There are many layers underpinning the Putinist assertion that Russia is endangered by hostile powers, the United States above all, and that it has the right in the national interest to build up a zone beyond its borders in self-defense whether those living there like it or not. A surprising number of Western observers is inclined to accept this conviction as valid, along with the belief that the West has played a formative and arguably leading part in stoking what is often currently presented as Cold War II. Judging by President Trump’s statements at the time of his July 16 meeting with President Putin in Helsinki that the United States’ stupid policies over the years were responsible for the seriously troubled relationship between his country and Putin’s, Trump appears to share this belief. It needs examination.
The Widely Shared Explanation
The supporting narrative for these contentions is too familiar to require great elaboration. A recent version was for instance set out in an article by Eugene Rumer, Dmitri Trenin, and Andrew S. Weiss: “Can the Trump-Putin Summit Restore Guardrails to the U.S.-Russian Relationship?” The authors described a disagreement about their respective approaches to the conduct of foreign affairs as being at the heart of the “long-standing conflict” between the United States and Russia, the American one being in favor of an international liberal order, and the Russian one, realpolitik. The report states as a plain fact that “Moscow’s vision has been deeply affected by its experience at the end of the Cold War and guided by a firm resolve to prevent it from being repeated.”
This familiar mantra of the West’s humiliation of Russia is habitually argued, with little elaboration, as the justification for Russia needing to rise again from its knees under Putin, and to re-establish its international authority. Factions in post-Soviet Russia did indeed feel themselves humiliated by Moscow’s loss of control over former Soviet territory and, for that matter, central and eastern European states once held under the control of the Kremlin within the Warsaw Pact. But the truth is not that the West treacherously pried them from Moscow’s control, but that Moscow lost control of events, and they left of their own free will. Such states now established, and internationally recognized, have the right to point out that however much some Russians may mourn the outcome of the Cold War, they too have a compelling interest in not repeating past experiences, meaning in their cases those suffered at Moscow’s hands. It is also a fact that the United States, its allies, and international agencies numbered among those that still play a major part in the “international liberal order” gave substantial help to Russia both before and after it emerged as a separate entity on the collapse of the Soviet Union, as witness, for example, the account recently given to the Institute of Modern Russia by Andrei Kozyrev, Russian Foreign Minister for the first years of Yeltsin’s presidency.
The narrative as to a “long-standing conflict” between Washington and Moscow is also open to dispute and, like the humiliation saga, serves as a buttress for the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign public line. It takes special thinking to suggest that the United States has from the start of Russia’s emergence as a separate state pursued conflict with Russia. On the contrary, “resets” have been a standing U.S. temptation. West European powers have also in general been forgiving if not naive as to where Russia has been heading in the face of the ups and downs of its political evolution. There are those even now ready to overlook Russia’s seizure of foreign territory in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, as well as its destruction of cities in Syria, in the hope that a some unspecified kind of exit ramp can still be found to return to “normality.”
None of this is to argue that European or North American policies have been consistently wise. Many have argued that the enlargement of NATO fueled Russian fears and resentment. The Russians themselves have pressed this idea with growing insistence in recent years, claiming against the evidence that it had been in breach of promises made in the West around the time of the reunification of Germany. The present Kremlin line also ignores repeated contemporary Russian statements recognizing the right of all independent nations to decide what alliances, if any, they might want to join. It is, too, to ignore the reality of states formerly under Kremlin control wanting reliable security against a return to that fold. It is, on the other hand, also the case that it would always have been difficult for Western policymakers to work through an emerging sense of Russian humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That feeling of loss particularly affected groups opposed to the reform programs put forward by liberally minded Yeltsin supporters, but not only them. Russian analysts like Yegor Gaidar were already by the middle 1990s voicing fears of the possibility, even probability, of Russia going through a Weimar period, with the development of an equivalent to the Nazi-era “stab in the back” legend to explain their country’s loss of imperial sway. The establishment of an authoritarian regime in the 2000s with KGB-descended elements at its heart inevitably fed into an instinctive search in Russia for domestic and foreign enemies, and a belief in Russia’s betrayal by them.
The allegation that Russia was deliberately humiliated by the West, and of course the United States in particular, does not have to be supported by persuasive facts to have become over time a comforting untruth—better that than to accept the more difficult reality of Russia’s own responsibility for its tribulations. With repetition, that myth has acquired a considerable hold on Russia today. Putin’s close associate Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council, has been one of several Russians to describe American purpose over the years as being the destruction of the USSR and the continuation of the evil work in Russia today. The beliefs that the Americans were behind the Rose Revolution of 2003 in Georgia, the 2003-04 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the overthrow of Yanukovych in Kiev in February 2014, as well as the 2011-12 street protests over electoral manipulation in Russia, remain ensconced in the Putinist system of thought. Putin and his followers indeed go further: It was the United States again which toppled the leaders of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, leaving Russia to rescue Assad from the same fate in Syria. How cunning and wicked of the Americans to do so much and yet leave so little evidence.
The Russian Federation, as it emerged within its internationally agreed borders in 1992, lacked the sense of being or becoming a separate and natural historically based national territorial unit—a sense that other parts of the former Soviet Union could claim or invent as theirs by right. Ethnic Russians were dominant within the Federation, as they had been within the USSR, but millions of other ethnic Russians were included in what were now, officially at least, foreign governments. Russia’s idea of itself was imbued with its Soviet and Tsarist past. Other formerly Soviet entities could choose to see themselves as liberated from it, to a greater or lesser extent. The failed 1991 putsch against Gorbachev, the immediate result of which was the establishment a few months later of an independent Russia, was also the seed bed for enduring divisions within Russia over what sort of country it wished to become. The story of the 1990s was one of struggle between a small group of economic reformers around Yeltsin and a determined set of opponents—dominating the Duma but with increasingly substantial popular backing—of an essentially Soviet cast of mind.
That opposition mindset embraced the idea of a natural and inevitable conflict of interest between Russia and the West—with the United States as Russia’s international peer, as it had been over the previous 40 years or more. Those supporting change in Russia designed to bring it closer to wider European values—and to working with the United States, the European Union, and international institutions like the IMF and the Council of Europe—were also affected by doubts stirred by the degree of dependence on Western benevolence and the condescension that they believed to be implied by that. The Russian foreign policy establishment never worked through understandings that might have supported a longer-term view of Russia as a newly independent state in a wider European context. The appointment of Primakov as Russian Foreign Minister in 1996 crystallized instead an emerging conviction within Russia’s foreign policy circles that a supposed American construction of a unipolar authority had been established, and needed to be replaced by other centers of influence, in Russia as well. These ideas, while intellectually disputable (was Washington ever in truth a single power able to dictate terms to the rest of the world?), were reinforced by NATO military action against Serbia over Kosovo. They have since hardened into Russian doctrine, a process that accompanied the degradation of Russian political structures independent of the Kremlin, together with the suppression of internal debate over the years since Putin succeeded Yeltsin.1
Russia’s National Interest
In referring to Russia’s national interests both Russian and foreign analysts often take it pretty much for granted that the Kremlin’s ambition to be recognized as a Great Power with the concomitant right to hegemony over an accepted sphere of influence in Eurasia is to be expected, even justified. The unspoken assumption is that Russia is in the fullest sense the successor state to the USSR, and that, as such, it may be understood to have encapsulated within its truncated borders, so far as may be possible, the rights and ambitions of the Soviet Union. The Cold War analytical framework fits this approach well, with Russia seen as its essential component requiring particular treatment, as opposed to being part of a complex pattern of regional forces.
Russia is said in this context to need “Respect” from the West. Great Power status in this sense is indeed pursued by the Kremlin with determination in the belief that Russia has both the strength and the right to inspire obedience by others. Putin was openly referring to the Yalta settlement as a desirable European precedent by 2014. It was not entirely clear what the Rumer/Trenin/Weiss article referred to in the second paragraph of this account had in mind as a way to change the course of U.S.-Russia relations and thereby to overcome the conflict the authors find to be inherent in each party’s current approach. It appeared however to have something in common with recommendations by others looking for a way to make a fresh start, in the absence of indications that the Kremlin might itself be looking to think again. The implications of that would, it seems, mean somehow turning the page on Russian interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and the United States, which would appear in its turn to mean both Washington and Moscow accepting Russia’s paradigm of ”realism” as the way forward. It was not clear in the run-up to President Trump’s meeting with Putin on July 16 how far he intended now or in the future to move in this sort of direction, and the U.S. President must, unlike the Russian President, take account of the independent forces of democracy. However, it was plain that he hoped that a fresh start in U.S.-Russia relations could be achieved in due course, and that he believed he had made a good start in this direction.
It is nevertheless an open question how far the pursuit of Great Power status is, in reality, in Russia’s national interest. It may be late for Putin himself to moderate his approach, given the public support he has relied upon as the resolute defender of Fortress Russia. But the status sought is indefinable. Another way of looking at what Russia’s true interests might be would be to ask whether its actions in support of the Kremlin’s pursuit of regional hegemony have been to the benefit of Russia’s peoples? And if it is held that the ordinary people of Russia have benefitted, how secure are their gains? Might not more lasting benefits have been realized while improving the domestic fortunes of Russia’s peoples and earning the confidence of the country’s neighbors in place of the fear that Moscow has inspired instead? Why in any case should we or anyone else accept Russia’s present view of what its interests might be as deserving of our acceptance or even respect?
A Personal Note
The deeper roots of a country’s outlook on the rest of the world lie beyond abstract analysis. While these need exploration for a credible account of why states act as they do, that examination cannot be done without one’s own subjective ideas and experiences affecting it. It is particularly difficult reliably to interpret the subjective forces now at work in present day states, like Russia or those in the Western Balkans, with histories of having survived the collapse of wider entities like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Ideas and attitudes change or may evolve over time, but the power of historical memory, often transfigured by mythologies built around it, remains a determining and retarding factor2 in deciding what international policies particular countries may adopt and how they determine what their national interests may be.
“The Trenches of History”3
Russia has always had a singular conceit of itself as a Third Rome, an expanding imperial power, and then as the center of world revolution. The West has over the centuries been the object of both fascination and resentment for Russia. Russia’s borders have enlarged and contracted over the centuries. The proposition that other Slavs, like the Ukrainians, are somehow really Russian has a long history. The beliefs that, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, Russia is best ruled from the top by strong leaders, and that the general population’s duty is to obey, not question, have deep roots.
Putin’s Russia has sought a renewed claim to eminence whether by virtue of Moscow’s victory in 1945, or by at various times asserting its guardianship of traditional morals and/or its geo-political position at the center of Eurasia. All these claims rest on Russia’s effectiveness as a centralized and militarily powerful state covering a major part of the world’s land mass. Putin has made that last requirement his principal objective. Outside criticism of the way that progress has been achieved is equated with Russophobia, as though foreigners have had no regard for what the peoples of Russia have achieved in fields beyond the exercise of force. It has, too, depended on the enforcement within Russia of an ahistorical version of both the Soviet and post-Soviet record over much of the last century, and the condign punishment of those who might appear to question it.
Russians are not alone in wishing to forget, deny, or sacralize their past. The Kremlin has however pursued that objective more deliberately and thoroughly than any others over this century. The deaths of millions at Stalin’s hand have been eased out of the historical frame in place of the assertion that he was, after all, a capable and creative manager that Russia needed to face the challenge of Nazi Germany. The cult of victory in 1945 has been nurtured devotedly. The way it was achieved may not be questioned. Even the KGB has tried to have its record polished into one of selfless service, to the conviction or comfort of those now serving the FSB, at least. These mendacious streams feed into a wider current of patriotism as a bulwark against foreign danger, and a view of events in the outside world if beyond Russian control as being directed against Russia. Russia’s consequent felt needs are for a strong leader (like Stalin); domestic as well as external vigilance; and a great foreign rival like the United States.
A nation however unable to face its past is unable to learn from it. There is a strain of doubt, even fear, behind this general narrative and its emotional consequences. It is surely not the case that the West as a whole or the United States in particular has somehow forced Putin’s Russia into defending itself by attacking others, notably Ukraine. The real threat from the West is not military. It rests on the need for Russia to renew and reinvent itself, just as it needed to do in Brezhnev’s time, also a time when the propaganda machine had run out of effect. The Soviet Union collapsed in truth because it was an economic and political failure, and because the comparative success of Western countries, together with their own traditions and cultural assumptions, spoke to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe of viable alternatives to the model they had been forced to adopt. Suppressed strands of national identities within the USSR itself as well as beyond its borders were a principal factor too. And Russian civilization was then and is now far richer than one of top-down rule reliant on the suppression of dissent.
It is in the first place up to Russia to work its way out of the isolated cul-de-sac it now finds itself to be in. That will not be by the logic of Moscow forcing its way toward regional hegemony as a sort of reprise of the Cold War.
No one can be sure of how Russia will change or adapt over the latest Putin term in office. But the immediate omens are discouraging in the face of the determination of the Kremlin and its FSB-associated core to cling to power by enforcing narrowly based centralized and corrupted authoritarian control. The longer Russia takes to deal with its internal disharmonies, the greater the risk of future internal trouble, and perhaps international unrest too.
No doubt the United States and its allies have made and will continue to make mistakes in dealing with Russia. But to see the relationship in binary terms, with each party bearing a similar degree of responsibility for tensions or military confrontation of one kind or another, as was habitual during the Cold War, is inadequate. The countries in-between have their rights and responsibilities to exercise for themselves. All the better for them to do so in harmony with generally recognized and law-based international practices.
And in the end, all the better for Russia too. The proposition that there is inbuilt rivalry between that country and the United States not unlike that during the Cold War is, from the wider point of view of the West, neither true nor helpful. Even if true, it could not be bargained away in terms of mutual concessions. That would in practice cement it into place as Cold War II, and restrict Russia’s ability to renew itself. Russia needs the rule of law both internally so as to make its leaders accountable and externally in the interests of rescuing it from its self-imposed isolation. The “international liberal order” is essential to that, and is an order that has and will evolve over time. The “realism” that has been contrasted with it elsewhere is surely a cover for the older and unstable practice of might over right.
1. Andrew Wood, “Putin and Russia in 2018-2024-What Next?” Chatham House (March 2018).
2. Most of my career abroad was spent in the British Embassies in Moscow—1964-66, 1979-82, and 1995-2000—and Belgrade—1975-79 and 1985-89.
3. A telling phrase used on July 10 at Chatham House by the Foreign Minister of what is now agreed to be called Northern Macedonia.