We run the risk of missing critical aspects of Russian policy if we assume that Moscow's continuing invasions of Ukraine are exclusively about Russo-Ukrainian issues. One of the founding fathers of Soviet studies, Adam Ulam, observed back in 1965 that empire was the biggest obstacle to reform in Russian history. That is still the case; the Kremlin's attempts to destroy the foundations of Ukrainian statehood, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are also aimed at Russia's domestic opposition to Putin. It represents the culmination of his campaign to suppress political dissent under a wave of officially imposed quasi-religious nationalism akin to that of the later Tsars and (more recently) to the late Stalin and late Brezhnev periods.
Thus, Moscow's Ukrainian operation has been accompanied by ever-mounting pressure against media and other critics of the regime, and by the suppression of domestic dissent. Indeed, even as Moscow fulminates against supposed neo-Nazis and anti-Semites terrorizing Ukraine, its media regularly publishes articles darkly speculating about the allegedly Jewish origin of Russian dissidents and its officials feel no inhibition about making openly anti-Semitic remarks to their foreign interlocutors. Evidently, Moscow feels that it alone has the right to employ anti-Semitism as a weapon of political warfare.
This, coupled with escalating domestic repression and mounting religious-nationalist chauvinism of the state and official media, evokes the late Stalinist and Brezhnev periods. But what we really see emerging are clear aspects of fascism. Not long ago, the columnist George Will called Putin a little strutting Mussolini. The description fits; although the Russian government remains a patrimonial Muscovite autocracy, symptoms of fascism abound -- and they are multiplying.
It's useful to remember that proto-fascist groups espousing ideas like those of the notorious Alexander Dugin, the moving spirit behind much of the current regime's ideology, had been a feature of the early twentieth century, before the revolution of 1917. Their ideas have survived the twists and turns of Russian history since then.
As in other fascist regimes, we see a manufactured cult of the leader, an alliance with the Church against any dissent, state control over the economy, complete control of the media, and the imposition of a state of siege against all foreign ideas and on foreign policy. Typically, the state seeks to prevent its people from becoming politically active. Instead, as in Vichy France, it trumpets an ideology based on work, family and a state patriotism. In Russia, the latter habitually takes the form of glorifications of empire. While today there is no totalitarian ideology like Marxism-Leninism, there is instead an ideological campaign of state nationalism that resembles that of Mussolini's Italy, Vichy France, Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, and the Colonels' Greece.
But the resemblance does not end there. With the exception of Vichy France (which was a German satellite imposed by war), all of those fascist states were inherently imperialistically minded, and came to power either after or in order to wage imperial wars abroad. Putin's Russia is no different, and like the others it also cannot modernize the economy beyond its present point. Indeed, it has given up trying.
In Russian history, the invocation of the trinity of church, state, and Russian nationalism has historically occurred at precisely those intervals where the state essentially admits that it has nothing to offer anyone and will not reform. Empire thus becomes a surrogate for reform. But empire inevitably means war. As occurred in many other fascist states, these episodes of Russian history have invariably ended in wars that Russia lost, new rulers, major (but ultimately insufficient) reforms, and ultimately the crash of the system. In Ukraine, Putin has wagered the future of his regime on what one Tsarist statesman called "the lure of something erotic on the peripheries." By doing so, he has bet the farm that victory in Ukraine will assure the stability of his state.
The opposite, however, is likely. Putin may have invaded Ukraine to sustain his power and popularity at home, but in fact he has all but ensured the acceleration of the forces that will ultimately torpedo not only his system but Russia as well. This is a course of action without an "off ramp," despite what Western powers may believe. Russia's actions in Ukraine show that Putin can now only move forward to more attacks, threats, and ever intensifying repression that ends in crisis and stagnation.
In this respect, Putin's Russia again resembles its fascist predecessors. By starting this war, Putin has ensured that the fate of those regimes will be his and Russia's, too.
Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
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