Russia’s Damaging Obsession with Cold War Myths

The Kremlin account of Russia’s national interests is poisoned by assumptions formed in a world which passed away with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. For instance, President Vladimir Putin praised the post-Second World War Yalta settlement in his address to the UN General Assembly on 28 September 2015 for providing decades of stability. That implausible claim was repeated and elaborated by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his essay on the historical background of Russian foreign policies published in the March edition of Russia in Global Affairs, a journal sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

These sorts of statements illustrate a set of beliefs held by present-day Russian policy-makers, apparently untroubled by serious examination as to their truth. Their influence on Western thinking is contagious, given the tendency to understand Russia as inheriting the imperial rights and interests of the defunct Soviet Union. The effect is to turn disagreements between the Kremlin and other European countries into contests between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. The West should respect, it is urged from time to time, Russia’s interest in assuring itself of defence in depth beyond its borders. Countries like Ukraine which refuse to accept enforced subservience to the Kremlin are supposed, under this way of thinking, to endure it for the sake of a wider good.

Russian servicemen march at Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on 9 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images. - See more at:
Russian servicemen march at Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on 9 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

The director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Dmitri Trenin, published an authoritative article on 18 March about Russian foreign policy over the next five years. Parts are accounts of Russian establishment thinking and parts, Trenin’s generally sympathetic (as I see it) analysis of its meaning. He reports that the Ukraine crisis led to Russia ceasing to act in accordance with rules developed after the end of the Cold War and instead openly to challenge ‘American hegemony’. The Kremlin was now de facto in a ‘regime of war’, and Putin transformed into its military leader. Trenin reports later in his piece, which elaborates on this theme, that Putin takes his role as president as one conferred on him by God. Trenin predicts that while there are question marks over Russia’s economic and social future, the struggle against the United States and its supporters in Europe will last for the next five years, through periods of uncertainty and danger.

There has been no Russian explanation of what the new rules of engagement should be if the old norms now held to have been dictated by the United States are to be discarded. Putin and others have suggested that the ‘great powers’ such as Russia should act as the leaders of regional groupings and work together with their analogues. Making might the rule over right within his proposed heartlands would however ensure that the same principle would govern relationships between regional hegemons: a disturbing fantasy if ever there was one.

Back in the real world, Moscow has not in any case forced its way to become the established leader of its imagined Eurasianist heartland. Nor is the suggestion, mooted by Western analysts and given a further airing in the Carnegie paper, that interlocutors trusted by both sides might conduct confidential deliberations between Moscow and the West (presumably the United States in particular) as to strategic disagreements a realistic possibility. Secret negotiations between accredited participants about jointly agreed and concrete objectives are one thing. Well-meaning exchanges between great and good persons are quite another.

Putin and his colleagues have made the assertions that the United States is bent on world hegemony, and the humiliation if not destruction of Russia the long established purpose of American policy. These absurd though deeply felt claims distort Russia’s whole approach to international affairs. Neither aim is either achievable for Washington or, as the evidence demonstrates, desired by the United States. The same Russians on occasion claim at the same time that the United States (and the EU) are doomed to decline before too long. They comfort themselves with the idea that other groupings such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Eurasian Union can be turned into new centres of power for Moscow.

But the overall effect is to make Russian foreign policy into a search for coherence, not the implementation of a rational strategy to achieve Russia’s true national interest. That interest, even in terms of securing Russia’s status as a major power in the world, would be best served by building a solid and constructive relationship with other countries based on the rule of law, not the threat of violence. That is what the West wants, not world hegemony. And it is what Russia’s citizens need.

Other countries, not least those of the West, have of course to understand what Russian ideas may be. But that is not to say that they should accept them as a valid set of guidelines for their dealings with Russia. Russia is now one country among others, not the ruler of a bloc. The Cold War is over.

Sir Andrew Wood is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme (Chatham House). He is also a consultant to a number of companies with an interest in Russia. He was British ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000. He is an expert on Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.

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