Russia’s June 27 missile attack on a shopping center in Kremenchuk, Ukraine resulted in 20 civilian deaths, but it appears Russian forces anticipated many more. The 1000 kilogram high-explosive ordinance hit a facility with about 1000 people inside. The attack was consistent with Russia’s strategy of creating terror among Ukraine’s civilian population, but it was evidently also a political statement: It took place as leaders of the G7 group of the largest liberal democracies met at Schloss Elmau, Germany. They called the attack a “war crime,” and vowed continuing support for Ukraine, but images from the event showed them frolicking boyishly together in humorous poses. The horrific attack became an internal propaganda victory for Russia in its ideological war against Euro-Atlantic liberal internationalism.
The images confirmed stereotypes of the unmanly “trans-national” man purveyed in the Eurasian political philosophy driving Russia’s foreign policy. Russia had the courage to defy the West with its power, and its willingness to kill, shocking Western sensibilities. Russians steeped in xenophobic Kremlin propaganda felt pride, not shame.
Aleksandre Dugin, a Russian academic and current flag-bearer of Eurasianism, has made much of Western societies’ blurring of national and gender boundaries, and of their attachment to cosmopolitan universalism. Dugin presents these tendencies as morally corrupt and weak, in contrast to the communal spirit of Russian-dominated Eurasia. Eurasia, roughly co-terminus with the former Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before that, is understood as a civilization, a Grossraum, or zone of shared values. For Russia’s Eurasianist ruling elite, both the Westphalian nation-state model, and an inclusive “international community” based on a “rules-based international order,” are European impositions alien to the “Russian World.”
The Eurasian ideology is collectivist and, arguably, racist. One main founder, Ivan Ilyin, who advocated for fascism in his 1933 article, “National-Socialism, The New Spirit,” believed that individuality was evil; the purpose of politics was to overcome individuality. People within Eurasia are the same, but distinct from others. At a 2014 press conference, Vladimir Putin stated that, “The powerful genetic code of the Russian nation, that makes us Russians, is different from other nations and especially compared to the so-called Western genetic code.” He added that a feature of the Russian genetic code is the ability “to die for the common cause publicly, in front of the eyes of the community.”
Eurasia, inhabiting the cultural space of Czarist Russia and the USSR, articulates an alternative to the universalism that originated in Classical and Hellenistic Greek thought, and the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The latter treats the world as a single, open space. Its people are equal under the transcendent rule of one God and by virtue of common ancestry. Its nations are responsible for upholding a Law of Nations (ius gentium) derived from natural law. In the Eurasian view, there is no common human nature legitimating universal moral standards for states. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill invoked the God of the Church and Russia, a God who, he implied, cares for Eurasia but not its opponents. He blessed the invasion of Ukraine, asking God to “preserve the Russian land… a land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples.” The Patriarch castigated those who fight against the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, targeting them as the “evil forces.” These and other pronouncements have led to calls for Kirill to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for incitement and abetting war crimes.
Roots of Russian Foreign Policy
A clear line connects Russia’s current foreign policy with the core tenets of Eurasianism, and especially with the views of one of its founders, Russian linguist Prince N. S. Trubetskoy. Trubetskoy taught in Sofia and Vienna in the 1920s and 30s. As a thinker, he was a forerunner of post-war structuralism. His books demanded a particular Russian civilizational approach to political culture, law and international relations, in opposition to that of Romanic and Germanic Europe. Russia needed to dissociate itself from European liberalism. The idea of a “universal civilization” was a conceit; as glossed by Nicholas Riasanovsky in a 1964 review, Trubetskoy claimed that cosmopolitanism was simply another form of chauvinism, while chauvinists were seen, by its proponents, as separatists from universalism, and objects of hostility. Cosmopolitanism, highly particularized and circumscribed, was analogous to egocentrism whereby European civilization saw itself as the center of the world, and subscribed to a “religion of panhumanism.” But Eurasia was a “distinct and fundamental cultural entity, entirely independent from Europe.” Trubetskoy considered Eurasia not a political empire, but rather a “harmonious, symphonic organic association of peoples which constituted a higher historical and cultural unity….the issue of separatism lost its meaning within the boundaries of Eurasia,” united by the Russian language in an “ideocratic” state.
Critics have accused Russia of the international crime of aggression under Chapter VII the UN Charter. For Russians, however, the attack on Ukraine is not seen as a war with a sovereign neighbor, but rather as an internal affair. It is a “police operation” against Eurasian separatists who are traitorously seeking to cleave to another, threatening civilization, i.e. Europe. Russian leaders do not recognize any of the 14 Newly Independent States as sovereign, independent political entities within a global political system. They have “reimagined” borders, citizenship and sovereignty within the Eurasian Grossraum, according to Cindy Wittke of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, in Regensburg, Germany.
In fact, since its assault on Ukraine began, Russia has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to the UN Charter and international law. It sees these as properly falling under the purview of the UN Security Council, where it assumed the former Soviet Union’s veto power. What Russia rejects is the assertion of a “rules-based international order” reflecting specifically Western values and interests—the threatening and intrusive particularistic universalism of which Trubetskoy warned decades prior to the formation of the modern international global governance system. As observed by former American diplomat Philip Remler, while Russia claims to abide by the UN Charter and Security Council Resolutions, Russia regards the human rights treaties and norms of the “rules-based order” as “boundless and amorphous” standards based on Western civilizational principles that are incompatible with those of Eurasia. Remler clarifies that for Russia, the UN Charter is interpreted as affirming that “the legitimacy of recognized governments is absolute regardless of their origins, governance, human rights record, or any other external norm.” It is, according to Wittke, a “hyperformalist, positivist approach to international law when pointing to the alleged hypocrisy of the West’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia, Iraq, or Libya.” This position is consistent, Remler notes, with “Russian domestic preoccupations in the era of color revolutions, the Arab Spring, and domestic unrest” and its defense of Assad in Syria. Russia has no problem defending international law when this can shield Putin’s regime, and those of its allies, from threats to his iron rule.
In a 2021 article in Kommersant, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played Eurasia’s sex card, claiming that in Western countries, “students learn at school that Jesus Christ was bisexual.” He went on to accuse the West of promoting “totalitarian rule in global affairs,” and made a plea for a “multipolar” and “polycentric world,” one where human rights standards are not universal, but particular to diverse civilizational formations. The West “had its own ‘rules’ in the Balkans,” where, after Serbia refused to accept a diplomatic solution in Kosovo at Rambouillet, NATO began a bombing campaign without Security Council approval. The international order upheld by Russia is thus one that regulates relations between states, not those between individuals and their governments, nor one whose principles might call into question the legitimacy of a state, like the Russian Federation, that deeply encroaches on individual freedom and dignity.
Defending Universal Rights
In the Declaration of Independence, America’s Founders clarified that when any government abuses the principle of universal, individual natural rights and acts without their consent, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” By its example and projection of this revolutionary and emancipatory message, which is an invitation to, and promise of conflict in the struggle for liberty, America has inspired the people of many other nations who have sought to change their governments, either by overthrowing them or by moving them politically toward democracy and freedom. Particular societies, including many non-Western societies, have thus come to embrace universal principles that have widespread appeal, although they emerged in the West.
Today in Ukraine, Russia, in the name of the Eurasian cultural entity, tries to violently suppress the efforts of people in a society putatively part of that entity, who seek liberty and self-determination. The Ukrainians are, with their courage and sacrifices, demonstrating that Eurasia is no homogeneous space with regard to political culture, where men and women are willing to submit to domination by elites, and indifferent to the denial of political and civil rights. They are showing that universal natural rights and freedoms mean something in a society that shares much with the culture of Russia; indeed, something worth dying for. They demonstrate the transcultural will to freedom, and, once again, the hollowness of the “culture relativism” objection to human rights that has often been posed by authoritarian rulers.
Ukrainian moral and military resistance has shown the corruption and irrationality of Russia’s hegemonic Eurasian pretensions, yet Russia’s critique of the “rules-based” international human rights order should elicit serious reflection. Decades of human rights inflation and ideological exploitation have indeed resulted in “boundless and amorphous standards,” some of which stray far from the core principle of universal individual freedom, and reflect the ambitions of interest groups. But while Russian propagandists play on widespread concerns about the translation of moral universalism into international law and standards, those questions are used by Russian propagandists to sow confusion and division in the open media West. Citizens of Western societies should not allow theme, or the broader failures of Western populations to live up to the moral challenges of liberalism, to cloud their understanding of this conflict.
Russia’s program of war crimes, rape, expulsions and pillage, of disregard for the lives not only of Ukrainian civilians, but Russia’s own troops, is a throwback to pagan barbarism. It is thus an assault not only on the rules-based international order, but on core principles of Judaeo-Christian civilization, principles shared by Russians and their neighbors in the Euro-Atlantic sphere. In confronting these tragic and threatening developments, we can, and must draw strength from our tradition, with the confidence that the defense of Ukraine from Russia’s brutal, imperialistic attack is an obligation anchored in the deepest layers of our common humanity.