by Lorenzo Bernasconi

The pro-Putin front in Italy

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which has suddenly transformed a country unknown to most people into the fulcrum of the world's geopolitical balances, among the Italian conservative electorate a minority but not negligible movement of opinion, which looks with a certain sympathy to the Russian president, is still holding firm (or even strengthening).

Putin is in fact perceived by many conservatives as being closer to their demands than the majority of Western leaders, who have often uncritically embraced and made their own the ultra-progressive agenda of the US liberal left. In addition to this, there is an increasingly widespread discomfort with the hyperliberal Anglo-Saxon capitalism that in the last twenty years has contributed to the impoverishment of the European middle class and the precariousness of jobs.

In this perspective, the frequent criticisms addressed by the Russian president to American capitalism appear reasonable and shareable in the eyes of many European citizens, who, however, not being generally familiar with the economic system of the Russian Federation, are liable to be enchanted by a narrative that cleverly conceals a whole series of problems.

Why Putin's Russia is not a model

The Russian economy, which has been rather stagnant for years, is in fact based on a system that in many ways is not so different from the unbridled made in USA capitalism; but, above all, the economic model of Putin's Russia has not at all proved to be better than the western one if we look at the level of well-being and security that it has been able to guarantee to the weaker (as well as larger) sectors of the local population.

Russian society still sees the coexistence of an ultra-rich minority and a large number of proletarians who survive in conditions of relative or absolute poverty, while the size of the middle class appears rather small compared to that of the urban and suburban proletariat. Even in Dostojevski's homeland, wealth tends to be concentrated more and more in the hands of a few, and neither Putin nor the members of the Mishustin government seem interested in limiting this phenomenon, since they themselves belong to that class of oligarchs that derives enormous personal benefits from this trend.

If, therefore, the Russian way to development does not appear to be a panacea able to cure the ills of our economies in crisis, on the social and cultural level the political line of President Putin may instead seem, at a superficial glance, a valid alternative to that of his Western counterparts, at least on some issues cherished by conservatives, such as protection of traditions and family or a certain distrust of LGBT propaganda. Putin himself does not fail to emphasize these aspects, presenting himself as the guarantor and defender of patriotic and conservative values, also with a view to winning the sympathy of that large segment of European public opinion that does not recognize itself in the ultra-progressive policies of its governments.

The clash of civilizations that is not

However, I fear that those European citizens who believe they have found in Putin the champion of traditional values, now neglected and ghettoized in the Western European melting pot, are deluding themselves. Just as, in my opinion, Alexander Dugin and Patriarch Kirill are mistaken - in good faith or not - in tracing the current conflict back to a clash of ideologies and civilizations, evoking antichrists and apocalyptic clashes between good and the army of darkness.

In fact, I believe that the astute Putin, mindful of his youth spent in the KGB, is, much more prosaically, using the rhetorical arsenal of the clash of civilizations to cloak with an aura of sanctity a military invasion that is, to quote Von Clausewitz, simply the continuation by other means of politics and, specifically, of a power policy aimed at conquering resources and living space, as well as creating a large buffer between the Russian heartland and the member countries of a military alliance that, rightly or wrongly, Putin perceives as a threat to Russia's vital interests.

From this perspective, appeals to traditional values and criticism of the "homosexual degenerations" of the West would be nothing more than a rhetorical device, as is the narrative about the "denazification" of Ukraine. I have the distinct impression that if the Azov battalion had directed its hostility towards the West instead of the Russians, Putin would have willingly tolerated the references to Nazi symbolism and ideology of some Ukrainian extremists, and perhaps would have offered them logistical and military support.

Russia vs Ukraine: how will it end?
The myth of democratic Ukraine

Having said that, the situation on the opposite front appears almost symmetrical: Western politics and media keep repeating how the current war is a clash between the free and democratic world on one side, represented by Ukraine, and the ferocious Russian dictatorship on the other, and how Zelensky is today the bulwark and embodiment of the values and ideals in which we all recognize ourselves.

Now, even leaving aside the fact that Ukraine, according to the American foundation Freedom House, even before the Russian invasion was characterized by a regime of partial democracy comparable to that of Angola or Nigeria - not exactly recognized models of democracy and respect for the rule of law - one wonders what are the Western values in which we should recognize ourselves today and in the name of which we should unite against the Russian bear.

The dis-values of the West

Maybe it's the boorish revisionism of cancel culture, tearing down statues and burning books, claiming to judge figures who lived ages ago by today's standards?
Or the gender lessons in elementary school and the sex change practiced on children?
Or the export of democracy of which we have seen a shining example in Afghanistan, with the Taliban who, after twenty years of guerrilla warfare, are firmly back in power?
Or perhaps of mass surveillance and the zero-risk utopia, with its corollary of lockdowns, mandatory vaccinations, internal passports and police state?

In reality, neither the ultra-progressivism of the Biden-Harris pair, nor the façade conservatism of the authoritarian Russian president have much to offer, in terms of values, to European conservatives, who would have no reason to fight and die to bring gay pride to Kiev or Moscow but who, on the other hand, would have no reason to support the anti-democratic and self-referential Russian leader either.

From the ideological lens to the beacon of national interest

Therefore, once the ideological or, if you prefer, value-based readings have been dismantled, the only thing left to do is to analyze the conflict as a clash between the power policies of two opposing blocs, with different interests that are difficult to reconcile. At this point, everyone will be able to form their own opinion on the political line that Italy and the EU should take; no longer, however, on the basis of idealistic or ideological evaluations, but on the basis of pragmatic and strategic considerations.

All this, let me be clear, does not mean neglecting the humanitarian aspect of the conflict: providing assistance to Ukrainian refugees and supplying food and medicine to those who have chosen to stay and resist in their homeland is, in my opinion, one of those duties of human solidarity that a civilized country cannot fail to fulfil, except for very serious and compelling reasons of national security.

On the other hand, with regard to the formal or tacit entry of European countries into the conflict, even through the supply of arms to one of the warring parties, I think that the criterion to which anyone who takes a conservative worldview should look today is the much reviled, but more essential than ever, principle of defending the national interest.

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Research Fellow at the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies, formerly worked as a consultant at European Parliament, Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Chamber of Deputies and Ministry of Economic Development. M.A. in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan.