Will Putin's Invasion Backfire?
3 March 2014
Back in the early 1990s, when the Russian chauvinist Vladimir Zhirinovsky first reared his loony head, analysts began discussing the “Weimar Russia” scenario. Accordingly, the chaos of the late-Gorbachev period (Weimar) would be followed by the emergence of a strong man à la Adolf Hitler (Zhirinovsky), who would impose order, consolidate the nation, and lead it to some imagined form of glory.
The scenario didn’t work for crazy Vlad, but it turned out to be useful in understanding subsequent developments in Russia. The chaotic period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s proved to be similar to Weimar Germany in the 1920s: in both cases, imperial collapse, economic hardship, and political humiliation were blamed on democracy and the democrats. And Vladimir Putin turned out to be Russia’s version of the Führer. Both came to power legally, developed cults of the personality, dismantled democracy and made the trains run on time, employed chauvinism and neo-imperialism to legitimize their rule, remilitarized their states and promised to make them great powers, and made it their mission to in-gather ethnic brethren in neighboring states.
I’ve been writing for several years now that Putin’s system has all the features of a “fascistoid” state (see “Fascistoid Russia,” March/April 2012). I had defined fascism as a non-democratic, non-socialist political system with a domineering party, a supreme leader, a hyper-masculine leader cult, a hyper-nationalist, statist ideology, and an enthusiastically supportive population. And I had argued in the March 2010 issue of the Harriman Review (pdf) that, “although Putin’s Russia possesses many of the defining characteristics of fascism, it does so only to a greater or lesser extent. Having emerged haphazardly, these characteristics have not yet assumed the form of a consolidated political system; nor is it clear that they are here to stay. In that sense, Russia today resembles Germany in 1933 or Italy in the early-to-mid-1920s. Russia could follow in their footsteps, or it could falter and find its way back to some form of democracy or authoritarianism. Located somewhere between authoritarianism and fascism, today’s Russia may therefore be termed fascistoid.”
You can judge for yourself whether Putin’s Russia has become more or less fascist since 2010.
I had also concluded that:
All fascist states scare their neighbors and provoke them to defend themselves against perceived threats emanating from the behavior and bluster of fascist leaders. In that sense, fascist hyper-nationalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—effectively creating the very enemies it invokes as the reasons for its justification. The soldiers and policemen who run fascist states have a natural proclivity to toughness and weaponry. The hyper-nationalism, state fetishes, and cult of hyper-masculinity incline fascist states to see enemies everywhere. The cult-like status of leaders encourages them to pound their chests with abandon. And the population’s implication in its own repression leads it to balance its self-humiliation with attempts to humiliate others. Unsurprisingly, Russia has taken to asserting its “rightful” place in the sun by engaging in energy blackmail vis-à-vis Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states, cyber-wars against Estonia, a war against Georgia, Polar land grabs, saber-rattling in the Crimea, and other forms of aggressive behavior.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine fits the above pattern all too neatly. The only question is: is the invasion comparable to Hitler’s annexation of German-inhabited Sudetenland, to Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, or to Hitler’s attack on Poland? In the first case, Putin might go no farther than Crimea. In the second, he might try to occupy all of Ukraine. In the third, he’d settle for eastern Ukraine.
Whatever Putin’s choice, he’ll have to expend enormous resources on pacifying a hostile population. According to a public opinion survey conducted in mid-February by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, support for unification with Russia stands at only 26 percent in Ukraine’s east and 19 percent in the south. In Crimea, supposedly a hotbed of Russian irredentism, only 41 percent want to join Mother Russia.
The Crimean invasion may turn out to be the greatest strategic blunder of Putin’s career. Indeed, it could even lead to the end of Putinism.
If Putin knew his history, he’d know that nothing consolidates post-revolutionary regimes like invasions. Some counter-revolutionaries join the invaders, but most people put aside their differences and rally around the flag. The threat of existential annihilation strengthens post-revolutionary states, invigorates national identities, and encourages leaders to adopt radical change. The ongoing Ukrainian response to Putin’s invasion fits this bill to a tee: even the country’s top oligarchs, all Russian speakers, have condemned the invasion and rejected partition. When the crisis ends, Ukraine will be stronger and its diverse population may finally possess all the features of a modern nation. Ironically, Putin might accomplish what Ukraine’s elites have thus far failed to achieve: effective state building and genuine nation building. And that Ukrainian state and that Ukrainian nation are as unlikely to regard him with affection as they are certain to want good relations with a democratic Russia rather than Putin’s.
Putin’s naked aggression has also outraged the international community and, in particular, the United States and European Union. (In this respect, the Weimar Russia scenario does not, fortunately, hold: the democracies have not responded to Putin’s aggression with Munich-like appeasement.) Ordinary Russians will suffer as a result, even as Putin persuades them that his chest-beating is an adequate substitute for a good life.
Although some two-thirds of Russians currently support Putin, that number could drop precipitously if body bags arrive in Moscow and the stagnant Russian economy creaks under the burden of military adventurism. Wars and occupations are expensive, especially for states with declining reserves of energy-generated easy money. How will Russians react? By happily dying for a dictator or by taking to the streets? How will Russian elites react? By supporting an irrational leader or by jumping ship? Russia’s Führer would do well to remember that the Argentine invasion of the Falklands brought down the military junta in Buenos Aires.