A Collision of Civilizations

Russians consider a loss in Ukraine as tantamount to Russia’s losing its historical identity—not merely as a country but as a civilization, a society distinct from the West.


September 7, 2023

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The man in the long gray coat stepped out of his tent on the steep bank of the Nieman and peered eastward through a spyglass. The men were expecting him, and as they came out of the woods the cry went out: “Vive l’Empereur! So these are the steppes of Asia!” It was June 1812, and writing some fifty years after the fact, Leo Tolstoy places Napoleon Bonaparte near the town of Kaunas, in present-day Lithuania. The cheering troops knew they were leaving Europe behind as they stepped onto Asia’s long front porch. Their objective: Moscow. 

Russia has always been part of the European state system, but it is not part of “Europe” as such. That is not always clear to us today, but in the nineteenth century that was self-evident: Europeans had centuries of experience dealing with two outside powers—Orthodox Russia and Ottoman Turkey—which mixed into the balance of power; but neither was part of a European cultural home. 

When Classical civilization collapsed in the fifth century, three other civilizations emerged from the wreckage: Western civilization, which may or may not still be in existence; Islamic civilization, which ended with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War; and Byzantium civilization, which ended when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. 

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The Slavic peoples of the northern flatlands and forests looked to Byzantium for cultural stimulation. Byzantium sent them the saintly siblings Cyril and Methodius, and they were baptized. Gradually, another distinct society, Orthodox Russian civilization, came into existence, the granddaughter of Classical antiquity.  

Recently, Pope Francis spoke by video to a group of Russian Catholic youths. The event got him in hot water because many people thought his words implied moral support for Russia as it wages war in Ukraine. “Do not forget your heritage,” he told the gathering. 

You are heirs of the great Russia—the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, the great, educated Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity. Never give up this heritage. You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia… 

Putting aside the controversy, imagine a similar scene with Francis giving an inspirational talk to a group of technocrats at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. You are the “heirs of Western civilization,” he would tell them, and you should be mindful of Europe’s great saints and its culture and heritage. 

Something about such a scene sounds false. The “Europe” of today is more of an idea than a living society with a sense of historical continuity. It is a thing constructed from the deep thoughts of the EU archons in Brussels, shaped by such abstractions as “democracy” and “human rights” and “a rules-based order”—along with the idea that “rights” of any consequence are those that the EU approves of, whatever they may be.  

The EU has always been uncomfortable with Europe’s past: nationalism is bad, borders are bad, the Judeo-Christian tradition is bad. When elites fashion a society “top-down,” a kind of cancel culture will invariably be at work. Take the designs on the euro note, for example: they depict no real person or thing from European history. The images are fictitious, the blended paste of a monoculture. Thus, it is said that the average European today no longer understands what it means to be a European. It is doubtful that the Russian youths Francis talked to have this kind of self-doubt; they know the challenge they face.

Within the lifetime of the United States, Russia has been invaded by Europeans five times. Napoleon occupied Moscow in 1812, but he badly misjudged the will of the Russian people to resist. The cause of the Crimean War in 1856 is baffling, but Britain and France won after laying siege to the Russian port at Sevastopol. Germany invaded during the First World War, followed by Britain and France again in 1918, seeking to strangle Russia’s communist revolution. Germany invaded again in 1941 and cut a swath of destruction as long as the distance between New York and Kansas.

The war in Ukraine now enters history as the sixth military collision in modern times between Russia and the great powers to its west. It is a proxy war, a structured transaction that allows the West to limit its downside risk while enjoying an upside payoff if Russia fails. Nonetheless, the West has drawn Russian blood. It would be fair to say that American and European assistance to the Ukrainian army has killed more Russian soldiers than the Ukrainian army acting alone. It would be further fair to speculate that absent such assistance, Russia and Ukraine would have come to terms long ago. Western assistance enables the war. [The war in Ukraine] is a proxy war, a structured transaction that allows the West to limit its downside risk while enjoying an upside payoff if Russia fails.Tweet This

The United States and Europe hold Russia responsible for the catastrophe. They say that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a grave act of injustice, amounting to a self-evident case of “unprovoked” aggression, and that Russia must be held to account. Russia doesn’t see it that way. It locates the cause of war in two prior chains of events: the enlargement of the NATO alliance eastward, with the objective of bringing Ukraine into it; and the coming to power in Ukraine of a stridently anti-Russian nationalist movement, which sparked a civil war in the eastern parts of the country. 

But something else is at work. Russia has suspected all along that what the West really wants is regime change in Moscow. That idea is never far below the surface, and the logic of integrating Ukraine into Western institutions points in that direction. 

Western strategy has long been to keep the pressure on Russia’s borders, lay on sanctions, rebuff Russian diplomacy, and insist on Ukraine’s right to choose—all culminating in handing the Kremlin a near-impossible dilemma: either Russia accepts Ukraine in NATO, or it goes to war to stop it. And since the costs of war are too high, the thinking goes, Russia would eventually come around—growling and grousing, but accepting the new state of affairs. Russia called the bluff. 

If Russia had acquiesced to NATO-on-the-Dnieper, if it had respected Ukraine’s right to choose allegiances, if it had allowed an opposing military alliance to push itself right up to its fence, then it would find itself on a slippery slope to game over. Which is what the West wants. It would lose its freedom of action and any claim to great power status.  It would have to fit pliantly into an American-designed world order. It would be junior to the West in world affairs, rather than an alternative to it.  

Eurasia would be transformed into the eastern precincts of a continental monoculture. A new generation of Euro-minded Russian elites would inherit the land, whose hearts would never rest until the rainbow ensign was raised on the Kremlin walls. The future would bring forth the kind of Russia the Eurocrats in Brussels would approve of; the kind Pope Francis would caution against.

The Russian people get all this. They sense that the battle in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. It is a fight for Russia’s soul. Few Russians wanted the war; perhaps more of them realized that war had become inevitable. But after the war came, all want victory, for to lose the fight would not be just a setback from which Russia could later recover. It would be tantamount to Russia’s losing its historical identity—not merely as a country but as a civilization, a society distinct from the West.

After the terrible Battle of Borodino, Tolstoy places Napoleon at the top of Poklonnaya Hill, on the outskirts of Moscow. He surveys the city before him and is taken by its peculiar architecture. “This Asiatic city of the innumerable churches, holy Moscow!” Napoleon exclaims. “Here it is then at last.” To the Russian novelist and the French emperor, Moscow is an Asiatic city. It is in the Christian East. Europe and the United States are the post-Christian West.


  • James Soriano

    James Soriano is a retired Foreign Service Officer. He spent 29 years in the State Department, serving in various capacities at the U.S. Embassies in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, India, Iraq, and Yemen.

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