As the Trump-Putin meet nears and the media kicks into high gear, many policymakers and experts are trying to assess the summit’s potential for opening a new era in what used to be called “East-West relations.” Will Yalta-scale deals be made? Or will it become yet another occasion for the commentariat to grouse about Russian election meddling, while hashing out what by now amount to more or less technical issues concerning the conflicts in Ukraine or Syria. “You broke your promises many times over,” one side will complain, rejoined by “No we didn’t!”—again and again, until the dessert dishes are cleared away.
Of course, Russia these days isn’t a world-class power, as the Soviet Union sometimes was. Its economy is less than a tenth of that of the United States. Its military can upset the neighbors and even strip them of parts of their lands, but it isn’t capable of projecting might on a global scale. Technologically, it looks like a global outcast, importing 70-95 percent of its hi-tech products, drugs, and mobile devices. Even in terms of domination in commodity markets it was overtaken by the United States in natural gas deliveries in 2009 and is expected to lose its lead over U.S. oil production either this year or next.
And yet, at the same time, Vladimir Putin has succeeded in becoming an icon of the contemporary globoskeptic movement. As his close aide, now dispatched to serve as the head of the Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, famously said in 2014, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” He is the reigning veteran of a new league of statesmen who are obsessed with national sovereignty—defined in practical terms as a leader’s right to do close to whatever he wishes inside his country’s borders. All these leaders believe they are authorized by “the people” to intervene into developments beyond their borders, but only Putin has actually done so by projecting military force abroad. All are skeptical, to put it mildly, of the virtues of democratic accountability. All disparage transnational human rights rhetoric, preferring instead to emphasize “traditional values” and their alleged abandonment by the Western world. And all behave in a rather aggressive, macho style because they feel uncomfortable in an open, free, and predictable social environment governed by rules common to all parties and blessed through internationally recognized procedures. They are all globo-norm busters—and none more so that Putin himself.
Of course, no one would have believed even just a few years ago that the leader of the United States would share in this motley collection of what Lionel Trilling once called “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” But now there is a leader who to all appearances does. And this opens a rare chance for “The Putin Moment,” as I call it, to arise in global politics.
We can describe the Putin Moment as a period characterized by a significant devolution in all the major trends established from the 1990s onward. This devolution has two main characteristics, one societal and the other geopolitical.
The societal or “domestic” element of Putinism consists of four basic assumptions, many of them are deeply rooted not so much in his ideology, but in Russia’s millennial history that made the country an autocratic state par excellence.
First, it puts the interests of the “state” (which differs considerably from the “nation”) above those of individuals. Its symbolic collectivism is manifest in different ways and is used for different purposes, from reinforcing the elusive “sovereignty” of the nation to securing means for self-enrichment, but the rhetoric of fighting for the national interest is a constant. Personal liberties are therefore downplayed, and the sense of a “strong state” prevails. One sees this feature present in Orbán’s Hungary, Erdoğan’s Turkey, as well of course in regimes short of the status of even marquee democracy such as those from Belarus to Egypt.
Second, the main ideological platform for such politics is provided by some version of “conservatism,” but not real conservatism understood in any conceptual manner. The “conservatism” characteristic of the Putin Moment has nothing to do with the ideals of a small state apparatus or greater personal liberties, but rather the opposite: The turn to traditionalism, with its values of masculinity, clericalism, authoritarianism, disbelief in the idea of progress, and the idolization of the corporate nation. The attraction of traditionalism, of course, owes much to the anxieties and insecurities touched off by dramatic and rapid change in the world. Better the flaws of a world we know, in other words, than the dangers of one we can barely imagine.
Third, an obvious distrust for genuine democracy—meaning formal accountability in this context more than how leaders are elected— is inherent to this system. Most of today’s Putinesque authoritarian rulers are accustomed to democratic procedures—so much so, indeed, that most have been quite adept at dismantling democratic institutions in order to turn the electoral process into public referenda serving to legitimate their grip over their society. The Turkish example here is the paradigmatic one, possibly because the Turks have had more practice with real democratic politics than have Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the other East-Central European countries. Democracy in this dispensation becomes a temporal form of self-rule that presumably gives way over time to a kind of “new aristocracy” better described as the repatrimonialization of modern Weberian forms, supported by some mild form of “meritocratic” administration.
Fourth, the adherents of such regimes believe that the biggest problem they face is that the “majority” rightfully possessing the “natural right” to command society is now subjugated to willful “minorities” of one kind or another (ethnic, religious, linguistic, or sexual)). The usurpation of the rights of the legitimate majority forms the basis for both the preferred domestic policies (for example, imposing traditional values and rules on everyone) and international policies (for example, opposing interstate migration and reinforcing national sovereignty by mounting border barriers of one kind or another).
It should by now be very clear that it would be a huge mistake to discount the influence of such a doctrine (or of its constitutive elements) on contemporary Western societies. Even in most nations where one cannot yet see any turn toward traditionalist and authoritarian policies, the influence of ultra-conservative populist forces is growing rapidly. Even current governments, if they manage to survive, will survive by accommodating many of the demands of a traditionalist-nationalist bloc in their evolving political agendas. We have just see an example in the shift in German policies on asylum and refugee policy.
When President Trump repeatedly praises President Putin as a “strong leader” with whom he believes he can establish a close personal rapport, it derives from several similarities between the two men. Both are jealous for their nations’ supposedly endangered sovereignty. Both are very skeptical of broad interpretations of human rights. Both disparage minority claims. Both openly favor traditional cultural and social values, although of course their understandings differ substantively in this case.
So it was no coincidence that the Kremlin celebrated Trump’s victory in November 2016, and that would have been the case irrespective of whether or not Putin ordered the election-related hacking. The reason is plain: His victory marked the arrival of the Putin Moment, the alignment of informal norms around Putin’s particular version of “irritable mental gestures” posing as a coherent set of ideas.
This bring us to the geopolitical elements of the Putin Moment, which are as numerous and diverse as the societal ones—and which will be on exhibit in Helsinki.
First, the narcissism intrinsic to both Presidents Putin and Trump inexorably push them toward one another at a time when both believe their nations are becoming, if not “great again,” then “rising from their knees.” The crucial notion here is both leaders’ sense that their rule is dedicated to a national resurgence, to re-establishing the positions that were earlier (supposedly) lost. This makes them natural allies of instinct, so to speak, and, presumably, common opponents of both newly emerging powers (like China, of which they are very cautious) and post-traditional multilateral institutions (such as, first of all, the European Union, about which both are dismissive). The two might conclude that it would be better if the United States and Russia worked together in building a better world whose respective and respectable constituent elements are Realpolitik abroad and traditional values at home.
Second, neither Trump nor Putin are happy with Europe, which acts too independently and has become a beacon for the multilateral policymaking they disparage so thoroughly. Trump accuses the Europeans of being free-riders—parasites, really, in his mind—when it comes to security issues, and he wants to punish them in a trade war, the objective of which is the abolition of high tariffs on many categories of U.S.-produced goods. Putin, meanwhile, seems tired not so much of European sanctions than of the continuous “restraints” that EU authorities impose on his beloved ventures like natural gas pipelines, and of the endless European criticism of his domestic policies and human rights violations. Even though everyone seems happy that the old Cold War is over and very few express any desire for a new one to break out, many in both Washington and Moscow long for the return of those times when European voices were much less voluble.
Third, one should not underestimate the context and causes of the current estrangement between the West and Russia, the main one being the Russian occupation of Crimea and the still-ongoing war in Ukraine. But Trump has already reportedly opined that the Crimean peninsula should finally be considered Russian, and so proposed to turn the G7 back into the G8. Ever more politicians in Europe oppose the sanctions levied on Russia, believing that their own countries are losing too much money because of them. So Trump may be pushing on a mostly open door here. Moreover, disillusionment with Ukraine is growing, first of all in the United States; Western politicians are beginning to question why the sanctions should stay in place if Ukrainian politics continue to be no less corrupt than Russia’s. The sanctions were in part designed, after all, to buy some time and space for Ukraine to adopt Western recipes for democratic governance and economic liberalization.
All of this helps to build the Putin Moment, the idea that the Russian sail has caught the wind and is pulling ahead of others as global pacesetter. It would therefore be a mistake to think that mere personalities are at play here. After all, there was no prospect of a Putin Moment back in 2001-02, when Putin succeeded in establishing good relationship with George W. Bush. The context is what has changed.
Putin these days represents a significant group of political leaders who reject most globalization trends, call for restoration of traditional values, and praise the nation-state and the principle of sovereignty. These leaders pretend they can save their nations from both economic and societal decay by establishing “strong rule” and pursuing nationalist economic policies. Many do not support Putin personally and some, as in Poland, fear Russia from of old. But that doesn’t change the overall picture: Ever more decisionmakers around the globe act as his admirers and even his disciples. No realist can deny this dismal trend.
Two questions arise from this brief analysis. The first concerns how such a shift of norms and political styles might change Western policies, perhaps irrevocably, and what those changes will mean for what used to be called the Free World. The second one is how stable this shift may be: How long might the Putin Moment stay with us?
Of course, much depends on the results of the Trump-Putin summit, but whatever happens, even if not a lot happens, the summit will change Putin’s perception in the West and beyond. For at least two years he was an outcast, but being seen to resume Cold War-like one-to-one meetings with the U.S. President conducted on “neutral” soil will change all that in a trice. One probable consequences of what we may, with tongue firmly in cheek, call the New Détente will be a growing pressure on Europe.
The rise of Putin’s star will aid those offering unilateralist and protectionist policies. It will stimulate more assertive rhetoric in favor of “traditional values,” which can be a dog whistle for xenophobia and bigotry. And it will dilute attention paid to “peripheral” issues like Ukraine and Syria. In Germany, it will certainly help AfD and the rest of Germany’s Russlandversteher lobby. Gerhard Schroeder may begin to look like a prophet.
The Putin Moment, with its unexpected support from the United States, is in some respects a new edition of nationalism, protectionism, and traditionalism that affects politics throughout the globe and significantly pushes it to the right. It will require great efforts from centrist and especially leftist political forces to regain ground—first of all because they will be forced to rethink many dogmas that might seem evident to the well-to-do and educated elite, but that do not resonate in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The greatest challenge for mainstream Western politics since 1968 is at hand; these forces now look as outdated as their predecessor versions looked 50 years ago.
At the same time, the Putin Moment might turn out to be useful for the West in general, resembling a bit the surge of pro-communist sentiment back in the 1960s and 1970s that proved retrospectively embarrassing to those who fawned over it. Today, to reiterate, Russia cannot be compared to the Soviet Union; everywhere else rising populist regimes preside over ineffective economies, whether those of oil-producing countries or those that try to capitalize on their economic ties with Europe (like Turkey or Hungary). Before very long the Putin Moment will recede before the inevitable Russian economic collapse—inevitably, if we define that as meaning within the next 10-15 years. With the central reputational element of the system in ruins, the rest will swoon as well.
The second reason is that the systems like the one Putin has created are simply unable to recreate and sustain themselves. We have already seen how his “succession operation” failed in 2012 when Putin decided to return to the Kremlin to secure the system he built. Just recently Erdoğan made himself President for five, or rather ten, more years; and even China’s Xi managed to jettison the long-lasting limit for consecutive presidential terms this past March. But all these leaders will age, and the systems they erected will slide into senility with them. Meanwhile, with any luck at all, Western politics will evolve to accept some new realities and to rethink some old arguments.
The traditionalist system Putin has nurtured now for so many years might be somewhat effective in the sense of being amenable to a strongman’s control over it, but not in providing social or economic development. The crucial virtue of such a system is believed to be stability, which is Putin’s favorite word. But graveyards are also stable. When the history of these times are written, it will be clear that the Putin Moment arrived not so much because Putin expedited it, but because the West ventured too far, too fast in overturning traditional values and mistakenly believed that popular attitudes might be transformed as quickly or even in the same direction as those of the elite. The Putin Moment rings true in the same way that a broken clock shows the right time twice a day.
The Putin Moment will be relatively brief, and the main task for responsible Western policymakers consists in innovating policies so that their societies will not once again fall in love with primitive beliefs. This will require a lot of effort; it will put a huge premium on the acumen and abilities of Western political classes. History stops for no one and no nation. Putin and his kindred spirits are trying to stand athwart of its movement, and will fail. Western leaders need to learn how to move faster to keep up with mainly technology-driven social change—but in the right direction. That’s the longer-run reality behind what will happen in Helsinki. That’s the reality you will not read about in the press the next day.