The continued downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations during the initial phase of the Trump Administration may have come as a disappointment to Russians, but it could hardly have come as a surprise. With a weary sense of déjà vu, many Russians perceive the current tensions as only the latest episode of an age-old historical drama—the relentless Western campaign to contain Russia and prevent the state from achieving the greatness that is Russia’s destiny and its due.
In every age, it seems, some Western power has assumed the task of keeping Russia confined to the periphery of Europe. One after another they have taken up the cudgels—Sweden, Poland, France, England, Germany, and latterly the United States. Notwithstanding temporary reverses, Russia has always managed ultimately to turn the tables on its foes. Who today even remembers that Sweden was a great European power until it unwisely tried to block Russian access to the Baltic Sea? The haughty Polish Rzeczpospolita, which vainly (in both senses of the word) sought to prevent Moscow’s “gathering of Russian lands,” instead found itself wiped off the map. Napoleon’s Grande Armée, Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa—history is littered with the bones of Russia’s Western adversaries. It is aggravating, of course, that as soon as one Western opponent is dispatched, another seems to pop into place automatically. Veritably the enemy never sleeps, so the price of Russian greatness, evidently, is eternal vigilance.
The reasons for Western hostility are clear enough in most Russian minds. At the most basic level, greedy Westerners have always coveted Russia’s territory and natural resources; you could hardly expect otherwise from people whose colonialism plundered the globe and soaked the earth in blood and tears. No less importantly, Westerners instinctively perceive the superiority of Russian civilization to their own. Envious of Russia’s moral authority and jealous to maintain their own ill-gotten predominance in global affairs, Westerners manifest a pathological compulsion to denigrate Russia and impede its rise. This attitude lies at the root of the rampant Russophobia that Moscow feels compelled to denounce with increasing frequency and vehemence. Especially in this period of terminal Western decay – the ultimate collapse of the rotten West anticipated by Russian visionary thinkers for the past two centuries – one should anticipate a spirited (if futile) rear-guard action before the West yields its geopolitical leadership position once and for all to a more worthy civilization, and shuffles off the world stage to a well-merited irrelevance.
Nowhere is Russian superiority more manifest than in its treatment of its neighbors. Russians are confident that their country, in contrast to European empires that expanded through conquest and ruthless exploitation, grew organically and largely peacefully.
Thus, the restoration of Russian dominance over the post-Soviet space is not dictated solely—or even principally—by the need to defend Russia from the depredations of the envious West (as important as that task might be). Rather, the gratitude of its neighbors for Russia’s past beneficence and their innate gravitation toward Moscow’s leadership simply makes a Eurasian vocation the natural choice for all of Russia’s “little brothers.” Hence, the emergent Eurasian Union championed by Moscow will be just as consensual an arrangement as the Russian Empire had always been in the past. The assertion of a “zone of privileged interests,” in Russian minds, is merely a recognition of this state of affairs.
Perhaps my first experience of cognitive dissonance in connection with this mindset came in 1983, at the outset of my first trip to Moscow. In the course of the standard tour of Red Square, the guide pointed out St. Basil’s Cathedral, remarking laconically that it had been built to celebrate the “liberation of Kazan” in 1552. Even at the time I thought her formulation curious—why “liberation” rather than “conquest,” “capture,” or “fall?” In 1552 Kazan had been the capital of a Tatar khanate, so from whom, exactly, had the city been liberated? Presumably from its own Tatar inhabitants, who endured a lengthy siege, storming, pillaging, and the resettlement of the surviving Tatar population some distance from Kazan, which was then repopulated with Russians.
The fate of Kazan was by no means exceptional by the contemporary standards of siege warfare. Moreover, the fall of the Khanate of Kazan eliminated an acute long-term threat to Russian security and brought freedom to many thousands of Russian captives and slaves; the celebration of this event in Moscow was perfectly understandable and received a worthy commemoration with the construction of St. Basil’s. All the same, it would be just a bit incongruous to suggest that the Tatar inhabitants of Kazan in 1552 felt themselves in any sense “liberated.”
A second epiphany came from contemplating Vasily Surikov’s famous painting entitled “The Subjugation of Siberia by Yermak.” In the late 16th century Siberia was another Tatar khanate, and Surikov’s canvas graphically depicts the climactic battle between the determined, musket-wielding Russians and a native army, armed with bows and arrows, whose faces display a mixture of defiance, bewilderment, and incipient panic.
Surikov lived and painted in simpler times than ours, when men boasted of conquest with no evident embarrassment or pangs of conscience. It is hard to imagine such a painting being executed in Russia after, say, 1930, when the theme of subjugation would have been completely out of step with the dominant narrative about the eternal friendship among the peoples of the Soviet Union. Surikov’s assignment would then have been to depict something along the lines of “the Peaceful Liberation of Siberia by Yermak,” and his dramatic battle scene would have been quite inappropriate.
My point in recalling these two vignettes is not to chide Russia for picking unfairly on the poor Tatars. Rather, it is to posit the existence of an iron law of history—that one people’s glorious triumph is, of necessity, another people’s catastrophic defeat, and one nation’s expansion is another’s loss of territory or even independence. Therefore, between any two nations that interact historically, there are bound to be differences in perspective, and thus in their historical narratives. No matter how well-disposed modern-day Tatars may be toward Russia, they can hardly view a historical event like the fall of Kazan without some sense of national tragedy.
In the case of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors, these discrepancies in perspective and narrative are overlain by further differences in national interests. In previous essays I have noted some perceptual disconnects between Russians and the Ukrainians, Georgians, and Balts. While people tend to focus on the sharper disagreements between Russia and some of its more assertive neighbors, it is instructive to observe the disconnect in perspectives between Russia and even its closest post-Soviet partners. Consider Belarus, Armenia, and Kazakhstan.
Belarussians are renowned for their pro-Russian sentiments, consistently express little interest in joining the EU, let alone NATO, and employ the Russian language virtually to the exclusion of Belarussian. In 1996 the Russian and Belarussian governments created a “union state” intended to become a sort of federation or commonwealth joining the two countries. It was widely anticipated that this “union state” would provide a suitable vehicle for easing Belarus expediently back into Russia. Such a turn of events was tempting to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko when it appeared that, as the leader of the “union state,” he might finagle his way into becoming the de facto ruler of Russia at such time as the aging, ailing Boris Yeltsin might depart the scene. For many Russian nationalists, the prospect of Lukashenko as co-ruler of Russia and Belarus seemed a reasonable tradeoff for bringing Belarus back into the Russian fold.
Yeltsin’s anointing of Vladimir Putin as his successor threw a wrench into the works of this project, and Minsk’s interest in further integration of the “union state” dissipated as it became clear that a big Kremlin office for Lukashenko would not be part of the package. While some Russians have reproached Lukashenko for the slacking of his integrationist fervor, no one should really have been surprised at his disinterest in trading the presidency of an independent country for the governorship of a Russian province, with the consequent loss not only of prestige, but of basic job security.
Public spats between Minsk and Moscow can involve heated rhetoric and may even occasionally give the impression of an impending showdown. However, ultimately they have not been about the nature of Belarus’s relationship with Russia, but about how much Moscow is willing to pay for the fealty and stability of the Lukashenko regime—a question not of principle, but of price. A more significant development is the gradual and ever-so-tentative assertion of a Belarussian national identity with its own historical narrative at odds with Moscow’s. Indicative of this tendency are assessments of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania as something of a consensual joint undertaking between the Lithuanians and Belarussians, with concrete benefits accruing to both nations. This view of the Grand Duchy as a benevolent symbiosis is at odds with Moscow’s narrative, which depicts Lithuania as a conqueror, exploiter, and divider of the Russian people. The historical controversy might seem abstruse and pointless, but the divergent views about Belarus’s past are understood by everyone to represent disparate opinions about the country’s destiny.
The project of reintegrating Belarus has suffered from the tensions created by the Russo-Ukrainian War. The ardor for reunification cannot help but cool as Belarussians contemplate the dubious privilege of front-line status in Russia’s standoff with the West—not to mention the prospect of Belarussian men someday being drafted to fight in the North Caucasus, the Donbas, Syria, or heaven knows where else. While Belarussians, for the most part, will remain favorably disposed toward Moscow, the notion of a smooth, “natural” Russian reabsorption of Belarus is looking increasingly dubious.
The case of Armenia is altogether different but indicative in its own special way.
The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, served as a refuge for Armenians fleeing poverty, persecution, or outright massacre, or seeking to revive some semblance of Armenian national life within the construct of the Armenian SSR. Post-Soviet Armenia exists in a hostile neighborhood and relies existentially on Russian security assistance and guarantees. Thus, there are probably few nations with greater cause to feel gratitude toward Moscow than the Armenians.
Russians therefore reacted with some consternation to the 2016 erection of a monument in Yerevan to Garegin Ter-Harutyunyan, better known as Garegin Nzhdeh, a man who fought in the Armenian national liberation struggle in the early 20th century not only against the Turks, but also against the Soviets, and who even collaborated with the Nazis in World War II to advance the cause of Armenian independence. This controversy underscores the fact that Armenians, even while appreciating Russian protection both past and present, nevertheless maintain their own national perspective on matters such as the Soviet suppression of Armenian independence in 1920, the boundaries drawn by Moscow in the South Caucasus in the 1920s, and the physical liquidation of Armenian intellectuals in Stalin’s purges. Moreover, considering the importance of Western humanitarian and development aid, as well as the large Armenian diasporas in countries like the United States and France, Yerevan is not about to burn its bridges with the West for the sake of post-2014 solidarity with Moscow. No matter how close its relationship with Russia, Armenia will not abandon its own national interests or perspective, and will insist on celebrating its own national heroes.
Kazakhstan, for its part, presents a most thorny conundrum for Moscow.
Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the father of the “Eurasian Union” concept that Putin has championed since his 2012 re-election campaign, and Kazakhstan was a charter member when the Eurasian Economic Union became an institutional reality on January 1, 2015. Yet all the while that Kazakhstan was being solicitous of Russian interests and anxious to demonstrate its integrationist bona fides, a curious demographic dynamic has been at work within the country. In 1989, on the eve of the breakup of the USSR, there were nearly as many ethnic Russians as Kazakhs in Kazakhstan (37.4 percent and 39.7 percent of the population, respectively), and the total European population (counting Ukrainians, Belarussians, Germans, and Poles, who were largely Russophone) was nearly 50 percent. By current estimates, ethnic Kazakhs are approaching two-thirds of the population, ethnic Russians are hovering just above 20 percent, and the combined European population is barely a quarter. This remarkable demographic transformation has occurred as the result of a higher Kazakh birthrate, massive emigration of Europeans (especially in the 1990s and tapering off thereafter, but continuing to the present), and the immigration of ethnic Kazakhs from Mongolia, China, and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
This demographic shift is in large measure an acceleration of trends already visible since the 1959 Soviet census. It is difficult to assess how much of it was planned or encouraged and how much has occurred spontaneously, but its implications are profound. Even as Kazakhstan has embraced Eurasian economic integration, its weight in the Russian World (Russky Mir) has been contracting apace. Time is running out for those Russian nationalists who dream of joining northern Kazakhstan (or “southern Siberia,” as they call it) to Russia, and by the middle of this century there might no longer even be a demographic basis for doing so.
While the demographic transformation of Kazakhstan has hardly passed unnoticed in Russia, there is actually very little the Kremlin can reasonably do about it. A Donbas scenario for northern Kazakhstan would be inordinately risky. It would provoke a flood of Slavic refugees from whichever parts of Kazakhstan could not be “liberated,” and any destabilization of the country could provide an opening in Central Asia for jihadis, a threat that has rightly concerned Moscow for the past two decades. Moreover, there never seems to be a suitable triggering event for a Russian intervention. Kazakhstan has no pretensions to EU or NATO membership, it maintains Russian as an official language, and it takes pains not to irritate Moscow unduly in foreign-policy matters.
It is a very tricky matter for Moscow simultaneously to foster integration with the Central Asian states while berating them for the living conditions—and high emigration rates—of their ethnic Russian minorities. It faces a dilemma in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia between promoting the Eurasian Union or the Russian World, and has generally chosen the former. For Russian nationalists, the steady decline in the number and percentage of Russophones in Kazakhstan is an issue that is ever important yet never urgent, and there will probably always be satisfactory reasons to delay addressing the problem—chiefly because there don’t appear to be any good options. The Kremlin can take comfort in Kazakhstan’s pro-Russian orientation, albeit with a nagging suspicion that the Kazakhs, as their demographic position strengthens, might prove increasingly less inclined to genuflect in Moscow’s direction.
It is revealing that neither Belarus, nor Armenia, nor Kazakhstan has joined in Russia’s post-2014 countersanctions against the West, nor have any of them offered military contingents to fight alongside Russia in Syria. And while none of them has denounced Russian military intervention in Georgia or Ukraine, they have not exactly enthused about it either. The reason for this ambivalence should not be difficult to grasp.
There was a telling remark in a recent piece for Chatham House’s The World Today by Fyodor Lukyanov—as careful, nuanced, and authoritative a Russian expert as you will find on his country’s foreign policy. Speaking of Putin’s achievements in restoring lost Russian influence, he listed “the recovery of a small portion of territory ceded in 1991, the Crimea.” Of course, the Crimea had been gifted to the Ukrainian SSR by Khrushchev in 1954 and—certainly as far as Kyiv is concerned—was already indisputably Ukrainian territory when the Soviet Union fell apart. Lukyanov’s observation cannot help but raise a troubling question in the minds of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors: Exactly how much of the former USSR do Russians consider as “territory ceded in 1991,” and therefore subject to restoration at an appropriate time by Moscow? The impression given by many Russians, and echoed by poorly informed Western analysts, is that the entire Soviet Union was “Russia.” The other states in the post-Soviet space have a very different perspective. Regardless of what Russians might think in this regard, not one of Russia’s neighbors appears prepared to offer up any of its territory as a sop to Russian sensibilities, nor to prioritize Moscow’s burning desire to reclaim the status of a great power.1
In these chaotic times it must be comforting to Russians to perceive that some things never change—the animosity of an envious, hypocritical West and the natural, age-old gravitation of Russia’s neighbors toward Moscow. And if the gravitational pull seems not quite as strong as anticipated, that problem—like most others—can plausibly be attributed to the machinations of the Western foe. Accordingly, the Kremlin has charted a medium-term foreign-policy course with the complementary elements of repulsing Western encroachments and accelerating the pace of Eurasian integration.
But what if the West, in fact, perceives Russia not as an existential threat to be eliminated, but rather as a persistent but limited problem to be managed? What if Moscow’s dramatic post-1991 loss of power and influence was not the culmination of nefarious Western intrigues, but the largely unavoidable result of the complete political, economic, and moral collapse of the Soviet Union? What if Westerners do not view Russia enviously as the emerging colossus of the 21st century, but as a corrupt, inept petrostate in chronic decline—an object more of horror than of dread? Even assuming the worst about Western covetousness, is it just possible that Westerners recognize that whatever they want from Russia they can better obtain through trade and investment rather than a clearly suicidal policy of armed conquest?2
What if the West is not responsible for the difficulties in Russia’s relations with its post-Soviet neighbors? What if these problems, instead, are principally the result of differing national interests and perspectives, and mirror the decolonization process that followed the break-up of other 20th-century empires? What if “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space have been driven by domestic discontent rather than Western conspiracies? To what degree do Russia’s neighbors perceive it not as a wise and benign older brother, but rather as a domineering sibling with a distinct proclivity toward fratricide and even cannibalism? To what extent has Moscow’s sway over its perceived “zone of privileged interests” been consensual, and to what extent has it relied on force or the threat thereof? And is it just possible that Russia’s own actions have been the primary motivation behind its neighbors’ interest in NATO and EU membership?
Current Russian policy seems likely to perpetuate a vicious circle. A tough anti-Western line and efforts to force the pace of post-Soviet reintegration will result, to the shock and dismay of Russians, in even greater “Russophobia,” attributable—as always—to Russia’s cunning and implacable enemies. The Kremlin will then double down on its original approach, with drearily predictable results.
The greatest dangers from Russia’s foreign-policy virtual reality actually arise not from misjudgment of the West, but from Russia’s failure to comprehend its own post-Soviet neighbors. It makes a world of difference for all involved if Moscow will be satisfied with friendly but independent states on its borders, or will insist on their subjugation.
Or, if you prefer, their liberation.
1A related question is what would constitute the western border of Russia’s “zone of privileged interests.” There is no agreement on this fundamental matter, not merely between Russia and the West, but among the states currently wedged rather uneasily between Russia and the EU. Nor is there even a single consistent understanding among Russians themselves. The appetite is likely to grow with the eating; after all, why settle for the Bug River when the Neisse would be nicer?
2For me personally, the greatest insult has never been the supposition that Americans are greedy, but the assumption that we are too stupid to conduct a simple cost/benefit analysis.