Is the Russian-led war in Ukraine a 'tipping point in history'?
It is more of a step backwards than a tipping point, especially since this is a process that has been underway for several years. It is perfectly consistent with what Putin has already done in Georgia and to some extent in Armenia. He has always said that Ukraine is not a real country in his eyes. What is striking, however, is the brutality of the offensive. Putin had been insane to start a war, for his brutality leaves no other choice than resistance. But also, and foremost, because he fails to understand that this is a different era. Putin is both a XIX century strategist and a Soviet, He has a territorial vision of power and a culturalist vision of the Russian Empire centred around its Slavic and Orthodox component. Putin has not understood that Ukrainian patriotism exists, and that the Soviet system based on the federation of socialist republics has paradoxically strengthened. This, in the case of Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, and has even created, in the case of Central Asia, 'republican' nationalisms.
He wants to be the new “Peter the Great” and write his name in history as the one who re-established the Russian Empire; that is his obsession. But the insanity is to wage a XIX century war in the XXI. In my opinion, he shot himself in the foot.
Could this intervention be a strategic mistake, just as the one Russia made by invading Afghanistan in 1979?
Certainly, but not for the reasons usually provided: the risk of stalemate and isolation, the weight of the sanctions or again economic cost of the occupation. What the invasion calls into question is a new geostrategic configuration that was slowly being put in place in favour of Russia since the advent of Putin in 2000, which was based on a binary vision of Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations'. As a matter of fact, we have witnessed a shift in favour of Putin's Russia in significant segments of Western public opinion: a certain Christian right, together with the majority of populists and some conservative circles of all kinds. This started at the time of the conflicts in Serbia and Kosovo, where senior officers and intellectuals wondered whether we choose the wrong enemy, whether it would not have been more logical for the West to support Serbia instead of the Bosnians and Kosovars.
This shift has a name of course: the "Islamic threat". 9/11 obviously exacerbated this vision, especially as populist movements grew around the rejection of Islam. Local conflicts have been interpreted in terms of a struggle between the Christian West and Islam, from Sudan to Syria, touching on the Balkans and the Caucasus. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is supported as much by the Russians as by those who present themselves as protectors of Oriental Christians. The riots in the French “banlieues” in 2005 were also described by analysts and novelists (Houellebecq) as the beginning of a civil war between "Europeans" and "Muslims", and part of the global Jihad. In this game, Russia appeared, for all this "reactionary" fringes, as an ally or even the bulwark of the West. I heard the ex-member of the “Front National”, Aymeric Chauprade, at the time professor of geostrategy at the “Ecole de Guerre”, call for an alliance between Christian Europe, Orthodox Russia and the Iranian Shiites against Sunni Islam, the great enemy.
In 2019, you dedicated the essay, 'Is Europe Christian?' to these growing proximities ...
Yes, because to this strategic vision another one was added: the war of values in the West. Putin's Russia was perceived by many conservative Christians (see the “Salon Beige” website for French Catholics) as the bulwark of traditional values, anti-LGBT and anti-abortion, whilst the Orthodox Church appeared as the champion of the reconquest of souls, in cooperation with the political power.
This explains the complacency of many American evangelicals and conservative Catholics towards Putin. The Polish and Hungarian leaders, although suspicious of the eternal Russia, were also in this front, alongside with Donald Trump's advisors (Steve Bannon). For France, we must remember Marine Le Pen's visit to Russia in 2015, which was a real milestone. Not to mention the distribution of very lucrative sinecures to European politicians of all sides who have morphed, without any conviction, into lobbyists enamoured of President Putin.
Does this war seem to you to be more of a loss for Putin than a victory?
Yes, Putin sacrificed all the soft power he had acquired over the last twenty years, which allowed him to be a global player, for a purely territorial vision of Russian power. The whole geostrategy of alliance with the populist right and Western religious conservatives, which made it difficult to exert pressure and sanctions against Moscow, vanished in thin air. In this respect, it is easy to see how his admirers are all backtracking, including Zemmour, who does not hesitate to take radical positions and usually boasts of "assuming" them. Today, Putin has become unjustifiable because he scares us. Today, all Europeans have a reflex of distrust. All Putin sympathisers or those who were in favour of finding agreements with the Russians, as Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen, Schröder (the first ex-European leader to join the Russian Nord Stream consortium), Fillon etc. are now devalued. Their reaction is eloquent, they are dumbfounded, and they cannot even find a semblance of justification.
What conclusions do you draw from this?
Samuel Huntington, the 'Clash of Civilizations' theorist, had this to say in a 1993 issue of 'Foreign Affairs': "If (the concept of) civilization is the key, then the probability of violence between Russians and Ukrainians should be low." The moral of the story, for me, is that with this military intervention by Russia in Ukraine, we have definitive proof (because we have many others) that the 'Clash of Civilizations' theory does not work, even though it inspires many thinkers in geostrategy. The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union was irreversible and that we were now heading for a 'Christianity versus Islam' confrontation is collapsing and we can see that it has never played a role in Putin's vision. Since Catherine II, Russia has always integrated Muslims into the Empire. And Putin has an imperial vision, he is definitely not having a religion based geostrategy, as some of the European right and extreme right believed.
The facts were quite clear. Among Putin's four military interventions in the former Soviet space, three targeted Christian and Orthodox countries. The direct aggression against Georgia was to the benefit of the Muslim Abkhazians. During the last conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the French far right and the Republicans (Les Républicains) called for Christian solidarity against the Turkish-Muslim threat. I had reminded them in an article (Le Monde, 18 November 2020) that the Russians were on Azerbaijan's side and not at all on the Armenians' side. They let the Azeris take over Karabakh and then pretended to intervene. In the wake of the war in Chechnya, Putin supported the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The only place in geographical Europe where Sharia law is applied is in the Republic of Chechnya, in Russia. The attack on another Orthodox nation, Ukraine, will further accentuate the divisions in the Orthodox world but also in the Christian world in general (the Ukrainian Catholic Uniates are a bastion of Ukrainian patriotism). The only Ukrainian patriarch who still recognises the supremacy of Patriarch Cyril of Moscow, Onuphre, has just called on the faithful to defend the Ukrainian homeland. Putin has lost his claim to represent the Orthodox world.
Much has been said about the term 'denazification' used by Putin to justify his military intervention in Ukraine.
He is saying the same thing about Ukrainian nationalism that the Bolsheviks said before and after the Second World War, that "Ukrainian nationalism" equals "Nazism". And the problem is that he may be sincere because he is insane. He is completely paranoid. He believes in the omnipotence of propaganda and does not recognise that his own population is much better informed than the Soviet population was.
In his mind, the Ukrainians' resistance is quickly crushed, a dictator is put in place, and then they will fall in line, like the Czechs in 1968 and the Chechens in 2001. But this time it will not be as easy. Will the Ukrainian popular resistance take military forms, i.e. guerrilla warfare, attacks, terrorism, etc.? Or will it take the form of a kind of strike by the population? I don't know. Will the sanctions be effective? I don't know. But in any case, the Russian people will not accept to make sacrifices to keep Ukraine. The Russians do not see this war as justified. The narrative of "we are threatened, and NATO is coming to our doorstep" is not being bought. He has been far too disrespectful on that.
The Russians, at least the generations after the fall of the USSR, live certainly in the XXI century. Putin will be forced to increase repression even more, and we can already see the first arrests of Russian anti-war demonstrators. He finds himself in a politically unmanageable situation. It will in fact reinforce Ukrainian nationalism. And it will also paradoxically strengthen the European Union. It will force us to develop the defence aspect, whereas Putin thinks that we are structurally cowards and that we will seek an agreement with him because we don't want to go to war. And the Americans, on the contrary, at least while Biden is there, are going to affirm their solidarity, they are going to send troops to NATO member countries, firstly to the Baltic States. As for the Poles, they are no fools: dealing with Russia would be suicidal for them, even if the current government shares Putin's rejection of liberal values. Thus, the Europeans will close ranks.
You say that we are not changing the world and that we are experiencing the continuation of a process. Are there not nevertheless risks in seeing another geopolitical map being drawn? The initial hesitation of the Chinese to condemn the Russian offensive has created concerns.
No, I think we must be very careful about that. The Chinese could not condemn it because they reserve the right to invade Taiwan. But at the same time, the deep interests of the Chinese and the Russians are divergent. There will be no strategic alliance between China and Russia. On the other hand, the Americans can afford to be on two fronts, the Pacific and Europe, especially if the Europeans decide to strengthen their defence. The Chinese, on the other hand, have no desire to be on several fronts. Nor do the Russians.
This war came as a surprise and yet Putin had said, as soon as he took power twenty-two years ago, that he considered the dissolution of the Soviet Union to be 'the historical catastrophe of the XXth century'.
Yes, in this respect, the resentment and dismay of the Russians at the fall of the Soviet Union was underestimated. I was there at the time. It was a terrible trauma because everything collapsed without anything having happened: neither war nor revolution. That's what people didn't understand. When a regime change following an invasion, a war, or a huge catastrophe, at least we have some elements of understanding. But when you suddenly wake up with a new regime, or even a completely different nationality and map of your country, it is a very strong trauma. His mistake was to have avenged the trauma thirty years later. Now, there is a whole generation of Russians who don’t give a damn about the Soviet Union, who did not experience it. He remained frozen. He failed to understand that the new nationalisms have taken hold; that a Russian-speaking Ukrainian can also be a Ukrainian patriot and fight the Russian invasion.
The original article in French is available on Le Nouvel Observateur.