". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


The Threat of ‘Putinism’

March 6, 2024

When most Americans think about Russia, the first thing that comes to mind is that nation’s cruel and unjust invasion of Ukraine. This is not surprising. After more than two years, Russia’s aggression shows no sign of abating and will only be stopped as Ukrainian forces have the military tools needed to end it.

This means continued American — and increased European — support for Ukraine’s military. While the expense of such support is substantial and our weariness of spending billions on seemingly interminable wars is understandable, the reality is that we can resist Russia now or find our NATO allies under increased threat and our own security interests placed at risk later.

This is clear from Vladimir Putin’s December address to both chambers of the Russian parliament. He explicitly stated that he wants the “export of ‘Putinism’ to Western countries and actively work with potential ‘friends’” to do so. Putinism is not a phrase many of us are accustomed to hearing, but it’s one we should consider carefully.

Putinism is the “idea of imperial-nationalist statism amplified by Russian greatness, exceptionalism, and historical struggle against the West.” Statism is often thought of as centralized government control of the economy, and it is that. But in Putin’s case, it is much more. It is the idea that the state — composed of elites that run not only industry but government and all facets of public life — is the encompassing reality of a nation. Just as the Nazis in Germany and the Marxists in the Soviet Union usurped the family, the church, the military, the economy, and everything else, so Putin sees Russia in personal terms, as an entity in which the entire nation marches in lockstep.

Putin alluded to this in his parliamentary speech in December. He claimed that “all the people are with us” with respect to the invasion of Ukraine. That’s quite an assertion — no dissent, no disagreement, no reasoned debate anywhere, by anyone, throughout Russia? This is disturbingly reminiscent of the Nazi motto, “Ein Volk, Ein Riech, Ein Fuhrer” — one people, one empire, one leader.

Putin sees himself in much the same role as Hitler. While not as overtly oppressive — yet — as the German dictator, there is no question he has repressed religious liberty and ordered the murder of numerous political opponents. As documented by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, under Putin, the Russian government “targets ‘nontraditional’ religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism.” The commission continues that “Russian legislation criminalizes ‘extremism’ without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.”

Although Putin professes devout Orthodox Christian faith, his actual faith is grounded in a mystical belief in Russia as a unique religious and political entity. As one scholar has written, Putin believes in “the unchanging identity and values of the Russian people through the centuries.” This is more than patriotism; it is an arrogant nationalism that asserts the uniqueness and superiority of Mother Russia among the community of nations. It also explains why Putin can justify the unjustifiable — the bloody invasion of a peaceful neighbor. To consolidate the Russian people under one common state is a matter of gathering together Mother’s wayward children, whether they like it or not.

Putin has “threatened to reach into Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons at three points in time in the past two years: once at the outset of the war against Ukraine two years ago, once when he was losing ground and again” last week, when French President Macron said he would consider sending French troops to help Ukrainian forces. While it is tempting to dismiss this as juvenile puerile saber-rattling, given Putin’s astonishing attack on a friendly and weaker neighboring power, this threat should be taken seriously.

Air Force General Anthony Cotton, who leads the U.S. Strategic Command, said recently in Senate testimony that “Russia not only possesses a nuclear arsenal surpassing that of the United States but is actively engaged in modernizing it, presenting a formidable strategic challenge.” Given Putin’s fanatical, purposeful, and even hysterical vision of Russian triumphalism, his use of “tactical” nuclear weapons — short-range but devastating — against Ukraine or any other European power that actively seeks to thwart him should not be considered idle.

The one thing a paranoid, thuggish bully like Putin understands is force. Calmly and consistently, the United States and her allies should both strengthen their own defenses and, at the same time, let Putin know that an incursion by Russia into any other nation will be met with a blow from which his regime will have difficulty recovering. We need not disclose how or what we will do specifically, but both by back-channels and public declarations we must assure Putin we mean what we say.

I don’t know if President Biden or Donald Trump is up to doing this. We can pray, though, that our leaders and those of our allies will, together, draw a line Putin dares not cross.

Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.