and civilizational.”) As Rubtsov, the civilizational choice scholar, wrote in 2018: “In severe cases, an actual political choice, often momentary and opportunistic, is not only justified but packaged as a civilizational choice. The country and the world are told that Russia is not Europe, that it is a separate civilization, an eternal empire and so forth.”
With time, Putin began to play the lead role in promoting the ideologeme of altering Russia’s "civilizational choice." Having returned to the Kremlin in 2012, he began arguing not only that the world is in a “civilizational crisis” but that Russia “is not just a country but really a separate civilization.” He contended that Russia needs to reject the “morally bankrupt,” “declining” West to align with China’s “great ancient civilization” whose global leadership Russia “is not going to contest.” In a more recent attempt to decouple Russian and European history, Putin has publicly cast doubt on the so-called “Norman theory” of the origins of Kyivan Rus. And Russia’s latest National Security Strategy, which Putin signed off on in 2021, can be summed up as “deter the U.S., ignore the EU, partner with China.”)
These civilizational arguments initially fell on deaf ears when it came to Russia’s business elites and even some of Russia’s federal officials. While paying lip service, when needed, to the idea of a pivot away from the West, many wealthy members of Russia’s political and business classes continued to send their children to study, work and live in Europe, while also buying real estate and business assets there. They kept doing so even as Russian authorities tightened legal, financial and other constraints3 meant to discourage or even criminalize such practices. When authorities designated some Western states “unfriendly” and banned officials from owning real estate abroad, those affected merely transferred ownership of their Mediterranean villas to family members and private trusts.4 One would struggle in the 2000s and 2010s to find a Russian billionaire without assets in the EU. Moreover, my 2019 analysis of reports in the Russian and Belarussian press revealed that at least two Russian deputy prime ministers, seven ministers and deputy ministers and 15 federal lawmakers had residence permits in EU countries and Switzerland.5 Even the wife and stepdaughter of Putin’s long-time press secretary Dmitry Peskov had U.S. citizenship, while one of his biological children was reportedly a U.K. citizen and another three resided in France, prompting Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to call Peskov’s family a “NATO detachment.” More recently, Navalny’s colleagues have released results of their open-source investigation into Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko. According to the investigation, Krivoruchko used to own an apartment in Miami, Florida, and one of his two daughters is a U.S. citizen. Additionally, an investigation published in August 2022 by Russia’s Important Stories outlet revealed that at least eight Russian governors continued to own real estate, businesses and other assets in the West, all while lambasting it and supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Much of what Putin’s laws could not achieve when it came to de-Europeanizing Russia’s elites, his war against Ukraine did. Putin’s decision to launch a large-scale “special military operation” to try to conquer much of Ukraine, including Kyiv, was a strategic mistake that I did not think he would make, given the costs. The latter came to include waves of unprecedented Western sanctions, not only restricting Russians’ ability to park wealth and buy real estate in the EU, but also freezing some of their existing property. These restrictions, more so than earlier ones, essentially left Russia’s elite with little choice but to stop tying their personal future with the West (though many chose to turn their gaze—and investments—south rather than inward or east). In addition to attempting to de-Europeanize Russia’s elites, Putin has also used Russia’s conflict with Ukraine to accelerate the reorientation of ordinary Russians from West to East. Since Feb. 24, 2022, the Kremlin has left no stone unturned in its effort to find ways to convince the Russian public that their country is fighting an existential war against the collective West.
If polls6 are any guide, many ordinary Russians have found this post-invasion propaganda convincing and are inclined to support civilizational estrangement from the collective West, while favoring alignment with China (see Charts 1-3 in the Appendix). Moreover, unlike the country’s entrepreneurial elites and part of its political elites, ordinary Russian citizens offered more fertile soil for disseminating the proposition that Russians were not really Western or European but a distinct civilization, as Tables 1-4 and Chart 4 in the Appendix show. Not only was the share of Russians who viewed themselves as Western or European constantly a minority in 2003-2015, but those who viewed Russia as a European country also became a minority in 2019, according to the same pollster.
Even Russians who remain unconvinced by the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda—whether elites or ordinary citizens—will find it difficult to develop or maintain political, educational or cultural ties with the West, as Russian authorities continue to sever them, even criminalizing personal interactions with foreigners, especially from “undesirable countries.” In Rubtsov’s words, a “creeping … re-Stalinization is gaining momentum.”
Is Russia’s ‘Civilizational’ Pivot Away From the West Irreversible?
There is little doubt that continued estrangement from the West (and the extension of the West’s harsh sanctions) is bound to make Putin’s Russia ever more dependent on China. Among the factors that make Moscow and Beijing increasingly aligned are China’s continuing economic rise (see Table 5 in the Appendix), which fuels growing bilateral trade ties, plus the two countries’ increasing ideological similarities, shared adversaries and the record warming of Russians’ attitudes toward China (see Chart 4 in the Appendix). But will these factors lead to the ‘Chinaization’ of Russia, with Russians embracing Chinese values and ways of life as they tried to embrace the Europeans’ after the disintegration of the USSR? Not necessarily, in my view. For one, more than half of Russians have consistently stated that their values and culture differ a great deal from those of the Chinese, according to the Kremlin-friendly Public Opinion Foundation (see Table 6 in Appendix). As some scholars have pointed out, there are hard-to-bridge cultural, or even civilizational, differences between the Russians and Chinese, which continue to hinder Russia’s full embrace of China in the form of a military-political alliance. That the Russian leadership retains sufficient capabilities to effectively deter existential threats to themselves and their country also makes such an embrace less likely. This sufficiency also explains why in his 2020 comments on the issue Putin did not rule out a military pact with China but saw no need for it. (The conflict with Ukraine, which began after those comments, does not presently constitute such a threat, in my view, despite what Russian officials and ideologues say, though, of course, Putin may eventually come to such a conclusion if he suffers a strategic setback in Ukraine.)
While the Chinaization of Russia may remain unfinished, a re-Europeanization of Russia also doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Putin is mortal, of course, and whoever succeeds him can be expected to try to normalize ties with the EU, if only because Russia’s vital interests require not keeping all its eggs in one (Chinese) basket. However, any return to the post-Soviet Europeanization of Russia seen in the 1990s and early 2000s will remain unlikely as long as Russia’s rulers continue to see the West as a declining but still threatening adversary and China as a rising global hegemon. Whether, however, the present or next Russian leader can succeed in positioning Russia as “a civilization of civilizations” in the evolving global order while accounting for less than 3% of the world’s GDP and 2% of the world’s population is another question.
Appendix: Charts and Tables
Russians and Americans were asked the following in a survey that was conducted simultaneously in both Russia and the United States in 2019 as part of research by Henry Hale and Olga Kamenchuk: “Do both Russia and the United States belong to European civilization despite their differences, or do they instead belong to distinct civilizations?” (% of total respondents, one answer allowed).
- As an absolute monarch (a status to which current trends propel Putin as well), Russia’s first emperor did not hesitate to use violence when making his subjects accept his choice.
- I am, of course, not alone in concluding that it was circa 2007-2008 that Putin’s civilizational rhetoric took a turn away from Europe and toward Russia as a unique civilization. As Russian political scientist Stanislav Malchenkov noted in his academic article “Civilizational Discourse in Putin’s Statements”: “In the first stage of Putin's rule (1999-2006), an understanding of the country [Russia] as part of global and European civilization prevailed… In the second stage, which began with the speech in Munich in 2007 … it was declared for the first time that Russia is a distinctive state-civilization.”
- These tougher policies became more evident after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 and ended the “thaw” ushered in under his caretaker predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.
- Peter the Great (whom Putin admires, among other Russian emperors) tried various methods to force the Russian elites to accept his civilizational choice, including not only fining boyars who refused to shave their beards but forcibly shaving them. I think the latter is one of the few methods of Peter’s that Putin did not try in his attempts to impose Easternization on the Russian elites.
- The sources I analyzed at the time included Karelia.news (12.03.20), Ufb.by (01.09.19), Currenttime.tv (11.27.18), Tsargrad.tv (10.02.17), Navalny’s website (undated) and Newsweek (04.26.17).
- For discussions of some of the limitations of polls conducted in Russia see “Latest Poll Shows Sharp Rise in Russian Government Approval Amid Ukraine War, With Caveats" and “Unnatural Numbers” (in Russian).
- Those who told the Public Opinion Fund in 2013 that the culture and values of Europeans and Russians differed were then asked to name the main differences: 15% pointed to higher living standards in Europe; 13% said Europeans were more civilized; and 10% said mentality was the main difference. Interestingly, only 2% claimed “there is more spirituality in Russia and the West lacks that spirituality,” one of the Kremlin propagandists’ talking points.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.