Does the West understand Russia? Perhaps the better question is: has it ever understood Russia? At the moment of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the policy consensus was that the USSR was solid as a rock. Yet while the West was praising Russia’s transition to democracy and the market, Boris Yeltsin was restoring personalized power and building institutions of oligarchic capitalism. As Russia experts in the US searched for a ‘common strategic purpose’ and European colleagues pursued a ‘partnership for modernization’ with Moscow, officials in the Kremlin were treating the West as an opponent and accusing it of humiliating Russia.
The West was then serially shocked by the Kremlin’s gambits in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, and tried to conceal its embarrassment by intoning the mantra that Russia is inherently unpredictable. Today, those who once worked hard trying to build a partnership will declare that Russia has chosen confrontation, and that this choice has deep roots in the country’s history. But if that is true, why didn’t they see what was coming?
A few other questions come to mind: if Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has decided to confront the West, why did he wait patiently for Donald Trump, the US president, to normalize the relationship — and why did Putin react so mildly after the recent US sanctions? Putin even chose not to strike back against French President Emmanuel Macron, who attempted to beef himself up at the Russian president’s expense.
All this is hardly proof of a desire for stand-off. Moscow’s assertive gestures, such as buzzing NATO jets, are, rather, a way of forcing the West back into a dating relationship on the Kremlin’s terms. The foray into Syria is not about opposition to the West but about luring it into negotiations with Russia.
Western pundits also like to gesture at Russia’s sense of insecurity in their efforts to uncover the source of its foreign policy behaviour. The Russian political class is certainly aware of the wide gap between their country and the West when it comes to resources. But then why has Moscow chosen to make the ‘end of the West’ the premise of its foreign policy strategy? Is this cockiness just a bad attempt to conceal an inferiority complex? If so, one could argue that the Kremlin’s experience with Western elites — and especially their readiness to accommodate Russia — should cure this complex, at least to some degree.
Western recipes for dealing with Russia are often entertaining. The idea of using Russia to manage China’s rise is a product of naïveté. Why should the Kremlin act as the West’s ‘Suicide Squad’ doing its dirty work? Besides, persuading Russia to advance US goals would require sophisticated Western leadership. Who could aspire to this role?
Certain experts recommend the West finds a new model of containment and cooperation with Russia, but this also sounds dubious. How can the West contain Russia if the Russian elite has been integrated into the West? Besides, real containment would require isolating Russia, which the West cannot afford.
Even more dubious is the idea of charting a middle path between containment and cooperation. What kind of gesture, precisely, lies halfway between a handshake and an armlock?
The key factor in the West’s misperception of Russia is a determination to see only a single, dominant trend, which does not exist. Russia’s survival logic is based on duality: being both with the West and against it (that is, exploiting Western resources while insulating Russian society from Western influence).
During Soviet times, the West successfully reacted to this survival logic. Now that Russia has created a lobbying machine within Western society, the West is at a loss as to how to respond. It is especially confused because the Russian elite has done something the Soviets never dreamt of: it has shifted its struggle for survival inside the West, as demonstrated by the links between Russians and the Trump campaign, and by probing the limits of the Western establishment to be co-opted and corrupted.
Western misperceptions make the West’s Russia policy wobbly, but it is not clear that the resulting disorientation is good for Russia. While it creates room for manoeuvre for the Kremlin, it can provoke confusion within government about the West’s willingness to respond to its actions. Russia was ill prepared for the latest US sanctions package — a result of its misreading of the West.
Understanding Russia’s duality is challenging. And this duality is also tricky for the Kremlin, for it must find a way to oppose the West even while using the latter’s rich resources to advance its own survival.
Dr Lilia Shevtsova, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.