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Russia and the West: a liberal view

Lilia Shevtsova
3 November 2008

The Polit.ru and Open Democracy discussion of issues of international relations has inspired me to offer another view. I should like to consider the relations between Russia and the West, but in the context of civilisational norms and standards.  It seems to me that outside this context and without considering the link between foreign and domestic policy, it is difficult, or even impossible, to explain the logic of Russia's behaviour on the international stage, and the state of her relations with the world.  The link is essential for an understanding of why Russia acts so often to the detriment of her own reputation in her role on the international stage, and why this detriment is regarded by some as a triumph.

Foreign policy as a means of protecting the System

Over the last few years in Russia we have seen, as Sergei Karaganov rightly noted, the "rapid ascent of foreign policy".   But how does it manifest itself? Primarily in the actions of Moscow towards containing the West, in the attempts to stop the movement of new independent nations towards Europe, and in the Kremlin's constant striving to give a negative response to any initiatives or actions by the West.

What is the goal of this doctrine, which can be defined as the "Doctrine of Putin-Medvedev-Lavrov", named after its main architects and chief  propagandist, who also occasionally speaks as a foreign policy ideologist? The goal is clear - to create conditions in which the current system in Russia can be preserved and reproduce itself, and to achieve its legitimization by the international community. This is the goal of the foreign policy efforts of any country. Applied to Russia, it involves legitimizing a system, which is based on a regime of personalised power and a bureaucratic model of capitalism which survives by the sale of raw material resources.

In recent years, the role of foreign policy in the strengthening of the Russian system has increased dramatically, which is evidence of the inadequacy of its internal resources   By portraying their corporate interests as the national interests of Russia, the Russian elite has succeeded in using foreign policy to form a consensus which includes even critics of the regime. Patriotism, focused on the idea of finding an enemy and opposing the hostile surroundings, has proved to be a very successful, although not a new, idea of consolidation.

The Kremlin has tried out different models for looking after its international interests. During Boris Yeltsin's presidency and early on in Putin's term, the political class tried to incorporate Russia into the framework of the Western community, but with its own "rules", hoping that Russia would be included in the "West" without dissolving in it, i.e. without adopting Western standards, in short without assimilation. This attempt was doomed to fail - what civilization would agree to incorporate a foreign body which would destroy it from within?  The "colour revolutions" of 2004-2005 came as a shock to the Kremlin and compelled the Russian political class to seek a new survival model by distancing itself from the West, while at the same time containing it.  Explaining Russia's new position, Sergei Lavrov put forward the idea of an international "trio" - the USA, the EU and Russia, which could "steer the world boat".

President Dmitry Medvedev made his contribution to the Russian doctrine of foreign policy when he spoke about Russia's sphere of "privileged interests".   His elaboration made everything clear: this is a kind of post-modernism which includes a return to the Yalta order and balance of power, but Russia and the West are partners (on the issues that Moscow considers to be of common interest), and the West will not intervene in the internal affairs of Russia and its sphere of influence. In short, the world is offered a return to traditional geopolitics, but without the value vector. This is the "de-ideologisation of international relations" which Dmitry Medvedev talks about.

However, there is no unity in the Kremlin about how to present the differences between Russia and the West, if Lavrov considers it appropriate to say that "value systems and models of development" are at the heart of the competition between Russia and the West, forgetting to clarify what it is that Russia can offer the world.   Essentially, the Russian ruling group is trying to combine the incompatible in the sphere of foreign policy.  They want to be with the West and against it at the same time, i.e. the things they do within the country, mixing absolute rule and elections, the market and the advantages of administrative office. In practice, this means trying to have a selective partnership with the West while preserving standards of development in Russian society, which are alien to the West. Moreover, by trying to maintain within the country the status quo guaranteeing the power of the bureaucratic corporation, the Kremlin is attempting to review the status quo established on the world stage after the fall of the USSR.

What we have here is a survival model for a political class which tries to enjoy the benefits of the Western world, and integrates into it on a personal level very successfully, but at the same time rejects its principles. This model of relationships works on the principle that pragmatism is everything and principles are nothing. Moscow may defend the integrity of Serbia until it is blue in the face, but at the same time undermine the integrity of Georgia and threaten to split Ukraine. Russia may take part in the G8 and the Russia-NATO Council, but at the same time consider the West, and above all the USA, to be its enemies.

It must be admitted that the Russian ruling group is very successful in implementing its doctrine of being "with the West and against it".  By exploiting the disorientation of the Western world and the cynicism of Western leaders who are inclined to double standards, the Kremlin has been able to turn the West into a factor of life in Russia, putting it at the heart of the political regime and facilitating its continuation. Caught out unawares by the initiatives of the Russian ruling group, Western society has, unexpectedly for itself, become the guarantor of the survival of the Russian moneyed interest class, the raw model of capitalism and authoritarian power, which is founded on anti-Western rhetoric. The Kremlin has managed to use liberal-democratic civilization to support an anti-liberal phenomenon which has begun to have a destructive effect on the West itself, not only threatening its geopolitical interests, but corrupting its business and political class. The co-opting of representatives of the Western political class is not only limited to the recruitment of former Chancellor Schroeder, who has become a functionary of Gazprom. The Russian elite have numerous ways of testing the puritanism and moral stability of the Western elite, and compelling it to work in their own interests.

On the Western view of Russia and the West

Without claiming to make a comprehensive analysis of Western experts' views on Russia and the relations between the West and Russia, I will try to single out the most interesting or popular points of view. What do Western analysts say about the causes of the cooling in relations between Russia and the West? Serious experts understand the essence of the matter, as we see in the two brilliant essays by Sir Roderic Lyne ("Reading Russia, Rewiring the West", "Russia and the West: is confrontation inevitable?"). Among the reasons for the cooling in relations, Sir Roderic mentions the rift of values between Russia and the West, and of course he is right. At the same time, let us ask ourselves another question: how is it that even China, which is openly authoritarian, can have relations with the West that are successful, sometimes even achieving partnership status?  This means it is not simply that society is differently regulated, or that there is absolute rule.  How the absolute rule is effected is also important.  The Chinese elite solves this problem and the task of advancing China by embracing the West and gentle integration into the international community. The Russian elite has returned to great power nationalism, which involves a somewhat different method both of the preservation of power and the organization of society. Great power nationalism  implies not only absolute rule, but expansionism and reliance on force to justify this rule.  It also includes creating an image of Russia as a besieged fortress, which does not mean integration with, but rather rejection of, the Western world. 

There are many commentators in the West who have fallen under the influence of the thesis that is actively promoted by Kremlin experts as an explanation of Russian aggression.  This is the so-called "humiliation of Russia" in the 1990s, now portrayed as a justification for the inevitability of "revenge" and "retribution". Even Thomas Graham, one of the leading experts on Russia in Washington and until recently George W. Bush's advisor on Russia, has fallen into this trap. But allow me to ask the people who talk about the "humiliation" of Russia, why is it only now that the Russian elite has remembered its "humiliation" ? Why did it not mention this humiliation in 2002, say, when Putin and Bush were talking about their partnership? And if our Western friends are so worried about the well-being of the Russian nation, then why don't they advise representatives of the Russian elite to use a more effective way of overcoming this humiliation - by building a prosperous society, and not by restoring spheres of influence?

There are many commentators in the West, particularly in Europe, who emphatically blame the West for the crisis in relations with Russia.  They criticise the West, and especially America, of course, for NATO expansion, the Kosovo precedent, for the "colour revolutions" organised by the West, and for the ABMs in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, they evidently do not give any thought to why the West's concern corresponds so surprisingly to the accusations of the Kremlin.  Perhaps the anti-Americanism of Western critics of Western policy towards Russia will prove to be stronger than suspicion of the Russian elite. Perhaps they are afraid of offending Russia, without being able to distinguish between Russian society and the Russian elite. In this case,  Russia's well-wishers in the West should be reminded that,  by supporting the Kremlin's arguments, they are voluntarily offering assistance to the ruling class, which uses anti-Western, and especially anti-American, rhetoric to preserve a regime which cares nothing about Russia. Ultimately, these "friends of Russia" are doing the same as the Western politicians and experts who call for the isolation of Russia - they are helping the authoritarian regime solve the problems of its own preservation.

But at the same time, the West really does have a share of responsibility for the state of relations with Russia and the course she has taken.   The West's focus on personal relations with the Kremlin, the wish for stability in Russia at any price and the desire to use Russia as a raw materials resource only facilitate the continuation of an anti-Western system in Russia.

Two more popular views among Western analysts may be identified, again, by strange coincidence, the favourite arguments of pro-Kremlin experts. The first is that "Russia is not ready for democracy". Yes, the political thinking of Russians is still divided, and contains mutually exclusive values. But a large number of Russians are already prepared to move towards a freer and more competitive society. Surveys among the Russian elite of the second rank show that 45.5% also support the ideas of liberal democracy. The question is only when the democratically-minded groups will be motivated to consolidate. Upholding the myth that Russians are not ready for democracy only hinders this process.

The second favourite thesis of Western analysts is that democracy in Russia will come after capitalism, which is the determining factor. The development of civilisation would appear to have proved the truth of this Marxist thesis. But Russia, from all appearances, disproves this axiom. Here the development of capitalism and swift economic growth is accompanied by a move not towards democracy, but in the opposite direction. Although how can this be called capitalism, if the economy is intertwined with the regime? The middle class, in which supporters of the "capitalism first" theory place their hopes, also does not show any desire for innovation, but supports the authoritarian regime and nationalist ideology. And this is no surprise: the Russian middle class is to a large extent a group that services the state and state corporations. In short, Russia's development, and particularly the fact that its capitalism cannot cope with the growing crisis, shows that here the "determining factor" is after all policy and the reform of the state.

And finally, the last and most important thing. The West has yet to go beyond the boundaries of Realpolitik in relations with Moscow - the policy of emphasis on interests, essentially taking standards and principles outside its dealings with Russia. Western political circles over the last ten years have taken a stance of standing back and passive observation, as if to say: "Let's watch them muddling along. The main thing is to solve our problems jointly with them." One of the most prominent "realists", Robert Blackwill, has formulated the credo of the USA in relations with Russia: "The USA has problems, above all with Iran. So we need to have good relations with Russia. Any criticism of Moscow and ‘our concern about their democracy' will affect our cooperation on Iran." But Washington's attempts to make a deal with Moscow on Iran, or any other deal in exchange for refraining from criticising Moscow, all came to nothing.  The "old" Europeans adopted a similar policy towards Russia, but this also did not help them avoid a cooling in relations with Moscow, and unconcealed mocking disdain towards Europe and Brussels from the Russian elite. Poor Sarkozy was given a very clear understanding of the Kremlin's level of respect  during his attempts to implement the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan. In a word, it was while the  "realists" in Western politics were in control that relations between the West and Russia collapsed, and the confrontation between Russia and the USA began.

Today the West is once more thinking about its Russian policy model. Steven Sestanovich in the latest issue of "Foreign Affairs" proposes the following formula for US policy towards Russia: "selective engagement and selective containment". However, this formula does not make it clear whether the West is able to assist in the transformation of Russia. Without this transformation, the West will have ever fewer opportunities for "engagement" with Russia. And there will be no transformation of Russia either if the West continues to stand on the shore, wondering whether the country will sink or swim...

In his turn, Roderic Lyne proposes a model which includes an element of conditionality: "we need to keep means of encouragement and possibilities of partnership ready in case Russia begins to move towards modernization in future." This model includes an element of Western support for the modernization of Russia. But the devil is in the detail - and it all depends how the West understands "conditionality", and whether this model will work without the policy of "containing" the traditionalism of the Russian elite. I repeat: the West has many ways of influencing this elite, whose members have many personal contacts and ties in the West. We should ask ourselves why the West is not trying to do this yet.

Ultimately, in its approach to Russia the West will have to choose between the paradigms advanced by the eternal antagonists, Kissinger and Brzezinski. The former is welcome in Moscow and is a partner of the Russia authorities in the formation of relations with America. The latter is persona non grata in the Kremlin, and virtually considered Russia's greatest enemy.  Kissinger, who follows his beloved Realpolitik, about which the people at the Kremlin feel the same, argues that "attempts to influence the political evolution of Russia should not be overdone". Incidentally, there is one argument which supporters of Realpolitik like to use - they love quoting George Kennan, who did not believe that the Russians were ready for democracy. 

Brzezinski, on the contrary, suggests the West should "create the external conditions" which will enable the Kremlin too to understand "democracy is in its interests". At present, the West prefers to listen to Kissinger, as if they haven't noticed that Kissingerism has already led them into a dead end.

After Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, the West waited, hoping for a change in rhetoric, and greater Kremlin desire to negotiate on questions which cause mutual irritation. But these hopes disappeared after the Caucasian war in August 2008 and if anyone in the West still has them, they are people with no understanding of the logic of Russian power. For in order to look strong in the eyes of the elite and society, Medvedev must continue the previous policy of getting the country "off its knees" - whatever his personal views on Russia and the world. This is also the logic of power which forces the master of the Kremlin to put a cordon around Russia. The global financial crisis has forced Moscow to tone down its anti-Western rhetoric. But its systemic sources remain.

Russian experts on Russia and the West

I shall try to respond to the ideas of a number of Russian analysts who are outstanding experts working in the field of foreign policy. They are Alexei Arbatov, Sergey Karaganov, Fyodor Lukaynov and Dmitry Trenin. These experts influence the perception of Russia and Russian policy both in Russia and the West, and so their views are worthy of attention. There are many subtle observations in their arguments with which one cannot disagree. But there is also an idea running through these arguments, which I would like to dispute in the format of a friendly and respectful polemic.

The general thrust of the statements by these authors is the following: relations between Russia and the West are bad, and the blame for this lies primarily (or conclusively) with the West, above all the USA. What exactly is the West to blame for?  Expansion into the sphere of Russia's legitimate interests, ideologisation of its attitude towards Russia (the West is trying to teach us democracy - L.S.).   Our respected authors, to a greater or lesser degree, cannot endure NATO, believing it to be a relict of the cold war, and one of the main tools for restarting it. The expansion of NATO, as Arbatov put it, is the "original sin", from which all the problems between Russia and the West stem.  Karaganov even suggests that "recently our country has become the target for a Western attack."

These accusations, however, give rise to a number of questions. Firstly, the authors turn Russia into a passive object of Western influence, which is forcing our country into a corner. Does this mean they deny that Russia has become an independent entity in international relations? If so, how about the assertions of Russia's  "foreign policy rise", and the aspiration to rule the world as part of a "trio" together with the USA and the EU? All right then, we'll agree that the West dreams only of weakening Russia. But why does the West want a weak, and certainly a damaged, angry and aggressive Russia, rattling its nuclear weapons? Are they all suicidal in the West? Secondly, why do the authors consider that Western civilization coming closer to Russia is a threat, and not a benefit for Russian society? Don't they think that we can learn something from a more developed and prosperous community?

As for NATO being Russia's main enemy, here too I have some questions for my colleagues. If NATO is a mortal enemy, why does Russia cooperate with its enemy on the Russia-NATO Council? I would also like my colleagues to explain to us why NATO is more dangerous than nuclear Iran and China on the Russian border. I would refer the reader, and also our experts, to the articles of General Vladimir Dvorkin, who conclusively proves that NATO (and also ABMs, he adds) do not present any military threat to Russia, and that harping on about this threat is just "horror stories and fairytales for dilettantes here and abroad." But NATO, says Dvorkin, represents for the regime a threat to its concept of civilisation, as it provides its members with an opportunity to connect with European civilization.

So this is what the problem turns out to be. The expansion of NATO and its approach to the borders of Russia is really a threat for our elite, because it means that Russia is girdled by a belt of democratic states which may be a bad example for Russian citizens. I would advise the experts who are particularly concerned about NATO and its expansion to talk to General Dvorkin on this topic.

Some of our experts are convinced that the West is trying to "undermine the modernization of Russia". In fact, Alexander Auzan, a respectable liberal expert,  accuses the West of undermining modernisation in Russia in a lecture published on Polit.ru. But if the West has already disrupted modernisation, then that means that President Medvedev's modernisation program is a complete bluff! And if the West can undermine reform in Russia so easily, then this is further proof that Putin was not able to make Russia a sovereign country. In that case, our leaders, and our experts with them, have no grounds to consider Russia a "world centre". And finally, why does the West need to undermine Russian modernisation, if this means that traditionalist forces remain in power, or perhaps even more anti-Western forces come to power?

Where do our experts see the solution? In agreeing new rules for the relationship between Russia and the West with the West taking account of Russia's demands. This idea is formulated most clearly by Dmitry Trenin: The West should build relations with Russia on Russia's terms, "achieve an acceptable balance of mutual concessions, and not be guided by certain normative principles such as the presence or absence of democratic reforms". In other words, the West should base its policy towards Russia on interests, not values. But if this "agreement is not reached, then the inertia of the diplomacy of force and the heat of anti-Western rhetoric will push Russia... to confrontation". A reply to these arguments has already been given above: Realpolitik did not prevent the confrontation between Russia and the West. Neither Bush nor other Western leaders even tried to teach Russia democracy. But this did not help mutual understanding. Furthermore, the ideas of the Kremlin and Western capitals about "common interests" sometimes turned out to be diametrically opposed. Perhaps this proves that interests do actually arise out of the values which it is proposed we should forget? And if the West follows the advice of our experts and forgets about the problem of values in relations with Russia, might this mean that the gulf between Russia and the West only increases?

According to Lukyanov, "the only correct (!) policy is to build up our own strength" in order to oppose the "hostile external environment" In an article in the Washington Post, Arbatov goes even further and explains how this strength can be used, based on a policy of "an eye for an eye" in relation to the USA.  "What is allowed for the USA will be allowed for Russia". This means that if American ships enter the Black Sea, Russian ships will enter the Caribbean. If the Americans build bases around Russia, Russia will do the same in Latin America. Before we agree with our belligerent experts, let's think about what this means: Russia with its GDP of $1.3 trillion will have to deal with the USA which has a GDP of $13 trillion and a military budget of around $600 billion (the Russian military budget is 25 times less).  How do our experts see the result of the Russian "symmetrical" response in this situation?  How should Russia continue to "build up forces" at present, when the country is in a state of crisis? Or perhaps  our respected experts simply want to frighten the West, and all this rhetoric is not serious? But if it's not serious, it is a chance for our Western colleagues to use Russia for sarcasm practice,  which is what many of them are doing. If the West does take this rhetoric seriously, it will respond with an arms race which Russia will not be able to win. Or haven't our colleagues thought this through?

Incidentally, our authors don't want to look like propagandists, and they evidently realize the strength of their arguments. It is not for nothing that Karaganov, in the same article, praises "authoritarian capitalism" (in Russia - LS), and talks of its readiness in the struggle for "moral supremacy"(!), but at the same time is forced to admit that "the majority of factors which have determined the achievements of Russia are fraught with serious problems in the long-term". Then what our chances in the struggle for supremacy? Lukyanov, who recently told us about "building up our forces", is now worried about how to avoid an "unnecessary confrontation" with the USA. But "building up forces" is the path towards confrontation, and if it needs to be avoided, then why build them up? Isn't it time to advise the regime to think about changing their policy?

Our experts often struggle with logic, often without any visible success. Arbatov proposes a "strategic line of Russian policy" towards the Ukraine - "to bring about a swift and decisive change in the attitude of the Ukrainian political elite towards NATO as the guarantor of its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and towards Russia as the threat to these values." I should be very interested to know how Russia intends to do this after the war with Georgia. It is unclear how an authoritarian state might offer guarantees to a country which is attempting, if not always successfully, to build democracy. And we should remember that we are discussing a country where all the elites, even Viktor Yanukovich, Rinat Akhmetov and the entire Donbass group, aspire to join Europe.

And one more thing: all our respected experts always speak on behalf of Russia: "Russia will not permit", "Russia proposes a deal" etc. I should like to clarify on behalf of which Russia they are speaking. Whose interests do they represent exactly? Are they sure that society and the vast majority of the elite thinks the same way they do? I would recommend them to familiarize themselves with the results of a survey of the population and the elite, including the studies by Mikhail Afanasiev and Andrei Melvill. These studies show that in both society and the Russian elite, there are ideas about the West, and about how Russia should build relations with the West, which are very different from the ideas which our experts present as the "voice of Russia".

Essentially, our authors, in offering us a Russian version of Realpolitik, are trying to prove to the West and to Russia that there is a need for new international rules of play. This means rules which would allow today's Russia with its corrupt authorities and "petrol" economy to survive and reproduce itself in comfort. In a word, we are dealing with an attempt to set out and rationalize a protective doctrine, which aims to protect an anti-liberal and anti-Western system. The respected colleagues know full well what kind of system this is, and the principles it works on.

But now let's think: will the arguments of our protectors help in the understanding of how Russia moves and its relations with the West? Probably not, as they only take account of the interests of the ruling group, and not even all of the elite, let alone Russian society. If these arguments are accepted, will they help to build more stable relations between Russia and the West? Probably not, as the self-preservation of this system requires the rejection of the West as an alien civilization. Will the protective doctrine help the modernization of Russia? Once again, no, for it has the goal of protecting a traditional state which rejects reforms.

And at the same time, debate with representatives of the protective school in our community of experts is beneficial, as it helps to formulate the liberal positions for Russian statehood on the international stage. We will continue this debate, and I hope that the colleagues I have argued with today will join the re-evaluation process.

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