'Putin's brain' an echo of absolute tyrants

'Putin's brain' an echo of absolute tyrants
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These days, the progressive left’s ubiquitous use of the words “fascist” and “imperialist” to describe a multitude of political enemies threatens to render those words meaningless. Yet, for those who retain a fondness for the traditional interpretations of the words, a new exemplar has appeared. That man is Vladislav Surkov, the high-powered confidante of Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Can we do business with Kim Jong Un? Leadership analysis might give clues Russian defense minister: 'We won't do anything' in Europe unless US places missiles there MORE who is widely viewed as the mastermind behind Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

Those reluctant to label Surkov fascist or imperialist would do well to read his latest article in the Feb. 2 edition of Russia’s influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. In it, Surkov — who has been described as “Putin’s brain” — lays out some animating principles behind the doctrine of “Putinism” which help to explain Russia’s current, deeply antagonistic role on the world stage.

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Russia, he writes, has “regained its innate status of a great power: it is growing in size and assembling land inhabited by people linked by a common heritage… This starring role... was assigned to our country by world history” In other words, as Surkov and his boss see it, Russian expansionism and imperial activity — previously seen in parts of the “post-Soviet space” — is a matter of historical destiny. Indeed, back in 2001, Russia’s government passed a law laying the legal groundwork for expanding the Russian Federation, and Moscow’s policies since then in Georgia, Ukraine and other places have followed this template. Such a stance has inevitably propelled the Kremlin into conflict with other states whose sovereignty it violates.

Surkov also sees Russia’s authoritarian, repressive ruling style as worthy of emulation. “It is necessary to comprehend and describe Putin’s system of government as a whole complex of ideas and the dimensions of Putinism as an ideology of the future… It clearly has export potential,” he writes. That’s a radical statement, because it suggests that the Kremlin sees a global appetite for Putin’s established mode of government, in which Russian elites enrich themselves while keeping power through ever-increasing internal repression, and proclaim their right to use force to obtain additional territory at the expense of other sovereign states.

In this calculus, military and political power is paramount. “Constant involvement in the thick of geopolitical struggles requires the exercise of the government’s military-police powers to be most vital and decisive,” Surkov contends. This goes a long way toward explaining why, despite a lackluster economy and meager foreign investment, Russia’s government has prioritized a massive program of military modernization, even as the health and prosperity of its citizens has plummeted. In the same vein, Surkov mocks both the merchant class which has historically “deemed military affairs inferior to trade,” and liberals who “built their philosophy on the denial of anything that has to do with ‘policing.’”

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Nor is there any divorcing Putin from this vision of the state. In a modern day Russian analogue to Louis XIV’s famous statement, “l’etat, c’est moi,” Russia’s president and his cronies are convinced that everything in Russia must be subordinated to the state — and that the state is personified by Putin. Or, as Surkov puts it, “…the various branches of power are linked to the personality of the leader. Jointly or severally they have no value in and of themselves, but only to the extent that they are connected to the leader.”

Surkov sees Putinism “as assuring the survival and the elevation of the Russian nation not just for the next few years, but for decades, and, most likely, centuries to come.’” This means not only expansionism, but also interference in the internal affairs of other nations in a manner far more serious than simply monkeying with elections. Surkov brags that “Russia interferes with (foreign) brains, and they do not know what to do with their own altered consciousness.”

Of course, none of this should be new to those who have read major works on fascism and totalitarianism by scholars such as Hannah Arendt and Herman Rauschning. The echoes of yesterday’s absolute tyrants are present in Surkov’s words — and, indeed, in the fabric of Putin’s unrepresentative, kleptocratic state itself. The sooner Western powers accept this fact, and adjust their policies accordingly, the better.

Herman Pirchner, Jr. is President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, and author of "Post Putin: Succession, Stability, and Russia’s Future," forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.