Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the fourth essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part three.
When one looks at what experts were saying a couple of years before they were doused by the cold shower of Putin’s war on Ukraine in 2014, one has to wonder whether they were analyzing a different Russia, perhaps from a parallel universe. The standard Western perception of Medvedev’s presidency reveals a political culture that is founded on the hope that the rest of the world accepts the Western understanding of reason and normalcy, and that politicians mean what they say. Naivety and wishful thinking were instrumental in provoking the Kremlin to test the West after Medvedev’s interregnum. The Kremlin gang, observing the West’s euphoria over Medvedev, whom they considered a mere chair warmer, saw proof that Western leaders could be easily duped. As for the experts’ predictions, history not been kind
The Medvedev presidency (2008–12) presented a real challenge for the Western pragmatists. Most of them saw Medvedev as a liberal leader ready for partnership with the West. I remember Henry Kissinger saying in 2008: “My impression is that a new phase of Russian politics is underway…. The [Medvedev election] marks a transition from a phase of consolidation to a period of modernization…. The government’s operation—at least initially—with two centers of power may, in retrospect, appear to be the beginning of an evolution toward a form of checks and balances…. We are witnessing one of the most promising periods in Russian history.” It wasn’t long before we saw just how accurate the realist guru’s pronouncements were. (Indeed, this quote explains why I stopped using the term “realists.”)
Even the usually shrewd Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has always kept the normative dimension in mind, viewed Medvedev as “the most prominent spokesman for the modernization-democratization school of thought” and his position as “ a milestone in Russia’s political evolution.”1
I won’t mention a whole host of similar comments in both Russian and foreign media—there were a lot of them! I will just pose a rhetorical question: How could one believe in Medvedev’s liberalism or independence when Putin still held all the reins of power? And if the analysts didn’t know that Putin remained in control, maybe they should be in a different line of work. Even today I can’t understand how even the most astute of my Russian and Western colleagues could sound so hopeful about Medvedev’s rule. I remember talking to them, trying to dispel their illusions, only to receive a condescending smirk or a shrug of shoulders in reply. It’s quite possible Western analysts were in large part influenced by their Russian colleagues, who parachuted into Western capitals with talk of Medvedev’s liberalism—but this is no excuse either.
On the whole, the illusions related to Medvedev’s presidency can be explained by: the hopes that the Kremlin’s personalized regime was capable of reform; the belief that the Russian leader thinks what he says (incidentally, when has that ever been true?); the condescending attitude toward Russians that sees them as a nation than can only be ruled or modernized by a leader; and the acceptance of the Kremlin’s imitations as genuine processes. In any event, here we have confirmation of a lack of understanding of how the Russian System really works.
The hopes for Medvedev’s liberalism found expression in the two models of Western policy: the U.S. reset and the EU Partnership for Modernization. While the reset did pay the United States some tactical dividends, what did the EU Partnership do for Brussels, other than to help the Kremlin play its “Let’s Pretend!” game?
In 2012 the Kremlin openly declared that the West’s dominance has come to an end. (To be sure, already in 2007, in his speech at the Munich Security conference, Putin had warned us about the direction Russian would be turning.) This conclusion would become one of the key theses of the updated official Russian foreign policy concept, which said, “ the possibilities of the historical West to dominate…are shrinking.” Meanwhile, pragmatists continued to work within the cooperation-partnership model, apparently hoping that the Kremlin was just pretending at its growing assertiveness for some domestic purpose. Calling for “strategic dialogue” with Russia, Thomas Graham and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in the New York Times that “the two countries’ strategic interests do not necessarily collide…and there is probably a significant overlap.” They were talking about “common concerns” on the issues of “China, Islamic extremists, and competition for Arctic resources by non-Arctic powers,” as well as Russia’s goal to modernize its economy (!). The authors even believed that the United States and Russia still “could be partners.”
One can certainly understand the experts’ desire to find common ground between the two countries at a time when the reset had clearly run out of steam. But how realistic was their belief that the strategic interests of the two states wouldn’t collide, given that Putin had already begun to demonstrate hostility toward the West and especially toward America? One could not escape the impression that we were dealing with the modification of the old mantra of “common interests:” really, if the interests “do not collide”, they must share something in common. Meanwhile, the common concerns mentioned by the experts clearly fell short of becoming the basis for “strategic dialogue.” Besides, economic modernization totally fell by the wayside in the Kremlin. How could Washington have convinced Moscow to engage in strategic dialogue under those circumstances? What price should it have paid to persuade Moscow to participate in the project when, according to the authors of the NYT op-ed, there were no more easy tradeoffs.
Andrew Wood rightly noted that the word “strategic” in this context looked like “a slippery term.” It seems that the authors of this idea were themselves not sure that it could be implemented. Thus, Graham called for “creating the atmosphere and shaping expectations to persuade Russia to act in ways that advance [U.S.] goals.” I then wrote in my response: “What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander; Moscow will also seek to ‘shape expectations.’ And the Kremlin is a much smoother operator.” Besides, “empty strategic dialogue” could only “legitimize Putin and the Kremlin,” as David Kramer put it.
Of course, Moscow and Washington had to talk, but why call this conversation a “strategic dialogue,” which implied an agenda that had little to do with reality? And why call pretending and “shaping expectations” a strategy? Was it a deliberate attempt to cater to the Kremlin’s vanity? Looking back, I begin to regret the time spent on proving the obvious. We, the normativists, and the pragmatists could have focused on discussing a far more important question: What will be the likely results of the Kremlin’s turn to containing the West, and how can we prevent both sides from entering a dangerous confrontation without creating new ungrounded hopes? We all fell into the trap that Lipset had warned us about: Instead of analyzing the important issues, we wasted time debating small stuff.2
Return to Russia-Fortress, and the “Humiliation” Song
While pragmatists were trying to accommodate the Kremlin, the Russian ruling team had strapped on a military helmet. By the end of 2013, before the war with Ukraine, the Kremlin had endorsed a new existential Doctrine that may be summarized as follows:
- First, Russia is a special “state-civilization” based on a return to “traditional values.” One need not have a particularly active imagination to see that Putin has been evoking an order based on personalized power and the individual’s total submission to the state.3
- Second, Russia has become the chief defender of Christianity and faith in God. The Soviet Union was keen on spreading its ideology around the globe. The Kremlin intends to do more: It seeks to offer the world its vision of moral values.
- Third, the Kremlin declared its intention to build its own galaxy by unifying the post-Soviet space and making it an “independent center of global development”—the Eurasian Union.
- Finally, Russia has a duty to defend the “Russian World,” meaning Russian-speaking minorities in other countries. This provided a ready-made pretext to meddle in those countries’ internal affairs.
The “Putin Doctrine” legitimated a harsher rule at home and a more assertive stance abroad.4 Former UK Ambassador to Russia and current Chatham House fellow associate Roderic Lyne wrote, “ Todays’ Putinist model departs from the integrationist and modernizing aspirations of 1990–2004, but is not genuinely ‘new.’ It is reactionary rather than innovatory; not geared to the future but inspired by the past—by Russia’s history in the 18th and 19th centuries with elements of the Soviet legacy added in.” The irony is that the Kremlin, in looking for a way to keep going, returned to a model that by the end of the 1990s had already caused the System’s previous incarnation to fall apart. In another ironic twist, liberal civilization once again became the stimulus for the Kremlin’s new breath; this time its normative ambiguity, double standards and acquiescence offered the Kremlin a pretext for looking where the red line is.
By annexing Crimea and backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin was able to justify its military-patriotic mobilization of society. “Unwilling to undertake vital institutional reforms. And with his popularity sliding inexorably downward in 2012–13, Mr. Putin shifted the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy from steady economic progress and the growth of personal incomes to patriotic mobilization,” wrote Leon Aron, resident scholar and the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Militarist rhetoric rose to a fever pitch, aided by the lack of cultural or moral regulators capable of shielding an atomized society of disoriented, demoralized individuals from the schemes of an overweening state.
How have the Russian pragmatists interpreted the Kremlin’s change of existential pattern? They have returned to “humiliation” mantra, which had been popular among the Russian left and nationalist circles after the collapse of the USSR and has now become the main justification for the Kremlin’s revisionist stand. (I wrote an essay about Russia’s alleged “Weimar complex” and here will deal only with its main arguments.) The “humiliation” narrative has some key lines: The West has always undervalued Russia; the West refuses to grant Russia its “proper” role in the international arena; finally, the West is deliberately trying to constrain Russia by encircling it with every kind of “fence”, from NATO to the Eurozone.
Sergei Karaganov, dean at the High School of Economics, has made it his mission to alert the West to the “Weimar syndrome” that its policies have created inside Russia. The West refused to “acknowledge that Russia occupies a place in European and global politics that it considers natural and legitimate,” asserts Karaganov. But what does “occupying natural and legitimate place” entail? Does it entitle Russia to its own interpretation of the global rules of the game? Just as other pragmatists, Karaganov interprets NATO expansion as the West’s refusal to end the Cold War. But if NATO expansion is in fact a manifestation of the Cold War, what was Russia doing in the NATO-Russia Council?
Academician Alexei Arbatov typically levels the following accusation against the West: “Russia was treated as a power on the losing side, although it was Russia which actually dealt the final blow to the Soviet empire and the Cold War.” Instead of compensating Russia and thanking it for ending the Cold War, the West has been driving the country into a corner and forcing it to lash out. I have a question for Arbatov: What level of compensation, what degree of thanks, would be sufficient to satisfy the Russian ego?
Putin has long been trying to accommodate the West, but “Western leaders have shown no real interest in integrating Russia.” That is how Dmitri Trenin explains Moscow’s resentment. This conclusion could be relevant, if one neglects to mention how long and with how much effort liberal democracies have been trying to help Russia to transform itself in order make its integration into the West possible, or how the Russian elite has stubbornly refused to build a rule of law state.
Pragmatists have been repeating another key verse from the Kremlin Bible: “The Russian foreign policy tack has been, and remains, winning full sovereignty for Russia.” This is the conclusion towards which pragmatists’ whole argument builds. But hold on a minute: Who on earth is threatening Russia’s sovereignty? Facts and names, please!
Among the many variations of the “humiliation” narrative, one in particular strikes a chord in the West, especially among intellectuals on the left: the Russian demand for political equality on the international scene. One can only imagine what “equality” means in this context. Russia enjoys the same rights in international institutions as other States. What else is needed for equality? To grant Russia “special rights” or permit it not to observe certain accepted international norms would be to place it above other States. How, exactly, would that correlate with equality? Are some States “more equal” than others?
Why, one wonders, are the advocates of the “humiliation” theory not themselves humiliated, for instance, by Russia’s corruption, its pathetic heath care system, and its declining educational and living standards? Why did Russia’s “Weimar syndrome” not prevent its elite from integrating into Western society at a personal level over the past twenty years? Lastly, we must ask how Russia’s supposed “Weimar syndrome” correlates with the “Decline of the West,” a subject on which the Kremlin and nearly all Russia’s experts are constantly harping. Such a Spenglerian Twilight of the West has become one of the key premises of Russia’s approach to foreign policy. (“The potential of the historical West is shrinking”—this is the official assessment.) So how can a declining West humiliate Russia?
You can find traces of the “humiliation” concept nearly everywhere in Russian political thought. It is used to beef up anti-Western and anti-American feelings at home. When targeted at an audience outside Russia, “humiliation” has to serve as an argumentation in favor of satisfactory response to the Kremlin’s grievances. Demands by Russia’s pundits for Western accommodation are instantly echoed by their soul mates in the West (indeed, it is as if they were in collaboration).
It’s worth mentioning that “humiliation” in Russia has always been the other side of the superiority complex of the Russian political elite. Constant whining and alleged or real grievances reflect vanity and nostalgia over past glory and wounded pride, and they serve as justification of a new swagger and disdain for the rest of the world (including the states and nations that allegedly “humiliate” Russia). Such a political sado-masochistic complex!
A variation of the “humiliation” concept is currently making the rounds. Russians can’t live, we are told, in a rule of law state. Indeed this notion truly humiliates Russian society. Its adherents don’t see the contradiction: If Russians aren’t ready to live in the rule of law state and need to be subjugated, why on earth would the “humiliation” fans demand from the West equal treatment and “proper place” for Russia in the Western league? The West has every right to ignore or reject hostile civilizations!
“Stop thinking that Russia can be turned into a country that will live by Western rules and notions,” warns Fyodor Lukyanov. Well, maybe Lukyanov can’t live “by Western rules”—but does that give him the right to speak on my behalf, or for all of Russia’s other citizens?
Regrettably, quite a few respected Western experts agree that Russians have no liberal future. In an FT essay Thomas Graham argues, “The Russian President stands within a long tradition of Russia thinking. His departure would fix nothing.” Thus, the West is dealing with a “Russia Problem” that looks like Russian Destiny. “Russians…are unlikely to abandon Mr. Putin in his struggle against the West,” insist Rumer and Graham. This means that Russians are incorrigible, doomed to be manipulated, and ready to tolerate repressive rule. I don’t know what information the authors are privy to that makes them so sure that the Russians will continue clinging to Putin. Why are the experts so sure of that? Do they know something about us Russians that we are unaware of? This approach can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state that respects international conventions. In other words, we Russians are a predatory nation that can live only by being subjugated by our rulers and by subjugating other nations, and we cannot rid ourselves of the serf’s mindset. This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians; it is racist as well.
To be continued…
1Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (Basic Books, 2012), p. 147.
2In the fall of 2014, Graham no longer called for “accommodation,” or “strategic dialogue.” He wrote, “Washington will continue to seek a way to punish, constrain, and weaken Russia, now seen as an adversary.” Thomas Graham, “The Dangers of a New Containment,” Costs and a New Cold War: The U.S. Russia Confrontation over Ukraine, Paul. J. Saunders, ed., Center for the National Interest (September 2014). True, soon Graham returned to the idea of accommodation.
3On the new Kremlin survival doctrine see: Lilia Shevtsova, “Russia’s Political System: Imperialism and Decay,” Journal of Democracy (January 2015); Lilia Shevtsova, “Forward to the Past in Russia,” Journal of Democracy (April 2015).
4On the Putin Doctrine, see Lilia Shevtsova, “The Maidan and Beyond: The Russia Factor,” Journal of Democracy (July 2014). See also Sergei Lavrov, “Russia’s Foreign Policy Philosophy,” International Affairs (March 2013), and the speeches by Putin that can be found here (September 19, 2013); here (March 18, 2014); and here (December 4, 2014).