Today I was fortunate enough to catch one of NY Times correspondent Andrew Roth’s tweets with a link to this highly informative article about geopolitics and the role this theory plays in Putin’s Russia. I talk a lot about “geopolitical experts,” but my area of expertise is their fascist beliefs as opposed to the actual theory of geopolitics, which is something I can’t say I have much knowledge about. Apart from their far right-wing populism, I simply judge self-proclaimed “geopolitical experts” on their output. This article on the other hand, tackles geopolitical theory itself and I found it immensely educational.
In particular I was quite intrigued by this excerpt:
Geopolitics is not strictly speaking an ideology itself. It is, instead, a great leveler of ideologies, a rebuff to any claim to historical privilege or exceptionalism. Geopolitics teaches that states must be judged based on their behavior, not their principles, because principles are not part of the ontology of statecraft. Any claim to ideals is at best a self-delusion, at worst a calculated effort to camouflage real goals.
Bingo. Ask yourself if this sounds familiar. “Western states don’t really believe in human rights. They are just using this as an excuse to further their own geopolitical interests by smearing Russia.” This is the daily refrain from the Kremlin’s propaganda mills and that description of geopolitics hits it right on the head.
After reading that something immediately clicked, and the reason for the theory’s popularity among Russia’s elite totally made sense. First of all, this kind of cold pragmatism appeals to the mindset of a KGB veteran like Putin and his close friends. To their minds all this camouflage and subterfuge is right up their alley. More importantly, they can dismiss any outside criticism as nothing but a ruse to conceal less altruistic aims.
Second, constructing any kind of coherent ideology does not serve Putin’s regime. A truly conservative regime requires more actual devotion than most of Putin’s base wants to show. Moral degeneracy is the Kremlin’s secret ally in maintaining its power. Anything left wing is absolutely out of the question when your goal is to concentrate as much wealth as possible into an ever decreasing amount of hands. Wealth, I might add, which was actually stolen from the public. Appealing to European fascists conflicts with the use of the Great Patriotic War as a domestic political rallying point, and increasing religious incursion into the state and conservative, authoritarian domestic policies turn away leftists abroad. Geopolitics solves all of these contradictions. Make the leftists think that sticking up for Russia and repeating its propaganda is in the interest of fighting American imperialism, while the rightists are led to believe that Russia is a bastion of moral values sponsoring like-minded culture warriors beyond its borders. Neither side is aware that they are being played.
Of course the most important reason I can see for the appeal of geopolitics is that it isn’t an ideology at all, as the author points out, and thus it fits the mentality of Russia’s elite perfectly. While many people struggle to figure out just what Putin actually believes in, they forget that at the end of the day Putin and his inner circle believe in nothing but their own enrichment and self-preservation via power. That’s what this has all been about since 2000. One gang of thieves drove out another. What these men believed in was luxury, riches, Mercedes, BMW, Maserati, mistresses, diamond-encrusted skis, vacation homes in the south of France and luxury flats in Moscow. Naturally the process of acquiring all these things and more was highly questionable to say the least, and thus the need to install an authoritarian system so as to avoid being held accountable. This is what dictates their actions, not any sort of actual patriotic, nationalist, or religious belief. Beyond preserving their own power, they believe in nothing.
In short, Vladimir Putin is the only thing Vladimir Putin believes in. No doubt the list of close friends he trusts grows shorter with time. Geopolitics fits Putin’s needs perfectly because it disregards the importance of ideals or principles in favor of cold national interest. Putinism disregards principles in favor of the cold self-interest of Putin and his elite. It’s a match made in heaven, but one which has condemned Russia to hell.