This is not Putin’s way of doing things. He is a judo enthusiast, a judoka. By every account, including those by Putin himself, judo has been far more than a sport to Putin. It has changed him profoundly. It remade a mama’s boy, hooligan, C student, and street urchin from the slums of Leningrad into a determined and hard-working man. Putin became the judo champion of Leningrad. His former judo partners are still among his closest friends (and billionaires). As president, he journeyed to St. Petersburg for the funeral of his judo coach.
In judo, you usually don’t win by a single throw, Ippon, which gives you 10 points and an instant victory. Instead you win by accumulating points using moves of varying effectiveness, with lower scores of Wazari, Yuko, and Koka. Patience is the key. You watch your opponent like a hawk in order to catch him off balance—and then exploit the advantage in a lightning strike. Pauses are only ever a prelude to further assault. Putin’s sport has provided him with a temperament befitting his worldview. The deliberate nature of his decision-making now serves his pursuit of a long-term geopolitical project, a self-imposed personal historic mission, and the immediate political imperative of his regime’s survival.
Much of the way that Vladimir Putin views Russia and the world—and his understanding of how his country should live and what it should strive for—is rooted in Eurasianism: part philosophy, part history (often dubious), but mostly a sensibility based on myth and wishful thinking.
Look at Russia’s position on the map: neither fully in Europe nor in Asia but somewhere in between. But the term’s meaning is intended to evoke something larger than geography: a separate civilization, bound by an almost mystical unity—linguistic, cultural, religious—and profoundly distinct from Europe and its values. In all ways, Russia stands apart. Although the boundaries that separate the Eurasian Russia from Europe may be invisible, they are real, eternal, and impermeable—a kind of civilizational watershed. And despite occasionally foolish attempts on either side to breach or move it, the border magically renews and reasserts itself time and again—usually in battle, blood, and tragedy.
In this narrative, Russia is perennially victimized, yet always morally superior to its tormentors, heroic, and ultimately victorious. In the process, Russia is also Europe’s savior: from the Mongols, from Napoleon, from Hitler.
Eurasianism is best understood as a peculiar combination of almost Calvinist predestination and agency, unyielding fate, and personal greatness.That it should be so is due to Russia’s being not merely a country or even a civilization, but an eternal mission. That mission, whether under the czars or the Communists, was to be the light among nations, to lead the world toward a glorious future, to be a moral beacon, and to resist and ultimately destroy the dark forces of evil.
Eurasianism is a peculiar combination of almost Calvinist predestination and agency, unyielding fate, and personal greatness. Geography is destiny. History is destiny. Religion is destiny. One cannot fight fate. And one must not! Instead, destiny must be embraced as a sign of fate’s—and increasingly, God’s—intent for greatness.
The key to fulfilling this destiny is an omnipotent Russian state. Those Russian rulers who tried to deviate from this destiny by weakening the state have brought Russia nothing but shame and defeat, with the most recent traitorous liberalizers being Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin. Those who embraced Russia’s destiny by strengthening the state have added to its glory and become heroes regardless of the crimes they committed and the blood they spilled: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and of course Josef Stalin.
There is little doubt about which category Putin wishes to be in. His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, has declared him “the defender of Russians wherever they live.” Putin’s deputy chief of staff has avowed: “There is no Russia without Putin.”Much of Putin’s Eurasian sensibility appears to have been absorbed from his favorite philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, an émigré and a refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution who died in Switzerland in 1954. Putin cites his speeches and even assigned one of Ilyin’s books (Наши задачи, or Our Tasks) to regional governors to read over the 2014 Christmas break. He had the remains of Ilyin and his wife, Natalia, moved from Switzerland and re-interred in one of Russia’s most hallowed grounds, the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow.
Superimposed on his professional training as a KGB officer, and likely explaining to him his own and his country’s recent history, Eurasianism and Ilyin have shaped what can be called Putin’s operational credo. “Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russian identity,” Ilyin wrote. “They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break those twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their own civilization.”
Hence the first, overarching tenet of Putin’s credo: The West’s plots against Russia are relentless, and while truces with the West are often tactically advantageous to Russia, genuine peace is impossible. This is because the West’s hostility to Russia is eternal and prompted by jealousy of her size, natural riches, and, most of all, her incorruptible, saintly soul and a God-bestowed mission to be the Third Rome, the light among nations.
This West’s hatred of Russia leads to the next precept: The end of the Cold War was Russia’s equivalent of the 1919 Versailles Treaty for Germany—a source of endless humiliation and misery. The demise of the Soviet Union was, in Putin’s words, “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” During the Gorbachev revolution, Putin was deployed in East Germany, the Warsaw Pact country most insulated from the moral and intellectual ferment of glasnost and perestroika. As a result, Putin’s most vivid memory from that time is an angry crowd surrounding the KGB residence in Dresden after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Inside, Putin and his colleagues were burning documents, expecting to be stormed and perhaps lynched at any minute.
Thus the third and final precept: The ultimate strategic goal of any truly patriotic Russian leader (not an idiot or a traitor like Gorbachev or Yeltsin) is to rectify this profoundly immoral historical injustice by recovering and repossessing at least some of the key political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state at its fall. A few years back, I called this the Putin Doctrine, which the Russian president proceeded to implement virtually from day one of his first presidential term in 2000.In the years between its inception among Russian émigrés in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany in the 1920s, elements of Eurasianism have surfaced among nationalists on both the left and right in the émigré community, among the Soviet dissidents, and within post-Soviet parties, especially the Communists. But never before has as much of its content reached so high among the country’s leaders. Eurasianism binds many—perhaps most—key political actors in Russia today. This is especially true of the cohort closest to Putin, the so-called siloviki: top members of the secret services and armed forces, many of them graduates, like Putin, of the Soviet KGB. In their articles and interviews, they portray a Russia menaced by external forces, the greatest of which are NATO and the United States.
In his speeches and articles during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election in Russia, Putin declared Russia a “unique civilization,” bound together by the ethnic Russians who form its “cultural nucleus.” The culture and values of this civilization are profoundly different from what Putin called a “neutered and barren” Europe.
In the most important oration of his life, the March 18, 2014, address to the joint session of the Russian National Assembly on the annexation of Crimea, he declared that the West is “guided by the rule of the gun” and seeks to “drive Russia into a corner.” And in the post-Soviet era, Russia “has always been deceived, has always been [confronted with] decisions made behind its back.”
Since Putin’s election to his third term, public-opinion surveys have consistently and increasingly revealed the embrace of key precepts of a Eurasion Russia.Following the boss’s lead, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (or “my friend Sergei,” as Secretary of State John Kerry likes to call him) wrote in the spring of 2016 that it was “in the genes” of the Russian people “to defeat attempts of the European West to completely subjugate Russia, and to deny [Russia] its national identity and religious faith.” In the same article, Lavrov also contended that World War II was caused by the “anti-Russian European elites [who] had sought to push Hitler to attack the Soviet Union.” And today, too, Lavrov continued: “We see how the U.S. and the Western alliance it leads try to preserve their dominance by any means possible . . . . The use all sorts of pressures, including economic sanctions and even direct military intervention. [The U.S.] wages large-scale information wars. It has perfected the technology of the change of regimes by organizing ‘color revolutions.’”
The implementation of the Putin Doctrine has been supported by two overlapping propaganda narratives, both straight out of the Eurasian canon’s core of fate and heroism, predestination and agency. The first is that Russia is “rising from its knees,” and because of that, the West—first and foremost the United States—declared war on it. And second, although threatened on all sides by implacable enemies, Russia has nothing to fear so long as Putin is at the helm: Not only will he protect the Motherland, but he will also restore Russia’s status of being feared and respected again.
Without a doubt, it has been an effective and relentless propaganda campaign. But Putin’s success in selling his agenda to Russia has signaled something far more dangerous: the emergence of a Eurasian Russia. Since Putin’s election to his third term in 2012, and especially since the Crimean Anschluss, public-opinion surveys have consistently and increasingly revealed the embrace of the key precepts of Eurasianism not only by Putin and the top government elite but also by strong pluralities or outright majorities of Russians. Thus, according to polls conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian research organization, Russians now believe that their country is “peaceful” and does not seek war; war is threatened only from the outside. If there is to be a war, the fault is “not anything Russia has done, and the blame is apriori on the West or its ‘marionettes.’” Proxy battles with the West, first and foremost the United States, are already raging in Syria and Ukraine. Most important, Russia and the U.S. are the “two main world powers, the two poles of the modern world.”
Although people are aware of the worsening economic situation, they are “ready to bear it for the glory of the nation,” leading Russian political sociologist and pollster Alexei Levinson concluded in October 2016. Russia is ready to respond to any threat: It has nuclear weapons and, most important, it is “always more right than they,” the West. Historic justice is “always on Russia’s side.” Levinson called this “a key” element of Russian public opinion today. “A unique consensus of the public and the authorities has been created,” Levinson wrote. “It has proven its value: two-thirds of the population now approves of the activities of [the authorities’] chief representative, Putin.”
This is not the Cold War. But as we look at Putin’s Eurasian Russia, we find less and less comfort in that fact.
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The Eurasian Judo Master
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Not a departure but a partial return to the norm.
President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday stuck to the core themes that have defined his foreign policy since he took office. The ideological cocktail was two or three parts John Bolton, one part Steve Bannon. From his national-security adviser, Trump absorbs the traditional GOP hawkishness and sovereigntism that forms the cocktail’s base. Meanwhile, distinct traces remain of the ex-Breitbart chief’s harder-edged populist nationalism. Call that the modifier.
The main elements of the cocktail blend smoothly in some areas but not in others. Boltonians are wary of liberal, transnational institutions that seek to restrain U.S. power, and they aren’t shy about sidestepping or blowing past those institutions when national interest demand it. Bannonites detest the transnationalist dream even more intensely, though their hatred extends to mutual defense treaties and trade agreements that GOP foreign policy has historically welcomed.
Both camps, moreover, claim to have shed the illusions that they think got Washington into trouble after 9/11. They don’t believe that all of human history tends toward liberal democracy. “We are this,” they say to non-Western civilizations, “and you are that. You needn’t become like us, but don’t try to remake us in your image, either.” The Boltonians might pay some lip service to Reaganite ideals here and there, but as Bolton famously wrote in these pages: “Praise democracy, pass the ammunition.”
That’s where the similarities end. The Bannonites don’t share the Boltonian threat assessment: Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Eastern Europe don’t exercise them, and they positively welcome Bashar Assad’s role in Syria. Boltonism favors expansion, Bannonism prefers retrenchment, if not isolation. Boltonism in its various iterations is the default worldview of the key national-security principals; not just Bolton himself but also the likes of Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. Bannonism is where I suspect the president’s own instincts lie.
It is hard to assess fully how these tensions are playing out in American foreign policy in the age of Trump. But one intellectual temptation to guard against is the tendency to view every move and every piece of rhetoric as a crazy Trumpian violation of the Eternal and Immutable Laws of American Strategy. In the main, Trump’s foreign policy appears alarming and discontinuous only to those who forget how far Barack Obama departed from mainstream, bipartisan foreign-policy traditions.
Bashing or withdrawing from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council because anti-Semitic, anti-Western “jackals” have taken these bodies hostage? That’s straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Daniel Patrick Moynihan playbook.
Ditto for rejecting the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because it would mean ceding American sovereignty to “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as Trump put it Tuesday. Successive American administrations, including President Bill Clinton’s at various points, have opposed the creation of a world court that could be used by the “jackals” and their transnationalist allies to legally harass U.S. policymakers and soldiers alike.
Nor was there anything uniquely Trumpian, or uniquely sinister, about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Legislation enacted by Congress more than two decades ago had required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem and move the American Embassy, and as the president noted in his speech, peace is “is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” The move also reinforces the sovereigntist idea that a nation’s decision about the location of its embassy is not open to scrutiny by foreign busybodies.
Nor, finally, does praising imperfect but valuable allies somehow take Trump beyond the pale of respectable American policy. Trump’s support for Riyadh, Warsaw, and Jerusalem is a course correction. For years under Obama, Washington neglected these powers in favor of the likes of Tehran.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some wild elements to Trump’s foreign policy. For those who came of age in the shadow of certain postwar certainties, it will never be easy to hear the commander in chief threaten tariffs against various rivals and partners from the podium at Turtle Bay. And if Obama disrespected allies with his policies, Trump does so with his rhetorical outbursts against allied leaders, especially in Western Europe, and his bizarre refusal to directly criticize Vladimir Putin.
That’s that irrepressible Bannonite modifier in the cocktail, though the color and flavoring are all Trump’s own.
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A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
The disclosure that compromised a U.S. informant is only one in a seemingly endless cascade of classified information that Republicans claim must be revealed to the public if we are ever going to get to the bottom of the sprawling conspiracy that was put together to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. The president’s allies in Congress have appealed to previously unused methods to reveal confidential House Intelligence Committee memos and even highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, but none of it has satisfied Donald Trump or his defenders. There is always another document to release.
Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
Conservatives with a healthy mistrust of federal agencies and the prevailing political culture within them may scoff at skeptics who are not eager to see U.S. intelligence documents sloppily released to the public. There are, after all, valid questions about the FISA Court’s oversight and the extent to which Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in counter-intelligence investigations that long predate Carter Page’s travails. But the interagency process and the oversight of appropriate redactions are designed to protect American intelligence assets and the assets of U.S. allies. It is all intended to preserve the integrity of U.S. sources and the methods they use to keep Americans safe.
If the Democratic Party was demanding these unprecedented disclosures with no regard for the geopolitical fallout and national-security risks they could incur, Republicans, you could be certain, would be raising hell. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
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RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.