Russia’s return to the global scene, not only as an opponent of the West but also as a state that aims to influence internal developments in Western societies, has created a new intellectual and geopolitical challenge. Allegations of Moscow’s meddling in the US presidential election suggest vulnerability in the face of Russian power — real or imagined. Despite being much weaker than the Soviet Union, Russia today nevertheless has a greater ability to provoke mischief than the communist empire ever did, while Western debates on how to contain (or engage) Russia have an air of helplessness.
This situation is without historical precedent. Russia failed to transform itself into a liberal power and, in a bitter irony, it is Russian liberals who, by supporting one-man rule and working for it, have played an important role in helping the revamped system of personalised power to endure. The system has survived by dumping communism, mimicking liberal standards and by faking partnership with the West and then opposing it. Here is a state that has given itself a shot of adrenalin, not by openly combating its opponent (so far), but by undermining it from within.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the West without an ideological competitor, paving the way for complacency. Over time, as the dividing lines between fundamental principles blurred — between sovereignty and interference, the rule of law and lawlessness, democracy and personal rule — illiberal systems found that the new environment was to their liking.
Containment requires ideological clarity, but the ambiguity of the post-Cold War world made the strategy irrelevant. How to contain an opponent that wields your own liberal slogans against you? How to deter an opponent that has created powerful lobbying networks inside Western societies? And how to constrain an opponent that employs nuclear blackmail?
Such a state, which has been integrated into the world trade and security systems, cannot be successfully deterred. Isolation of a nuclear state is an even riskier proposition. And besides, the containment of Russia becomes even more problematic whenever Moscow launches charm offensives on the West. ‘We don’t want any confrontation . . . We need friends,’ Russian president Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly.
The Kremlin’s assertiveness has been a way of forcing the West to engage on Moscow’s terms. Today it understands that bullying behaviour is self-defeating, so it has adopted tactics designed to split the liberal world. Besides, anti-Western sentiment in Russia has begun to wane: 71 per cent of Russians today say they would like to normalize relations with the West. The likely upshot is the Kremlin will try to find a new balance between ‘standing with the West’ and ‘standing against Western policies’.
Calls in the West to accommodate Russia only lend support to anti-modernist, anti-liberal tendencies there. Dual-track containment/engagement formulas will not work either. Containment cannot generate the trust needed for dialogue — quite the contrary.
The new mantra of ‘transactional relations’ (a policy expected to be supported by US president-elect Donald Trump) does not exactly inspire hope, either. Moscow is ready for a new ‘grand bargain’ and has made its demands clear. It wants not only a ‘New Yalta’, but also Western endorsement of Russia’s right to interpret global rules as it sees fit and to build an order based on a balance of interests and powers.
But what balance can there be when the asymmetry between the economic and military might of the parties to such a bargain is so glaring? (Russia’s gross domestic product constitutes 2.1 per cent of global output; NATO’s budget dwarfs Russian military spending.) True, the Kremlin can bridge this gap with a readiness to use blackmail and other ‘soft power’ techniques. But what would the West get in return?
The Russian system rejects the idea of making concessions to a hostile civilization. If the Kremlin is to abandon its fortress mentality, which depends upon viewing the West as an enemy, then it has to be presented with a persuasive demonstration that the West is susceptible to Russian power and influence. But is the West ready to signal surrender?
We stand at the beginning of a new epoch in which we will have to reassess many of the axioms of the post-Cold War era. The West will not be able to respond until it decides what to do about the support mechanisms for illiberal systems like the Russian one that have established themselves in its societies, and until it is less ambivalent in its defence of liberal democratic norms.
The prospects for such a change, however, are gloomy. Political elites in both Russia and the west have shown no sign that they know how to manage adversarial relations in an era of globalization.
Lilia Shevtsova is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme and a non-resident senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.