In early 2003, during Vladimir Putin’s first term as president, Russia found itself in a political alliance with the West for the first time since World War I. Siding with Paris and Berlin, Moscow resolutely opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Many analysts considered this triangle to be the onset of a new European political geometry, but it did not lead to anything serious.
Although Iraq damaged trans-Atlantic unity, the election of new leaders in the United States and European countries ironed out the discord to some extent. True, the former unity of the Old and New Worlds is gone, but Russia has not become a durable ally of the leading mainland West European countries, either. That being said, the triangle persists to this day, despite the departure of Putin’s friends from power. On the Russian-German side, we find economic interests combined with growing political potential, and on the Russian-French side, we find similar political aspirations reinforced by growing economic ties. The first foreign visit of Putin’s third term as president will include Germany and France (Belarus hardly counts as a foreign country), although his relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel are far from warm and virtually nobody in Russia is acquainted with President Francois Hollande.
Let’s put questions of diplomatic routine aside and confront the fundamental question here: will Russia ever become part of the West? This was the dream of the first generation of Russian reformers and liberals at the dawn of the 1990s, and it was what Putin sought (in a quite different way) in the early 2000s. It is generally believed that this is and has always been Moscow’s choice. The doors are open for at least a close partnership, if not full-scale membership in the EU and NATO on the basis of common values. Debates always focused on Russia’s willingness. Can Russia truly adopt the Western worldview? Does Russia meet the high standards for membership?
But while Russia was weighing answers to these questions, the West was embarking on a surprising metamorphosis. The West has essentially begun to disappear as a coherent political entity, an ideological and moral yardstick and an economic model to emulate. And now the question is less whether the West is prepared to accept Russia with all its shortcomings, but whether Russia should enter this community of states that has failed to cope with the burden of its historic victory in the Cold War. Moreover, the center of global politics and the global economy has already shifted to Asia.
That being said, both questions should be answered in the affirmative. Russia simply has no alternative to the West. Culturally, psychologically and historically it has always been part of the Western world, despite its many unique features. Nobody in Asia thinks of Russia as an Asian power, even though three quarters of its territory are located in Asia (but three quarters of Russia’s population live in its European part). The development of the Russian Far East and Siberia, which is critical for the country, is impossible unless these regions closely integrate with the rapidly growing Asian economy. But this can only be achieved if Russia maintains and consolidates its European identity.
Russia will not be able to create an Asian identity, and even if it tries, it will never match China’s powerful civilization and other Asian cultures. The dissemination of Asian customs in Russian politics that Russian anti-liberals advocate will lead the country to disaster – its national consciousness will eventually reject attempts to establish “controlled democracy” along the Singaporean or Malaysian models.
Russia’s European or Western identity does not mean it should become a Western outpost in a potential confrontation with China. Russia simply cannot afford this, all the more so since it would not be able to expect help from its hypothetical Western allies. By the way, this is the most serious argument in the on-and-off debates on whether Russia should join NATO, affirming its Western identity once and for all. No ally will assume responsibility for defending Russia’s Far Eastern frontiers should the need arise.
On the other hand, the West’s opportunities for reaching out, building up its resources and exerting political influence are now limited. Russia is the most likely of these opportunities, albeit one that is difficult to exploit. Despite all the cultural differences and nuances, there is no other country of significance but Russia with the same historical roots and civilization as Europe and the United States.
Obstacles on the way toward integration that have been mentioned in the past 20 years are disappearing on their own. The EU, whose tough rules and standards prevented it from drawing closer to Russia, is falling apart. It will have to change drastically, revise its principles of coexistence and even its integration model. This creates an opportunity for cooperation with Russia. Previously, Moscow was merely offered the chance to adopt an enormous code of rules. This did not suit Russia, as it was used to the status of a sovereign great power.
In terms of security, relations with the United States and other NATO members will also change. As the strategic focus moves to the Asia-Pacific region, the Cold War inertia that Russia and the West cannot overcome in Europe will give way to realistic considerations of mutual threats and interests. The ideological crisis of NATO, which is still unable to find a modus vivendi for the 21st century and is likely to become a more diversified alliance with different goals and interests, will allow Russia to get over its deep-seated NATO-phobia.
But these are all assumptions based on the expectation that political players will follow rational considerations and act expediently. However, modern politics is full of examples of leading players making colossal blunders – either out of arrogance, complexes, dogma or misunderstanding one’s own interests.
The unpredictable, rapid changes that characterize global politics in the 21st century are accompanied by the unexpected reawakening of instincts from a distant past, in which relations between countries can backslide into old-fashioned realpolitik and considerations of prestige can override all else.
The defining characteristic of the transitional period in which we live is uncertainty. We know not where we are headed – forward, to a new political morality, or backward, to ossified principles enforced by high-tech weapons. Anything is possible at this point.