Russia has weaponized ideas of Samuel Huntington
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I was a teenager when I first read Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article The Clash of Civilizations? It impressed me very much. Huntington pictured cultural or “civilizational” identity as the main source of alignment and conflict in international politics. His arguments were powerful, eloquent, and, as it appeared to me at the time, supported by evidence. It took some years for the spell to wear off.

Huntington’s concept is a powerful one, and the war that the jihadist movement is presently waging against the West provides it with additional ammunition. After Putin came to power, Russia weaponized Huntington’s ideas in order to exert the kind of influence in the West it hadn’t possessed since the 1980s, and to justify Putin’s regime in the eyes of the foreign audience despite its aggressive foreign policy and authoritarianism. 
With Russia’s activities beyond its borders further escalating in the last three years, its employment of the “civilizational” arguments for propaganda purposes has increased as well. Russians do not attempt using these arguments to claim that Russia is good, because that would be too unconvincing. But they do claim that everyone else is worse enemy of the West than themselves. Especially Islam.

Russians usually don’t make direct references to Huntington. But they use the notion of civilizational conflict extensively. Knowledge of the Russian language enabled me to observe this discourse since the early 2000s. The arguments employed by Russia’s information warriors today are the same that were used 15 years ago: Islam is the enemy; the decadent West is doomed and on its way to be replaced by the Muslims, just like the Roman civilization was replaced by the barbarians; modern democracy cannot deal with these challenges; the Western political elites have betrayed their populations, dooming them to be destroyed. All these and many other similar messages were propagated by Russia long before their recent flourishing in Europe and America.

Of course, this line of information warfare would be toothless if some very real issues did not exist. Things like high crime rates among the migrants in Europe and terrorism are facts of life, as well as apparent inadequacy of the European political elites in dealing with these problems. The Russian recipe for propaganda is to mix truth with lies and misinterpretations. The resulting cocktail is used to demoralize and disorientate the targeted societies, and gain soft power in support of Kremlin’s policies.

In the case of the “civilizational” discourse of the Russian information war, there are two main purposes. The more general one is to ennoble Russia’s international role. In terms of interstate politics, Putin’s Russia is clearly a rogue. However, if one views the world events through the prism of civilizational conflict, Russia suddenly stops being the primary antagonist, with Islam taking its place. Moreover, from such a viewpoint Moscow can be perceived as an ally. The reasoning that Russians seek to engender in both America and Europe is something along the lines of “so what if Russians swallow their neighbors, we still need them on our side for the fight that really matters”.

Russia’s other purpose is subversion and exertion of influence abroad through ideology. Since the Bolshevik coup d’état in the fall of 1917, Russians had relied on ideology as a vital instrument of foreign policy. They lost such capability as a result of the fall of communism. Apparently, they missed this resource so much that they decided to replace communism with something else. This time it’s the far-right chauvinism, accompanied by suspicion towards modern democracy and the existing world order in general. 

One element of this endeavor is the ideological propaganda conducted in the Russian language. It targets both Russian-speaking residents of the America and Europe, and Russia’s former colonies. 

Perhaps more important is another component of the effort – connection with and support of the far-right parties and organizations all over the West. Of course, Russians also continue to use their older connections with the far-left groups, such as the German Die Linke party, but their primary focus is now on the far-right. In some cases it even takes the form of direct financial help, as it is in the case of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Moscow is installing itself as the chief ally of the far-right against both Islam, and, crucially, political establishment of the Western nations. 
Kremlin seeks at least to disrupt Western democracies and weaken the politicians who are willing to resist Russia’s attempt at re-expansion. If, however, some far-right players managed to go beyond this agenda and actually take control over a country or two, that would suit Moscow’s purposes to even greater extent.

In truth, Putin’s regime is not based on any ideology. It is a classical kleptocracy. Distorted elements of the Huntingtonian worldview are used pragmatically to exploit the West’s malaise and connect with the Western anti-establishment forces in the hope that they will prevent effective Western resistance to Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions. Russia lays down the smokescreen of the clash of civilizations to cover its project of empire-building.

David Batashvili (@DavidBatashvili) worked as an analyst for the National Security Council of Georgia in 2008-2013.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.