This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Contrast between Trump’s outbursts and Putin’s restraint shows that Russia’s illiberal worldview still dwarves America’s alt-right.
There is something profoundly bizarre in finding Vladimir Putin and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, sounding more restrained than their American counterparts. It is as though Donald Trump’s White House has transformed into the Kremlin’s id, making the latter look civilized by comparison.
Last week Peskov called out nationalist critics of the controversial film, Matilda, about the purported affair of Tsar Nicholas II, calling their threats against the director “inadmissible”, and labelling ‘Christian State – Holy Russia’ as an extremist organisation. The US equivalent of such a rebuke would be Donald Trump condemning the racist and anti-Semitic attacks coming from his supporters – which have increased since the presidential campaign.
Not only has Trump refrained from doing that, but he conspicuously omitted referring to Jews in a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – a gesture that one can’t help but interpret as reluctance to irritate his nationalist, anti-Semitic base.
Similarly, he has insisted on referring to “radical Islamic terrorism”, as opposed to just terrorism. And in a conversation with Mexico’s president, he reportedly threatened to send in the troops if Mexico couldn’t contain its “bad hombres”.
Finally, as if in parody of a thin-skinned dictator, he lashed out at Nordstrom’s for their refusal to carry his daughter’s brand, with his press secretary adding that the refusal was a direct attack on the president.
While Putin has in the past promised to “waste terrorists in the outhouse” and, in his early years, was not above threatening Western journalists, his rhetoric on issues of race and religion is comparatively restrained. While he may call himself a nationalist, it has been entirely unclear what kind of nationalist he is, and his own statements are often in stark contrast to the right-wing populist movements in the West that are supposedly inspired by him.
For example, Putin refuses to refer to terrorism as “Islamic.” He has repeatedly spoken out against xenophobia and time and again has pledged to fight “radical nationalism”. While he has had tough things to say on immigration, in 2016 he also ordered a government agency to work on “adapting” migrants, a move that angered the right-wing opposition websites, Sputnik and Pogrom.
In a society where anti-Semitism is still rife, he was pictured in 2016 on state television with members of the European Jewish Congress, pledging (whether credibly or not is another question) to protect Europe’s Jews, urging those Jews who fled the Soviet Union to return.
For all the comparisons between Trump’s nascent nationalism and Putin’s, it is Trump’s White House that is mouthing a virulently consistent nationalist agenda while the Kremlin demurs. This is largely because the ideologue of the alt-right, Steve Bannon - a man who reads Italian fascists, whose website proposes issuing quotas for women in science majors, and who talks of overthrowing the state - is Trump’s chief strategist.
In Russia, that would be like Alexander Dugin, the nationalist-imperialist demagogue with alt-right sympathies, being appointed First Deputy Chief of Staff. But for all the talk of Dugin’s supposedly demonic influence, he was fired from his position at Moscow State University for being too outspoken and, while he is popular, his ideological role is limited. The Kremlin tends to remain above the fray, outsourcing traditionalist ideology to parliamentarians like Yelena Mizulina or billionaire Konstantin Malofeyev, who owns conservative Tsargrad TV channel, has ties to Dugin, and supports pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. This presence of seeming liberals in the presidential administration allows the Kremlin to distance itself from the managed conservativism emanating from its parliament and other actors and disown it if and when it so chooses.
Nativism is already so deeply embedded in the Russian political environment that fanning the flames is unnecessary.
More to the point, Russia’s nationalists are currently squarely in the opposition, and a spate of arrests among far-right groups earlier this year suggests the Kremlin is worried about the threat they could pose.
What, exactly, are we to make of this? Is Putin the last liberal standing among the world’s autocrats? Or, like Pushkin described the Russian government, the only “European” in Russia? Far from it. Rather, Putin’s restraint reflects the fact that nativism is already so deeply embedded in the Russian political environment that fanning the flames is unnecessary.
For example, last week a law was brought into force under the guise of “traditionalist values” that decriminalized domestic violence in a country with one of the highest mortality rates (14,000 women a year die at the hands of their partners) from domestic abuse in Europe.
As the second anniversary of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov approaches, the case has yet to be solved and those who ordered it have yet to face justice. Oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza is once again in hospital, with family suspecting he was poisoned. And while I refuse to believe that Putin personally ordered the murders of the dozens of journalists killed on his watch, he has overseen an environment where such attacks are not adequately punished and thus tacitly condoned. Or, as journalist Oleg Kashin, who survived being beaten nearly to death in 2010, told me, “It’s not that the Kremlin directly attacks journalists for writing the truth. It’s that it fosters a culture of violence that normalizes such attacks.”
Distilled to their common denominator, the basic logic of Breitbart’s nativist misogyny matches the socio-political environment of Putin’s Russia. That common denominator is a coercive nihilism that worships power and promotes tribalism, aggression and conspiracy theories. Borne of a disillusionment in the power of political institutions and their capacity to improve a person’s lot, this hopeless cynicism is cloaked by ideologues in the myth of “traditional” values. Far from that, it is rather a corrosion of the values of pluralism, openness and tolerance that have underpinned the legal-rational state and, indeed, much of what civilization has achieved in the last 300 years. These sentiments have already been successfully weaponized by Putin’s Kremlin, while Trump is merely beginning to tap into them.
Putin uses [nationalist rhetoric] with caution to uphold the facade. Trump’s outbursts are, conversely, a testament to his impotence.
Putin’s outward restraint comes from the fact that he requires a crafted veneer of democratic procedure in order to legitimise his government and offset a power vertical in which he rules by signal (a primordial state that Steve Bannon can only dream of). In terms of nationalism and the potential for inter-ethnic conflict, Putin knows full well the real dangers of inadvertently encouraging strife in a country with 21 ethnicities, a considerable Muslim population, and a history of violent inter-ethnic protests. Most importantly, Putin never really needs to raise his voice. A flash of the eyes here, and a media mogul will interpret it as displeasure over his news agency’s reporting – and fire the editors. A sinister look there, and the shares of a metallurgical company come crashing down. Trump’s attack on Nordstrom draws little more than a shrug from the department store and a skewering on Saturday Night Live. In Russia it would spell the end of the company.
Putin knows the power of this political environment, and he uses that power with caution in order to uphold the facade. Trump’s outbursts – and particularly his dismay when the rule of law kicks in and overthrows his executive tantrums – are, conversely, a testament to his impotence.
It is important to bear these differences in mind as we watch how Americans respond to Trump’s attempts to impose the same coercive nihilism on his country. The behavior of his followers and the corrosion of belief in institutions is indeed worrying and should be taken seriously but, so far, Trump’s White House – whatever its similarities to the Kremlin – is still only a small oprichnina within the American legal-rational state. His posturing should be taken as a chance for that legal-rational state – and the independent judiciary in particular, something that Russia does not have – to flex its muscles.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.