The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin will change our economic and political lives more than the pandemic.
When one of the world’s most powerful petro-states declares war in order to “denazify” a legitimate democracy with a Jewish president, don’t expect life to continue as normal.
Thanks to Putin’s aggression, democracies will face higher energy prices, severe inflation, rampant political volatility, and unexpected consequences throughout the global economy. War has a way of begetting more war.
By invading Ukraine, Putin is also openly signalling to neighbouring democracies that he considers them weak and manageable. Sanctions cannot hurt or dissuade this dictator who has imperial ambitions wrapped in a quasi-religious crusade.
Putin has also calculated that the world will not risk nuclear war just to save a struggling democracy of 44 million in Ukraine.
But long before Putin put his troops on the ground, he actively worked to undermine the factual world of western democracies with disinformation campaigns that rattled both Europe and the United States.
The U.S. historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on the blood-soaked lands of Eastern Europe, starkly warned us about Putin in 2018 with the publication of The Road to Unfreedom. The book remains an indispensable guide to the horror show now unfolding before us.
Snyder laid out the new fascism. To make Russia, a fragile petro-state, look strong, Putin has sown division in western democracies. Long before “fake news” dominated North American airwaves, Russia attacked factual reality in Ukraine.
It then supported populist and fascist movements throughout Europe. It openly supported a Syrian tyrant, in part to destabilize Europe with a wave of migrants. At the same time, it funded white supremacists as civilization’s saviours.
Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, the actions of Putin’s government — from the support of populist parties in Europe to his dangerous alliance with Donald Trump — have already totally changed our political realities. And this is what fascism does: it replaces fact with fiction and transforms citizens into zombies.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the new global face of fascism.
1. Vladimir Putin rose to power in the shadow of Boris Yeltsin after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1998, the ailing Yeltsin appointed the head of Federal Security Service (formerly the Soviet Union’s dreaded KGB) as president. Then-unknown Putin soon generated a crisis — a series of bombings across the country — to raise his political profile. Putin identified the culprit as a republic in southwest, Chechnya. And so the second Chechen war brought a new strongman to power.
2. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 greatly shaped Putin’s view of the world. The young intelligence officer watched as a global price collapse unhinged the hegemony of the Soviet Union. That autocracy had been based on cheap oil and generous energy subsidies to client states. But when production and revenues dropped by 50 per cent, the authoritarian regime collapsed. Putin viewed the event an unmitigated tragedy and vowed to reverse it.
3. As a student of oil and its corrosive powers, President Putin acted quickly to consolidate all energy production back into the hands of state. He removed the country’s most powerful oligarchs from Russia’s oil and gas companies and nationalized the industry. He then let in a few western players, such as Exxon Mobil, to help revitalize Russia’s oil patch.
As oil prices rose between 2000 and 2014, Putin used the flow of petro money to form a new social compact with Russians. He provided “growing living standards in exchange for popular acquiescence to his continued rule.” He also used oil revenue to rebuild Russia’s military machine.
4. Whenever asked about his historical or philosophical influences, Putin cites an obscure Russian fascist by the name of Ivan Ilyin. Born into a noble family in 1883, Ilyin embraced white fascism as a response to Red fascism, also known as Bolshevism. Ilyin openly admired both Mussolini and Hitler and dreamed of a fascist Europe. Not surprisingly he remained a forgotten Russian émigré who died in Switzerland in 1954.
5. In his writings, Ilyin consistently advocated for a unique brand of Russian fascism. First and foremost he imagined Russia as an innocent Christian “Spirit” that the West had repeatedly tried to corrupt. Russia, in other words, was always a political innocent requiring an imperial defence.
Second, he refuted the rule of law and regarded lawlessness as patriotic act: “The fact of the matter is that fascism is a redemptive excess of patriotic arbitrariness,” he wrote.
Third, he believed that only a dictator could save Russia in its constant historical struggle against evil: a redeemer with a mystical connection to his people and history. In Ilyin’s religious worldview, all politics becomes “the art of identifying and neutralizing the enemy.” Only a healthy Russian empire could deliver salvation against the godless agents of globalism.
6. Since 2005, Putin, a master of propaganda, has quietly and persistently rehabilitated Ilyin’s Russian brand of fascism. That year he even organized the forgotten man’s reburial in Moscow. Putin and his fellow oligarchs began to embrace Ilyin’s ideas freely, because they provided a cover for the dysfunction of Russia, a petro-state ruled by robber barons where the rule of law meant nothing.
Snyder exposed these dangers in 2018, writing, “Ilyin’s ideas sanctified radical inequality at home, changed the subject of politics from reform to innocence, while defining the West as a permanent source of spiritual threat.”
7. Putin did not openly begin to oppose European democracies and NATO until the presidential election of 2012. That rigged performance required outright digital manipulation that stretched all credulity: 99.8 per cent of the ballots in Chechnya and mental hospitals all went to Putin’s United Russia party. To defend such outrageous fraud and to redirect Russia’s bruised emotions, Putin openly identified the decadent West as a permanent enemy that sought to contaminate the purity of Russian civilization with gay rights. (Demands for democracy therefore equaled sodomy.)
In opposition to Europe, Putin now celebrated something called “Eurasia,” or an empire for Russia. An independent Ukraine represented a threat to his vision because it offered Russians an alternative to Putin’s lawless oligarchy.
8. Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia solidified its position as the world’s third largest extractor of oil and gas. Hydrocarbon exports accounted for 43 per cent of the government’s total annual revenue between 2011 and 2020. Oil money enriched the oligarchs, rebuilt the military and funded disinformation campaigns abroad. Russia exports five million barrels of oil a day, almost all of which goes to Europe, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. The remainder is piped to Asia, with China accounting for 31 per cent.
Russia contains the world’s largest natural gas reserves and supplies, about 40 per cent of the EU’s natural gas. Germany, Italy, France and Belarus are the most dependent. Putin is banking that this pronounced energy dependency will weaken any European response to the invasion of Ukraine.
9. In 2014, Putin ended all pretense of a “post-world war order” by invading Ukraine with Russian troops, and by launching a cyber offensive and disinformation campaign. He replicated those tactics to even greater effect on social media in the 2016 U.S. election by exploiting that nation’s growing divisions. Certainly, Putin was pleased with the result. As the journalist Masha Gessen noted after Trump’s election, the businessman was “probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat — and won.”
10. Historian Snyder notes that Putin controls a weak state that can’t provide water and heat for one-third of its hospitals. To project strength, the autocrat must make democracies look more disorderly than Russia’s oligarchy. Because Russia can’t address its problems, it must therefore export them — everything from disinformation to lawlessness to inequality abroad. The more democracies celebrate wealthy billionaires and nationalist movements, the more they look like Russia. The more they celebrate emotion and falsehood, the more Putin wins — for the moment.
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