A century ago, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party began a Russian revolution that toppled its Tsarist regime and shook the world. The Bolsheviks construed their victory as the opening salvo in a global struggle to smash the economic and political power of capitalists everywhere. They organized and controlled an international revolutionary movement by cementing ties with sympathetic political parties and movements in advanced industrialized nations across Europe and the US.
Fast forward a hundred years later and Bolshevik ideology represents a great scourge of 20th century history, associated with a brutal dictatorship that killed millions and damaged the lives of countless others. Moreover, Russia today is a humiliated nation. A devastating military defeat in Afghanistan was followed by the demise of the Soviet Union and the loss of its empire. Equally important, Russia’s economic prospects have been greatly eclipsed over the last forty years by their erstwhile communist comrades in China. To compare Russia and China, say, in 1975 versus today represents an eye-opening humiliation for the Russian nation. As many have noted, Russia is like a mafia state characterized by a corrupt system of crony capitalism while the Chinese economy, firmly integrated with trading partners around the world, has become the second largest in the world.
Putin believes that after the collapse of the Soviet system, the West attempted to exploit their Cold War victory by pushing disastrous political and economic “reforms” that weakened the Russian state and impoverished many of its citizens. In Putin’s view, the West passed up a golden opportunity to partner with the Russian Federation to create a new international political order to pursue a goal of transforming Russia into a Western style liberal democracy. Putin interprets the reform efforts of the 1990’s in much the same way Hitler exploited the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War: as the betrayal of a proud and vanquished nation.
In Putin’s view, Russia’s descent into political and social disarray in the 1990’s expressed a fundamental conflict between the interests Western elites and a strong and resurgent Russian state. In response to the remarkable and terrifying chaos of the Yeltsin years, he sought to reestablish a formidable central authority designed to promote stability and prosperity at home and to project Russian political and military authority abroad.
Putin’s political goal is clear and simple: to reclaim greatness on the world’s political stage. Like many Russian leaders before him, he believes the West wants to surround Russia with hostile governments. So first and foremost, he wants to install friendly regimes in neighboring countries, e.g., that occurred in Moldova and Bulgaria in 2016. This “soft” version of Russia’s empire would reestablish its sphere of influence and prevent further NATO incursion in Eastern Europe.
But Putin has a larger ambition. Still resentful of the West’s attempt to weaken the Russian state after the end of the Cold War, he aspires to challenge the capitalist world order like the Bolsheviks a century ago. But instead of Marxist-Leninist ideology, Putin utilizes nationalist sentiment and traditional religious values to fashion himself as the de facto leader of an international movement to eclipse the power of “globalist” political and economic elites in the West.
Seen in this context, the curious political bromance between Putin and Trump makes more sense. Yes, we do not know about Trump’s business ties to Russian interests. Yes, there are unconfirmed reports about personal information the Russians have on Trump, in a plot twist summoned from the pages of a Cold War potboiler. But focusing on these issues ignores a more compelling truth: Trump represents a dream political partner for Putin. To the extent Trump assails the enduring relevance of NATO and the viability of the EU, and offers withering criticism of Angela Merkel, who now symbolizes the push for more European solidarity, he shakes the pillars of the Western alliance. Suddenly, the ideal of a united Europe and an ironclad relationship between Europe and the U.S. recedes before a rising populist and nationalist tide across the Western world. And Putin appears poised to exploit this trend by cultivating ties with both separatist movements of the far left and nationalist movements of the far right in Europe under the rubric of “anti-globalism”.
It is stunning to see Russia emerge as a force to be reckoned with in Europe and the Middle East and sobering to consider Putin as the preeminent geopolitical thinker on the world stage. As he construes Western political and economic elites as being anti-democratic, they pursue globalization to advance their own interests at the expense of “the people”, an important part of his grand strategy will be to welcome populists like Trump or Le Pen as comrades. In Putin’s eyes, Trump is a fellow traveler. The curious relationship between these leaders goes beyond a consideration of business ties or sordid personal revelations. We have avoided accepting the plain truth: Trump envies Putin’s ability to advance his country’s interests. He fashions himself to be a leader cut from Putin’s populist and nationalist cloth.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano