The Great Divide: Russia and the West

Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War BY Tony Wood. Verso. Hardcover, 224 pages. $26.
The cover of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War

The events of the past few years have created a glaring divide between Russia and the West. How and why did this happen? In the West, the story of how relations with Russia descended to their current abysmal level is often told as one of an ominous drift, under Putin, back toward a Soviet-style showdown between Moscow and its former adversaries—prompting many to conclude that the two sides found themselves waging a ‘New Cold War’. From this perspective, the clashes of the 2000s, especially the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, were early warning signs of Russia’s steady regression to Communist-era thinking. Everything that has happened since 2014—the annexation of Crimea, sanctions, clashes over Syria, allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election—has merely conformed to a sinister pattern that was already in place.

But there are several things wrong with this story. One is the substantive continuities between Putin’s rule and that of Yeltsin; indeed, both regimes should be seen as successive phases in the life cycle of a single post-Soviet system. Secondly, the idea that Russia has wilfully reverted to hostile Soviet type on the international stage rests on an extraordinarily one-sided view of what has actually happened since 1991—one that ignores the West’s own actions, which have forcefully shaped Russia’s decisions. Indeed, the fundamental fact that has defined relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War is the huge imbalance in power and resources between the two sides. All other geopolitical calculations have flowed from it—including both the West’s impulse to drive home its advantage through the expansion of NATO, and Russia’s growing resentment of that process, as well as its inability to halt or reverse it.

It’s impossible to understand the course of relations between Russia and the West over the past three decades without taking the disparity between the two sides into account. Once we do, a rather different picture emerges. The events of 2014 and after are indeed highly significant in global terms, not because they confirm any atavistic tendencies on Russia’s part but because they represent a break with the dominant foreign-policy framework of the post-Cold War period. They signal the demise of the idea of Russian integration or alliance with the West. For much of Russia’s modern history, it was relations with Europe and, later, the West more broadly, that shaped the way the country’s leaders imagined its role in the world. After 1991, the Russian elite tended to see the country’s future as lying either alongside or within the liberal internationalist bloc led by the United States. This commitment first gained ascendancy in the Kremlin under Gorbachev, and reached its peak during the Yeltsin years; but it remained substantially in place under Putin and Medvedev too.

Putin has increasingly been depicted in the Western media as their countries’ sworn enemy, steadfastly opposed to liberal democracy and bent on undermining it from without. But it’s worth recalling that for most of the time he has been in power, the West—and in particular Europe—has been the lodestar of Russia’s foreign-policy thinking. Shortly before assuming the presidency for the first time in 2000, Putin told David Frost he sought ‘more profound’ integration with NATO, and ‘would not rule out’ Russian membership. Around the same time, in the biographical interviews that made up First Person, he described Russians as ‘a part of the Western European culture. No matter where our people live, in the far East or in the south, we are Europeans.’ Putin’s points of reference were European even when they weren’t at all flattering: at the end of 1999, he said that it would take fifteen years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current per capita GDP. (Russia reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia.)

The 11 September attacks prompted a shift in Russia’s policy stance. Putin had insistently framed his war on Chechnya, launched in 1999, as part of a wider struggle against ‘Islamic extremism’. In the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ destruction, he saw the potential for an alliance with the Bush administration against ‘terrorism’, opening Russian airspace and encouraging Central Asian states to help with the assault on Afghanistan. These were startling geopolitical concessions, and they were applauded by Russia’s liberals, who at the time called for Russia to line up with the West in a joint struggle against ‘barbarism.’

Yet the co-operation between Washington and Moscow was short-lived. The former’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002 was an early sign that Russian overtures would not be reciprocated. The disparity built into US–Russia relations, meanwhile, became even more glaring now that the US was committed to deploying its power still more aggressively, as the ‘War on Terror’ morphed rapidly into a crusade to remake the Middle East. Russia joined France and Germany in voicing reservations about the US assault on Iraq. But Russia’s concerns didn’t stem from any attachment to international law or sympathy for Iraqi civilians—it had, after all, recently levelled what remained of [the Chechen capital] Grozny, burying thousands of its own citizens under the rubble. It was, rather, alarmed at the US’s unconstrained use of military force around the globe, and its deployment of that force to impose regime change.

Yet even amid growing tensions over Iraq, NATO expansion and Ukraine, Moscow’s foreign-policy stance was still founded on a sense of commonalities with the West. In an April 2005 speech to both houses of the Russian parliament, Putin said that ‘Russia was, is and will, of course, be a major European power’, and spoke of shared ‘ideals of freedom, human rights, justice and democracy’. At the same time, there was a new insistence on the country’s capacity to determine its own future. In the same speech Putin asserted that, ‘as a sovereign nation, Russia can and will decide for itself the timeframe and conditions for its progress’ along the road to ‘freedom and democracy’. In effect, Putin had combined the ‘Westernizing’ and ‘statist’ lines of Russian foreign-policy thinking.

But this synthesis was inherently unstable, expressing a desire for alliance with the West while asserting independence from it. The contradiction was apparent in Putin’s February 2007 address to the Munich Security Conference, where he laid out a litany of complaints about Western behaviour, focusing especially on Iraq and NATO expansion but embracing a great many other themes, from nuclear proliferation to the WTO. Though this was widely interpreted by the mainstream media as an outburst of angry anti-Western sentiment, it makes more sense to see it as a fit of frustration—which had built up precisely because Russia’s attempts to forge a pragmatic alliance with the West, and to develop closer trade and economic ties, kept failing.

Nonetheless, the ideal of Russian integration into some broader, ‘Greater European’ arrangement persisted. In June 2008, for example, the newly installed President Dmitri Medvedev—much more of a liberal Westernizer than Putin—put forward the concept of a ‘Euro-Atlantic space’ stretching ‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’. The idea applied to security questions as well as economic ones: Medvedev also proposed a new ‘all-European’ security architecture, apparently whipping out his iPad to discuss it at the 2010 Moscow session of the Munich Security Conference. Posited as an alternative to the Atlanticist structures of NATO, the concept would have required European states to voluntarily peel away from the US. There was little interest in the scheme outside Moscow, but just to be sure, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen pointed out in late 2009 that ‘we do have a framework already,’ NATO would not be dislodged as the sole security bloc in the Euro-Atlantic area, and Russia would remain outside it.

The arrival of the Obama administration was meant to herald a new phase of co-operation, but brought the exact opposite: a period of increasing antagonism and mutual suspicion. In the West, the reasons for this are often sought in Putin’s authoritarian persona, or in a broader Russian nostalgia for superpower status. But while both these factors were certainly present, neither was as important as the underlying dynamic of Western–Russian relations, which remained unaltered by the empty diplomatic gestures of the ‘reset’. Moscow’s aspirations for alliance or integration were repeatedly ignored or rebuffed by the West, which had its own plans and priorities. Foremost among these was the drive by NATO and the EU to bring the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states of Eastern Europe into the Western orbit, reformatting their political and economic systems along liberal capitalist lines. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, Russia was powerless to prevent the advance of this project. But enforced passivity should not have been mistaken for willing acceptance. What has happened over the past decade, far from being an unforeseen escalation of tensions, is a collision—delayed or masked for a time—of incompatible interests.

Excerpted from Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War by Tony Wood. Copyright 2018 by Tony Wood. Published in Noveber by Verso. All rights reserved.