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Oct 4, 2016
10 Min read time
The idea that Putin is driven by the philosophy of Eurasianism obscures the pragmatism of Russia's foreign policy.
Courtesy of the Kremlin.
Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism
Yale University Press, $35 (cloth)
In March of 2014 German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone with President Barack Obama. Russia had recently invaded the Crimea Peninsula and the fear among Western heads of state was that President Vladimir Putin would not stop there. Merkel relayed to Obama the contents of a conversation she had had with the Russian leader. She was, The New York Times reported, unsure whether Putin was in touch with reality. The man was “in another world,” she said.
In his new book, Charles Clover aims to elucidate the world in which Putin resides. A Financial Times journalist, Clover has written an intellectual history of a foreign-policy worldview that he claims underpins Putin and other Kremlinites. Specifically, Black Wind, White Snow is an examination of the political philosophy of Eurasianism, which has gained traction in the highest reaches of Russia. But as an understanding of the way policymakers utilize ideas, Black Wind, White Snow falls short. The book suggests that the ideology, and specifically its adoption by Putin, underpins Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior. In fact, Russia’s maneuvers can mostly be explained by political pragmatism and realpolitik.
This flawed view of the relationship between intellectuals and policy has important consequences. Clover posits:
Hidden from sight of all but the initiated, lies the fundamental esoteric truth of the post-Cold War era: the United States’ most dangerous opponent is not radical Islam, nor China, nor an amorphous asymmetric failed state, nor a cyber virus. It was, is and will remain Russia, the impregnable bastion of land power, the Eurasian heartland.
This is dangerously wrong-headed thinking. But it is the type of threat inflation that inevitably results from the view that ideologies, not interests or power, drive policymaking.
• • •
Clover’s book commences with an address Putin delivered in December 2012 to Russia’s Federal Assembly. The Russian leader favorably quoted historian Lev Gumilev, a reference that Clover took to be a dog whistle. Gumilev was an ultranationalist historian who promulgated something called Eurasianism.
Black Wind, White Snow traces Eurasianism from its roots among exiled Russians in the 1920s. Two million fled or were forcibly exiled during and following the revolution. Beleaguered intellectuals and aristocrats were desperate for an explanation for the catastrophic collapse of the old order and the rise of what they saw as barbarism. One of those intellectuals was Prince Nikolay Trubetskoy, scion of a prominent Russian noble family. Born in 1890, he was teaching linguistics at Moscow University when the Bolsheviks seized power. Under risk of assassination if he stayed, Trubetskoy fled with his wife and daughter, settling in Sofia, where he secured a teaching position.
There is no need for obscure theories to understand Russia’s foreign policy. The answer lies in realpolitik.
From his new home, Trubetskoy fashioned a theory of how the Europeanization of Russia had led to its decline. He argued that World War I illustrated the bankruptcy of liberalism, with the communist takeover of Russia being the inevitable result of the country’s adoption of Enlightenment ideals.
Trubeskoy declared Russians to be the descendants of Genghis Khan.
Looking at Russia’s recent behavior through the lens of Eurasianism—the goal of protecting Russia’s civilizational identity—makes a lot of the current behavior snap into focus and gives a consistent explanation as to which battles the Kremlin has chosen to fight, which ones it has chosen not to, and how it has fought them.
Putin has indeed used the term on a number of occasions when discussing foreign policy. While he pointedly announced in Poland in January 2002 that “Russia is a European country and not a Eurasian one,” by September 2013, he was pitching the idea of a “Eurasian Union” to journalists: “Eurasian integration is a chance for the former Soviet Union to become an independent center of global development, rather than the periphery of Europe and Asia.” This suggests that, in at least some sense, he has warmed to the idea over the past decade.
However, despite surface appearances, recourse to Eurasianism as a way of explaining Russian foreign policy holds a number of major explanatory drawbacks. Despite Clover’s claims, it fails to account for Putin’s changing behavior in office, for one thing. The Russian leader was the first head of state to express condolences to George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks, for instance. A leader guided by Eurasianism could do no such thing, since the philosophy is intrinsically hostile to the West. More concretely, after 9/11 Putin offered support at the United Nations and told Bush that America could use an airbase in Kyrgyzstan—and Bush took him up on the offer. Such a generous overture on Putin’s part is diametrically opposed to Eurasianism, which holds that the United States leads a coalition of countries that aim to weaken Russian civilization. To invite America into Russia’s backyard would seem to be an act of diplomatic suicide on the part of any Eurasian statesman.
The importance of Eurasianism should not be downplayed, though. After all, no powerful country justifies its foreign affairs in purely material terms.
Putin was the first head of state to express condolences to George W. Bush after 9/11.
To be fair, the cozy relationship between Putin and the United States was short-lived. Clover identifies a number of factors that he concedes help explain the change in Russian foreign policy from one of friendliness toward the West to one of hostility. Russia’s oil sector was booming in the first decade of the 2000s, which allowed it to repay its national debt. Its economic strength gave it freedom to maneuver that it hitherto had not enjoyed. America consistently slapped away the outstretched Russian hand, beginning with George W. Bush’s renouncement of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which left Russian at a disadvantage. Bush compounded his disrespect for Russian interests when he forwarded a missile defense shield, which would upset the balance of nuclear power. NATO continued to creep eastward, despite U.S. (likely disingenuous) assurances during the Cold War’s end that the alliance would not progress beyond Germany. The final straw was U.S. support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. American encouragement of Ukraine’s move toward Europe demonstrated a remarkable lack of regard for Russia’s national interests. Russia had historically included Ukraine within its empire, and even Solzhenitsyn believed that Russia should never abandon it. Putin concluded that he had little to show for his considerable efforts to court the West. As Clover writes:
It was a familiar pattern: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and now Putin all began their Kremlin terms with overtures to the United States. These all elicited a pat on the head and a dismissive yawn from Washington. Now, wounded by the diplomatic sights, Putin appears to have overreacted, believing that Russia was the next target of the Orange revolution in Ukraine.
For reasons not entirely clear, however, Clover does not think these episodes have much explanatory power. But in fact, they collectively do far more to explain Russia’s transformed foreign policy than any ideas about Eurasianism. Rather than falling under the spell of ideology, Russian leaders are acting exactly as the leaders of great powers have consistently done for hundreds of years when their security interests are jeopardized and they feel encircled. There is no need to search for obscure theories about Eurasian greatness to understand Russia’s maneuvers. The answers lie in realpolitik. Russia has been a powerful country for hundreds of years. Countries do not voluntarily relinquish power because power is the best way they can ensure their security. Why would Russian leaders sit back while a military alliance directed at them expanded closer to their borders, their sovereignty was repeatedly infringed upon, and eventually their political system was interfered with? Recourse to Eurasianism unnecessarily complicates and mystifies such actions.
Clover concedes that the first round of NATO expansion was significant in impacting Russian leaders’ views of the West, but that expansion was far from an aberration. In fact, new research suggests that before Germany was even reunified as the Cold War wound down, the United States was seeking to exploit the Soviet Union’s weakened position—and lying about doing it. Political scientist Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson recently used declassified and hitherto unexplored documents to reveal that “the United States presented assurances to the Soviet Union that were meant to look powerful, while the United States maneuvered to dominate post–Cold War Europe.” The extent to which Western leaders promised leaders of a declining Soviet Union that NATO would never expand eastward has been hotly debated. Shifrinson shows that American leaders went far beyond a promise about NATO to security guarantees for the Soviets, even as they undermined those guarantees. Clover acknowledges that Russian leaders repeatedly suffered humiliation and security losses at the hands of the West, but he downplays the significance of those episodes in favor of an ideological conviction. He has it backwards.
None of this is to say that Eurasianism has had no influence on Russian leaders. Black Wind, White Snow convincingly demonstrates that Eurasianism at the least is often employed by Kremlinites as a post-factum explanatory device. The importance of that is not to be downplayed. After all, no powerful country justifies its foreign affairs in purely material terms. The French had their mission civilisatrice, the Dutch had their Ethical Policy, the British had the White Man’s Burden, the Soviets had communism, Americans have their need to spread or make the world safe for democracy, and now the Russians have Eurasianism. Kremlin leaders say—and may even genuinely believe—that they are motivated in their conduct not by traditional security concerns but by ideology. This does not mean we should take the claim at face value.
The Soviets had communism and now the Russians have Eurasianism.
Reading about Eurasianism brings to mind an important passage from American career diplomat George F. Kennan’s so-called “Long Telegram.” Kennan’s telegram became famous for providing the conceptual foundation for U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But it is at least as interesting for its astute understanding of the way that ideologies provide leaders with moral and intellectual justifications for the pursuit of their national interests. “With its basic altruism of purpose,” wrote Kennan, Russian leaders “found [in Marxism] justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand.” In other words, for Soviet leaders, communism acted as a belief system that offered an opportune theoretical basis for actions they were already inclined to take. That is not to say that Russian leaders—then or now—are lying in their passionate declarations. “It should not be thought from above that Soviet party line is necessarily disingenuous and insincere on part of all those who put it forward,” Kennan continued. Soviet leaders were simply men who “have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe.”
This is why looking for Eurasianism as a guide to Russian behavior is ultimately unwise. As Putin’s cooperation with the United States in the early 2000s shows, Russian leaders are perfectly capable of acting in concert with the West when it suits them. Though Putin may have confused Merkel with his ramblings, Russia has not acted in ways at odds with its historical understanding of its national interests, which include being the dominant power in much of Eastern Europe. Putin and his henchmen are simply acting as most leaders do, mixing political philosophies with national imperatives. There is little Eurasian about that.
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