Ukraine and the Clash of Civilizations

How Putin is proving a 20-year-old idea to finally be correct.

Anti-government stand behind a 'wall of smoke' during clashes with police in the center of Kiev on February 20, 2014.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
March 5, 2014, midnight

Since the end of the Cold War, per­haps no aca­dem­ic idea has been more de­bated — and more dis­missed — than Samuel Hunt­ing­ton’s no­tion that a glob­al struggle between cul­tures, a “clash of civil­iz­a­tions,” would re­place the ideo­lo­gic­al di­vide between the West and the So­viet bloc.

But the cur­rent crisis in Ukraine, and the un­easy stan­doff between the coun­try’s gen­er­ally more pro-Rus­si­an east­ern half and its more West­ern­ized west, in­vites a new and far more fa­vor­able look at Hunt­ing­ton’s thes­is. The late Har­vard Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist’s views may even point the way to a res­ol­u­tion, one that will take in­to ac­count both the “Euras­i­an” self-iden­tity of Ukraine’s east­ern re­gion and the yearn­ings of its oth­er half to join the European Uni­on.

In the dec­ade after the dis­sol­u­tion of the So­viet Uni­on on Dec. 26, 1991, it ap­peared that Hunt­ing­ton had read things wrong. Ex­cept for the eth­nic blood­shed in the former Yugoslavia, the former So­viet bloc and com­mun­ist coun­tries went peace­fully demo­crat­ic. Sim­il­ar de­vel­op­ments took place in Lat­in Amer­ica and East Asia. Even China opened it­self up more to the rest of the world. In­stead of a clash of civil­iz­a­tions, the dom­in­ant trend seemed to be glob­al in­teg­ra­tion, a con­ver­gence of eco­nom­ic sys­tems (cap­it­al­ism) and polit­ic­al sys­tems (demo­cracy) that played out more along the lines of Fran­cis Fukuyama’s “End of His­tory” thes­is.

But more re­cently glob­al con­ver­gence ap­pears to have ground to a halt, and nowhere more so than in the mind of Vladi­mir Putin. The Rus­si­an pres­id­ent’s blitzkrieg oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea was hardly an isol­ated act. Rather it should be seen as part of a long-term ef­fort by Putin to re­sur­rect Rus­sia’s cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al dom­in­ance in the former So­viet sphere, even as he has gradu­ally turned him­self in­to a quasi-czar/So­viet-style ruler and sub­ver­ted Rus­si­an demo­cracy. Putin’s brazen bid to buy off ous­ted Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych and in­duce him to join a “Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on” in­clud­ing Rus­sia, Be­larus and Kaza­kh­stan — based on what Putin called “the best val­ues of the So­viet Uni­on” — may have been polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated, but it was largely jus­ti­fied on cul­tur­al grounds. 

The Rus­si­an lead­er and the con­ser­vat­ives he sur­rounds him­self in the Krem­lin have long sought to pro­mote the re­con­sti­t­u­tion of Rus­si­an power based on the idea that many of these coun­tries with large Rus­si­an-speak­ing pop­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing the break­away Geor­gi­an provinces of South Os­se­tia and Ab­khazia (now un­der Mo­scow’s con­trol), are part of a dis­tinct­ive Euras­i­an cul­ture that is dif­fer­ent from the West on many levels, in­clud­ing spir­itu­ally. “We should not be shy when bring­ing back the ideas of eth­nic unity,” Putin’s protégé, former Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Di­mitri Med­ve­dev, said in 2011 as they laid plans for the Euras­i­an uni­on. These views have deep roots in Rus­si­an aca­dem­ic lit­er­at­ure, play­ing out in de­bates over con­cepts such as “Neo-Euras­i­an­ism” and “Byz­ant­ism,” whose uni­fy­ing theme is a re­jec­tion of West­ern val­ues.

To be fair, U.S. and West­ern policies since the end of the Cold War have only ten­ded to pro­voke this cul­tur­al de­fens­ive­ness and Rus­si­an na­tion­al­ism. Over the past 20 years NATO has ex­pan­ded to in­cor­por­ate not only the former Warsaw Pact na­tions of East­ern Europe but also the Balt­ic states, and it has sought to bring in Ukraine and Geor­gia. Putin was also re­portedly in­censed by the ap­par­ent in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment­al af­fairs by U.S. As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State Vic­tor­ia Nu­land and European Uni­on min­is­ters at the height of the protests in Kiev in Feb­ru­ary.

At the same time U.S. pres­id­ents, both Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an, have also na­ively ten­ded to see Putin as someone who be­lieves that Rus­sia’s fun­da­ment­al in­terests lie in glob­al in­teg­ra­tion, demo­cracy and cap­it­al­ism. But based on his rhet­or­ic and ac­tions since he first rose to na­tion­al power in 1999, Putin ap­pears to be­lieve that Rus­sia is en­gaged in if not quite a new Cold War, then a civil­iz­a­tion­al as well as geo­pol­it­ic­al struggle with the West­ern powers. He has made a mock­ery of West­ern-style demo­cracy, and he has done little to trans­form or in­teg­rate Rus­sia’s eco­nomy, des­pite what should have been a world-class tech sec­tor stem­ming from Rus­sia’s de­fense and sci­ence prowess. In­deed, it is strik­ing that while China and the U.S. have grown far more fin­an­cially and eco­nom­ic­ally in­ter­de­pend­ent, Putin’s Rus­sia is still try­ing to ex­ert old-style geo­pol­it­ic­al in­flu­ence as a “nat­ur­al-re­sources su­per­power.”   

As a res­ult, it may be time for Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials to start read­ing Hunt­ing­ton again. In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civil­iz­a­tions and the Re­mak­ing of World Or­der (based on a 1993 es­say), Hunt­ing­ton wrote that “for the first time in his­tory glob­al polit­ics is both mul­ti­polar and multi-civil­iz­a­tion­al.” He also warned against the rosy-colored view that the world would in­ev­it­ably West­ern­ize and achieve “uni­ver­sal civil­iz­a­tion” as it mod­ern­ized. Hunt­ing­ton may have also been par­tially right about Ukraine. In his book he wrote that  “a civil­iz­a­tion­al ap­proach “¦ high­lights the pos­sib­il­ity of Ukraine split­ting in half, a sep­ar­a­tion which cul­tur­al factors would lead one to pre­dict might be more vi­ol­ent than that of Czechoslov­akia but far less bloody than that of Yugoslavia.”

No one, of course, wants the Ukraine to split in half, least of all most Ukrain­i­ans, and Hunt­ing­ton’s broad-brush ap­proach does not take in­to ac­count that even with­in the east­ern and west­ern parts of the coun­try, mul­ti­far­i­ous views ex­ist. Still, Putin shows no sign of stand­ing down in Crimea, and it doesn’t seem as if any dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion to the cur­rent crisis can ig­nore the de facto di­vi­sion of Ukraine in­to sep­ar­ate spheres of cul­tur­al in­flu­ence and polit­ic­al con­trol, even if the coun­try nom­in­ally re­mains in­tact. Obama him­self, in pub­lic re­marks on Tues­day, sug­ges­ted this out­come when he said that Ukraine could be both “a friend of the West and a friend of Rus­sia’s.” A multi-civil­iz­a­tion­al ap­proach may be the only real­ist­ic one — and the only way to peace­ful com­prom­ise. 

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