At the end of March, Andrei Ilnitsky, an advisor to the Russian minister of defense, gave a detailed interview to military magazine Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) (Arsenal Otechestva, March 31). The article came out amidst growing international alarm about the quickly burgeoning concentration of Russian troops and heavy forces near the borders of Ukraine. In the piece, Ilnitsky accused the United States and the West in general of waging a “mental war” against Russia. Few missed the parallels from seven years ago, when, during the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin also attributed “aggressive actions” to the West, while denying any malevolent intentions in its own behavior.
A particularly telling point made by the Russian military advisor was that, “If in classical wars the goal is to destroy the enemy’s manpower [and] in modern cyber wars [it is] to destroy the enemy’s infrastructure, then the goal of the new war is to destroy self-consciousness, to change the civilizational basis of the enemy’s society. I would call this type of war ‘mental.’ Moreover, while manpower and infrastructure can be restored, the evolution of consciousness cannot be reversed, especially since the consequences of this ‘mental’ war do not appear immediately but only after at least a generation, when it will be impossible to fix something” (Arsenal Otechestva, March 31).
Ilnitsky called for “getting ready for a geo-strategic revanche.” But his reference to “revanche” is in actuality less geo-strategic and more mental. Namely, the current Kremlin rulers and propagandists’ opposition to the West is based on their rejection of the fundamental basis of modern democracy—the regular replacement of authorities in free elections. From this point of view, the United States, with its regular presidential elections, and Ukraine, which has already had six presidents since acquiring independence from the Soviet Union, stand in sharp contrast to Russia, where Putin has not only ruled de facto uninterrupted for 21 years but recently signed a law permitting him to run for another two 6-year terms.
Ilnitsky specifically argued the West is waging a “mental war” against Russia in order to “change the civilizational basis of our society.” This abstract formulation implies the “civilizational basis” in Russia is something historically continuous and ignores the fact that it changed at least twice in the 20th century: in 1917, when the Russian Empire collapsed and the Communists seized power, and in 1991, when, in turn, the Soviet Empire fell apart.
During the periods of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Boris Yeltsin’s reforms in the 1990s, Russian citizens wanted to see the “civilizational basis” of their country come to resemble that of the developed modern world as well as to integrate with it. Of course, they reserved the right to national cultural specificity, but without the opposition to the West that was imposed in the Soviet era. This precise confrontation was revived during Putin’s rule, but the Kremlin today seeks to portray its ideological foundations as “eternal” (see EDM, May 8, 2017, August 12, 2020, January 6, 2021)
These “spiritual bonds” (dukhovniye skrepy, as Putin put it—Kremlin.ru, December 12, 2012), also vaguely labeled as “Russian traditional values,” are a syncretic mixture of three rather dissimilar elements. First is Orthodox clericalism of the medieval type, with its mission “to save the world from sin.” Although, after 70 years of enforced Soviet atheism, this claim looks rather presumptuous. Second is the cult of the Soviet Union’s “Great Victory” of 1945, which, under Putin, began to be celebrated with even more pomp and spectacle than under Leonid Brezhnev. But former allies in World War II are today portrayed as enemies. The third “spiritual bond” is painful nostalgia for lost global imperial greatness. All these “traditional values” are being formed into a single narrative, the task of which is to oppose the West.
Yet in reality, the Kremlin’s “mental war” against the West targets its own citizens whose preference is to live in a modern society—an inclination that the authorities interpret as “pro-Western,” even when limited to calls for the observance of civil rights codified in the Russian constitution. For example, by law, governors of the Russian regions must be freely elected, but in fact they are appointed by the Kremlin. Direct elections of mayors in most Russian cities have also been eliminated (see EDM, November 17, 20, 2017).
In this interview, Andrei Ilnitsky, explicitly praised the “imperial order” and declared the need to ensure “regional connectivity” in Russia. But those two notions are in direct contradiction to one another. Nearly every empire, starting from the Roman one, has been built on the principle of absolute centralism. And just as in ancient times “all roads led to Rome,” all quality roads in today’s Russia also lead to Moscow, and there are practically no direct trans-regional highways. A similar situation can be seen in domestic passenger air travel—often, flying from one Russian region to another requires a transfer in Moscow (see EDM, October 6, 2015 and April 2, 2020).
Connectivity between regions requires both mutual interests as well as equal and contractual federative structures. But while the name “Russian Federation” continues to appear on official government documents, the country has de facto been transformed into a hyper-centralized statist entity (see EDM, October 19, 2017). Russia’s regions have little interest in developing direct ties with one another because each depends, most of all, on financial largesse (i.e., subsidies) from Moscow.
The defense minister’s advisor notably calls Russia a “great power”; but in reality, that label only rings true when it comes to the country’s geographical size (and possibly its nuclear arsenal), not in reference to its internal development. The Kremlin is trying to compensate for the lack of a modern economy with threats to neighboring countries and to the West as a whole, but it will almost inevitably lose this “mental war” due to its archaism. The modern-day Russian empire, like its historical predecessors, combines the desire for external aggression and conservative isolationism. Ilnitsky’s calls to organize a “sovereign internet” and to block foreign social networks certainly speak to those impulses. It seems that, in line with centuries-old tradition, real change can only begin after the death of the tsar.
Vadim Shtepa is an Estonian-based freelance journalist, whose main research interests include Russian federalism and regionalism. He is a regular author for web-journals and newspapers, including Forbes.ru (Russia), New Region (Ukraine), Intersection (Poland), Spektr (Latvia), Ru.Delfi (Lithuania), Venäjän Kauppatie Lehti (Finland), and others. He is the author of two books, “Rutopia” (Moscow, 2004) and “Interregnum” (Petrozavodsk, 2012). Mr. Shtepa graduated from the Journalism faculty of the Moscow State University, 1992, and graduated from the Moscow School of Political Studies, in 2012.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.