How Vladislav Surkov Joined the Russian Order of Dark Power
In February this year, Vladislav Surkov, aide to Russian president, published his new article, “Putin’s Long State”, that demonstrates a certain ideological rupture from his previous op-eds. But the article seems to reflect not only Surkov’s personal reflections on Russia and its relations with the West in general and Europe in particular, but also the changes taking place within some Russian ruling elites, which makes Surkov’s article worthy of attention.
Surkov came into prominence during the first presidential term of Vladimir Putin as the chief political technologist of the Kremlin: he engineered the Putin system and helped annihilate groups challenging it, he created political parties and put them at odds with each other to control them, he formed pro-Putin youth movements and fostered a whole generation of loyalists, he initiated dozens of “anti-Orange” projects to ward off the (largely imaginary) threats to Putin’s regime when it became concerned with a series of “colour revolutions” in the post-Soviet space in 2003-2005.
In 2006, Surkov authored the concept of the so-called “sovereign democracy” that, despite its vagueness and lack of conceptual clarity, was often considered (erroneously) as the official ideology of the Kremlin. While Surkov’s attempts to develop this concept feature a number of different aspects, we will review only those related to Europe and the West.
Discussing his concept of “sovereign democracy”, Surkov, then holding the position of deputy chief of Russia’s Presidential Administration, argued that Russia was a European country and an integral part of the diverse West. For him, Russia’s totalitarian experiment of the 20th century was one of the reasons why Russia was a European country – the Soviet totalitarian experiment was an equivalent to the rise of fascism in Europe. In other words, by having succumbed to undemocratic illiberalism, Russia in fact revealed its Europeanness.
Moreover, in Surkov’s view, Russia needed to strengthen its ties to Europe and advance its integration in the global economy and the global knowledge system in order to have a greater access to Western technologies that were indispensable for Russia’s modernisation. Surkov did not believe that Russia would be able to modernise without the West: “Not to fall out of Europe,” he concluded. “Holding on to the West is an important element in building Russia.” He also believed that conflicts between Western states (including Russia) could be best described not as clashes between enemies, but rather as a competition among partners.
Surkov’s discussion of the Europeanness of Russia in 2006 was his earliest attempt to manufacture Russia’s mimetic power, which I define as the ability to influence Western nations by creating the impression that Russia is a normal member of the international community. The “normality” narrative was very important for Surkov’s reflections on Europe: Russia is no better and no worse than other European countries, implying that when Russia behaves in a questionable way that is still normal because European states sometimes do the same.
Surkov worked in the Presidential Administration not only under Putin but also under Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russia’s President in 2008-2012 and tried to position himself as a more liberal statesman than Putin. And Surkov would eventually side on many important issues with Medvedev against Putin. In turn, Putin took this as a betrayal – he also believed that Surkov somehow instigated or at least contributed to the anti-Putin protests in 2011 – and as a result Surkov was transferred from the Presidential Administration to the government, where he would hold a position of Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Modernisation. After Putin’s return to presidency in 2012, Surkov lost much of his influence in Russian politics, as Putin decided to tighten the screws and force out any remaining pro-liberal elements from positions of power. Surkov had to resign in spring 2013 after he publicly confronted Putin: the latter would not tolerate an experienced master of manipulation to muddy the water.
Where Surkov would actually be welcome to muddy the water was particular areas of Russia’s neighbourhood, and in September 2013 he was appointed as personal adviser to Putin on Russia’s relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Russia-occupied parts of Georgia) and Ukraine. For his involvement in the destabilisation of Ukraine and undermining of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Surkov was sanctioned, together with a number of other individuals, by the EU and US in March 2014. At the same time, Surkov became the major coordinator of contacts between the Kremlin and pro-Russian separatist “states” in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the main Russian representative in talks with the West on Ukraine.
New experiences, as well as Donald Trump’s election as the US president, made Surkov consider Russia’s relations with the West from a new angle. In November 2017, the website of RT published Surkov’s article titled “The Crisis of Hypocrisy”, in which he tried to address the issue of a rebellion against Western normality – this was exactly how he considered the election of Trump who ran his presidential campaign on an anti-establishment platform. Again, Western normality was in the focus of Surkov’s discussions, but, in contrast to 2006, when he spoke of normality in relativising, still in neutral terms, Surkov declared that in essence Western normality was defined by hypocrisy: “In the rationalist paradigm of the West, hypocrisy is inevitable.” Expounding this thesis, Surkov asserted that hypocrisy was not only normal, but also natural: “To pretend to be someone you are not, to conceal one’s intentions is the most important technology of biological survival.” And this brought Surkov to draw, again, on the idea of competition like he did in 2006: Western nations demand honesty and transparency from each other in order to weaken their competitors, but they remain hypocritical themselves and, to stay competitive, develop their skills in obfuscating the truth.
Arguably the most peculiar aspect of Surkov’s article was that in no single instance did it mention Russia, and this omission on its own was Surkov’s yet another important, if implicit, argument: Russia is part of the West and, by default, is hypocritical too, as it competes with other Western nations. We know that you are hypocritical, and you know that we are hypocritical, and this is normal, these are rules of the game, we get it. Writing on the Putin’s system, its former major co-engineer Gleb Pavlovsky made the same argument, although from a different position, i.e. outside of the system: the ruling elites in Russia are confident that all nations in the world are deceiving each other. “The world play is a series of fixed matches, where everybody manipulates everyone. The principles of humanity are only a procedure of bargaining”.
Even if Surkov identified Western normality through hypocrisy, he still corroborated the concept of Russia’s mimetic power, as he contributed to cultivating the impression that Russia was a normal member of the international community. But the most recent article of Surkov’s, “Putin’s Long State”, collides with mimetic technology and, intrinsically, invalidates Surkov’s previous arguments.
Only a year and a half ago, Surkov discussed hypocrisy from the position of a native of the hypocritical West, but in “Putin’s Long State” he makes a clear distinction between Russia and the West, which he no longer considers as diverse, but rather as a monolithic entity – an interpretation typical of the most ardent anti-Western forces in Russia. By demarcating Russia and the West, Surkov shakes off the shackles of convention: no more shall we pretend that we are part of the West, no more shall we discuss types of democracy – we do not even want to discuss the concept of democracy as such. Surkov feels so liberated that he admits the imitative nature of some Russian political structures: “Multilevel political institutions borrowed from the West are sometimes considered partly ceremonial – we adopted them so we would ‘look like everyone else’, so the differences of our political culture would not strike our neighbours’ eye, would not annoy or scare them”. But now we can freely announce that we are profoundly different from the West, and we are more honest too: Westerners need a smokescreen of democratic institutions to hide the “coarse and absolutely undemocratic network organisation of the real power of security agencies”, but we do not need to hide anything – everyone can see the “brutal frames of the power carcass” of our system, they are not concealed by any fretwork.
Rejecting mimetic power, Surkov fully embraces dark power, which can be defined as the ability to influence preferences and behaviour of other nations through projecting an image of a state inherently antagonistic to their political values. Having broken free from the fetters of imitating the West, Russia started to produce an image of a country that opposes the “Western hypocrisy” of liberal democracy, has the right to behave irresponsibly on the international stage, and is able to corrupt democracy in other countries. Surkov calls this “an information counterattack on the West”, by which he means the establishment. If old Russia dragged behind the West trying to imitate its institutions and norms, Putin’s “Long State” declares that it is taking the lead in the processes of “de-globalisation, re-sovereignisation and nationalism” – a movement challenging the global liberal order. And Surkov is sure that Russia’s dark power has an export capacity: both ruling and opposition groups in the West, as he argues, are already studying and partly adopting the practices of Russia’s political system. Now Western nations are imitating Russia, rather than vice versa.
The significance of Surkov’s latest article should not be exaggerated. Just as his “sovereign democracy”, “Putin’s long state” is not a new Russian ideology. Moreover, in comparison to his “sovereign democracy” period, Surkov is today removed from those circles in Russia that may communicate various ideological constructs to the Kremlin, although he of course remains an important player in Moscow’s tactics on Ukraine. What is disturbing, however, is the trend of Russian tricksters and imitators transforming into downright bullies, of mimetic power devolving into dark power. Surkov is not alone in the Order of Russia’s Dark Power – he has joined the ranks of dozens of stakeholders and (non-)state actors who believe that projecting the image of Russia as a global bogeyman will advance Moscow’s foreign policy interests and that they can be rewarded by the Kremlin for successfully engineering trouble in the West. And they do not need the Kremlin’s sanction to implement their own projects aimed at destabilising the West through “de-globalisation, re-sovereignisation and nationalism”.
Anton Shekhovtsov is an external Lecturer at the University of Vienna, Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, an expert at the European Platform for Democratic Elections, and General Editor of the “Explorations of the Far Right” book series at ibidem-Verlag. His main area of expertise is the European far right, relations between Russia and radical right-wing parties in the West, and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the author of the Russian language book New Radical Right-Wing Parties in European Democracies (ibidem-Verlag, 2011) and the book Russia and the Western Far Right (Routledge, 2017), as well as co-editor of The Post-War Anglo-American Far Right (Palgrave, 2014). He is also a member of the Editorial Board of Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, and published several academic articles in Journal of Democracy, Russian Politics and Law, Europe-Asia Studies, Nationalities Papers, and Patterns of Prejudice among others.