AMU Editor's Pick Europe Intelligence Original

Putin and Russia’s Perception of Its Role in the World

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

The events in Ukraine continue to unfold, and every day brings with it new questions. Last week, we published an interview with Professor Brian Horowitz, a professor of Jewish Studies at Tulane University and the Sizeler Family Chair.

His remarks on the war in Ukraine and Putin’s way of thinking encouraged some readers to ask more questions about Russian nationalism and the way Putin understands the West. I took the opportunity to return to Professor Horowitz and further discuss some of the points he raised in his previous interview.

Russian Nationalism and How It Views the West

Dr. Fuchs: How does Russian nationalism view the West?

Professor Horowitz: It is rarely known that Russian nationalism has various forms. The original Slavophiles emerged out of German Romanticism and shared an epistemology of unity and wholeness of the world.

Part of that group attached themselves to Russian Orthodox Christianity, but none were subservient to the state. At the same time, Nicholas I adopted a state-centered version of Russian nationalism with three aspects—autocracy, nationalism and orthodoxy – meaning that all Russian subjects should obey the authority of the Russian state.

The second generation and future children of slavophilism tended to be more political, state-oriented and corrupt. However, there are exceptions, such as the Russian religious renaissance around the turn of the 20th century.

Russian nationalism views the West as godless, soulless and perhaps even demonic. Knowledge from abstract reason can only break things up and see the parts of wholes, but never grasps unity intuitively.

According to this Russian mindset, Western thought is divorced from life. It is deeply negative and has the power to destroy Russia.

From this insight has emerged in recent years, the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin is a danger because he views the West as the antithesis of Russia — soulless, militant and bent on destroying Russia.

Political Opposition, Putin and the Orthodox Church

Dr. Fuchs: Is Russian opposition a force that can bring change? Or has Putin decapitated political opposition?

Professor Horowitz: There isn’t a serious opposition. In fact, Putin can still win a majority even in a fair election. It will be interesting to see whether ordinary people will push back and make demands after the consequences of the war are felt – for example, casualties. At present, there isn’t an institution or group in society that is organized enough to serve as a check to Putin.

Dr. Fuchs: Putin’s Christian identity has been mentioned several times in recent weeks. Last week, you mentioned the role of the Orthodox Church in Putin’s regime. Are there voices in the Church criticizing the attack on fellow Orthodox faithful in Ukraine?

Professor Horowitz: Yes, some churchmen are voicing opposition, but it is still muffled. There is a sense inside Russia that Putin was boxed in by the West, NATO and the European Union. War was the only way to make clear Russia’s opposition to their plans to isolate and humiliate Russia.

As long as this narrative dominates the public, the Church will offer the government its support. You will hear anti-war voices among clergymen, but the Church has a history of restraint and obedience to the political leadership in Russia.

Dr. Fuchs: Can Putin survive a failure of this military expedition into Ukraine?

Professor Horowitz: Here, one doesn’t need knowledge specifically of Russia. Military defeats tend to lead to political change.

But who will judge whether this “special operation” is a defeat? There is a discrepancy between Western experts who repeat that Russia “lost” because Ukraine is putting up a spirited, and in some cases, an effective defense.

But I believe Putin expected a tough fight that would take more than a few weeks. If not, he would have invaded with a smaller force and would be unable to move his forces around the country. That is not the case.

Perhaps the question is whether the people will react badly to economic sanctions and the loss of their income. It is difficult to predict. If Russians can be convinced that the sacrifices are worthwhile because war was unavoidable, they will show undying loyalty.

Still, opposition to the Ukraine war exists in Russia and represents the first serious crack in Putin’s invincibility. Will it develop into a threat to his rule? I am not sure.

The Role of Russian Intelligence in the Ukraine Conflict

Dr. Fuchs: You have spent decades studying Russian intellectual history and published more than other scholars in this field outside Russia. What do you think is the role of Russian intelligence in this contemporary crisis?

Professor Horowitz: I think claims that Russia is doing badly on the battlefield are exaggerated. There is clearly an attempt to calibrate the necessary force, to not overdo things and to watch for civilian casualties.

I make this statement because the Russian forces could flatten Kiev if they wanted to. They clearly don’t want scenes like the bombing of Dresden on TV.

Additionally, there is clear probing for Ukrainian softness. The military found the south of the country an easier enemy to conquer than the north, so they are carrying on the fight there now.

In general, the image of General Kutuzov from “War and Peace” who sleeps through meetings because only the simple soldier really decides the fate of wars has led some in the West to underestimate the Russian spy service. Russian intelligence officers are actually pretty good at their jobs, although like M16 in England and the CIA in the U.S., they can make catastrophic mistakes. I haven’t seen any errors so far in the week-long fight.

However, I think someone will have to answer for the relatively large number of Russian servicemen killed in this conflict. Do the casualties reflect incompetent organization or attempts to fight less aggressively? I cannot tell, but I would expect to see more concern with lowering Russian losses in the next week or two.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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