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State of Mind: A Future Russia

Author’s note: This article deals with the purely political aspects of the present strategic debate in Russia. The economic crisis caused by the sanctions, the sharp decline of the value of the ruble, and above all the fall of the price of oil and gas have only added to the acuteness of the feeling of crisis. But these aspects have been analyzed and commented upon at great length elsewhere.

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.

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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.

This is the view of what might be called the “peace party,” which considers the conquest of Crimea a welcome fait accompli and believes that the pressure on Ukraine from Moscow should continue, although by political and economic means rather than by military intervention, which can have unpredictably dangerous consequences.

There is also a war party arguing that now is the time to hit back at the West in retaliation for the collapse of the Soviet Union and to regain much of the power Russia once possessed. The risks are small, such advocates insist: NATO is disunited, the mood in America gravitates toward isolationism and even defeatism. If President Obama admits that he has no strategy vis-à-vis Syria, he certainly will not react forcefully in the case of some limited Russian aggressive attack in Eastern Europe. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction may still be in force in the case of an all-out nuclear attack against the United States, but a limited nuclear strike against a target in Eastern Europe would probably not cause American retaliation. And the failure of the West to react would probably lead to the demise of NATO and further diminish American prestige in the world. Seen in this light, the Russian failure to pressure the West by continued moves in Eastern Europe would mean losing the initiative in an undeclared war that has been under way for some time.

The war party has supporters well beyond the camp of the lunatic fringe, but ultra-nationalists like Aleksandr Prokhanov and Alexander Dugin are true believers. They openly admit that they want to eliminate the liberals and democrats—never making clear whether they mean eliminate physically or ideologically. They fervently hope for a confrontation with the West, although whether militarily or ideologically (or both) is also not made clear. They believe that Brussels is the “center of world fascism.”

 

Some Russian analysts persist in feeling a certain unease, even at a time when the country’s power appears to be rising. As Karaganov puts it:

Today Russia is at the peak of its strength. The near future promises no chance that it can get stronger. It looks like Russia has deliberately shifted the focus of competition with the West from soft power and the economic sector to hard power, political will, and intellect. In other words, to where Russia considers its strength lies. . . . Russia has seized and retained the initiative. Russia’s arsenal contains a wide range of economic and political tools [to be used] until it has achieved its goal which is a very risky strategy that will complicate relations with the West for a long time. The strategy will weaken Russia’s position in relations with China (its maneuvering room will narrow) although moral authority in the eyes of the non-Western world will grow. This will be the case if Moscow will not lose, of course . . .

These are interesting ruminations, more pointed than most emanating from Moscow these days. It is relatively easy to launch a massive propaganda campaign. How to produce a new elite in a short period? Has Russia given up the competition with the West in the economic field—and does it hope to gain its advantages by means of “hard power” and “political will”? Does it mean war, and if so, what kind of war?

Assuming, as Karaganov says, that Russia is now at the peak of its strength, should it not make the most of it? What if such a special opportunity does not recur? But isn’t there a concomitant danger of Russia again overstretching itself with the same result as in Soviet times? Would it be able to hold on to what it gained at this time of an allegedly favorable constellation of forces? Any territorial advance Russia would make now or in the near future would mean a gain in domestic support for the present government, but for how long would this gain last?

Russians want their country to be a great power, a superpower if possible. But they also want to live well. Can these two coexist peacefully? Economic experts such as Vladislav Inozemtsev have argued in strong terms that Russia is not a superpower and cannot be one as long as it imports much of what it needs and its exports are mainly limited to raw materials. Even more critical is Russia’s financial dependence on the West.

Russia faces great domestic difficulties and problems. Of course, problems can be solved and difficulties overcome. France recovered after the defeat by Germany in 1870–71; Germany recovered after World War I, and for that matter after World War II. In the late middle ages and early modern period, the Swedes and the Swiss were known as the best and fiercest soldiers, but this is no longer so. Britain was known as the pioneering industrial country par excellence, whereas China was known as the country in which nothing ever changes. Times have changed.

Among Russians’ weaknesses is a proclivity for believing in all kinds of strange ideas, a tendency that manifests itself in persecution manias, neo-Eurasianism, and zapadophobia (fear of the West) as well as the exaggerated belief in Russia’s historical destiny. Such afflictions are by no means exclusively Russian. They can be found to varying degrees in many countries. Nationalist feelings have been running high in many countries, but it is difficult to think of an accumulation of hatred similar to what has taken place in Russia in recent years. It could be argued that such afflictions may not last forever; they may weaken or even disappear. But in an age of weapons of mass destruction, they are a major danger.

 

Much of the new Russian ideology that has replaced Marxism-Leninism remains confused. Russian policymakers have been advised by Putin to read three of the leading Christian theologians—Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948), and Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900). For Ilyin, Christianity was never the religion of freedom; he was an opponent of democracy and found much to admire in Nazism and Italian fascism, which he believed were unjustly denigrated by liberals and democrats. Berdyaev, on the other hand, wrote that the nationalism of the Russian far right (so much in fashion now) was barbaric and stupid, pagan and immoral in inspiration, full of Eastern wildness and darkness. No one has been more sarcastic than Solovyov about the believers in omnipresent conspiracies, with their hostility toward everyone and everything, imagining dangers that do not exist, indifferent to the damage likely to be caused by their affliction with false ideas. Unfortunately, the theology of Ilyin is far more often quoted in official speeches and seems to have more followers now than Berdyaev and Solovyov.

Quite recently, with the end of the Cold War, the belief prevailed in the West that democracy was the normal state of affairs and all other forms of governance a regrettable deviation from the norm. That this assumption proved to be overoptimistic is a matter of great grief to Russian democrats, but they have accommodated to the fact, as events during the last two decades have shown, that chaos is much more feared in Russia than authoritarian rule and dictatorship. As long as half of the people believe in the greatness and goodness of Stalin, nothing much in the way of systemic change can be expected. Moscow may not be headed toward fascism, as it sometimes seems, but a retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems equally unlikely in the near future. The Soviet Union could count on the support of Communists all over the world. A right-wing, nationalist Russia may find (or buy) a few sympathizers abroad, as Czarism did in its day, but not much more. The Soviet doctrine was based on the assumption that world revolution would eventually prevail everywhere. That there is no such millennial vision under Putin poses natural limits to Russian expansion. On the other hand, it is difficult to envisage an abdication of the present rulers—unless they will be assured (as Boris Yeltsin was) that they will not be prosecuted after their resignation—for instance, with regard to the fortunes amassed while in power.

It is also true, however, that certain ominous genies have been let out of the bottle in Russia’s current consolidation of power. The conspiratorial views, now encouraged, can easily turn in the wrong direction—namely, against the government. The rising Russian nationalism is also a double-edged sword: in addition to being against the West, chauvinism could find domestic targets such as the national minorities and the millions of guest workers in Russia. As the ambassador of one of the Central Asian republics is said to have asked his friends in Moscow: “What are you doing to our people working for you? They return home militant Islamists . . .”

 

The state of mind of the ruling Russian elite is at present one of great agitation; the fact that Russia has many nuclear weapons is mentioned virtually every week. Marxism-Leninism has been abandoned and replaced by a strange mixture of abstruse assertions and theories—such as neo-Eurasianism, as if the fact that Russia has problems with Europe makes it an Asian power. The invocation of a Russian manifest destiny and the specific Russian spiritual values said to be greatly superior to Western decadence is very impressive. But how great is the distance between this and Russian realities?

Self-criticism has not been in fashion in Russia for a long time: Whenever something goes wrong, it must be the fault of the West. There is the widespread and profound belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories, the more outlandish the better and more popular. This mind-set is not at all funny in the age of weapons of mass destruction.

There is the loathing of the West, and especially of America, and there is the orientation toward a close alliance with China, seen in Moscow as an alliance of equals, as if there could be equality when the population of one partner is ten times as large as the other’s and its GNP five times larger. The Russian leadership has persuaded itself that all Beijing wants is the liberation of Taiwan. Great are the powers of self-deception. Perhaps the Sino-Russian alliance (if there will be such a close relationship) will be a blessing, for the more sober Chinese may have a restraining influence on the junior partner.

Aberrations such as those prevailing in Moscow at the present time do not last forever. There is bound to be change, but no one can say with any conviction when this will happen, in what direction it will go, and what price will have to be paid. All in all, a sad spectacle: A talented people with much promise got itself into a deep mess, and finding the way back to a normal existence will be quite difficult.

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.

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