The Machiavellian Motivations of Vladimir Putin

Publicists around the world are being challenged to explain the Russian attack on Ukraine that began on February 24. Alan Dupont in the Weekend Australian called Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a “seismic geopolitical event”. To date it has cost tens of thousands of casualties and caused millions of civilians to flee, mostly into neighbouring Poland, not to mention the widespread destruction of flourishing Ukrainian towns and cities.

To make any sense of it one needs to be aware of the deeper causes of the present conflict, which has tangled ethnic, religious-ideological and real-political roots. Other conscientious journalists such as Rowan Callick (also in the Weekend Australian), for example, are trying to penetrate the mindset of Russian decision-makers and have established that, like the long-since-discredited Nazis and their so-called folkish dream of world domination by an allegedly superior people, they are motivated by a perceived need to fulfil Slavic “great power” or hegemonic aspirations along similar lines. They were just awaiting an opportunity to move against the much smaller independent nation of Ukraine of 44 million inhabitants. Previous friction over some disputed regions in the Donbas area of Ukraine could have been resolved peaceably. Instead, what has erupted is a heightened version of right-wing Hegelian-Machiavellianism, that is the resort by Moscow to ruthless military action against a weaker neighbouring power.

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At present the information highway is overcrowded by explanations by commentators and analysts from a range of cultural backgrounds and levels of education.    

The justification for my intervention here derives from my training at West German universities from 1961 to 1965 when the Cold War was at its height. My German professors were all men of liberal and Christian conviction, both Roman Catholic and Lutheran. By the mid-1960s most old Nazis had been expelled from the West German education system. My professors were then focused on explaining the “German Catastrophe” and most identified right-wing Hegelianism as the underlying cause. The same thing has now mysteriously re-surfaced in the Russian heartland. This is surprising because the former Soviet Union had been the deadly enemy of National Socialism during the Second World War. For present-day Russia to exhibit a similar militaristic aggression towards a clearly harmless neighbour is puzzling.

So we are faced with the task of trying to understand a phenomenon which has dramatically disproved the thesis advanced in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History. That work celebrated the end of the Cold War and heralded a more politically stable and economically prosperous new world. Events since have proved all that to have been overly optimistic. Indeed, the determining factor in history is not liberal economics but the irrepressible, mysterious and resurgent Volksgeist, the national spirit whipped up by a warlord demagogue. Vladimir Putin has launched a resurgent Russia on a seemingly inexplicable campaign for massive territorial expansion. The world is thus challenged to unravel and understand the Russian President’s motives.

That is the problem stated. How does one begin to make sense of it? We Australians, as heirs to the Westminster system, the rule of law, inalienable human rights, freedom of conscience and parliamentary democracy, struggle to grapple with an ultimately alien and dangerous alternative ideology of the nation-state that negates all these values that we consider to be essential for the maintenance of civil society.

First, it must be acknowledged that our Western civilisation is characterised by two irreconcilable elements. One is the ideal of cosmopolitanism, meaning that enlightened peoples acknowledge a transnational common humanity based on a notion of the brotherhood of man with all nations living in peace together. It is an ideal that has its roots at least for Christian nations that go back to St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, in which there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

The other element, in stark contrast to this ideal, is Machiavellianism. This was endorsed by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831), who was convinced that it was the will of God that nation-states are locked in a perennial struggle for hegemony out of which one Great Power must arise and impose its culture on all surrounding states by armed force if required. Thereby Hegel sanctified Machiavellianism as the driving force of Kultur. His purpose was to align Prussian Realpolitik with the will of God. Not surprisingly, then, this worldview became paradigmatic for virtually all German historians, philosophers and theologians, who began developing these ideas especially in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Bonaparte sought to establish French hegemony over Europe first by force of arms and then through a binding legal system. The writings of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), who initially welcomed the figure of Napoleon, issued into an eloquent appeal for all Germanic states to unite. The pro-Prussian works of Hegel then appeared and were eventually endorsed by most German advocates of national unity under the Prussian aegis, since it was the most powerful military principality heralding the “Prussian Solution to the German Question”.

When Prussia under the chancellorship of Otto von Bismarck from 1862 actually realised the unification of Germany after three spectacularly successful wars culminating with the defeat of France in 1870, it appeared to all the scholarly advocates of Prussian hegemony to be an intervention from Almighty God Himself, sanctifying the success of Prussian Realpolitik, the politics of realism, meaning that the strongest power has a right to enforce its will over weaker states, disregarding all moral restraints. In short, it meant that the political will of the strongest state had an automatic obligation to implement its ambitions at the cost of surrounding weaker states. And this became an article of Prusso-German faith, both religious and political. God was never a God of peace in this fallen world but a warrior God; the God of peace would of course eventually come to reign but only in the world to come. Peace advocates in the West understandably bridled at this assertion. It did, however, find ready adherents among the educated classes in the new unified Germany of 1871 through to 1914 and further until the end of Hitler’s Third Reich in 1945.

After the end of the Second World War Germany was occupied by the victorious powers and split into zones. In popular parlance, West Germany was called Trizonia because the British occupied the north and the Rhine land, the Americans the southern states, while the French had control of the Saarland on the southern reaches of the Rhine. In the East the Soviets had occupied the territory across the Oder-Neisse line to the Polish and the Czech borders. So communist rule in East Germany was established and lasted for almost forty-five years. With twenty Russian divisions in occupation it was intended to be the springboard for Soviet expansion westward and became the troublesome nucleus of the ensuing Cold War.

Then, at the end of 1989, the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (re-structuring) instigated by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, heralded the so-called implosion of the communist East European empire. Gorbachev was a distinctly new face in the Politburo who had been nominated to office in March 1985, a post he retained until his resignation on December 25, 1991. The hope at that time was that the former member provinces of the Soviet Union would orient themselves to the West and for a time that seemed to be happening. Regrettably, however, the paradigm change to a Western style of government that had been initiated under glasnost and perestroika and which resulted in free elections to a Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR in 1990 was destined to be undermined. Why? Mainly because of the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, who heralded a quirkish reversal of that paradigm change.

This has been attributed to the Russian nationalist movement led by Aleksandr Dugin (born in 1960), who is a highly influential conservative (read: fascist) and who exerts a crucial influence on Vladimir Putin via his nationalistic publications and membership in right-wing pressure groups. Interestingly, the evidence suggests strongly that Dugin’s ideological peculiarities have been derived from a long tradition of German nationalist ideologues which has been described by such scholars as Friedrich Meinecke and Ernst Troeltsch. It is out of this tradition that extreme right-wing advocates of German anti-liberal, anti-Semitic and anti-democratic publicists emerged. In short, the stream of German intellectuals who repudiated the heritage of the Western Enlightenment celebrated the triumphant Nazi movement after the First World War as the affirmation of the true German spirit which, as Thomas Mann in 1918 eloquently phrased it, was emphatically anti-Western.

Foremost among a chorus of intellectuals who endorsed National Socialism were such luminaries as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. These articulate anti-Western ideologues are only thinkable because of their endorsement of right-wing Hegelianism. Thereby the idea of the Machtstaat, the power state, was endorsed, strictly rejecting all the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity, the ideas of 1789. Instead the German ideal was formulated as Pflicht, Ordnung und Gerechtigkeit: duty, order and justice. And here the German idea of justice meant the imposition of German ideas and culture on decadent rival states.

These ideas were widely held in the aristocracy, which included the military elite as well as the educated bourgeoisie and industrial-commercial classes and formed the basis for the above-mentioned apologists for National Socialism during the 1920s.

What must be explained is why a present-day Russian intellectual would draw on these ideas to endorse a policy of ruthless expansion of an already enormous empire. Having studied Eastern European history under a Russian specialist, Karl-Heinz Ruffmann at the University of Erlangen, I offer the following modest explanation.

Through this genial scholar I learned for the first time something of the social, political and intellectual history of Russia and of its peculiar Sendungsbewusstsein, that is, sense of mission to fulfil a unique historic role in establishing the predominance of Russian culture over the surrounding states. It was a Slavophil ideology that began to crystallise in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the so-called Narodnik movement. Narodnik means “going back to the people” so it has democratic connotations, but it is above all focused on the preservation and extension of Slavic cultural influence. As such it is perceptible in the Bolshevik movement under Vladimir Ilych Lenin and subsequently Josef Stalin until it seemed to have been relegated to the past by Mikhail Gorbachev.

What we see now is a resurgence of Slavophil-ism intellectually reinforced by the “blood and soil” ideology derived from the Nazi apologists Heidegger and Schmitt. This has been documented in assessments of Aleksandr Dugin. The admiration of an ideology that led Adolf Hitler to embark on the fateful crusade against Soviet communism and to treat Russians as Untermenschen suggests that a peculiar syncretism is operating in Dugin’s mind. He has welded his undoubted Slavophil inspiration to what can be justifiably designated as a mutation of “blood and soil” ideology. The total reversal of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika attempts at international reconciliation, which were essentially pro-Western, could not be more emphatically demonstrated.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine can only be explained by his endorsement of Dugin’s revived Slavophilism that has been re-functioned to use Machiavellian violence to enforce Russian will. Putin has justified his action by pointing to Ukraine’s violation of the Minsk agreements and the killing of Russians in the Donbas region as sufficiently legitimate grounds for annexing Ukraine back to Russia. None of this has convinced world opinion that Putin has acted honourably.

The Russian power elite has implemented Machiavellian violence against a peaceable neighbour. They have disregarded the cosmopolitan initiative of Mikhail Gorbatchev and embraced a form of folkish nationalism which has been an element in Russian society for centuries. The appeal to an authoritarian past is loud and clear. In short, while the Germans have successfully integrated themselves into the West by repudiating the “dreams and delusions” (Fritz Stern) of the Nazi paradigm and endorsing cosmopolitanism, the Russian power elite has chosen the Machiavellian path to great power self-realisation.

What remains enigmatic is the role of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. The patriarchs and bishops seem to endorse the Putin agenda, thus paradoxically sanctifying violence against other peoples in the name of a supposed divine Russian mission to save the world. Finally, one may confidently observe, such folkish versions of the history of salvation are bound to encounter the cosmopolitan resolve of the West to resist. For reasons outlined above, a re-run of the European scenario of September 1939 with variations has become a dread possibility.

Dr John Moses is Professorial Associate of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra. He wrote on “The Fallacy of Presentism in History” in the January-February issue

7 thoughts on “The Machiavellian Motivations of Vladimir Putin

  • pgang says:

    Or we could just look at the political events leading up to the war. No, much better to invent esoteric sociological theories.
    Peter Smith you must be getting bored with being proven correct.

  • rod.stuart says:

    I prefer Tucker Carlson’s explanation.
    The Washington Neocons are exacting punishment on Russia for the loss of Hillary’s coronation.

  • rosross says:

    There seems to be an inability to understand that while Russia is not a Western democracy, neither is it the Soviet Union or a Communist State.

    The demonisation of Putin seems a childish approach to a highly complex issue where the historical facts make it very clear that this is a war ‘made in the USA.’

    I fail to understand why or how anyone can ignore the decades of creeping aggression toward the Russian borders by the US/Nato. The Americans would never tolerate Chinese or Russian missile launchers on their border so why would the Russians tolerate American/Nato missile launchers on their border? Sometimes it is wise to pick up and wield Ockham’s Razor and accept the simplest answer, and indeed the one the Russians have reiterated over decades, is likely to be the correct one.

    While it is also conjecture to believe that the Americans wanted this war as part of a plan to weaken or destroy Russia, that theory remains far more plausible than any of the theories posited above.

  • John Michelmore says:

    At every turn the US prod the bear and wish to extend the hostilities. I agree with rosross, many think they are experts on Russia; however there are many facets to this mess and I’m convinced we are fed one side of the story, and this relates to our allies wishes, not the facts.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Possibly John, but I doubt it. I think it’s more likely Russia is trying to stop the existing trouble, and potential trouble on it’s Ukraine border, by taking back their only year long ice free base port in the Black Sea Black for their fleet in the Crimea, where I think the people have always been Russian speakers and support the other Russian speaking eastern part of Ukraine, where I read they were very much welcomed and maintaining a corridor between them. Then leave the rest of Ukraine to the Ukrainians…….. with no Nato in it .

  • STD says:

    Nexus instituut debate between the adversaries Alexandr Dugin and Bernard Henry Levy.
    Interestingly Alexandr Dugin prefers the battle of ideas to the physical war. Dugin’s reasoning lacks intellectual rigour which I presume, is why they resort to violence as the voice of their reasoning.
    In my opinion Alexandr Dugin is devoid of any humour and therefore lacks warmth of character- individual character that is. Whereas Bernard Henry Levy has all the the character that individuality endowed by freedom can compose and muster.
    This sophisticated Europeanised elegance shines through the prism and ever so eloquent dulcet tone, of what can only be described as that beautiful resonance that is embedded in every French accent.

  • Claude James says:

    Well anyway, anyone seeking to understand what Russia is doing to Ukraine would be well served by studying the realities of Russia’s geography, including its economic and other resource assets which include its fast-reducing population-
    -and set the understanding of all that alongside the historical effect on Russian thinking of Russia’s having been invaded from the West many times over the past eight centuries.
    And add in the fact that Russian leaders view that the leaders of the USA, the UK, Germany and France are both extremely naive and extremely capable and willing to line their own pockets while pretending to be champions of “humanitarian causes”.

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