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Putin and What Americans Do Not Understand about Russia

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

The official Russian invasion of Ukraine and the declarations from the White House about Russia’s encroachment into Ukraine do not sound familiar to people who are younger than 40 years old. For those born before the internet, Russia’s current activity evokes the days of the Cold War, when the world was dominated by two superpowers fighting for domination over their “own” hemisphere. 

But some things do not change; American understanding of Russia is superficial and so was the public debate on Islamism when it became the top issue after 9/11. Now, some of the most prominent U.S. newspapers and media outlets are returning to the ever-so-familiar superficial reporting of Russia’s movement into Ukrainian territory.

These news sources have a hard time explaining why Russian President Vladimir Putin is utilizing methods that have not been used in Europe since the end of the Second World War. While the U.S. is comprised of immigrants from many cultures, we see the world through a very domestic lens. As a result, Americans have a real challenge understanding the decision making of leaders from other cultures.

Talking with an Expert on Putin and Russia

To truly understand Putin, it’s necessary to speak to someone who deeply understands Russia. One of the premier scholars of Russia in the West today is Brian Horowitz, a Professor of Jewish Studies at Tulane University.

Horowitz has studied Russia for decades. He holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of California in Berkeley, California.

Professor Horowitz has also published half a dozen books and almost a hundred academic articles. His books, such as “The Myth of A.S. Pushkin in Russia’s Silver Age: M. O. Gershenzon-Pushinist” or the more recent “Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Russian Years, 1900–1925,” have become essential reading for anyone who is interested in the intellectual history of Russia in the modern period. 

Dr. Fuchs: Professor Horowitz, let’s begin with the most basic question. What do Americans not understand about Russia?

Professor Horowitz: The Russians – eastern Slavs – will tell you over and over that they lack a natural defense, be it water, mountains or valleys. Western Russia is marked by endless plains. In their history, Russians have beaten their attackers through distance – the opponent’s supply lines become overextended – and endurance.

This viewpoint has contributed to a worldview in which Russians see themselves as undefended. Of course, this self-portrait is hard to square with the reality of an expansionist imperial Russia.

The other thing is that historically, Russia has claimed for itself a position of infallible messianism. This phenomenon saw its culmination in communism, but it started in the seventeenth century with Russia as the “Third Rome,” the protector of the Eastern Church against all other false faiths.

Dr. Fuchs: President Putin sees himself as an intellectual, and he has published articles which the Kremlin makes sure to translate to English. What is important for us to understand from these texts?

Professor Horowitz: Putin is no historian, but he has undeniable strengths as a tactician. What we in the West call soft power – the export of our ideas and culture – finds its equivalent in his political perspective. He claims to speak of the unity of the underdog, the need to throw off European values and making a strike against multiculturalism. That’s his positive angle.

The negative aspect of Putin is his support of computer hacking, the forceful protection of allies (such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea) in the United Nations, and the killing and jailing of political opponents. Nonetheless, his criticism of the United States often hits its target because of the serious political problems in this country. But for readers of Putin’s texts, it is necessary to consider what he wants to achieve with them and decide if that’s the same as what they want.

Dr. Fuchs: What is the political efficacy of pan-Slavism in this day and age?

Professor Horowitz: I used to blithely agree with political scientists who said pan-anything is an outdated idea. People nowadays put their own self-interest over distant ethnic affiliations. But after seeing the Middle East and elsewhere over the last two decades, it is not possible to write it off and say, “These are people who are down-and-out and therefore not dangerous.”

However, by pan-Slavism, do we mean that the Serbs are going to run to help Russia? At the same time, Ukrainians are also Slavs.

The pan-Slavic arguments will be part of the anti-West verbiage. It will appeal to people of Slavic background who resent the United States, but those arguments will fall mainly on deaf ears as its goals won’t solve real-world problems.

The historical parallel here is not the Crimean War of 1853-56, but rather the Russian suppression of Poland’s uprising in 1830. At the time, Britain and France objected to the bald use of force, but Russia said, “Stay out of it; it’s an inner-Slavic battle.”

The great poet Alexander Pushkin even wrote a poem “To Russia’s Slanderers” in 1831, defending Russia’s right to prevent foreign powers from interfering. So none of this activity by Russia is new.

Dr. Fuchs: Can you elaborate on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in this situation with Ukraine?

Professor Horowitz: After nearly a century of ambivalence in government-church relations under communism, the government of the Russian Federation embraced the Church. However, the return to a pre-communist example was problematic since the Church was part of the government and had its own ministry.

After communism, the tasks of the contemporary Church were many-sided, including reuniting the Church in Russia and abroad as well as integrating the Uniate Church, which is traditionally strong in Ukraine. Many theologians would have liked a fully independent Church, but Russia’s history has a different path.

However, the view that the Church is entirely corrupt is also mistaken. But one should expect that the Russian Orthodox Church will support Putin in his efforts regarding Ukraine.

Dr. Fuchs: How would you define the U.S. interest map vis-à-vis Russia?

Professor Horowitz: George Kennan II, the American diplomat and architect of the Cold War, understood that there were Western and Eastern spheres of influence. Basically, this way of thinking meant that there were limits to American hard power.

We need to recognize this message as we Americans face a multipolar world with a regnant China and powerful Russia. After World War II, Roosevelt saw that there was nothing he could do to dislodge Russia from its hold on Eastern Europe as those lands were liberated from the Nazis by Russian (Soviet) soldiers. So he yielded, and the Cold War began.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the former republics gained independence, but it was a mistake — many experts said so at the time — to presume Russia would remain weak forever. Some diplomats envisioned Russia joining NATO or eliminating NATO.

After all, if Russia was not a threat, what threat to Europe existed? Why have an expensive defense alliance?

Unfortunately, drunk with self-congratulation, the United States viewed itself as the only important geopolitical power in the world and acted arrogantly. It pushed NATO eastwards and brought the former Baltic republics into the EU, as well as courting the Caucasian nations, especially Georgia. In this context, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution appeared to Russia as a provocation.

Most of this activity now seems inevitable, but these struggles for Western orientation around Russia’s borders were viewed differently in Moscow. Is anyone really surprised that Moscow acted to protect its interests in Ukraine in 1914 and Georgia in 2008, and most recently in Central Asia?

As unpleasant and as hard as it is to pursue diplomacy, I believe it is necessary. Most importantly, diplomacy should be practiced not just today on the edge of war, but every day, especially years before these places become hotspots.

Enough of sending amateur ambassadors to Russia! We need to engage in conversation, as hard as it is for both parties. The situation today in Ukraine could have been avoided.

 It has long been said (and therefore disregarded) that America’s strength is its soft power. We need a realistic view of the limits of our hard power and expansion of soft power at once.

Soft power, however, depends on a healthy America. America’s broken politics has little of value to offer others. For those with some vision, the cause-and-effect relations between U.S. politics and Russian/Chinese strategy is direct and obvious.

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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