This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
The West deeply misunderstands Putin, whose actions make good sense according to the nineteenth-century ideology to which he subscribes.
This is an edited and translated excerpt from French columnist and writer Christine Ockrent's most recent book, Les Oligarques (October 2014).
Never before has it been more difficult for Europeans and Americans alike to understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Vladimir Putin has baffled the West and has set the tempo of events. Ignoring the West’s warnings and indignation, he annexed Crimea, imposing the first modification of a European border since 1945.
Who would go and die for Ukraine? For generations now, the European Union has been built on peace and prosperity – except for the Balkan wars at the end of the last century. The Russian president is well aware of the lack of cohesion among European countries, and hardly disguises his contempt for an American president who hesitated over Syria.
Fyodor Lukyanov says that Westerners are fooled by an optical illusion:
"We do not recognise this new world order that Washington feels entitled to impose."
“You are obsessed with our president, but it is a mistake to demonise him! Take a long hard look at your own mistakes and you will see that his logic is not completely unpredictable. […] You Westerners crossed a red line in Ukraine. You failed to understand the country’s strategic importance to Moscow. Since what you call the end of the Cold War, we have been looking at reality in different ways. For us, it was not a real war, so there has not been a real peace. We never agreed to the rules that the West sees as universal values […] We do not recognise this new world order that Washington feels entitled to impose. And your European Union is part of it.” 
Putin perpetuates a conception of authority that has long since been abandoned in our democracies.
Vladimir Putin perpetuates a conception of authority that has long since been abandoned in our democracies. Putin looks to models such as Tsar Nicholas I, whose portrait hangs in Putin’s office at the Kremlin, and Alexander Dugin, the fanatical champion of Eurasianism. His idea of power has an ideological basis to match: Nicholas I’s official ideology of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality, the moral supremacy of the motherland and the domination of its natural space. No matter that Nicholas I lost the Crimean War and died at the front in Sevastopol in 1855; Russian nationalists see him as the incarnation of a national genius. Rather than converting to modernism, cosmopolitanism, and liberal values, he built the superiority of the Russian system on censorship, order, and the police.
Eurasia, where the sun rises, is the land of the gods and of constant renewal.
Dugin, the son of a KGB officer, co-founded with Edward Limonov in 1993 the National Bolshevik Party, before setting up his own party, “Eurasia”. For Dugin, the West, where the sun sets, represents decline and decadence. Conversely, Eurasia, where the sun rises, is the land of the gods and of constant renewal. Maintaining the theory of Russian exceptionalism forged during the nineteenth century, from the Slavophiles to Alexander Blok via Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dugin says that Russia is not a country, it is a civilisation. He advocates “the blinding dawn of a new Russian Revolution, fascism – borderless like our lands, and red as our blood.” Vladimir Putin’s use of language is the same: he speaks of “this versatile Russian genetic code, very durable, our competitive advantage” and of “the man of the Russky mir [Russian world], driven by a higher moral purpose”. For Russians, this messianic discourse evokes at the same time the “Russian Idea” of the Tsarist era and the vocabulary of Soviet propaganda – a powerful combination.
In Putin’s ideology, Moscow stands as the Third Rome, facing the decadent West and its hordes of degenerate homosexuals, its contemptible secularism, and its unbounded tolerance. The Russian president poses as the sole true guardian of European culture and Christian values, the defender of “the spiritual and moral foundations of civilisations […] the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life”, as he promised in the Russian parliament in December 2013.
To the Russian president, Europe is the soft underbelly of the Western alliance.
To the Russian president, Europe is the soft underbelly of the Western alliance. Europe, as he sees it, is beset by forces of disintegration that have been accelerated by the economic and social crisis – and which he can encourage by making use of the extreme right.
This is why we saw Putin congratulate Viktor Orbán, the nationalist Hungarian prime minister who has supported Putin’s policies in Ukraine. Putin saluted the Hungarian neo-Nazi movement Jobbik, and, as a sign of approval, he lowered the price that Budapest must pay for Russian gas. Marine Le Pen received financial support from a Russian bank after a warm welcome in Moscow by the chairman of the Duma and by Putin’s adviser, Alexander Dugin himself. From the French National Front and the Belgian Vlaams Belang to the Italian Lega Nord and the Austrian Freedom Party, all of Europe’s far right parties sent observers to vouch for the Crimean referendum, which confirmed Russia’s annexation of the region with 95.5 percent of the vote.
The 2014 Ukraine crisis will determine the new borders of the Russian world and decide public opinion within those borders.
The 2014 Ukraine crisis will determine the new borders of the Russian world and decide public opinion within those borders. Because of this, it represents both an opportunity and a challenge for Putin. No matter how bad the economic situation gets or how great the risks of dependency on Beijing, he must prove the coherence of his vision and the cohesion of his power system.
At the top of the Kremlin pyramid, where clans jostle for influence, Putin appears more than ever to be the sole and implacable decision-maker. He fired one of his closest advisers, Vladislav Surkov, for having failed to anticipate the protest movements of 2012; he sacked Alexei Kudrin, a respected economist and a long-time finance minister, who now denounces the wasteful confrontation with the West.
“Putin does not care about sanctions, he makes fun of his advisers.”
Putin’s first circle of advisers and oligarchs have all nominally been hit by American and European sanctions. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most emblematic oligarch of the Yeltsin era who was jailed by Putin for ten years, does not believe that Western sanctions are effective. He says: “Putin does not care about sanctions, he makes fun of his advisers. You live in a democratic society in which the president’s entourage is involved in his decisions. But in a totalitarian society, a dictator does not have to bother with the interests of his entourage, especially of those outside the security apparatus.”
Putin, the master of the game, controls all the pieces on the chessboard and carefully divides up the areas of power. He manages the rivalries between his siloviki friends, mostly former KGB agents, who are the oligarchs currently in control of the main sectors of the Russian economy. As they are hit by Western sanctions, they are encouraged to show their patriotism by bringing some of their wealth home and pivoting to China.
Patriotic fervour is enhanced by total control over the media and the web. Propaganda has engulfed all spaces of Russian public opinion. There is no opposition to speak of, no outlet for political expression.
The Russians are proud of their master.
The Russians are proud of their master. Never before has Vladimir Putin been so popular at home – never before have we seen in Europe such blatant signs of historical revisionism, used to allege Western responsibility in the humiliation of Russia and to justify Putin’s expansionist ambitions. The Ukraine crisis is only the beginning of a new cycle of confrontation between Russia and the West, and between two different visions of history.
Christine Ockrent produces and anchors a weekly radio programme on foreign affairs, Affaires Etrangères, on France Culture public radio, and is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Listen to her latest podcast for ECFR, Crimea and punishment? A French view of sanctions.
 Interview with Fyodor Lukyanov, Rome, 13 June 2014.
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.