Russia has the uncanny ability to generate misconceptions about itself. In the past quarter century we have borne witness to a staggering array of errors, fallacies, and self-deceptions concerning what Russia is about and where it’s heading. The most spectacular fiasco was the failure of Sovietology, which asserted that the Soviet Union was as solid as a rock, right up to the moment it started to crumble.
After the Soviet collapse, Russia experts by and large missed the opportunity to discern the reasons behind the Sovietology disaster, and instead continued the myth-creation exercise. A wide array of different schools of thought (comparative studies, transitology, economic and historical determinism, liberal internationalism, neoconservatism, realism), all employing refined techniques and sophisticated concepts, failed to predict or explain Russia’s post-communist trajectory. Who could have foreseen that a member of the Council of Europe would suddenly breach the principles of the Helsinki Accords and upend the world with a confrontational agenda? Europe pursued its strategy of Partnership for Modernization with Russia just as Moscow had stopped reforms and started thinking about how to weaken the European Union. The United States offered Moscow a “reset” while the Kremlin was debating how to contain the United States. The Western community was confounded by Russia’s wars with Georgia and Ukraine and its gambit in Syria, and it was totally unprepared for the “Russian factor” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One can only guess what the authors of numerous books and essays on Russia’s democracy, Yeltsin’s liberal revolution, Russia’s integration into the West, and Putin’s modernizing leadership are thinking today. All of us have to eat our slice of humble pie and own up to the illusions we have created.
Russian political analysts are especially good at deception. They do it both wittingly, for political reasons and due to conformist tendencies, and unwittingly, because it is often difficult to understand particular phenomena when one forms a part of them. But why is it that these deceptions are then repeated by Western experts, and why are the latter still so ready to write up Russia’s fake narrative when the fakery became apparent?1
The Playbook of Russian Fallacies
I would suggest we go back several years and look at some then-popular views about Russia that proved to be either confusing or wrong. Here is a short list that should hopefully force us to ponder the errors and misjudgments that contributed to their creation:
- Medvedev’s presidency “marks a transition from a phase of consolidation to a period of modernization. . . . We are witnessing one of the most promising periods in Russian history.” This citation belongs to one of the West’s most prominent political minds. Does it reflect naivety and lack of understanding, or something else?
- Medvedev is “the most prominent spokesman for the modernization-democratization school of thought,” and his position marks “a milestone in Russia’s political evolution.” This quote belongs to a political thinker no less prominent than the first.
- On the cause of war between Russian and Ukraine: “In some ways the EU has taken maximalist positions with the Russians and acted as if they were surprised that Russia took offense or got angry.” “[T]he EU precipitated matters by blundering into the most sensitive parts of Russia’s backyard.” One hopes the authors have changed their minds about this.
- The Kremlin’s Syrian incursion “has helped Russia to return to the global scene as an aggressive Great Power.” The Kremlin goal was to return Russia to a dialogue with the United States and put Ukraine on the back burner. Instead of strengthening Russia’s great power role, the Syrian “project” began to undermine it.
- Putin stands for “Russian resurgence.” “When was Peter the Great humble? When was Catherine humble? That’s not part of the role that they play.” To compare Putin to Peter the Great and Catherine requires a lot of imagination. As for resurgence, does Russia’s 1.5 percent share of global GDP confirm this analysis?
- “Russians agree to be governed in an autocratic way.” This remains to be seen. Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential plebiscite and his skyrocketing approval rating could rather testify to the state control mechanism over society than to the mood of the people.
- “Many outsiders would be surprised at how much freedom the average Russian enjoys.” The comment was made just as the Kremlin had begun a new repression cycle in 2012.
The list could go on and on, but I will stop here. This should suffice to demonstrate that what we are dealing with is a collective self-deception.
The most intriguing aspect of our analytical story is that many pundits who only yesterday were telling the West to “accommodate Russia” and accept the Kremlin’s understanding of reality have now shifted to the alternative view that Russia is incorrigible and will remain an archenemy of the West. The observers who recently blamed the European Union—and especially particular states like Sweden, Poland, and the Baltics—for “maximalist positions” and for provoking Russia are now talking about Moscow’s global mischief making. But if both of these sets of observations were true at the time, then what explains Russia’s sudden change of behavior? Left unexplained, both assessments look unconvincing. Can we trust Russia hands’ judgment if their views change so radically?
The Deception Game Goes On
What elements of the Russia narrative look dubious today? First of all, the pervasive Putiniana of the discourse in both academia and the media. I have in mind observers’ attempts to identify Russia with Putin, whereupon they play his shrink, trying to penetrate his brain and tell their audience his deepest thoughts and most secret agenda. Putiniana no doubt massages the Russian leader’s ego and allows him to view the rest of the world with condescension, but does it help us to understand Kremlin policy, the resilience of the Russian regime, or the mood of Russian society?
No, it does not! The armchair Putin psychoanalysts have been continually wrong in their predictions of Putin’s actions and explanations of his motivations. However, this hasn’t dissuaded them from chanting their mantras. He is, to wit, the “most powerful leader in the world”; “Putin understands Russia. He also understands the world. . . . Putin understands us very well” (Fareed Zakaria). “Who is the most influential being on the planet? My vote goes to V. Putin”; a “brilliant . . . figure” (David Brooks). Such open admiration for the Russian leader on the part of Western observers provokes consternation. How could it happen that the “most powerful leader” would allow his nation to be sanctioned? Does marginalization bring power? Are Russia’s isolation, economic woes, and declining living standards all signs of the Russian leader’s “brilliance”?
It’s difficult to escape the impression that Western observers continue to be drawn to the Kremlin’s dark power much in the same way that Western writers were in the 1930s with Stalin. Bernard Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, Romain Rolland, Mark Twain, Leon Feuchtwanger, André Gide were all mesmerized by the Russian or Soviet autocrats of their day. But there is one substantial difference between these observers and the Russia watchers of today: the past writers had very little access to what was happening in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union of their times; Western observers today don’t have that excuse.
Why are Western minds so captivated by Kremlin power? (And note that even demonizing Putin is a form of captivation.) Is it a reflection of their frustration with liberal democracy, or is it evidence that they will settle for simple answers to complicated questions? Whatever the reasons for their fascination, it distorts their understanding of the Russian landscape.
Here are a few more examples of popular misconceptions about Russia.
“Russian policy is the result of Russians’ feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.” Objectively, a petrostate that is dependent on developed countries ought to feel vulnerable. However, Russia represents an interesting case: Its ruling team has succeeded in turning the asymmetry of resources and its weaknesses into strengths, compensating for a lack of traditional power by other means—namely, unpredictability and aggression (blackmail, disinformation, and cyber warfare). Moreover, the West often fuels Moscow’s self-assuredness by its willingness to be deceived (or co-opted). Thus, the Crimea annexation and Russia’s war with Ukraine resulted not from the Kremlin’s feeling of vulnerability but from its cockiness and conviction that the West would put up with Russia’s actions—a prediction that Putin arrived at as a result of long experience in dealing with the Western political class.
Does the Kremlin team feel vulnerable today in confronting Western attempts to contain Russia? I would bet they do. But judging from the Kremlin’s actions, the Russian political class apparently still hopes to find ways to outsmart the Western establishment (or at least part of it) and undermine its unity. And in European frustration with Trumpian America, Russia senses another opportunity to undermine the U.S. sanctions regime. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s and French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visits to Russia, the latter’s desire to “return Russia into Europe,” the warm embraces of the Russian President by Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, and Hungary, EU high officials’ calls to stop “bashing” Russia—all of these are signs that Vladimir Putin has returned to the European scene and that his isolation is over. But this is the result not of Moscow’s smart foreign policy but rather the West’s confusion and disunity.
Western analysts argue that Russia’s revisionist stance only became apparent in 2012, or even later. It became popular to talk about “how Russia goes global,” expanding its “footprint” from Syria to Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Balkans, and Western Europe. But Moscow openly declared its rivalry with the United States much earlier; in 2007, it announced the end of the era of Western domination. And the shift toward this position began in 2003-04, not recently!
Moscow began dating Venezuela during Hugo Chavez’s reign, with Gazprom arriving in the country in 2004-05. (It is worth mentioning that this “love affair” did not prevent the U.S. reset with Russia in 2009.) Nicaragua has been an object of interest for Russia for decades. The Balkans, and especially Serbia, have never ceased to be a special area of Russian influence. As for Montenegro, Moscow made its “footprint” there in the early 2000s (by 2008, 32 percent of its businesses were controlled by Russians). Moscow has been supporting left- and right-wing organizations in western Europe for at least 10-15 years. Thus, Russia had already started to “go global” at the very time when the West was pursuing partnership and Western Russia hands were calling for the West to “accommodate” Russia. To fail to notice this globalization of Russia’s “footprint,” or to claim that Russian hostility only began in 2012, one must suffer from substantial analytical blind spots.
One more popular axiom: “Russia wants confrontation with the West.” Not exactly. Kremlin rhetoric intended for domestic consumption has to create the image of Russia surrounded by enemies; there is no other way to consolidate Russian society around the flag than by military patriotism. When it comes to external relations, however, Vladimir Putin has actually been unusually conciliatory during the past two years. It seems as though the Kremlin is ready to swallow some humiliation in order to forestall further confrontations with the West. Examples of this newfound Kremlin humility? Here you are: There has been no serious Russian response to the Western sanctions; Moscow hasn’t reacted to the U.S. and Israeli strikes against Russian allies in Syria; it was largely silent after the United States bombed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria; there has been no reaction to Erdogan’s undermining the Russian Black Sea oil pipeline project; under pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin has promised to continue to use Ukraine for transporting gas to Europe. The Kremlin’s reticence has provoked rage from the Russian nationalists and imperialists, who are now yelling, “Putin is betraying Russia!”
The Russian elite and oligarchs should be frustrated that the Kremlin hasn’t been ready to defend them when they have been rolled over by the Western sanctions bus. The Kremlin has been silent when Deripaska received a whipping from the United States and nearly lost his aluminum empire; when Vekselberg’s one billion Swiss francs were frozen in the Swiss banks; when Cyprus began to eliminate offshore companies (which serve as havens for Russian money); when London denied a visa to Roman Abramovich; and when the United Kingdom opened an investigation into the sources of income of 130 Russians who hold property there.
Of course, that there has been no sign of Kremlin retaliation does not mean that the Kremlin has been backtracking; it means that the Kremlin wants to restart, without losing face, a beneficial (to Moscow) dialogue with the West. Besides, Putin and his team now understand that dialogue with the West offers more opportunities for the Russian system to survive than real, not imitational confrontation.
The Kremlin has to take into account the changing public mood in Russia, too. Russian foreign policy is losing one of its key tools: anti-Western mobilization. Thirty-nine percent of respondents say that the President should put a priority on improving living standards, while only 5 percent say he should strengthen Russia’s role in the world and defend it from enemies, and only 2 percent consider security issues to be the President’s key agenda.
In another poll 59 percent of respondents think that the key goal of Russian foreign policy should be “guaranteeing the peaceful and secure existence of Russia,” while only 19 percent want a confrontation with the United States, and 14 percent support the expansion of Russian influence in the world. Russian society doesn’t seem that aggressive at all! Recently 54 percent of respondents said that Russia should strengthen its relations with the West (28 percent were in favor of increasing Russia’s distance from the West).
Here is one more Russian axiom supported by both Russian and Western pundits: “Russia’s great power status is the core of Russian identity.” Indeed, it would be unusual for Russians to think about their country as a normal state. However, we need to see the evolution of the Russian view of “Great power” status. The country is split on this issue: 42 percent of Russians say that they would like to see Russia as a great power that should be feared by the world; 56 percent would like to see Russia as a great power that would guarantee the people’s well-being, and they don’t think Russia should be one of the most powerful states in the world.
The cognitive dissonance of Russian society regarding the West is to a great degree the result of a split that the Russian political class has tried to manage: assertiveness toward the West and integration with the West. One can’t exclude the possibility that at some point the Kremlin may once again resort to Russia’s traditional gimmick: escalation to force the other side to agree to a “New Bargain.” But it looks like the Kremlin understands the limits of its confrontational stance and its growing problems with legitimizing itself through military patriotism.
The Kremlin’ s key goal today is to return things to the pre-Crimea situation, which will give Russia legitimate access to Western resources and will help the Russian system of personalized power to re-energize itself. But any new “normal” will be situational; sooner or later the system would try once again to expand its global impact; that is its way of existence. This existential pattern creates for the West an unsolvable challenge: neither containment nor cooperation can force the Russian system of personalized power to accept the Western vision for the world order.
A few other myths still persist. Pundits continue to discuss Russia as the center of the Big Eurasian Galaxy. Geopolitics and especially the Eurasianist project have been an escape route for analysts who did not know what to make of developments in Russia. However, with Ukraine jumping the Eurasian boat, and with Belorussia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan trying to warm up their relations with the West and pursue an agenda with China, the Eurasianist Project has lost its momentum, and Moscow has been forced to put it on the back burner. So much energy lost on something of so little value!
Another popular exercise of those who have been trying to find a new Global project for Russia is the idea of a “Sino-Russian Entente.” “Rejected by the West, Russia has pivoted to Asia and found in China its leading partner”—this has become the chief song sung by pro-Kremlin Russian analysts, and Western observers have been seduced by its tune. Meanwhile, all attempts of “the intertwining” of the Eurasian Union with China’s ambitious “New Silk Road” project (now “One Belt, One Road”) could be perceived as another bit of fakery. “Intertwining” may take place, but only as a means for China to develop the infrastructure that will connect it with Europe. Is Russia ready to serve as China’s “bridge”? Hardly! While China wants to “bridge” itself with Europe, Putin’s Kremlin wants to push Russia in the opposite direction, which makes the whole “intertwining” a conceptual mess. Besides, why should China go to any trouble to massage the vanity of a fading Great Power?
One more simplification: “Russia is becoming a totalitarian regime.” Indeed, the current Russian regime has been increasing the scope and number of repressions. However, could the regime successfully push Russia into the totalitarian corset? I doubt it. Russia lacks a consolidating idea like Communism and the loyalty of the elite—integrated into the West and accustomed to living in a globalized world—is fragile. These characteristics limit the appetite of the Russian regime for totalitarianism. True, an authoritarian regime in an advanced state of rot that rejects any rules could be even more dangerous to its own society and to the world as a whole.
Finally here is another favorite pastime of the Western political community: attempts to find a new “equilibrium” in Russian-Western relations. As Henry Kissinger said during his last visit to Moscow in 2016, “Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium.” But what does “equilibrium” mean? I guess it means more or less constructive relations. Could the new equilibrium, as the pundits argue, “rest on NATO stopping further enlargement into the post-Soviet space”? I hasten to remind everyone that the end of NATO enlargement toward Russia’s borders did not prevent its relationship with the liberal democracies from souring.
The hostile nature of the Russian-Western relationship makes achieving any kind of equilibrium a difficult task. We have to accept the unpleasant conclusion that “equilibrium,” understood as a situation in which both sides accept the same rules of the game, is impossible so long as the Russian system insists on a different interpretation of these rules. Instead of hoping for an “equilibrium,” Russia and the West should learn how to find a better balance between animosity and cooperation than they have so far. If their goal is to freeze their mutual distrust and the differences in their understating of principles, then they will fail.
I can hear the voices now: “But that means that Russia is incorrigible!” This is not true. We are talking not about Russia but about an obsolete Russian system based on militarism and Great Power aggression—a system that must be radically transformed. However, the evolution of Russian society, including segments of the elite, demonstrates that hostility to liberal civilization are not immutable characteristics of Russia writ large.
The expert community (both Russian and Western) still has to understand the polychromatic nature of the Russian canvas, with its conflicting hues. Both the confrontationists and the accommodationists are describing only fragments of the Russian reality.
The misperceptions that inevitably result from these fragmentary visions not only undermine Western policy toward Russia; they disorient the Kremlin and the Russian elite regarding the West’s intentions. Recent developments prove that the Kremlin’s actions on the international scene have been motivated not only by the domestic agenda but also by the Kremlin’s view of what the West thinks about Russia and President Putin. These perceptions allowed the Kremlin to conclude that the West would pursue accommodation as the premise of its Russia policy. Both sides—Russia and the West—have paid the price for their misperceptions. They will pay again for new misperceptions that ignore not only the logic of the Russian system’s survival but the new moods prevailing in Russian society as well.
1Random attempts to understand the reasons for the confrontational relations between Russia and the West—and the role of “Russia hands” in this process—only make the picture more confusing. See: Keth Gessen, “The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio,” New York Times, May 8, 2018.