By the 2010s, oligarchy in the Russian Federation had made reform not just impossible but unthinkable. Writing for the German press in November 2010, Putin tried to have it both ways, arguing that the EU should integrate with Russia without expecting Russia to change in any way. Since the Russian Federation could not follow Europe’s principles, went his reasoning, Europe should forget those principles. Putin was beginning to imagine a reverse integration in which European states would become more like Russia, which would have meant the end of the EU.
A signal difference between a Europe of empire and a Europe of integration was the attitude towards law. On this issue, Putin the politician was following the course of Ilyin the philosopher: an early faith in law yielded to an endorsement of lawlessness as patriotic. Ilyin’s great concern as a young man in Russia before the revolution had been the spirit of the law. He believed that Russians needed to imbibe it, but could not see how.
A century later, the boring EU had solved this problem. Its tedious process of accession involved the export of the spirit of the law. European integration was a means of transporting the idea of the rule of law from places where it functioned better to places where it functioned worse. In the 1990s, association agreements signed between the EU and aspiring members initiated legal relationships that included the implicit promise of a deeper legal relationship, namely full membership. The prospect of future membership made clear the benefits of the rule of law, in a way that individual citizens could understand.
The mature Ilyin rejected the rule of law in favor of the arbitrariness—proizvol—of fascism. Having given up hope that Russia could be governed by law, he presented lawlessness (proizvol) as a patriotic virtue. Putin followed the same trajectory, citing Ilyin as his authority. When he first ran for president in 2000, he spoke of the need for a “dictatorship of the law.” Those two concepts contradicted each other, and one of them fell away. Running for president in 2012, Putin rejected the idea of a European Russia, which meant ignoring external incentives that favored the rule of law. Instead, proizvol would be presented as redemptive patriotism. The operative concept in the Russian language today is bespredel, boundary-less-ness, the absence of limits, the ability of a leader to do anything. The word itself arose from criminal jargon.
On this logic, Putin was not a failed statesman but a national redeemer. What the EU might describe as failures of governance were to be experienced as the flowering of Russian innocence.
Putin chose empire over integration. If the EU did not accept Russia’s proposition to integrate with Russia, Putin explained in 2011 and 2012, Russia would help Europe to become Eurasian, more like itself. A Eurasian Customs Union with neighboring post-Soviet dictatorships Belarus and Kazakhstan was established on January 1, 2010, while Putin was prime minister. As a presidential candidate in late 2011 and early 2012, Putin proposed a more ambitious “Eurasian Union,” an alternative to the EU that would include its member states and thus assist in its demise. He described the Eurasian idea as the beginning of a new ideology and geopolitics for the world.
Writing in the newspaper Izvestiia on October 3, 2011, Putin announced the grand project of Eurasia. Russia would bring together states that had not proven to be plausible members of the European Union (and implicitly, in the future, states that exited a collapsing European Union). This meant present and future dictatorships. In Nezavisimaia Gazeta on January 23, 2012, Putin claimed, citing Ilyin, that integration was not about common achievement, as the Europeans thought, but about what Putin called “civilization.” On Putin’s logic, the rule of law ceased to be a general aspiration and became an aspect of a foreign Western civilization. Integration in Putin’s sense was not about working with others but about praising oneself; not about doing but being. There was no need to do anything to make Russia more like Europe. Europe should be more like Russia.
Of course, for the EU, coming to resemble Russia would have meant an undoing. In a third article, in Moskovskie Novosti on February 27, 2012, Putin drew that very conclusion. Russia could never become a member of the EU because of “the unique place of Russia on the world political map, its role in history and in the development of civilization.” Eurasia would therefore “integrate” its future members with Russia without any of the troubling burdens associated with the EU. No dictator would have to step down; no free elections would have to be held; no laws would have to be upheld. Eurasia was a spoiler system, designed to prevent states from joining the EU and prevent their societies from thinking that this was possible. In the long run, Putin explained, Eurasia would overwhelm the EU in a larger “Union of Europe,” a “space” between the Atlantic and the Pacific, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Not to join Eurasia, Putin said, would be “to promote separatism in the broadest sense of the word.”
As a presidential candidate in 2011 and 2012, Putin promised the release of Russia from general standards and the extension of Russian particularities to others. If Russia could be portrayed as a pristine source of civilizational values that others had lost, then the question of reforming Russian kleptocracy would become irrelevant. As a beacon for others, Russia should be celebrated but not altered. Putin was matching his words with his deeds, since he had made European integration unthinkable for his people. The way that Putin assumed the office of president made his Eurasian turn irreversible. The abandonment of democratic procedures in 2011 and 2012 mocked a basic criterion of EU membership. To clear protestors from the street by violence and then portray them as agents of Europe was to define the EU as an enemy.
Russia had no plausible principle of succession, and the future of the Russian state was uncertain, but none of this could be said. Putin could control the state but not reform it. So foreign policy had to take the place of domestic policy, and diplomacy had to be about culture rather than security. In effect, this meant exporting Russian chaos while speaking of Russian order, spreading disintegration in the name of integration. Once inaugurated as president in May 2012, Putin presented Eurasia as an instrument to dissolve the EU in order to simplify the world order so that empires could compete for territory. The black hole at the center of his system could not be filled, but it could draw in neighbors. At his inauguration, Putin proposed that Russia become “a leader and a center of gravity for the whole of Eurasia.” Addressing parliament that December, he spoke of a coming catastrophe that would commence a new era of colonial resource wars. At such a moment, it would be frivolous to propose reform or to imagine progress. During this permanent emergency, Putin proclaimed, Russia would rely on its native genius within “great Russian spaces.”
The reference to “great spaces,” a concept from the Nazi legal thinker Carl Schmitt, was not even the most striking moment of the address. Using the odd word “passionarity,” Putin evoked a special Russian ability to thrive amidst global chaos. Such “passionarity” would determine, according to Putin, “who will take the lead and who will remain outsiders and inevitably lose their independence.” The strange term was the invention of one Russian thinker, Lev Gumilev. Unlike Ilyin, who had to be rediscovered, Gumilev was a Soviet citizen. His signature term “passionarity” was recognizable to Russians, even if unnoticed elsewhere. As Russians knew, Gumilev was the modern exemplar of Eurasian thought.