TEL AVIV – In his famous “X” article, published in 1947, George F. Kennan argued that the Soviet Union’s hostility toward the United States was virtually inexorable, given that it was rooted not in a classic conflict of interest between great powers, but in a deep-seated nationalism and insecurity. The same could be said of the current conflict between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West: It is, at root, a collision between the West’s supposedly universal values and Russia’s quest for a distinct identity.
A country’s struggle for identity can shape its strategic behavior. The missionary ethos of American civilization helps to explain its conduct as a global power. The resurgence of Islamism is essentially a quest for a fulfilling identity by an ancient civilization overwhelmed by the challenges of modernity. And Israel’s emphasis on its Jewish identity has become a formidable obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Putin’s defiant foreign policy is a response – mediated by an authoritarian political tradition, the reactionary tenets of Orthodox Christianity, and pride in Russia’s vast geography and natural wealth – to the humiliating loss of an empire. Seeing in Russia’s Cold War defeat the need to extol the non-Western roots of Russian history and tradition, Putin has fallen back on the same conservative values that emerged in response to the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, frustrating Peter the Great’s modernization efforts.
When the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, said during a recent Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi that “Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin,” he was expressing a profound Russian reality. In no other country has the ruler’s persona – from Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible to Lenin and Stalin – made such a deep mark on national history.