Like the Muslim Middle East, Russia is a constant reminder that the traditional motivators of state action like honor and revenge are alive and well, no matter how much a postmodern West regards them as primitive avatars of the benighted underdeveloped.
Before the 1917 Revolution, the Russian psyche was plagued by a cultural inferiority only exacerbated by Westernization of her elites. A major point of pride–Russia’s self-proclaimed historical role as the “Third Rome” defending Christianity from Muslim imperialist aggression–meant little to Europeans bent on secularizing their own civilizations. To these bien pensants, as Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, believers like the Russians were “shamans or witch doctors from savage tribes whom one humors until one can dress them in trousers and send them to school.”
The Communist Revolution, for all its horrendous costs, made Russia a global power, particularly after the Russians thwarted Nazi Germany’s mighty Wehrmacht when it invaded Mother Russia in World War II. Russians may have been spied on, thrown into gulags, tortured, executed, and subject to a material existence akin to an underdeveloped country’s, but they could now strut on the postwar world stage as a superpower, putting the first man into orbit, and dueling across the globe with its American rival while the European countries that once looked down on them trembled beneath America’s protection, even as their own intellectuals openly cheered the Soviets on and scorned their American defenders.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, after an initial euphoria of promised democracy, prosperity, and freedom, was a humiliation for many Russians, who now found themselves in a geopolitical limbo between the West and the Third World, the subject of Western supercilious commentary criticizing their economic corruption, democracy deficit, and death-spiral demographics. Only a nuclear stockpile and oil reserves kept them from sinking lower in the hierarchy of nations.
This is the context for understanding the popularity of Vladimir Putin and his aggressive foreign policy. His macho public persona, disregard for diplomatic pieties, and intimidating bluster have restored Russian honor by making the arrogant Cold War victors once more take Russia seriously. He has gratified the self-regard of the Russians who, seeing a hedonistic, Godless West, warm to his sermons about the importance of Christianity and the degeneracy of a civilization that countenances abominations like open homosexuality and gay marriage. Once more Russia is the righteous nation standing up for Christ in a world of heathens.
Moreover, Russian revanchist pride is further inflated by watching their strongman push around the leader of the remaining superpower, as Putin has bullied Barack Obama. His serial humiliations of Obama have additionally expanded Russian influence in the Middle East, and restored its prestige as a global player and power broker. Back home corruption may be rampant, civil liberties trampled on, and the economy the playground of political cronies and kleptocratic oligarchs, but at least Russia has the world’s attention, behaving globally with boldness and vigor while America retreats, cringes, and appeases.
As long as Putin’s geopolitical behavior enhances Russia’s prestige, it will remain a rival to America’s interests, for much of that prestige depends on reversing the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the American colossus. At this point, cooperation or friendship with the United States will not serve that purpose, no matter how many material advantages and opportunities are lost.