Russia’s image in the world leaves much to be desired. The curious story of Pussy Riot’s tactless punk prayer in an Orthodox cathedral, which should have been in the news for just a couple of days, has turned into an ideological conflict of a global scale. A series of laws adopted in early summer – on rallies, NGOs and the like – has created the impression of a crackdown. Russia’s adamant stance on the Syrian issue has given rise to debates on its consistently anti-Western and anti-American course.
All these events warrant analysis on a case-by-case basis. The Pussy Riot saga shows that the post-Soviet inertia – psychological, intellectual and cultural – has come to a halt. It has been exhausted, along with a system of ideas, likes and dislikes that was defined by past experience. The issue of self-identity for the future is moving to the fore. A clash of the most extreme, polarized views – from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal – looks like probing the ground. Russian society is in the process of an agonizing search for a new identity and for a consensus on which it would be able to develop.
However, the attitude toward Russia can be also described in more general terms. For the sake of simplicity, let’s reduce the palette of opinions to two positions. The advocates of the first position believe that Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency signifies the final assertion in Russia of an authoritarian model with anti-modernization stagnation at home and anti-Western expansionism abroad. They view Russia as a declining power with a wounded and therefore inadequate consciousness, a rapidly dwindling population, rampant corruption and a lopsided raw materials-based economy that may collapse from an external shock. It is worth being cautious about this country, but in principle it can be ignored because it is incapable of doing almost anything.
The second position is as follows: despite numerous shortcomings, Russia is skillfully maneuvering, especially against the backdrop of a diving Europe. For the West, Russia is a very difficult, albeit important partner – its resources and potential may become a guarantee of success for the entire Western world in conditions of growing competition. Unlike the supporters of the former position, the advocates of the latter do not consider Russia’s many problems to be fatal – in their view they are acceptable for the time being. Although many are upset by the abundance of problems on the road toward transformation, they don’t call it into doubt.
Russia has a very complicated and multi-faceted society, and it is possible to find support for virtually any hypothesis in it. It would be interesting to know to what extent this or that assessment is determined by Western perception rather than the analysis of Russia’s condition.
If we make things simplistic again, the main question is as follows: are we witnessing a historic turning point from the era of Western dominance in world affairs to the formation of a new system of international relations, whereby the West will no longer be a global leader but just one of the actors, albeit an important one?
Western positions are being threatened not so much by the emergence of a systemic alternative (the Soviet Union wanted to become one, but failed), as by the expansion of the non-Western space – demographic, cultural and mental. Paradoxically, the Westernization of the world after the Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of the Cold War, which was set to be perceived as the “end of history,” that is, the final triumph of the only correct ideology of the “free world,” has turned to be all but the opposite in reality.
The abolition of ineffective socialist forms of management and the powerful economic upsurge in developing countries have enhanced their role and importance in the international system, but have not made them part of the West. It was rather the other way round – the leaders are now facing a serious economic rival, on which they are increasingly dependent by virtue of the global nature of the economy. This dependence is mutual, but the stronger players find it more difficult to come to terms with it than those who are used to being subordinate.
Russia’s phenomenon is as follows: its relative power and influence are based not so much on its successes as on the crisis and decline of the ideological and political model that was taken for gospel after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, in the last 12 years, Russia has pursued a calculated and quite successful policy with a moderate number of mistakes. But its relative success is “undeserved” in the sense that it exceeds by far the efforts made to achieve it, be it economic transformation, military development or investment in PR.
In part, Russia got lucky because of soaring prices of hydrocarbons. However, a bigger role was played by the general escalation of instability that was only made worse by the actions of global leaders – starting from the United States’ irresponsible military campaigns to the adventure with the common European currency that is now threatening to trigger another financial crisis. All these measures were designed to consolidate world order but had the reverse effect.
This is exactly why Russia is such an irritant for the West – it became the major beneficiary of the West’s thoughtless policy. In its aggregate influence (the combination of nuclear might, natural resources, political levers and diplomatic skills) Russia is still among the top three, on a par with the United States and China. Moreover, it is turning into a “Kingmaker.”
Russia’s integration into the Western world would sharply enhance the latter’s positions in the face of the growing non-West. Conversely, Russia’s gravitation to the non-Western pole is weakening the West, because Russia is the last major power that can join the West by virtue of its historical and cultural background. This is a historical point, and this is why it is provoking debates centering on Russia – not because of its merits, but because of objective structural reasons.
This creates opportunities for Russia, but it also places a big responsibility on its leaders. First, any choice is very complicated, especially in such a historical and existential context. Second, Russia should not take good luck and favorable circumstances to be the result of its own efforts, and rest on its laurels. Circumstances are changing very quickly.