Putin’s renewed attack on the US
In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a verbal offensive against Western liberalism, claiming that liberal ideology and policies are no longer acceptable to a growing number of countries. In reality, Putin’s assertions are not aimed against any particular ideology, but are a direct attack on American foreign policy and U.S. support for the independence of countries bordering Russia.
Putin is not a conservative or a liberal. He is an anti-democrat and neo-imperialist. Washington remains his major obstacle to elevating Russia’s great power status and restoring its former dominions. By focusing his attacks on liberalism, Putin can claim that his authoritarian regime is legitimate and depict Russia to Western publics as the defender of conservatism. Unfortunately, because most westerners are ignorant about the Russian system, such assertions are often taken at face value.
Russia’s rulers not only repress individual freedoms, but also preside over a social system that most Western conservatives would find alarming, with high levels of abortion, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, drug abuse, crime, corruption and family violence, and low levels of community responsibility, religiosity and church attendance. Russian society was atomized and demoralized by the Communists and is now exploited and manipulated by the Putinists.
To salvage this failing system and his control over Russia, Putin has launched a verbal war on liberal democracy. He claims that President Trump’s election victory was driven by growing disenchantment with exporting liberalism. Allegedly, the American public wants to curtail Washington’s overseas involvement even at the cost of international alliances that help protect U.S. interests. At the core of these Kremlin claims is the notion of liberalism as Russia’s chief enemy.
In its original meaning, liberalism was synonymous with democracy and not with any party or ideology. And it stood in stark contrast to all forms of tyranny. Various political formations have appropriated the term for their own policy objectives. In the U.S., the term liberalism is associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party. In Europe, liberalism is closely linked with proposals for smaller government, competitive capitalism and open borders, and is attacked by both leftists and rightists.
Adding to this confusion, the misleading term “illiberal democracy” has helped various authoritarians to claim that they have an alternative democratic model, which can include “conservative democracy” or “patriotic democracy.” In reality, any qualification of the term “democracy” allows autocrats to pose as democrats. The most pertinent example is Russia’s “managed democracy,” a term developed soon after Putin assumed power in 2000 to disguise his reversal of the country’s embryonic democratic development.
The current threat to European democracy stems primarily from populist radicals, particularly among the hard right. Unfortunately, several European Union officials naively assist them by claiming that the EU should enhance its role as the guardian of the “liberal world order.” Hence, they inadvertently expose themselves to charges of imposing a particular ideology on the nations of Europe rather than defending the fundamentals of democracy. They thereby open the terrain for Putin to exploit.
Putin has jumped into the liberal and globalist debate by attacking Washington for its avowed attempts to create a “unipolar world” and its program of democracy promotion. Moscow’s message is that liberal democracies are only one variant of democracy and that Russia is defending the alternatives against American global domination. Hence, a restricted political opposition, a compliant parliament, subservient regional governments, a controlled media and police repression are presented as Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”
Under several administrations, the U.S. has been helping post-communist states to establish democratic systems. But contrary to Moscow’s propaganda, the U.S. is no position to impose such systems. Direct help for indigenous institutions and parties is scaled down as democracies become self-sustainable. However, Washington’s real goal is not a “democracy mission,” as the Kremlin claims, but to assist countries in gaining and retaining their independence and freely choosing which international organizations they enter. A democratic system is an effective protector of national sovereignty.
And contrary to Kremlin assertions about NATO expansion against Russian interests, the core aim of the North Atlantic alliance is to prevent Europe from falling under the control of a revisionist power such as Putin’s Russia. Failure to protect Europe’s independence could eventually necessitate U.S. military intervention to liberate the continent. Hence, NATO remains vital for American national interests to preclude another destructive European war.
To deflect attention from America’s pro-independence mission to defend Europe from Russia’s neo-imperialism, Moscow has to present this as an imposition of foreign “liberalism.” In actuality, it is not liberalism that threatens Putinism, but either state decentralization or disintegration.
The Soviet Union collapsed because it could not reform and democratize, and the Russian Federation now confronts a similar fate. No wonder Putin has to find external enemies to disguise the failures of his “managed democracy.”
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.”
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.