When it comes to identifying international boogeymen, Russia has been topping off the list for nearly 75 years. The result of being portrayed as the great adversary of the West (by the West) since the beginning of the Cold War and beyond into the present day. It is worth pointing out that few countries have been so consistently defined in the present according to their actions and identity in the past. We may now be knee deep in the 21st century, that of “The New Normal”, but the Cold War and its geopolitical drivers is still a potent memory that holds much sway with contemporary foreign policy actors.
With regards to Russia, for many observers it seems the USSR of the past is interchangeable with the Russian Federation of today. As with my previous piece on China, I will not re-examine past events and hypothesize on what could have been; but will examine the circumstances of the present and how that shapes Russia’s perspective on world events.
Many factors determine a country’s diplomatic approach, from its history, culture, geography, social-political patterns and its relative global power. If a government perceives one or more of these factors are in the process of changing irrevocably, so too, may its diplomacy. As with many things Russian, its diplomatic practise is I contend, fairly straightforward and self-apparent. This is both something of a positive and a negative. For if one accepts that Russia’s political system has remained mostly unchanged ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, I believe that it allows a real possibility for almost anyone to understand what drives Russia as a country and people.
To call Russia’s view of the world as forever black and white is over simplistic, but understandably it is an easy temptation for most observers. If one were to pose a straightforward question to a Russia citizen of middle years, “how much has Russia changed in the last 25 years?” The answer I wager would be along the lines of “not very much”. If you asked the same question to a Chinese citizen you would get a very different answer.
The seemingly static reality of Russian political life makes in depth analysis challenging but not impossible. I believe much of how Russia has defined itself in the 21st century can be understood by the constant presence of two fundamental and constant realities, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Alliance) and Vladimir Putin. If any two factors have defined the Russia of today and shaped its view of international affairs close and afar, it is these two. For in an odd and almost interdependent way both find purpose and relevance in the other.
NATO, an age-old alliance past its used by date?
To understand why NATO is one of the most important determining factors in influencing Russia political and diplomatic thought, one needs only look at what NATO’s historical, and to varying degrees, current purpose is. Founded in 1949, few alliances, diplomatic or military have stood the test of time as well as NATO. It has, perhaps inadvertently, come to embody the very best of Western cooperation and determination to defend what it believes are sacrosanct, democratic values forged in the pivotal years of post-World War Two. This period also included the creation of the UN and other key multination bodies that have comprised the bedrock of the international system well into the 21st century.
Whilst the other institutions founded during that era were aimed at promoting and creating a more prosperous and peaceful world, NATO was created to prevent the very worst outcome (re)occurring, that of the then Soviet Union militarily and politically dominating Europe. As is well known the Cold War ended without a single shot fired or indeed a single tank deployed by NATO. The disintegration of the Eastern Block’s Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union would have seemed to many, to also mean the end of NATO or at least the end of its active military role. Of course, though, to this day it is a very active defensive political and military alliance that seeks to “…guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means”.
To ask whether NATO still exists as a check against a more assertive Russian and whether its efforts are productive or counterproductive is to open one of the largest can of worms in contemporary international relations. Yet for the purposes of this analysis, and any which concern Russia today the truth appears very obvious; NATO is seen as a threat to Russian sovereignty. Whilst simultaneous Russia is seen as a threat to Europe, threatening it politically, economically and after events in Ukraine and now Belarus, once again militarily. So, from the sake of understanding things from the Russian point of view where does this leave things?
Moscow’s narrative has long been that after the Cold War ended, the West treated Russia as a defeated enemy, stripping it of power, influence and perhaps most importantly, respect. NATO’s continued existence and ever encroaching strategic presence is both seen as provocation and a slap in the face. What must be understood here is that Russia sees itself as a great power, going as far back as Peter the Great and the creation of the Russian state, they have always seen themselves as a global power. That inherent, natural Russian sense of pride and purpose was seen to be humiliated and discarded by the West.
The ‘loss’ of the Cold War was not as profound as the loss of its status as superpower and therefore, a country to be respected. For Russia’s leaders, many who were active in service to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to see not only the EU but NATO especially grow in size and power so close their border, is not only a provocation but an indignant assault on the prestige of Russia. Furthermore, to see their former client satellite states join the EU and NATO has not only caused bitterness but encouraged the thought the Russia is surrounded by hostile states. To have simultaneously expanded and empowered both the EU and NATO, so quickly and brazenly smacked of excessive triumphalism in the wake of the Cold War.
The idea that Russia could have been or should be compelled to accept the expansion of Western (and American) strategic primacy right up to its borders is a utopian fantasy. Unfortunately, I believe NATO and western leaders have shown an acute lack of understanding and perspective in this regard. That is not how great powers behave. Indeed, much like China, how Russia sees its place in the world defines how it will act to maintain its place in the world. Notwithstanding, while Vladimir Putin remains chief architect of all foreign policies and considerations, NATO will always have a justification, to continue to apply pressure and sadly ensure, that tensions and mistrust remain the norm between Russia and the West.
Vladimir Putin, the Modern-day Tsar
One simply cannot analyse modern day Russia without considering or mentioning Vladimir Putin, no other world leader, except perhaps China’s Xi Jinping, exercises such absolute top down authority. He has been Russia’s dominant political figure since his election as president in 2000, serving two terms and then a four-year stint as prime minister, before resuming the presidency in 2012 and winning re-election in 2018. He has also recently won a national vote to rewrite the constitution which allows him to run twice more for President. This means we may well see him as President, until 2036, should he choose to run in both six years terms to come. These figures alone are quite remarkable. When you consider everything he has achieved so far, and what more he could do, one is stuck between being awestruck and being quite alarmed. For there is no denying his actions and policies, have directly and indirectly contributed to the worryingly volatile and unstable geopolitical world of today.
This is most evident when looking at the litany of activities Russia has carried out over the last decade alone. The annexation of Crimea, its active military participation in Syria and Libya, the alleged cyber-attacks attacks against the US and other western countries, the poisonings of Russian political dissidents and opponents on European soil. Sometimes alone, sometimes with other state and non-state actors, Russia, under Putin’s leadership has attempted to undermine and cripple Western leadership and values that have existed since the end of the Cold War. But why though? What does Putin have to gain from this seemingly never-ending crusade against the West?
An explanation of Putin: respect
To fully understand this is a very complicated and lengthy task, and something countless books and documentaries have attempted. For the sake of brevity, I believe the answer can be shortened to one word, respect, or to be specific Putin’s understanding of it. As discussed above, as long NATO continues to push the physical and temporal boundaries of its existence and purpose, Putin will remain antagonistic. Putin craves respect and relevance for Russia, as well as for himself as well of course. There is no doubt Putin believes he is the best, the only person who can lead Russia.
It may appear far too simple a reason but Putin’s narrative, and geopolitical modus operandi is ensuring Russia is seen as and remains a great power; and every great power needs an adversary. Which, as the closest and most constant source of Russian frustration is NATO, its regular war games also fortuitously (for Putin) physically embodied the threat and importantly makes such a perceived threat as visible to all Russians. Furthermore, the often-unrelenting Western criticisms into Russia’s political and geological policies only reinforces the image of the perceived adversary that won’t go away unless decisive action is taken.
The more the West chastises Putin for his actions, the more Putin is strengthened and validated. For he is acutely aware that Russia’s position in the world, has almost always been framed as one of isolation; us against the rest. This reality of extremes is something that some, perhaps even many Russian have probably come to believe. However, what it most important is that it is almost certainly a reality Putin and the rest of the Kremlin believe. Therefore, if they must fight using all means available to them, openly or not, they will. This does leave a significant hypothetical dilemma however, for if Putin died or vanished tomorrow the upheavals would be enormous and completely unpredictable. Even after his recent constitutional restructuring of the executive and new powers granted to an obscure body called the State Council, it nowhere near clear who would succeed him and how that process would occur.
Without Putin and the Russian state apparatus that he alone has built, what would happen in Ukraine, Chechnya and Belarus? In all these countries almost, every single notable geopolitical disruption can be linked to Putin. Just as important in this hypothetical, how would NATO and the West react? Would they extend an olive branch and attempt a complete reset of relations? I personally doubt it, our perception and understanding of contemporary Russia are inherently linked to that of Putin. For better or for worse it seems for the present at least, it seems to many people Russia is Putin and Russia is him. Because for the foreseeable future, as long as he is around, Putin will remain the constant and deciding factor in Russia’s political and national identity.
Putin is not Russia
It is important however, when trying to understand contemporary Russia to try to separate Putin from Russia. That is to say Russia as a country and people should have a different and detached identify from that of Putin’s. The recent events around the poisoning of de-facto opposition leader and chief Putin critic Alexei Navalny and subsequent reactions reinforces this. Yes, Putin is the undeniable power in Moscow, the first and last decision maker, but as posed above one day he will no longer be around; when that happens what then? Nor can it be said there is universal love for Putin by all Russians. The country has other avenues to the future, ones that are not defined and designed by Putin.
How then will observers, expert and otherwise define Russia and what it seeks to achieved in the 21st century? It is a significant academic, almost cognitive challenge. One of the real questions one should ask is not how does Russia fit in with the current ‘rules-based’ world order, but simply how is the world perceived by Russia and how do the Russian people want to interact with it?
Although I have tried to identify NATO as one of the primary ‘difficulties’ Russia has with the West, it may go beyond that. When interpreting key actors in the current world order, we the West must not rely solely on our definition of the world order. The concept of the much championed 21st century ‘rules-based international order’ has become increasingly devoid of substance. It is simply no longer clear what the rules are, who sets them, what moral authority underpins them, and, most importantly, who follows them.
The world has become all the more confusing and unstable in a world ridden by the Covid-19 pandemic and its plethora of immense challenges. Therefore, we must see Russia in no uncertain terms as powerful global actor with the ability and willingness to disrupt many Western institutions and values. Under Putin’s leadership Russia is perhaps now as powerful and influential on the global scene as it ever was. When attempting to understand how it got to this point, we must remember this is as much as a result of the West’s actions as much as Putin’s.
Andrea Mya Riboust