The root causes of the current severe standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine, at times reminiscent of the worst years of the Cold War, have puzzled both pundits and politicians alike. Some of the reasons are on the surface, while others may take a while to unearth. In any case the conflict is not just a routine clash of geopolitical interests. In fact, Russia and the West are experiencing another moment of truth. Both sides will analyze this period and the conclusions will shape the future.
Relations between Russia and the West were exceptionally controversial even when the Russian Empire was considered – albeit formally – part of the mostly-European West. Countless fundamental works explore this vast topic. A journal article is not the best format for an exhaustive analysis, so I will focus on just one aspect. At a certain point I happened to study Russian foreign policy documents of the Holy Alliance period. The modern reader may find it hard to believe that the Russian Empire’s involvement in the Concert of Europe affairs as a major player reached as far as Portugal’s appointment of the Vice-King of Brazil. Yet the Russian authorities remained cautious, or even hostile, towards ideological Western influences, while some Western elites were very critical of Russia’s social system, such as serfdom and the absolute monarchy’s unrestricted domination of society and the individual.
Even in those times this contradiction fueled propaganda battles. In particular, when the geopolitical struggle flared up with renewed force and Russia had to resist one of the Western powers or a Western alliance. A matter of national importance in Russia was responding to Astolphe de Custine’s book Russia in 1839, a critical description of the country’s realities of the day (still a great read these days!) and an omen of the Crimean War. And it has to be acknowledged for good reason. De Custine’s book was translated into major European languages and long regarded in the West as a teaching aid and a clue to understanding Russia.
It is worth mentioning at this point that Russia’s image of a brutal angry bear was created by nineteenth-century British propaganda when the two empires clashed for control of Central Asia.
True, there were other periods; for instance, during the Triple Entante years when the perception of Russia in France and Britain was almost positive (naturally, the reverse was true in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire). But even then a number of intellectuals and politicians in allied countries called into question Russia’s affiliation with “civilized” Europe.
The October 1917 revolution and the emergence of the Soviet state were an attempt to create an ideological and political antagonist of the West, oddly enough based on an ideology imported from the West. In 1991 that attempt was declared a failure and Russia turned towards the capitalist West again. But this time it seemed to have better chances of, if not integration with the Western world, then at least of doing away with old-time controversies and creating a united ideological, political, and geopolitical space. In contrast to the Russian Empire, where modern industries had just started developing in earnest by 1914 and 80 percent of the population were peasants (most of them unable to read and write), modern Russia inherited from the Soviet Union a powerful, although largely outdated, industry and advanced science, as well as one of the most educated societies in the world. The current confrontation illustrates that Russia’s “marital union” with the West has failed to materialize and has been postponed indefinitely. However, this does not mean that bilateral relations have no future. To see how, when, and on what grounds a rapprochement may be achieved we must first identify the main causes behind the current situation.
Russia’s different path
Both Russian and Western researchers blame geopolitics, although there are exceptions. For instance, French expert Philippe Lefort stipulates that the lack of communication has distorted views of each other, causing mutual confusion and misunderstanding.
The two approaches complement each other. The lack of communication and inadequate perception certainly has adversely affected relations in geopolitics, but surely they were not the root cause of the current standoff. At the same time they have aggravated the misunderstanding caused by the differences in social development in Russia and the West since 1991. A combination of these factors has produced a cumulative effect.
The greatest misunderstanding concerns the West’s misinterpretation of the impact of reforms in the 1990s on Russia’s development and of the ideological evolution after 2000. Although the West agrees that the reforms were half-baked and managed to achieve only part of their aims, the results are rated as overall positive. An example of this is an enthusiastic 2014 article by Strobe Talbott, a former advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton, in which he argues that Boris Yeltsin was leading Russia “in the right direction” and tried to put an end to Russia’s “imperial ambitions.”
For that reason most Western experts and politicians initially saw Vladimir Putin’s rise to power as a result of a random combination of circumstances. Some speculated about a Boris Berezovsky-inspired plot in the Kremlin or even a special operation by Russian secret services. In any case, almost no one had expected that Putin would stay in power for so long. Western experts not only grossly underestimated Putin’s personality, but they also misjudged the entire political, social, and economic situation that emerged in Russia largely as a result of the aforementioned reforms.
A great deal has been written about those reforms in Russia. Opinions vary from unequivocally negative to more balanced. But very few observers would argue that Russia has experienced the emergence and development of a socio-economic system with fundamental principles very different from those of the European model. Borrowing inspiration mostly from the ideas of U.S. economist Milton Friedman, young reformers opted for the ultra-liberal, monetarist model, which was absolutely hostile to the traditions of Russian society. Not even considered as a possibility, the European model was based on a well-verified balance of government intervention and free market, and on a tight inter-connection of economic and social policies.
The net effect was the collapse of a greater part of the manufacturing sector, degradation of science and education, impoverishment of a tremendous section of the population, the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, political reshuffles, and the risk of the country’s disintegration. The link between a democratic system and prosperity failed to become ingrained in the public mind. As the Council of Europe said in its 1999 report on Russia (and also Ukraine), the country’s population had become disillusioned with the market and the state.
This situation by no means contributed to developing an awareness of the importance of personal rights and freedoms for social and economic development based on individual initiative and civic responsibility. Hatred towards the class of the new rich, which, in the opinion of the majority thrived on embezzlement and corruption, left no chance for the principle of private property to take root, which is crucial for the establishment of a genuinely free market economy.
In that context the rise to power of a Putin-type leader was highly probable, if not inevitable. It was quite natural that Putin managed to gradually reduce “the space of democracy and freedom,” as Western media puts it, without encountering special resistance, since neither was a priority for an overwhelming majority of the population. On the contrary, a steady rise in the standard of living, elimination of the threat to the country’s statehood, and political stability were very much appreciated.
However, as it became more capable, the Russian state showed a distinct trend to subjugate civil society. Firmer orientation towards state capitalism and the growing role of bureaucratic machinery merely exacerbated that trend. In fact, civil society institutions, political parties, and private capital had increasingly less influence in determining the country’s further development, while the class of civil servants and career functionaries enhanced their influence to lay hands on and use basic resources for their private needs (Russian Academy of Sciences member Yuri Pivovarov, who has examined this “new bureaucratic revolution,” coined the phrase “power property” to describe this phenomenon).
Meanwhile, with the collapse of previous ideological benchmarks a large share of the population promptly drifted towards conservative and traditionalist values. The revival of the Orthodox Church contributed to this. With time (even for many atheistic Russians) belonging to the Orthodox tradition became part of a new national identity. In the context of a spiritual vacuum that phenomenon was natural and initially rather positive. However, in the longer term the traditionalist trend could only lead (and has led) to a considerable weakening of liberal-democratic ideas.
Much in need of at least some ideological adornment of their policies, the Russian authorities have not stayed aloof from this process. Increasingly perceptive to conservative and traditionalist ideas, the Russian establishment has never missed a chance to underscore its commitment to the “good old ways.” Yet Russia has not yet developed a prevailing, systemic ideology, which normally works to cement society. Attempts by some governing and semi-governing quarters to put forward an upgraded edition of the triple formula “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Populism” have not been successful. Firstly, most of the elites have showed little enthusiasm and are unlikely to ever show any. The sole idol they worship and the only ideology they profess is cash. Secondly, promotion of democracy still remains the officially proclaimed course, and the very existence of this target is a cap on any attempts to proclaim an outspokenly authoritarian ideology.
Everything was reversed in the West. While the Russian elites were very successful in building a society where the abyss between the rich and the poor grew wider and deeper, Europe was exerting ever more tangible efforts to enhance society’s civic unity. The policy of promoting civic unity began in the 1960s. At that time, the policy was regarded as a mandatory condition for sustainable economic development and the ability of the state to resist external and internal threats.
With this in mind, advanced European countries in the 1970s through the 1990s brought into being what was promptly called the “European social model.” Its distinctive feature was a transition from the social welfare policy (support for the poor with various grants and fringe benefits) to the creation of a social and economic environment where an overwhelming majority of citizens, in particular, socially vulnerable groups (disabled people, families with many children, children in distress, migrants, ethnic minorities, and senior citizens) would have a real chance of becoming integrated in society as full-fledged members.
In broader terms, the European social model bears the following features: a tight link between economic and social policies; a robust systems of social solidarity; the availability of good housing, education, and medical services; shrinking poverty, and a narrowing gap between poor and wealthy citizens (achieved mostly through the differentiated system of taxation and contributions to social funds).
Naturally, this model is costly, for it requires considerable social investment. But the costs pay a return by providing an unprecedented level of civic unity in European societies. In fairness one has to admit that in recent years the economic crisis and austerity measures have curbed somewhat this type of public spending. Yet in Germany and France austerity spending is still at 40 percent of GDP. In contrast, Russia’s parameters before the 2008-2009 crisis did not exceed 23 percent.
The European social model is one of the components of the European Union’s “soft power” and its strongest appealing feature. The Russian authorities moved in the opposite direction and in doing so they grossly underestimated that factor in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries.
In the United States, the situation was and still is less unequivocal. On the one hand, the U.S. borrowed some traits of the European model. On the other, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown far wider in recent decades. Yet the U.S. has managed to retain a rather high level of social unity, mostly because the middle class constitutes a majority of the population, just like in Europe.
Western societies also owe their stability to smoothly operating democratic institutions, independent courts, and, respectively, a rather high level of legal protection for the individual, civic institutions, and businesses.
Social unity, in turn, has proven to be the most important factor for these societies’ stronger ideological unity. For quite some time some intellectuals (André Glucksmann in France, for instance) and politicians have worshiped liberal democracy and human rights. With the disappearance of Communism as the rival ideology, both of these concepts developed into a sort of secular religion, which began to successfully phase out real religion and continues to do so today.
In this context it is quite natural that geopolitical rivalry with Russia in Ukraine is presented by the Western mass media as a clash between Good and Evil. On the one hand, there is the West— the European Union, in particular—the “champions of social justice, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and prosperity;” and, on the other, “despotic, aggressive, and corruption-riddled Russia.” The serious problems of the newly-founded Ukrainian state were practically ignored; for instance, the rifts between the country’s East and West, the oligarchic economy, and the impoverished population. In fact, it was stipulated that the “establishment of a truly democratic regime” would provide the universal remedy to cure all ills.
The civilizational gap between Russia and the West entailed dire consequences. Firstly, it served as a pretext for barring Russia from Europe, ostensibly because the Russians reject democracy and human rights at the genetic level and can only exist under despotic rule, which they try to transplant to neighboring countries.
Secondly, Russia ignored the fact the foreign policies of Western countries have become far more ideological (although a great deal of ideological rhetoric was heard throughout the Cold War). But the feeling of triumph that followed the victory over Communism, so well seen in Francis Fukuyama’s worshiped book The End of History and the Last Man, threw that ideology factor into a fresh perspective. Incidentally, this explains the noticeable growth in the share of political activists among U.S. ambassadors – a fact highlighted by the head of the Washington Center on Global Interests, Nikolai Zlobin: whereas under Bill Clinton that share was no greater than 30 percent, during the Barack Obama administration it has reached 60 percent. The ideological and political bias and lack of professionalism of these politicians resulted in the U.S.’s mistakes in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.
Excessive ideologization is one of the reasons why the West, including the U.S., often fails to understand Russia’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Although it serves pragmatic interests, U.S. foreign policy carries a strong messianic component. The officially proclaimed task to promote the universal values of democracy and human rights worldwide is not sheer propaganda, even though it is subordinate to these interests and is being used as one of the tools to attain such aims. To a certain extent this is characteristic of the foreign policies of Western European countries. This was one of the factors behind Europe’s decision to impose anti-Russian sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine to the detriment of its own economic interests. The Russian authorities were quite amazed to discover that the economic benefit is not always the paramount value.
The delusion that the Soviet Union collapsed because it lost the Cold War is another source of “misunderstanding” between Russia and the West, in particular, in relations between Russia and the U.S. Indeed, this delusion is deeply ingrained in the Western public mind and is shared by some quarters inside Russia too. The advocates of this viewpoint ignore the fact that the Cold War had ended several years before the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and that most Western leaders supported Mikhail Gorbachev to some extent. In reality, the Soviet and Communist system lost the economic and political competition with the West and was doomed irrespective of the Cold War factor. The latter merely accelerated the inevitable outcome.
This explains why the overwhelming majority of Russians did not feel that a foreign player had defeated them. They were not hostile towards the West, but at the same time continued to regard Russia as a great power worthy of treatment as an equal partner. Even Yeltsin tried to make Western partners feel this, although those were feeble attempts. Under Putin that sentiment began to be felt in Russia’s foreign policy in earnest.
However, Western countries – as clearly seen today – expected Russia to behave like a loser country and agree to take any place in the new international world order the U.S. and its allies assigned. Eventually, that contradiction could only result in tensions and conflicts, and this is precisely what happened after Putin took power. In his well-remembered Munich speech in 2007, Putin unequivocally described the problem of Western, above all American, diktat.
Another sort of misunderstanding that added to existing tensions was the role of NATO and the organization’s eastward expansion. In May 2014, I was watching a discussion by experts and politicians over the crisis in Ukraine on the French television channel France 5. At a certain point the host explained: “But why are the Russians so scared of NATO? After all, it’s just a discussion club that is hopelessly pressing for an increase in military spending?” True, it was a joke, but it reflected the rather positive vision of NATO by most Western Europeans.
Russia feels that NATO has been redundant since the Cold War. Yet Western countries regard this organization as very useful because they save on military spending and thereby are able to compensate for lagging behind the U.S. economy. After all, Western Europe has to spend much more than the U.S. to maintain social unity and the bulk of the burden of military spending is on the economic sector. Even recently, despite warnings spread by Western media, military politicians, and the military of a “soaring Russian threat,” Britain, Germany, and France have continued to reduce their armies. After the barbaric terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine and the following surge of fear in the face of militant Islamists, French President Francois Hollande merely “slowed down” the program for cutting France’s ground forces in 2009-2019 (from 314,000 men, including civilian personnel, to 234,000).
Most Russians view NATO as a military and political alliance led by the U.S. that uses military force every time it considers its geopolitical interests require it. A case in point is the bombing of Serbia in 1999. By contrast, the majority of people in the West sincerely believe that the alliance brings its members and neighboring states nothing but “security, stability, and a chance for prosperity.”
In this sense a great role was played by the fact that NATO enlargement was accompanied by a powerful brainwashing campaign, which invariably went into high gear each time the bloc moved closer towards Russia. In fact, at a certain point it grew into a genuine information war.
That propaganda made Western public opinion agree with the image of Russia as a pseudo-capitalistic copy of the Soviet Union, with the sole difference in that the copy looks far worse than the original. While the Soviet Union evoked not just fear, but certain respect and even interest, and, which is still more important, it was considered “predictable,” modern Russia is seen as a uninviting country that, after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, began to look “unpredictable and aggressive as well.”
This is precisely why the support furnished by the U.S. and its allies for the Maidan-fuelled coup in Kiev, which propelled to power an outspokenly Western-leaning government, was perceived by the political establishment, the mass media, and public opinion in the West as “only natural.” On the contrary, Russia’s response (Crimea’s reunification with Russia, support for the “anti-Maidan” uprising in eastern Ukraine) was labeled as “unexpected,” “disproportionate,” and a crude encroachment on the existing international order.
Of course, the geopolitical clash between the West and Russia over Ukraine could have been avoided, but one cannot say it was unpredictable. Some specialized Western periodicals acknowledge this. For instance, French magazine La Revue Defence Nationale argues that the risk of such a clash had been predetermined first and foremost by U.S. foreign policy against Russia, adopted in the early 1990s. The point at issue is the modern version of the “rollback policy,” declared by John Foster Dulles during the Dwight Eisenhower presidency and which was far more aggressive than the previous “containment” strategy. Among other things this policy envisaged the expulsion of the enemy, i.e. the Soviet Union, from disputed strategic areas. In relation to modern Russia, special importance was attached to the establishment of Western control over Ukraine through its adoption into the European Union and NATO. By contrast, Russia itself was offered no full-fledged “European” or “Euro-Atlantic” prospects.
A door instead of a window
The conflict between Russia and the West has highlighted the existence of a systemic crisis in their relations stemming from the combination of mutual ideological and political estrangement, and geopolitical rivalry. On the one hand, Russia, which in its 1992 application for admission to the Council of Europe sincerely proclaimed its intention to promote “European values” at home; that is, democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law, was moving along that road ever more slowly and with interruptions. After 2000 an obvious regress developed, manifested in the concepts of “controllable” and “sovereign” democracy. Full-fledged institutions of civil society did not develop and the authorities turned explicitly paternalist. The Russian judicial system remained tightly pegged to the authorities and remained largely an institution of the administrative and repressive system, and not justice. Law enforcement was riddled with corruption. In socio-economic terms, Russia was moving in the opposite direction away from Europe.
With a certain degree of abstraction one may postulate that Russia in the 1990s to a certain extent replicated the experience of Russia under Peter the Great. The Russian Emperor cut through a window to Europe, but at the same time, as Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky has noted, he mostly borrowed the military and technical component as well as certain elements of the administrative machinery. Europe’s social practices (the actual abolishment of serfdom and emphasis on the free individual in developing the economy) were utterly ignored. When the Communist system collapsed, the modern Russian elites, just as a large share of the country’s population, mostly borrowed the superficial aspects of European lifestyles, the attributes of the “society of consumption.” However, the frequently mentioned “European values” have failed to be properly ingrained either in government policies or in the public mind.
On the other hand, the West, which began to repel Russia back in the 1990s, eventually exacerbated that estrangement with its eastward geopolitical expansion. The West’s strategic mistake was that it did not offer Russia any alternative other than bowing to Western interests. Today anti-Russian sanctions, fitting in with the logic of the very same “roll-back strategy,” have turned things from bad to worse. Growing anti-Russian rhetoric follows the same track.
In short, there are solid reasons why Russia feels insulted by the West. However, it should be remembered that Russia has been drifting away from the West for a long time. Russia is responsible for its ideological and political self-isolation and aggravation of internal development problems.
There is little doubt that the West has been acting so confidently and aggressively not only because it is certain about its “historical rightness.” Russia has taken the liberty of being week and has not created a firm, advanced, and diversified economy and an effective social system. It has always been the case that those who are week usually have little say in international relations. The popular postulate that the West is always ready to launch an onslaught against Russia every time it grows stronger is not historically correct, and in relation to the current situation is very wrong. In the past Russia frequently united with other states against an excessively strong power (such as Napoleon’s France). The current situation is largely explained by the fact that Russia has been trying to behave as a great power without the required resources or sufficiently strong and reliable allies. In that connection it is appropriate to recall a remark made by the Russian Empire’s foreign minister, chancellor Alexander Gorchakov: “Greatness is not proclaimed, it is to be acknowledged.”
Awareness of this fact is crucial to finding a way out of the systemic crisis. An economically strong, socially united, and democratic Russia, integrated with the system of “European values,” would not likely be subjected to such geopolitical pressure.
Russia today has no alternative to resuming cooperation with the West, above all with the European Union. Economic weakness means that Russia cannot count on victory in a war of attrition. However useful and necessary, “the turn towards Asia” (not the first time in Russian history), wider cooperation with China, and the Eurasian Economic Union project are unable to provide such an alternative. Firstly, Asian partners, including China, are unable to substitute for the West as a source of advanced technologies and investment, which are essential for a genuine advance and diversification of the Russian economy.
Secondly, Russia under any circumstance will remain on the European continent, which accounts for more than 80 percent of its population and the bulk of its economic potential. Despite the current confrontation, Russia and the European Union remain tightly interdependent in trade and the economy. Unlike in the Soviet era, there is no ideological confrontation between them (just as between Russia and the West in general). Despite the dissonance with the European Union in socio-political development, Russian society belongs with European culture, which is a reality no one is destined to change.
Fortunately, the European Union and the West in general are not interested in prolonged confrontation. As previously, both sides need cooperation along many lines. Even the U.S., increasingly more concerned about the problem of deterring China, does not want to see Russia vassalized by an Asian giant.
At this point it is crucial that a compromise on Ukraine is found as soon as possible. From the standpoint of Realpolitik, even “freezing” the conflict in its current form would be a lesser evil, making it possible to not only stop the loss of human lives, but also to considerably ease the risk of a “big war,” if not eliminate one altogether. At the same time a “frozen conflict” makes it possible to gradually proceed from confrontation to restoring cooperation.
In the longer term, Russia will have to make a choice: either to follow “a different road,” away from the mainstream of European development, inevitably leading into a dead end, or to start searching for ways of real rapprochement with the European Union. I have in mind not just wider and deeper cooperation in various fields, but also the adoption of the fundamental goal of getting Russia involved in the process of “Eurointegration” – encompassing not just the economy, education, science, and culture, but legislation, law enforcement, and, finally, the political system. Democracy, independent courts, the inviolability of private property, and the rights of the individual are linked inseparably. Without them Russia has no future. References to the success of the Chinese model, quite popular with some Russian quarters, should not mislead anyone. China, just as South Korea in its day and a number of other Asian countries, will inevitably enter into a phase where further development will require democratic reform. Even now official Chinese media have been pointing with alarm to what they describe as the Westernization of the country’s middle class and the risk of further proliferation of “the Hong Kong virus.”
As for the European Union, there has always been the understanding that without Russia it is impossible to guarantee security on the continent. The first signs have emerged of an awareness that the European Union without Russia will never acquire the strategic might that is crucial for achieving greater independence. Although the modern context is not the best for pushing ahead with this goal, with time it will manifest itself ever stronger. In any case, U.S. pressure on Europe over the issue of anti-Russian sanctions and belligerent rhetoric in the U.S. Congress have stirred into activity those European circles that believe mutual estrangement between the European Union and Russia benefits the U.S. and harms Europe.