The Russian president is presenting himself on the world stage as the father of conservative values, an ideal that doesn’t just appeal to his electorate but perhaps other world powers, too.
In the mid-19th Century, two intellectual and philosophical movements, the Westernisers and the Slavophiles emerged in Russian society. While the former insisted on the need to follow the footsteps of trending Western liberal values, the latter advocated Russia’s traditional way of development, idealised the Russian nation’s patriarchal nature and the principle of conservative romanticism.
In Russia today, these historical discussions are still relevant and generate intense debates on what it really means to be a ‘true’ Russian, in identity and ideology. In that regard, the person spearheading this debate the most is none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The irony of Putin’s argument to confirm the principles of the Russian identity is based on the following: he uses multilateral summits – a concept capitalised solely by the liberal order – to debate his conservative agenda.
His statements constantly assert that the so-called ‘liberal’ idea has become ‘obsolete’ and ‘outlived its purpose’. Such remarks also come at a great time for the Russian president. It showcases how the liberal ideology tends to become divorced over time from the main interests of the people.
Such assertions however, embody another calculation. By constantly arguing that liberalism is ‘dead’, Putin’s motives are aimed at carving a leadership role over the international, something that is gaining traction.
Therefore, it becomes important to understand that while Putin pursues this rhetoric, what are the reasons behind for a mutual acceptance among his citizenry? In other words, is Putin actually right?
It comes as no surprise that his remarks are correlated with the rise of popular politics and right-wing nationalism in the West. As the far-right sentiment in Western society gains dominance, the contest against the left, and the idea of liberal moral superiority underscored over the past century – by the West itself – has begun to wane or at the very least be contested.
Moscow’s stance on the immigrant policies in the West are a case in point. While German Chancellor Angela Markel’s ‘liberal’ immigration policies were described by Putin as a ‘major mistake and chaos’ in the history of the Westphalian system, US President Donald Trump’s crackdown on the flow of migrants from Mexico was praised as a ‘successful’ measure.
Recent opinion polls conducted by the Levads Center have highlighted that most Russians embrace conservative values. Knowing how Russians position their country, this comes as an advantage for Putin.
Even in the past, Russia’s post-Cold War leaders were never keen to take the principles dictated by the West on how a country should be governed. Instead, they always focused on Russia’s distinctive character due to its military and nuclear arsenal.
Another ideological posture that Putin reiterates is the patriarchal relationship between Church and State, continuously highlighting their relation to the glorious imperial past.
This can also be observed as the president continuously highlights the meaning of ‘morality’ and ‘spirituality’ in society through his speeches.
Conditioning religion with Russia is also in alignment with the polarisation of European public opinion over LGBT issues, where the Kremlin has decided not to use moral language when discussing instead it has chosen to emphasise its status as a saviour of Christian values.
The Kremlin believes in the traditional family system; emphasis on having children as a basis for individual life but also for the country’s demographic health. With such goals, Putin has mobilised followers around a vision for a unified strong Russia rooted in its own civilisation.
Putin’s statements potentially allow people to question their faith in the framework of a liberal system and drive a deeper wedge within the ongoing Western cultural wars. Russian leaders simply do not view the liberal order as an international concern like the West and its NATO allies.
For Russia, these are irresponsible states which go against the foundations of international law with their reckless ideological wars against developing nations. Such as the heavy-handed bombing of Yugoslavia, aggression against Iraq and Libya etc.
John Mearsheimer states in his book The Great Delusion, the costs of liberal hegemony begin with the endless wars a liberal state ends up fighting to protect human rights and spread liberal democracy.
It is a clear fact that the liberal order is addicted to war, militarism and ‘democratising’ the globe.
Putin, therefore, is putting forward his Slavophile side in order to convince Russia that it is separate and special, regarding the West with suspicion, accusing it of meddling and having damaging foreign influences.
However, we have to bear in mind that Russian elites have struggled to offer any alternatives to liberal triumphalism. The liberal West should indeed be alarmed, as Putin rather overtly sounds the start of his quest to unite conservative-minded world powers through a nationalistic substitute.