A Damning Critique of Putinism and Russian Foreign Policy by Feng Yujun and Wen Longjie
"In analysing Russia's conservative values, it is important to note that in addition to its instrumental pragmatism, there is also a deep-rooted messianic consciousness in its philosophy and culture."
China and Russia’s “no limits” partnership, Xi calling Putin his “best friend” and Chinese media regularly parroting Russian propaganda make it sometimes difficult to keep in mind that Sino-Russian relations have almost always been marked by a certain amount of mutual distrust. Today’s piece is co-authored by one of China’s most outspoken critics of Russia, Feng Yujun (冯玉军), and is a useful reminder that both sympathisers and sceptics of Russia most likely coexist within the opaque confines of Zhongnanhai.
I am surprised that Feng and his co-author Wen Longjie’s particularly overt discrediting of Putinism, Russian propaganda and Moscow’s foreign policy was actually allowed to be published. Not least because it can read, at times, as an implicit criticism of some of Beijing’s own policies as you will see.
Today’s excerpts were translated thanks to the generous help of Daniel Crain.
Russia believes in the superiority of its culture and is on a Messianic mission to spread its conservative values to the rest of the world.
Its turn towards conservatism was both a reaction against neoliberalism and a result of its failure to Westernise.
Conservatism under Putin and the values it supposedly upholds have no solid foundations and are more akin to a “discursive bubble” and an “empty shell”.
Russian conservatism is merely a tool for Moscow to advance its own political interests and gain support for its policies both domestically and abroad.
Moscow is also encouraging the current political polarisation of Western societies and using its status as a flag-bearer of conservatism to gain a following of sympathisers and apologists across the world.
The “imperial logic” underlying its invasion of Ukraine and its ambition to recover lost Russian territories is not only alarming but has also shattered its long-advocated principle of the primacy of state sovereignty.
If Putin and Russia do indeed seek to overturn the current US-led international order, then it should at least have a credible alternative to offer instead, but it does not.
Worse, its economy, politics and society are beset with problems that have yet to be resolved. Russia has no viable development model to offer.
The war in Ukraine has damaged Russia’s global image, undermined the appeal of its Messianic conservatism and is weakening its economic and political influence in the world.
Name: Feng Yujun (冯玉军)
Position: Director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies and deputy director of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University
Formerly: China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations from 1994 to 2016. CICIR is an influential think tank linked to China’s Ministry of State Security.
Research focus: Russia and international relations
Education: BA Hebei University (1991), MA Jilin University (1994), PhD China Foreign Affairs University (2001)
Experience abroad: Two years in Russia and one year in Japan
Name: Wen Longjie (文龙杰)
Position: Postdoctoral researcher at Fudan Development Institute, Fudan University; Chief Kazakhstan correspondent, China News Service
Research focus: Russia and Eurasia
Education: PhD University of CASS (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)
RUSSIA'S CONSERVATIVE VALUES-BASED DIPLOMACY: A CRITIQUE
Feng Yujun and Wen Longjie
“Contemporary Russia has inherited a tradition of values-based diplomacy from its history. Over the past 20 years of Putin's rule, conservative ideas have gradually become the 'spiritual core' of Russian diplomacy. Led by conservatism, Russia has used political, cultural, religious, ethnic, identity and other tools related to values to achieve international support for its domestic and foreign policies among [fellow] opponents of neoliberalism. [By doing so, it has] exacerbated the antagonism and division between neoliberalism and conservatism on a global scale. But as time went on and Russia's foreign policy became increasingly radical, its conservative values began to provoke skepticism and backlash, leading to the subsequent deterioration of Russia’s international environment.”
2. The Development of Conservatism under Putin
“From '[Putin’s] New Russian Thinking [俄罗斯新思想]' to [Russia’s] ‘Managed Democracy [可控民主]' and 'Sovereign Democracy [主权民主]', despite various differences in formulation and emphasis, the core elements [of these ideas] are the same: nationalism in pursuit of great power status, traditionalism based on [Russian] Orthodoxy, and ‘anti-Westernism’ in opposition to the US and Europe.”
“Patriotism [in Russia] prevailed in the form of anti-Westernism and nationalism. For instance, the opposition was denounced as ‘Western lackeys’ [literally, the Chinese expression is Western running dogs – 西方走狗].”
“Later, with the introduction of 'Putinism,' Russian conservatism began exploring a model of civilisational development. While the concept of 'Sovereign Democracy' focuses on the Russian adaptation of democracy, ‘Putinism’ moves from the institutional level to the civilisational level with the ideas and models that have informed Russia's survival and development for over 1,000 years.”
“At the end of 2013, in his presidential State of the Nation address, Putin quoted the Russian philosopher [Nikolai] Berdyaev, saying that ‘conservatism is not a movement to stop progress and upward movement, but a force to prevent regression and downward movement,’ emphasising that Russian conservatism is both based on historical traditions and oriented towards future development, and that it is ‘a rational combination of tradition and innovation’ [Putin, citing Berdyaev, original source].”
“However, in reality, Russia’s conservative turn is in part a pendulum that has had to swing back towards traditional culture after unsuccessful attempts at Westernisation. It is also a repudiation of Western neoliberalism through the construction of an oppositional 'chaos-stability' narrative that seeks to legitimise a return to tradition. This demonstrates that Russian conservatism lacks an endogenous and well-defined political core. It is more of a position statement, a discursive bubble [话语泡沫] and an empty shell of values. This is particularly evident in Russia's conservative values-based diplomacy.”
3. Preaching Russia’s Conservative Values to the World
“As the centre of international conservative forces, Russia has actively used these values to rally both international anti-Western forces and conservative forces within the West to achieve its diplomatic goals. In its recent practice of diplomacy, Russia has made full use of conservative ideas and has embraced politics, culture, religion, ethnicity, and identity politics as tools to gain wider international support for its domestic and foreign policies.”
“Russia has constructed a conservative value system that blames neoliberalism for plunging the West into ‘decadence' [‘颓废’] by destroying the natural order of religious beliefs, family ethics, traditional morality and gender differences. Russia opposes same-sex marriage and 'non-traditional' families, defends 'traditional' families consisting of a man and woman, bans homosexual propaganda, and classifies Russian citizens involved in protecting the rights of sexual minorities (LGBTQ) as 'foreign agents'. In 2013, the Russian government also passed a federal law ‘aimed at protecting children from the influence of non-traditional family values,’ which prohibits foreign same-sex couples from adopting Russian children.”
“Russia’s presenting itself as a saviour and preaching to the West about its traditional value system is best exemplified by its defence of the traditional concept of the sovereign nation-state. Russian conservatism argues that after the end of the Cold War, the United States created a new type of hegemony based on the Washington Consensus and neoliberalism while presenting itself as the one who [had achieved] the ‘end of history’ [quoting Fukuyama]. Within the framework of this neoliberal narrative, traditional borders and national sovereignty are eliminated in order to achieve the free movement of people, goods, labour and capital, [thus] establishing a direct link between the world and the individual. It is this debasement and deconstruction of national subjectivity that gives rise to arguments favouring the primacy of human rights over sovereignty. This poses a serious challenge to the traditional idea of statehood and to the international order of sovereign states.”
“The discourse that Russia has constructed ultimately concludes that 'the capitalist model which currently underpins the social structure of most countries has run its course and is unable to serve increasingly complex contradictions’ [quoting Putin, source].”
“In analysing Russia's conservative values, it is important to note that in addition to its instrumental pragmatism, there is also a deep-rooted messianic consciousness in its philosophy and culture. Messianic consciousness, with its connotations of 'God's chosen people’ and a ‘mission of salvation’, stems from Russia’s [claimed] spiritual position as the authentic heir of Christianity [see Engström (2014) and Siljak (2016) for deeper discussions on ‘Russian Messianism.’].”
“In this sense, Russia believes in the morality, nobility [崇高性] and superiority of its own cultural thought. From this, it derives its legitimacy in, and potential for, saving all of humanity. Thus, in its involvement in European affairs, Russia often refers to its special mission to protect and revive European civilisation. [It also] emphasises that the colonisation of Central Asian countries in recent times has brought modernity to these countries.”
“Current Russian thinking on the fate of all humanity is a new variant of its messianic consciousness. Of course, the focus of this discourse is still Europe. [Furthermore,] the essence of Russian thinking about the world is still its ‘civilisational mission’ to save Christianity along with [a vision of] Russia as 'the last white world' [quoting Conley & Ruy, 2021].”
4. Using Russian Conservatism to Advance Moscow’s Interests
“Conservatism and liberalism have always gone hand in hand [相伴相随]. In the 1990s with globalisation in full swing, neoliberalism was on the march … [However,] the influence of far-right political forces is [now] spreading in a considerable number of European countries … Russia is keenly aware of the rift in values within the West and concludes that there will be an increasingly sharp worldwide confrontation between liberalism and conservatism … Under these circumstances, Russia has achieved two things by pursuing [its] conservative values-based diplomacy:
First, it has created a certain amount of space for Russia to pursue its foreign policy by fostering confrontation or exploiting existing rifts [间隙] to exacerbate divisions in Western society.”
“In recent years, there has been serious political polarisation in the United States, with the intensification of party struggles and social divisions. [There has been] a sharp confrontation between multiculturalism and conservatism, between secular rationality and traditional religions, and between ‘political correctness’ and ‘anti-political correctness’. The Democratic Party has pursued the development of secular rationality, multiculturalism within a liberal framework, and emphasises 'political correctness' based on respect for individual rights. [Meanwhile,] the Republican Party advocates a return to traditional Protestant values, venerates conservatism and urges a rethink of 'political correctness.' Russia's aggressive propaganda via the global distribution network it created has exacerbated the divide and antagonism between the two [parties], polarising the US's domestic political ecology even further and strengthening the influence of conservatism for a time.”
“The political landscape in France has also been influenced by Russia, which made no secret of its support for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing Rassemblement National (National Rally) in the run-up to the 2017 French elections … Despite her defeats in the 2017 and 2022 elections, Le Pen's popularity has been rising. Given Le Pen's widespread support, good relations with her have provided Moscow with a powerful lever [有力支撑] to influence the French political landscape. This has provided Putin with an important bargaining chip in his discussions with Macron … Pro-Russian sentiment among the French public is also becoming increasingly noticeable. Studies have pointed to a clear 'pro-Kremlin bias’ among some French people and believe that this friendliness towards Moscow has two sources. First, pro-Russia sentiment dates back to the Franco-Russian alliance, when admirers in France were already internalising Russian Slavic rhetoric. The political structures of France and Russia are [also] similar. Both Jacobin centralist and anti-liberal tendencies have traditionally found a market in France among both left- and right-wing parties. The second source is French 'anti-Americanism', which was influenced by both post-war communist propaganda and negative historical memories of dealings with the Anglo-Saxons.”
“Second, Russia has gained the status of flag bearer of the conservative doctrine, using some of the European right’s political standpoints (questioning democratic politics, rethinking the primacy of human rights, opposing the reception of migrants) and beliefs (e.g. nationalism, traditional Christian values, opposing abortion) in order to connect with 'fellow travellers' [同路人] and 'sympathisers' and groom them to become Russia’s spokesmen and apologists within Europe … Russia's conservative narrative of national sovereignty has helped it gain considerable understanding and support in its confrontation with the EU and NATO. Some right-wing nationalist forces in Europe openly supported Russia's policy during the 2014 Ukraine crisis and even made high-profile visits to Crimea. Right-wing political forces in France have almost 'copied' the Russian narrative on Ukraine, arguing that it is a pawn used by the US, that without it Russia would be unable to deal with US hegemony and that 'Putin has to respond to such provocation, which was not the first of its kind’ [quoting Jean-Bernard Pinatel].”
5. The Limitations of Russia's Conservative Values-based Diplomacy
“For over two hundred years, from Orthodox messianism [东正教救世主义], pan-Slavism and Orthodoxy [正统主义] to proletarian internationalism, 'the socialist family' [社会主义大家庭] and world revolution, value-laden slogans have been an important tool in Tsarist Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. Contemporary Russia has inherited this tradition of values-based diplomacy, which has led to some approval of its domestic development path and foreign policies among certain groups of people. [This has] afforded it a certain degree of theoretical legitimacy and practical support for its diplomatic actions such as those directed against the West, the deployment of troops to Syria, the integration of the post-Soviet space and the use of troops against Ukraine. At the same time, however, Russia's conservative values-based diplomacy has its limitations.”
“At the heart of contemporary Russia’s values-based diplomacy is a conservatism that aims to oppose and replace neoliberalism. But Russian conservatism is not exactly the same as conservatism in the traditional sense. It is therefore crucial to clarify the theoretical origins and [unique] dynamics of Russian conservatism. If Russian conservatism were to be seen as a complete opposite or philosophical antithesis to neoliberalism, it would run the risk of becoming a diplomatic tool whose theoretical construction of the world, the state, individual morality and institutions could easily be reduced to a 'philosophy' tailor-made for the benefit of the country in question [i.e. for the benefit of Russia]. In other words, one has to question whether under the discursive bubble of Russia’s conservative theories, undertones of opportunism and instrumentalism may be hidden. In fact, this dichotomy is already present in Russian domestic politics. [Vladislav] Surkov himself, [a figure] at the helm of Russian ideology, has written novels and rock lyrics satirising current corruption [in Russia] while championing his country’s existing [political] system. He has [also] supported ultra-nationalism while meeting with representatives of human rights organisations. This has left the opposition suspicious and confused. Putin even defines Russian identity as a distinct type of civilisation, though not one based on Russian ethnicity, but rather on a Russian culture that has been operating in a multi-ethnic environment for a thousand years and is geographically open (or [we could] even say, borderless).”
“During a meeting with young entrepreneurs in Moscow on 9 September , Putin compared the situation in Russia today to that under Peter the Great. Speaking of Peter I's war in the North at the beginning of the 18th century, when he founded the new Russian Empire, he said: 'You may think that he was taking over Swedish lands', 'but he didn't seize anything; he [simply] took back the places in which Slavs had been living for centuries.’ 'The task of restoring and strengthening national sovereignty and traditional territories now falls to us as well’ [quoting Putin, source].”
“The imperial logic underlying both the rejection of Ukraine as a national entity and the overt claim to restore [Russia’s] traditional territories is alarming. It is clear that this conception of 'cultural boundaries instead of actual sovereign boundaries' runs counter to [Russia’s] high-profile declarations of respect for state sovereignty and is in essence no different from the West’s [belief in] ‘the primacy of human rights over sovereignty'. As a result, Moscow has not only lost the moral high ground to criticise Western neoliberalism on such issues but it has also effectively destroyed the ‘primacy of sovereignty’ principle it advocates. This has revealed a massive gap between its values-based propaganda and its actual policies.”
“Russian diplomacy has long been closely tied to its domestic affairs. [Its] values-based diplomacy is no exception. With [Russia’s] official endorsement and promotion of conservatism, the influence of [this doctrine] in Russia has grown dramatically. But [certain] side effects have also begun to emerge [such as] the ethnic and religious majority becoming much less tolerant of other religions and ethnicities.”
“If Putin's use of conservatism as a weapon to criticise neoliberalism hits the latter where it hurts, then the question of how to build a new order that is better than the old one after tearing it down becomes one that Moscow must answer. But this places demands on Russia's own development, If Russia’s current state of political, economic and social development cannot provide realistic support for the system it advocates, then its appeal will undoubtedly be greatly diminished. At the same time, there is no shortage of far-right forces among the sympathisers and ‘fellow travellers’ of Russian conservatism. How to address their particularly high expectations of Russian conservatism is another major issue.”
“The return of Russian conservatism is a reaction to the tragic consequences of various types of revolutions in history and the post-Cold War chaos caused by the proliferation of Western liberalism. [Russia’s conservatism] was once widely echoed at the international level and, to some extent, enhanced, expanded and strengthened its global political influence. But this ‘prescription’ [药方] for Russian conservatism has not brought about the 'positive' results that Moscow has been touting. At the economic level, the 'deindustrialisation' that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been effectively halted. Russia is in fact lagging behind in the 'fourth industrial revolution' and faces the double challenge of combating climate change and promoting the [renewable] energy transition. At the political and social levels, the trend towards centralisation of state power has been intensifying since 2003, but the efficiency of governance has not improved. Corruption among the powerful has continued unabated. The political participation of the population and vitality of [Russian] society have continued to decline. The situation regarding human capital [in Russia] has continued to deteriorate and there has been an exodus of knowledge, wealth and elites [out of the country].”
“In addition, Russia’s conservative values-based diplomacy lacks logical consistency between words and deeds. As the radicalisation of Russia's international conduct has become more prominent, particularly since 2008 when a series of Russian military actions in the Eurasian space challenged the established international order, its conservative values-based diplomacy has provoked increasing suspicion and backlash internationally. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has discredited Russia's conservative propaganda about the 'primacy of sovereignty' [主权至上] and has significantly damaged Russia's international image. [As a result,] its international environment will also deteriorate and its influence in the world economy and international political system will shrink accordingly.”