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Russia's Alienation from the West: Who is to blame?

II German Cluster: Hannes Adomeit

There are few Russian academics these days who dare to swim against the Kremlin-ordained national-patriotic, anti-Western current. Dmitri Trenin is no exception, as shown by his Clingendael speech and two articles for the Carnegie Endowment and its Moscow Center: 

Avoiding US-Russia Military Escalation during Hybrid War & European Security: from Managing Adversity to a New Equilibrium)

This becomes painfully evident in the introduction to his speech. He refers to Francis Fukuyama’s assertion about the ‘end of history’ - his idea that ‘we may be witnessing not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’. Trenin thinks that EU member states have basically ‘left history behind’ but that in relations between Russia and the West ‘the end of history has not come and will not come in the foreseeable future’.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Russia may have made its share of mistakes, he says, but ‘frankly, I blame the West as the stronger party’. And what are the most important factors in the triumph of liberal democracy in EU Europe and its failure in Russia? He mentions two: one that he calls psychological, the other geopolitical. However, on closer scrutiny, it turns out that both are geopolitical. Both reveal what could be called the ‘birth defect’ of post-Soviet Russia: the central focus of the Kremlin’s perceptions and policies on the United States. Russia, he argues, ‘refused to buy a ticket to join the West’, printed on which was ‘acceptance of the United States’ leadership’ (later in the speech, harking back to Soviet stereotypes, he used the term US ‘tutelage’). Instead, it wanted to be treated as a ‘serious co-equal’ to the United States.

That’s where the crux of the matter lies and where, indeed, psychological factors are relevant. The lynchpins of the Soviet regime, first and foremost the siloviki − members of the security services and the military, including from the former KGB (now FSB and SVR); GRU military intelligence GRU; the interior ministry (MVD) and its OMON special forces; the federal narcotics agency; officers of a plethora of armed bodies, including the forces of the defence and interior ministries – and the managers and employees of the sprawling military-industrial complex, never reconciled themselves to the dissolution of the Soviet empire. They thought, like Putin, that ‘Russia is just another name for the Soviet Union’ and that the USSR’s collapse was a major ‘geopolitical catastrophe’. It is not that they wanted or want to restore the communist ideological components of the Soviet Union. But they certainly want to reconstitute Russia as a Great Power - in essence, to restore it as a superpower on a par with the United States. Like in the Soviet era, however, power fatefully is being viewed through the lens of strategic nuclear assets; raw materials, notably oil and gas; the country’s vast geographical extent, covering eleven times zones; and its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

This mindset is uncannily reminiscent of the thinking that led to the demise of the Weimar Republic. Nationalist and chauvinist opponents of liberal democracy, with the Nazis as their spearhead, failed to reconcile themselves with the defeat of Germany in World War I. They disseminated the Dolchstoßlegende, the myth that German troops had remained undefeated in war but had been ‘stabbed in the back’ at the home front by social democrats, socialists and communists. That falsification of history resembles the arguments by Russian nationalists and unreconstructed communists that the Soviet system was stable and strong but that it was brought down by a conspiracy of traitors like president Mikhail Gorbachev, adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev, Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev, Russian premier Yegor Gaidar and others.

There is a second major element that helped lead to the defeat of liberal democracy in the Weimar Republic and in post-Soviet Russia: relentless claims of a vast external conspiracy. Putin’s regime constantly paints the outside world as fundamentally hostile to Russia, saying that it wants to ‘bring it to its knees’, ‘tear it apart’ or, as Putin said on television after the September 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan in reference to the North Caucasus, to ‘tear a juicy piece of flesh’ from Russia.

The third psychological element with disastrous international consequences and one of the major factors for the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the attack on Poland one year later, was the utilization of the minority issue: the claim that the German diaspora in neighbouring countries was subjected to massive violations of human rights and that Germany not only had the right but also the sacred duty to ‘protect’ its compatriots abroad. That assertion, too, has extensively been used for the legitimation of Putin’s imperial pretensions in the post-Soviet space, including for the war in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea, the military intervention in eastern Ukraine and the establishment of and support for the separatist ‘people’s republics’ in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014.

Trenin claims that, in a way, the ‘Crimea crisis was predictable’ – a strange assertion since, as with the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one, perhaps with the exception of some mavericks, predicted it. It is, however, absurd, to claim that the United States’ failure to treat Russia as an equal is to blame for the annexation of the peninsula. That interpretation is part of a larger analytical error: Trenin, like other Putin apologists, attributes Russia’s domestic turn away from liberal democracy and its malign, aggressive foreign policy to external factors.

The basis on which this narrative rests is NATO’s eastward extension. In fairness to Trenin, he did not support that narrative in his speech or in the two articles referred to above. The Russian ruling elite, however, has used it as one of the most important justifications for its domestic and foreign policies.  In doing so, it has painted NATO as a threat to Russian security interests and endowed it with a moral dimension, that is, with the myth that Western leaders made firm ‘commitments’ and gave the Soviet Union ‘guarantees’ that the western alliance would not enlarge east of the GDR.  

But who actually reneged on solemn commitments? In accordance with Gorbachev’s New Political Thinking, the Soviet Union signed up to the 1990 Charter of Paris. On the basis of its principles, foreign minister Kozyrev promised Russia would transform into a liberal democracy, a law-based state with an active civil society, a normal European country, shedding its imperial pretensions and becoming a good neighbour of post-Soviet countries, including the Baltic States and Ukraine. As Trenin acknowledges, ‘right up to Ukraine, the idea was that Russia would progressively become more like Europe, would become part of, let’s say, Europe plus’. Indeed. But it was not because of the existence of an external threat that Russia reneged on promises and treaty commitments but because of internal dynamics, that is, the gradual reassertion of the power of the siloviki and their artificial portrayal of threats from the West. Their purpose was clear: to justify the retention of a million-strong army and hundreds of thousands of officers and men in other armed formations, the reassertion of the power and influence of the secret services, the maintenance of the vast military-industrial complex and authoritarianism domestically and the turn away from the European path of development in foreign policy.

To that extent, it is difficult to agree with Trenin’s assertion that Russia’s conflict ‘is not with the West, it’s with the USA’. The conflict is also with Europe, not least because of the fact that Russia is doing its utmost to end the end of history in Europe. It is attempting to do so, as he admits, by ‘hybrid warfare’, including, as he fails to mention, a vicious anti-Western disinformation campaign and destabilization efforts together with like-minded anti-democratic and anti-liberal right-wing forces in Europe.

Where one can agree with Trenin and other Putin apologists is that the prospects of Russia becoming more like Europe are ‘bleak’ and will not be ‘revisited’, and that it is entirely unclear what the ‘platform for a renewed Russian-European relationship’ could be. That has much to do with what the fact that, according to Trenin, in the ‘last five years, Russia’s geopolitical axis has shifted’ to Asia. Russia is not just revising the legacy of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It is ‘revising the legacy of Peter the Great’. It is ‘rebalancing itself’. Its heart and mind is ‘no longer with Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok’.

That view is shared by other Russian ‘post-West’ and ‘post-Europe’ theoreticians. These include Vladislav Surkov, who was pivotal in creating the Putin system and propaganda machine and is currently his adviser on Ukraine. In the April issue of Russia in Global Affairs magazine he wrote that ‘Russia's epic journey toward the West’ is over, marking an end to its ‘repeated fruitless attempts to become a part of Western civilization’ for over four centuries. Rather than looking toward the West, the country was increasingly turning inward as well as eastward. The split with the West over Ukraine in 2014 marked the beginning of a new era in which Russia will face ‘100 years (200? 300?) of geopolitical solitude’.

‘Solitude does not mean isolation’, Surkov explains, and Trenin agrees: ‘Russia will sit in the middle of the continent of Eurasia. It will include your [European] part of the world, China, the Middle East. I imagine Russia sitting in a swivel chair, turning to partners, counterparts, adversaries, wherever they might emerge. [...] Europe will be seen as [only] one of several important neighbourhoods alongside China and East Asia, Central- and South Asia and the Arctic. In this new world Russia hopefully will be able to build new neighbourly relationships.’

As the Russian saying goes, ‘Hope dies last’. When and how will this brave new Russian world of good neighbourly relations come about? In ‘100, 200 or 300’ years? It is to be hoped that it will not take that long. Yet as Trenin, as noted, acknowledges, the outlook is ‘bleak’. He does not tell us why but it is safe to assume that it has a lot to do with the architecture of the Putin system, a system built on lies, deceit, corruption and denial of responsibility for malign and criminal behaviour at home and abroad. If one were to believe the Kremlin, Russia:

  • Did not interfere in the US presidential elections, the national elections of European countries, including in France and Germany, and the referenda in Britain on Brexit and in Catalonia for independence.
  • Did not organize an extensive and elaborate system of doping, with the authorities lashing out at those who helped uncover the scandal, including former director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian athlete Yuliya Stepanova and German journalist Hajo Seppelt;
  • Did not engage in any wrongdoing in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for the British Hermitage investment firm, who uncovered massive tax fraud by Russian officials and who died or was murdered in Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison, Russian courts finding both Magnitsky (posthumously) and his former employer Bill Browder (in absentia) guilty of tax evasion and fraud, the latter receiving a sentence of nine years in jail;
  • Had nothing to do with the murders of Litvinenko, Skripal or any other of the fourteen suspicious deaths under scrutiny in Britain, with the chief suspect in the Litvinenko case, Andrei Lugovoy, enjoying freedom as a member of parliament and being rewarded by Putin with a medal ‘for services to the fatherland’;
  • Did not use cluster bombs in Syria, including the RBK-500 ZAB 2.5SM, which was shown by RT under the wing a SU-34 fighter-bomber at the Hmeimim air base, inflict large-scale destruction on civilian areas in Aleppo and East Ghouta, and does not help the Assad regime cover up its use of poison gas in East Ghouta, Idlib province and other Syrian locations.

Concerning Russia’s neighbourhood, notably Ukraine, Russian officials claim that neither Russia nor the separatists had anything to do with the destruction of the MH17 passenger aircraft and that Russia has no regular troops in the Donbas; never bombarded Ukrainian territory across the border; is not delivering weapons and military equipment or ammunition to the separatists; has no role in the recruitment of mercenaries or the planning and conduct of military operations; is not paying for the troops fighting under the ‘LNR’ and ‘DNR’ flags; and is not providing grants and financial aid to the separatist ‘republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The Kremlin also denies repeated violations of borders and kidnapping of citizens not only of Ukraine but of other independent states such as, for instance, Estonia. In its southern Caucasian neighborhood, Russia is treating South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states and denies responsibility for repeated border adjustments in South Ossetia to the detriment of the central government in Tbilisi.

Russia’s turn towards national-patriotic, anti-Western and, in its neighbourhood, neo-imperialist and ‘spheres of influence’ policies, is not the result of external military threats emanating from the United States and NATO but is primarily internal in origin. This means change can come about only as a result of fundamental policy changes at home. These would have to be put in place by the Russian ruling elite. We will be waiting a very long time.

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