State of Mind: A Future Russia

tags: Russia

Walter Laqueur was for many years the head of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, and is the author of the forthcoming book Putinism, from which this article is adapted.

How do Russians envisage their country’s place in the world fifteen or twenty years from now? In the afterglow of the seizure of Crimea and the intimidation of Ukraine, there has been of late a significant change in the mood of the country. According to public opinion polls, most Russians are in a triumphalist mood and now think of their country as a superpower and the West as isolated and in retreat. The rules of the game, formerly dictated by the EU and Washington, have changed. The expansion of NATO and the EU to the Russian periphery has been halted. Mainstream moderate Russian commentators such as Sergei Karaganov, Alexander Lukin, and others have helped popularize a narrative which holds that until recently Russian dignity and interests were trampled and the country was subjected to systematic deceit, hypocrisy, and broken promises on the international scene. But Russia has now been liberated from false illusions, having given up attempts to become part of the West.

The West tried to take advantage of, rather than partner with, Russia after the end of the Cold War. It tried to expand its spheres of influence. Russia’s interests and objections were ignored. In a Russian version of this “stab in the back” narrative, Vladimir Putin and the other Kremlin spokesmen have repeatedly declared that the West promised Russia that NATO would not move eastward, a promise that was hypocritically broken. And it was, moreover, an effort to camouflage the crisis of the European “project” itself, a crisis that has revealed the EU to be a paper tiger.

But some of the more sophisticated observers of the Russian scene don’t buy this narrative. Karaganov, for instance, agrees that there has been a decline of the West and sees this as welcome news, but believes that it comes with a price for Russia. He sees dark clouds on the country’s horizon—economic, demographic, and political. Russia is now at the zenith of its power; fifteen or twenty years from now it will be weaker. Therefore, Russia should be looking for allies rather than creating opponents. Russia might be well advised to keep all its options open so as not to end up as a satellite of China or some other future superpower.

The gist of Karaganov’s arguments, and those of other moderates, is briefly as follows: Until the second half of the 2000s, Russia’s strategic goal was integration with Europe on acceptable terms. Moscow emphasized the European nature of the Russian state and Russian civilization and saw a future synergy between European capital and technologies and Russian natural resources. A Europeanized Russia would have helped make Europe more competitive in the global economy. It would have formed a third superpower in the world alongside the US and China. But while some European countries were interested in this vision, the EU as a whole was not, especially the new (East European) members supported by the US. Thus another historical opportunity was missed.

Much of this assessment—and remember it comes from the moderates—may be new and surprising to Westerners, particularly the reference to the European nature of the Russian state and civilization, which was spurned by Europe, and the assertion that a powerful Western propaganda machine was relentlessly engaged much of the time in anti-Russian propaganda, in particular in connection with the Sochi Olympic Games a decade later. Westerners are surprised when Russians tell them that they wanted to continue the Cold War at any price. But above all, they are baffled by the idea of the great lost opportunity, in which Russia’s hope for integration in the West was cynically rejected....

comments powered by Disqus