Back in the 1990s, when modern Russia emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the West was the best. It offered the only realistic role model. Times have changed, but the penny hasn’t dropped yet in Brussels or Washington.
Today, the situation has changed dramatically. A good illustration is how Russia has responded to criticism in the light of the Alexey Navalny case. Previously, when confronted with similar situations around Yukos (a collapsed oil giant fraudulently acquired by oligarchs in the 1990s), Pussy Riot, or any other issue, Moscow tried to justify its actions to Western fault-finders using their own line of argument – even though sometimes Russian officials could be too harsh and emotional when making their case.
Now, it’s different. The West’s critical comments are either ignored or ridiculed. Russia has changed – but greater shifts in global affairs also seem to be part of the explanation.
Today, almost every nation is set on a different, sovereign course and now seeks to gain more political, economic, and ideological control domestically.
Alexey Navalny’s detention has prompted an uproar in the West, with numerous figures calling on Russian authorities to immediately reverse the decision. Leaving the circumstances of the case and trial to other analysts, we will instead focus on the potential impact international pressure will have in the current global environment, given the vocal position put forward by both the EU and the US.
Inalienable rights and freedoms that include justice standards are listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The commitment to respect these rights and freedoms has been enshrined in the OSCE’s Helsinki Final Act signed in 1975.
In both cases the number of the signatories is considerable. The two documents have definitely had an impact on international affairs and policies of individual states. Some even say that by agreeing to the humanitarian agenda in the Helsinki Accords, or rather allowing it to be tied up with the military and political framework, the Soviet Union set off a time bomb for itself to implode a decade and a half later. That could well have been the case.
Anyway, the bottom line was that the landmark cold war memorandum laid down a list of humanitarian standards without any arrangements to enforce their implementation. Any references to specific forms of putting them in practice were also missing. In other words, countries from different political camps could grill and condemn each other but in reality, they still recognized that their opponents were entitled to pursue their own policies.
The end of the Cold War tipped the scales, empowering the West to push for universal principles along the lines of its specific definitions and forms of expression. One example of such pressure is suggestions that Russia has violated its Council of Europe commitments, in particular in terms of sexual minority rights. Moscow’s response has been unambiguous: The claims refer not to the commitments assumed in 1996 as Russia joined the international body, rather they reveal the political and ideological narrative shaped by the leading nations in the West.
Humanitarian patterns that emerged in the West’s politics became part and parcel of what is known as the ‘liberal world order’, which prevailed without major changes for a quarter of a century – following the end of the Cold War until the mid-2010s. Although it was not universally accepted, there were no dramatic attempts to revise it. In fact, there was no real leverage or genuine incentive to challenge it or its drive towards stripping nations of sovereign control over norms and handing it over to the supranational level.
Economy-wise, these trends were underpinned by globalization. Ethically, they were justified by a broad consensus that the meddling in the internal affairs of some states could be substantiated if the latter breached humanitarian or legal standards. However, attempts to furnish a legal framework for this concept at the UN failed because the parties could not agree on the triggers for such an intervention.
However, it proved to be a rather effective way of exerting influence on foreign governments. For the sake of argument, let’s leave military interventions aside and focus on other possible means, such as political and economic pressure usually justified by the need to uphold certain values. The targets either had to adjust their behaviour or at least adopt a defensive stance, thus acknowledging the attacks.
Under the liberal world order, these demands were perceived as a set of rules that cannot be simply ignored. So these guidelines indeed worked as political instrument, but only within the liberal world order. It was considered to be basically the only possible option and one without any major flaws, although not suitable for some and rather difficult to embrace for others. Russian top officials and President Putin said a number of times that Russia is pursuing the same goals as the developed Western countries, yet it didn’t want others to push it, but rather give it space and time to do it its own way.
The liberal standards started to erode due to two reasons.
First, countries with non-Western cultures and traditions have reinforced their positions and now enjoy a more important role in global affairs. They no longer want to play by the rules the West once set.
Second, complex and wide-reaching changes in leading Western societies have undermined their appeal as a role model for others.
As a result, today we have the old form hiding new content. The narrative of liberal values, human rights, and freedoms is no longer universal as many do not share it now. It has turned into a purely political instrument. The consequences are at times rather entertaining.
Here’s a good example. Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, gave an interview on the day Navalny’s suspended sentence was converted into real jail time. Bolton, a devoted American nationalist who openly supports far-right ideology, can hardly pass for a champion of human rights and freedoms. Nevertheless, that’s exactly how he acted in that interview.
Another example, probably an even more illustrative one, is how the US (and the EU, albeit to a lesser degree) responded to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky banning three opposition TV channels in Kiev overnight under the suspicion of undermining state authority. Surprisingly, the West broadly welcomed that move.
Now, let’s imagine the Kremlin follows suit and pulls the plug on independent digital media. Washington and Brussels would say the exact opposite. One might say this is a case of double standards, when in truth there is no standard at all anymore. Now, political expediency is the overriding motivation behind both praise and bashing. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same kind of shift has happened in domestic politics in many countries – especially in the US.
The chasm between the policies of the liberal age and the current reality was clearly exposed during the recent visit of High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to Russia. As usual, there were some positive expectations. Alas, it only proved that there is a huge divide between Moscow and Brussels that cannot be bridged by conventional diplomacy.
Probably due to convenient inertia, the EU sticks to the idea that the state of the humanitarian and political system in Russia and its conformity to the European standards should remain one of the main points on the bilateral agenda. It’s a throwback to the relationship established back in the 1990s, under which Russia would gradually adopt the aforementioned norms and then join efforts (the exact arrangement was never outlined in detail) for the sake of a joint project.
Over the past two decades, the idea of such a project has faded away, while Russia and the EU have changed a great deal, going in very different directions. Yet the attitude lives on, and today Eurocrats still insist that Russia change some of its domestic policies that are deemed unacceptable by Brussels.
Meanwhile, Russia has vehemently and bluntly rejected not only criticism, but also the very notion of an external standard or arbiter to be followed and obeyed. This is why Russia is not giving answers or explanations anymore, but pointedly ignoring such moves and highlighting that they are not even politically, but morally void.
Moscow regards the EU’s efforts to bring back the values-related aspect in our bilateral relations as little more than a tool to apply political pressure. The Foreign Ministry responded decisively, saying it will be expelling diplomats from Poland, Sweden and Germany who took part in recent protests in Moscow. The message is clear: It’s unacceptable for representatives of other nations to be involved in Russia’s domestic affairs in any way, even just to observe.
However, there is no other mutually acceptable paradigm for our relations. It’s impossible to go back to the Cold War type of interaction – at this point, at least. As I said, it would mean acknowledging that your counterpart is entitled to their own political practices, which the West doesn’t want to do after three decades of employing a universal approach to values.
The second reason is that Russia is still perceived as a strategically weak and potentially unstable player internationally, whose strength will inevitably start waning soon. So acknowledging Russia’s right to have a different set of values would be too generous. Trade-offs based on equality are not considered the proper way to go, since, unlike 40 years ago, there is no balance of power.
The current situation seems unpleasant because there is no mechanism for aligning our respective interests.
Then it will become clear where Russia and the EU (or Russia and the US) are crucially important to each other, and there are fewer areas than it might seem. In addition, the expectations of the late 20th century might finally lose their impetus. At this stage, political contacts will almost certainly result in stronger animosity, something we should seek to avoid. There is a lot of enmity as it is.