Vladimir Putin’s speech Tuesday — disavowing Russia’s Soviet past, glorifying its Orthodox roots, decrying the unjust price paid by Russians when the Soviet Union collapsed and condemning the West’s hypocrisy — upended the foundations of the post-Cold War narrative.
The widespread idea that Crimea could be ceded without cascading consequences arose from the erroneous belief that Putin is reconstituting the Soviet Union. The Soviet past was never his frame of reference. Putin’s expeditionary wars are fueled by Russian exceptionalism: a vision for a renewed union based on a common Russo-Orthodox destiny. In other words, Putin’s ambitions range beyond the boundaries of the former U.S.S.R. and into Europe.
In the long sweep of Russian history, the rise and fall of communism in the 20th century and the ensuing 20 years of turmoil are an anomaly for Putin. The preceding millennium of Russo-Orthodox expansion is the norm. His strategic vision is not bound by democratic election cycles; it is measured in centuries and glory. The Western belief that a decline in Russia’s stock market would be a reason for him to pull back, for instance, is the sort of short-term thinking that has crippled our ability to guess his next moves.
By dubbing Russians the world’s largest “divided people” and noting that many live in appalling conditions in post-Soviet states, Putin on Tuesday belied his platitudes that he has no further plans for expansion.
Putin has employed three tools to realize his expansionist vision: the annexation of vulnerable territory, the launch of the Eurasian Union and the revitalization of the Orthodox Church.
Annexation is the most limited of these but a critical propaganda tool. Each time Russia changes a border by force, it triggers a crisis among the transatlantic partners. Putin’s invasion of Georgia tested Western resolve in 2008. When Russia paid no price for that aggression, Putin’s belief that the West, Europe and NATO were vulnerable and in decline was reinforced.
Since then, Putin increasingly has referred to Russia as distinct from the West. He promotes an “orthodox morality” that rejects Western notions of tolerance and inclusive societies — seen domestically in the imprisonment of Pussy Riot, new “anti-propaganda” laws targeting gays and a crackdown on any media deviating from the Kremlin line.
The West discounted much of this exceptionalist narrative until it was used in Crimea. Putin’s soldiers-of-no-nation are branded “local self-defense forces” to underscore native pro-Russian support. The relentless information war propagates perceptions of ethnic-religious divisions and Western “hypocrisy.” Financial weapons underscore Putin’s reliance on oligarch-princes to revitalize orthodoxy in Russia and across Europe and to buy the silence of potential critics and the support of willing advocates.
Grabbing Crimea has more than doubled Putin’s domestic support and sent Russian markets soaring. The price of dissuading him from this interventionist expansionism just rose dramatically.
The Eurasian Union, set to launch in 2015, will primarily help Moscow reassemble Russian-speaking nations that have struggled for definition since 1991. The authoritarian leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan, weary of badgering on human rights, and the struggling leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, plagued by poverty and instability, stand to gain from Moscow’s protection. Armenia opted last year for Russian security guarantees over access to lucrative European Union markets.
And the Orthodox Church further extends Russia’s reach into Europe as a platform for renewed relations between Orthodox nations. In Serbia, E.U. ascension talks do little to mask a closeness to Moscow fueled by Russian opposition to Kosovo’s independence. Greece and Cyprus are still mired in a financial crisis that has alienated many from Europe while financial and cultural ties to Russia deepen.
In each of these cases — as in Russia — local political challenges were followed by a rise in anti-European rhetoric that became muddled with ideas of Orthodox values. Now Putin has made himself a champion of this narrative of discontent and that of a glorified Orthodox past.
The message is that the “moral community” of orthodoxy is strong and that it doesn’t come with the hard membership criteria many Orthodox nations have struggled to meet. The closed, comfortable worldview — It’s okay to be what you are — was founded on geographic isolationism but is now driven by a rejection of the Europeanist ideology that is its greatest competitor. A meeting of the Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Council in 2016, the first such meeting in 1,200 years, could be a key moment in these developments.
Less than two years ago, Russians bravely gathered to call for a Russia without Putin. Putin has succeeded in changing the narrative to a resurgent, single-minded Russia vs. a West irrevocably in decline.
“Letting Crimea go” was never a new status quo: It was a concession to Putin’s hegemony. Putin’s labeling of the West as a purveyor of confused morals means that every half-measure taken to slow his aggression will build support for Russia in his target constituencies. Putin believes that ideologies inextricably linked to morality are in head-to-head competition, and he has proven adept at engineering scenarios to force a choice.
This threat hangs over eastern Ukraine and any nation with large Russian minorities. Putin’s assertion that discriminating against the Russian language was grounds to invade Crimea could be applied to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. South Ossetia, little more than a Russian military base, and Transnistria could stage referendums to join Russia. The heavily Russian north of Kazakhstan might be a target as well. There should be little doubt that an unrestrained Russia could chip away at the foundations of Europe.
If the expansion of this resurgent “Russophere” is not challenged, it will continue to erode the tolerant, inclusive, secure societies that are the basis of world peace and prosperity — and that we are morally right to defend.
Molly K. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis were advisers to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his national security adviser during and after the 2008 war with Russia. They are independent consultants who advise governments, foundations and international organizations on foreign policy and strategic communications.