When enemies are better than friends

Rather than emphasising friends and allies, today's Russian leaders prefer to single out their enemies, writes Alexei Levinson. It is an approach that plays on Russians' traditional psychological comfort zones, while at the same time allowing politicians to evade responsibility at home.
Alexei Levinson
6 July 2010

Russian foreign policy discourse knows three “states”. One, which we shall call the “ordinary” state, is the conception of the world in terms of allies and enemies. In this situation, politics becomes a matter of union with one group against another. There are, however, another two “extraordinary” states. The first we will link to an idea of Russia’s world-historical mission: a mission of leading humankind to eternal happiness. In short, many Russian rulers have advanced the idea of universal disarmament and peace, the amicable unification of Europe, or the entire world (a unification which should only happen under the direction or at least with the participation of Russia). It was not only Emperors who promoted ideas of absorbing Europe into Russia or absorbing Russia into Europe. Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and ultimately, Gorbachev were also all avid proponents of such a line.


During the naval blockade of Cuba, Fidel Castro used the reality of American warships for internal political ends. Bar a short interregnum of "new thinking" in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russian leaders have cultivated similar seige mentalities.

The moment that such ideas of European integration fall through – as they inevitably do – the reaction is usually another, “extraordinary” state. The best way of conceiving this state is to think of it as a kind of triumphant stress about Russia’s historical solitude. It is a state that means rejecting not only a belief in the brotherhood of nations, but also rejecting more ordinary ideas of partnership and alliance.

These states — and more often combinations of them — have coloured not only the reality of foreign policy on the level of state, and the rhetoric of politicians and the media, but also the reaction of public opinion to such politics and rhetoric. Now, as we have said, they are a (usually delayed) response to the foreign politics of the day. But they also form a background to the public mood, which politicians can leverage at their discretion. They can be used to intimidate, or charm a foreign partner; they can be used to differentiate the mildness or harshness of a given position.

The way such states are used for foreign policy ends is, however, only half the story. In fact, rulers find them much more useful as instruments for internal politics. One can, after all, achieve a great deal of progress using chiliastic expectations and moods. The flip side — the image of Russia as a country that no-one loves, a country with “only two true allies: the army and the navy” — is just as useful. (This expression is attributed to Tsar Alexander III, who ruled in the century before last; for many Russians, Alexander’s insight is no less relevant today). Many Russians feel real psychological comfort in feeling surrounded by the enemy. For politicians, it can also be used as a means of evading responsibility. I remember a conversation I had with a journalist some time ago, who reported listening in on a cabinet meeting with Fidel Castro at a time when Cuba had long been the subject of an American naval blockade. According to this story, Fidel is supposed to have pointed out of the window at the silhouettes of American war ships scattered across the horizon, and said: “if they went, we’ll be forced to make them out of cardboard”.

The research that our group conducted during the epoch of Gobachev’s “new thinking”  uncovered an interesting mix of “new” and “old” thinking in the mass consciousness. Indeed, on the very eve of Gorbachev’s first speeches on the subject, the official Soviet line still held that “the world has never been closer to a nuclear war”. Almost overnight, everything changed, and former enemies became friends. We were eager to become part of the European set and even for a moment debated joining NATO. Such trends were naturally reflected in public opinion at the time: when we asked the public to name who Russia’s friends were, for example, it was common to hear “everyone” as an answer. That is not to say that feelings of historical solitude were not prevalent even then: some indeed answered “Russia has no friends”.

The same surveys showed particularly interesting responses about Russia’s “enemies”. Discounting overspill from historical alliances (“our enemies are the US, Germany, NATO, or “the West”), there were three general responses — “no enemies”, “we are our own enemies” and “there are enemies... the problem is that we don’t know who”. Today, our latest polls show the following answers: around 4% consider that Russia has no enemies; while about three times as many believe that Russia has no friends.

The era of Gorbachevian “new thinking” passed by very quickly. Russian foreign policy instead focused on the relations of the country’s first president with the leaders of great powers; and for a long period, there was a perceptible loss of interest towards close neighbours. At the time, it seemed that this aspect of foreign policy proceeded almost on its own accord; that there was no system to it. In fact, it was highly dependent on the efforts of second-rate politicians, middling journalists and low-ranking officials, who consistently pursued internal and personal goals.

Why was this done? It was done to make Russians feel that, once again, they were surrounded by Western enemies.  As a rule, it began with complaints of one or another kind towards Western neighbours; with the intensification of historical disputes or more recent issues. Unlike the Stalinist policy of the 1940s — which attempted to turn such countries into allies by whatever means — now actions were being taken which could only have the opposite effect. Russian public opinion was very malleable, agreeing with any line: from “ideological” arguments, relating to “their” lack of respect towards “our” historical symbols, to more “economic” ideas, i.e. “they should start paying more for our gas”. And the net result was clear. Indeed, in the model of a bipolar world, split East-West (at least in the Russian understanding), there could only be one outcome: these small neighbours moved over to the “West”, joining the EU and NATO. (We talk, of course, less in terms of official resolutions and legal acts of union, and more about the picture formed in the Russian public psyche). The above is the general and key cause of the Russian siege mentality we referred to earlier.

In May 2010, Russians were asked to name five countries who they considered to by the “most unfriendly, hostile towards Russia”. Their axis of acrimony reads Georgia (57%), Latvia (36%), Lithuania (35%) and Estonia (28%). After this follows the USA (26%) and Afghanistan (14%), before a continuation of the European chain with Poland (14%) and Ukraine (13%). At this most westerly point of Russia’s border ends the list of significant responses. Less than 10% of those surveyed actually named other countries. Indeed, of Russia’s western neighbours, only Belarus is not on the list (at least not yet).

For a long time, Belarus actually topped the list of Russian friends (49%). Meanwhile, another friend on the Western trajectory — Germany — is held dearer for being a long defeated enemy. Now, just 1% of Russians consider Germany to be an enemy, while 24% consider it a friend. Then there is France, an even-longer-defeated enemy (11% consider it a friend, and less than 1% consider it an enemy).

The Russian public’s attitude to Ukraine is a much more complex issue. Under former Presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma, both Russian power structures and – perhaps more strangely – parts of the general public had gripes to bear with Ukraine. Many Russians still considered Ukraine to be part of Russia, separated by border checkpoints and customs restrictions because of one silly misunderstanding. Russia’s political elite reacted to the Orange Revolution with real fear. They began to imagine the same thing happening to them. But their fear was misplaced. Russian society was not configured in the same way as in Ukraine. There was no force capable of threatening the Kremlin. All the same, they unleashed a ferocious anti-Orange campaign. Even without such a campaign, Russians didn’t need much convincing that “they” had “turned their backs on us”. By 2006, Ukraine was on the list of the five most unfriendly countries. But the election of Yanukovych — considered by Russians to be pro-Russian politician — calmed peoples’ fears. Now 20% see Ukraine as a friend.

As we have already mentioned, Belarus tops the list of “friendly” countries. There are perhaps three reasons for this. The first is Belarus’ awful reputation in Europe. For some Russians, this is reason enough to consider the country our friend — “our enemy’s enemy is our friend”. The second reason is an interest in the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenka. At one time, Lukashenka was actually sized up as a successor to Yeltsin (as a president of a United Russian-Belarussian state). Winged by such a prospect, Lukashenka even began what looked to many like an election campaign in Russia; indeed, in a number of Russian regions he had a higher approval rating than Yeltsin. This experiment was quickly stopped, but its one effect might have been to indicate to the people searching for Yeltsin’s successor that such a leader was not to be found among Russia’s democrats, but from within the country’s authoritarian (or potentially authoritarian) tendency.

(Another interesting feature of our surveys, by the way, is the position of Kazakhstan, which immediately follows Belarus in Russia’s “friends” column. Russians are not particularly interested in the subtleties of the political system in this country. But they do understand one thing: as with Belarus, a president there is a president for life (many Russians are impressed by this). Like Russia, the country lives off a rent derived from natural resources: you might say that socially they are very close.)

The third and most important factor informing Russian sympathy towards Belarus is the fact that many Russians believe that Belarus has managed to preserve life as it was in Soviet times. While only a minority of Russians who would like to see a return to 1985, many still believe it would have been better to preserve the principles of the Soviet system. For such people, the experience of Belarus – which has preserved a paradise of twenty years’ past, simply adds fuel to their main complaint with the “democratic” reformers of the 1990s, i.e. that it wasn’t necessary to cause such upheaval in peoples’ lives.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that the process of converting friends into enemies continues to this day. While the author was preparing this article, Russia entered into a new “gas war” with Belarus. And when relations with this partner — once Russia’s “best friend” — are soured, it will be possible to consider Russia’s western border as firmly closed, sealed by a screen of enemies.


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