Do Russia and the West really need a pseudo-ideological confrontation?

28 june 2016

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: Analyst discusses possible scenarios on heels of recent SPIEF meetings.

The results of the 20th edition of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) generated numerous but contradictory remarks. Some believe that Russia, having exhausted its potential for self-affirmation and its search for an alternative in the East, is returning to its EU partners and would like to “mend fences.” Others think that the Old World has realized that its attempts to isolate Russia have reached a dead end and that it is now searching for a way to reestablish advantageous relations. 

Certainly the atmosphere has changed. The voices of those opposing the anti-Russian sanctions have become louder. Just six months ago business representatives interested in the Russian market were silent, since they knew that in that political climate their voices would not be heard. But now due to the “thaw” it has become possible to oppose the political bans. The Russian side is also showing more interest in reactivating cooperation and making social-economic issues the focus of discussions. 

The scenario for what will happen in upcoming months is clear. The EU sanctions against Russia – the harshest being the ones introduced in 2014 that address certain economic sectors – have been extended for another half year. However, the decision is accompanied by resonant objections and the discussion of an algorithm to gradually remove them in the future. If there are no drastic escalations in Ukraine, the sanction regime will begin being disassembled in January 2017.

The question is what will happen afterwards. At the Valdai panel at SPIEF Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his ministry had proposed to the European Commission doing an inventory of all the agreements made in order to understand what is possible and what is not. This is a necessary initiative, however, one technocratic approach is not enough. 

The crisis, which began in 2014, has engendered deep distrust on various levels. The public exclamations made during SPIEF once again bore witness to this, even though the European guests represented the most sympathetic part of the EU establishment. For example, at the same time that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi eloquently suggested turning this unpleasant page, Italy calmly supported the extension of sanctions against Russia because of Crimea.

Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking as a true friend of Russia, called on the country not to be so trivial and accommodating because in his opinion it is stronger. This prompted Vladimir Putin to say a day later that Moscow would be willing to consider canceling the countersanctions but it is not sure whether or not this is a “scam.” We live at such a heightened level of suspicion that every routine event, such as a disorder at a football game, turns into an acute political conflict. 

Remarkably, the sinister portrait of Russia that is widely circulating in Europe is in many ways a mirror reflection of the image that Russians have created of themselves. At the heart of the Russian social-political consciousness is sovereignty and the role of the government (in other words – its strengthening). A constant theme has been the consolidation of society in supporting the authorities.

The West believes this and as a result many are seriously convinced that in Russia nothing happens by itself – it requires not just the assent, but the direct order of the government. This includes the athletes' use of doping, the rage of [soccer] fans or isolated utterances made in the Russian public space. From the outside Russia looks like an authoritative monolith and the foreign observers who are familiar with the order of Russian society are usually stunned by the dissimilarity between the West's habitual descriptions of that society and the real and extremely diverse state of things.

The most astounding process today is the construction of a pseudo-ideological confrontation. There are no contradictions in ideas worth mentioning, such as the ones found during the Cold War, but nevertheless the polarization and determined simplification of mutual evaluations and impressions are basically created for the sake of returning to a comprehensible black and white picture.

The constant juxtaposition – in both the West and Russia – of the Western and Eastern components of Russia's foreign policy belongs to this category. Everyone acknowledges that a balanced development in both directions is not only normal but also completely necessary. However, as soon as Russia tries to realize this balance, passions flare about “turning away from Europe,” “capitulation to China” and so on. In other words, the desire to dot the i's, cross the t's and pronounce the final verdict is insurmountable. 

All that remains is for Russia to attempt to convince everyone – including itself – that there are no zero-sum games in the modern world. However, black and white movies are appreciated only by film buffs, while for everyone else they are outdated. 

First published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta

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