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22 September 2016

Russia’s European game

What does Russia want from the West today and what will it want tomorrow?

It is not entirely clear what the motives behind Russia’s confrontation with the West are. On the one hand, everything is straightforward: Moscow wants recognition of Crimea’s unification with Russia and sanctions to be lifted. It demands that the post-Soviet space is considered a sphere of its special interests and that its stance regarding European security is taken into account. Moreover, Russia needs guarantees of immunity for its ruling class and the assets they control. On the other hand, confidence in Moscow has been undermined for years and yet it seems to be content with this state of affairs. And even if the West was to fulfill all of Russia’s desires, there is no guarantee that Russia would commence demilitarization or abandon its use of military aggression as a means of asserting its influence and preserving its political regime.

The West: a grand dream of the Russian elite

The Russian elite have sought to become an integral and committed part of the Western, primarily European, political and economic establishment throughout post-Soviet history which has previously been viewed as the cornerstone of the country’s success.

In line with this goal, the Russian elite purchased real estate and luxury goods in the West, siphoned off capital and sent their children to the best foreign universities. In parallel, the elite diligently played the role of “Russia’s only Europeans” which paved the way for them to become the middle men between the wider world and Russian citizens and to justify any domestic political escapades and peculiarities of economic management. However, all of this has proven to be insufficient.

Disappointment with the West with respect to this issue was expressed by Vladimir Putin back in February 2007 in Munich when he lamented the fact that Russian business was not represented in key sectors of the Western economy despite multi-billion dollar influxes of Russian money. And the main takeaway from his speech was that Russia deserved to be on an equal footing with leading Western countries with respect to the management of global affairs. Similar calls were made in 2014 after the current political reality had already taken hold. In spite of everything, Russia is interested in a new interrelatedness with the West and this “interrelatedness” implies that the Russian elite are also accommodated.

According to Kremlin logic, it is only the shortsightedness and the “double standards” of Europeans and Americans which stand in the way of this bright prospect. After all, there is an ongoing territorial dispute between Britain, which is allowed to get away with a lot of things in European and international affairs, and Spain which has only recently come to belong to the group of European countries with flailing economies whose initial letters have been arranged to form the derogatory acronym PIGS.

The ruling class also has an axe to grind with respect to the specific nature of the Russian political-and-economic model. Although Russia’s GDP is equivalent to a mere 1.8% of global GDP ($1326 billion in 2015), and its economy has ceased to be one of the world’s top ten largest, vast resources are concentrated in the hands of the Kremlin elite. These resources are not limited to the federal budget (20% of GDP) – the Kremlin does not have to pay heed to the opinions of tax-payers nor those of parliament for that matter, when allocating funds – but also includes state-owned companies and big corporations prepared to finance any project at the drop of a hat. What’s more, there are still considerable diplomatic resources given Russia’s ensured seat at the UN Security Council, it’s lack of fastidiousness when it comes to selecting both partners and means by which to achieve its goals as well as its disregard for the value of the lives of Russian serviceman.

The problem lies in the fact that the power elite can only follow the path of suppression of individual freedoms and private initiative given such a system; political and economic survival would be under threat as a depletion of resources in the hands of the ruling class would occur were a different route chosen. Integration with the Western establishment and modernization of key industrial and military sectors through cooperation with Western companies are vital for the Russian political class.

This is precisely why the Kremlin is so sensitive to sanctions and inclined to raise the stakes in negotiations with the West. European and American tactical concessions only serve to augment the Russian elite’s confidence that it will be possible to arrive at a convenient arrangement whereby no one calls Russia into question nor its ways. And so long as the Russian political-and-economic system continues to function in its present form, its leaders will strive for such an arrangement irrespective of what their surnames may be.

The West in the eyes of Russian society

A significant proportion of Russian society harbors a negative attitude towards the West (the US in particular). These sentiments were observable back in the 1990s when reforms failed to bring about noticeable improvements in the lives of citizens, increase their self-esteem or ensure their self-respect. These sentiments were aggravated in the second half of the 2000s and reached a peak in 2014. At the same time, “negative identity”, as described by Lev Gudkov (1, 2), which feeds anti-Western sentiment and supports authoritarianism has been maintained by Russian society throughout all of the post-Soviet era. It turns out that anti-Western sentiment is the quickest route to collective sublimation of dissatisfaction with life in Russia.

Only economic growth and coherent social perspective, at least for the youth and the middle-aged, can rouse the majority of Russian citizens from this state. Again, this can be only achieved by establishing transparent political and economic institutions. Currently, we are trapped in a vicious circle: dissatisfaction feeds despotism while despotism feeds dissatisfaction.

Although the anti-Western sentiments of this group are extremely diverse – from acceptance of the occupation of Crimea to pogroms in European stadiums or willingness to “spend a vacation” fighting in the next war – a lack of self-esteem is the true underlying motivation. These people are aware that Russia is lagging behind the West, and yet it is from the West that they now demand recognition of their dignity, something the Russian political and economic institutions deny them.

Another, smaller proportion of Russian society is made up of citizens who yearn for democracy and are critical of the incumbent regime. They perceive the West as a role model which Russia should try to emulate. To put it simply, the elite prioritize their own Westernization whereas the active elements of Russian society pursue Westernization with the country as a whole in mind.

Western-oriented Russian citizens expect Europe and the US to provide Russia with every conceivable means of assistance in modernizing the country; not only in terms of investment but also a variety of humanitarian programs and the amplification of external pressure on the incumbent authorities. Mikhail Khodorkovsky formulated the most precise expectations by asserting that the West should develop an analogue of the “Marshall Plan” for post-Putin Russia.

These expectations are only natural given the failure of Russia’s post-Soviet (post-totalitarian) transformation. However, there are two problems with this approach:

  1. It will be undermined by the anti-Western majority and will lead to the formation of an alliance with the authoritarian ruling class which wants to be part of the West even at the expense of the rest of the country backwardness;
  2. It entails unrealistic expectations as regards Europe and the US.

Yes, indeed, freedom-oriented citizens thus far have been defeated by the anti-Western majority publicly. However, even if they are to succeed, they will be left hugely disappointed as the West will be incapable of meeting their excessive expectations and this disappointment will also help to preserve authoritarianism.


Russia’s authoritarian (despotic) system has a chance of survival and of adapting to the contemporary world despite its archaic nature and the current turmoil. Moreover, it remains attractive since it promises golden opportunities for those at the top today and those who are capable of reaching the pinnacle tomorrow.

Of course, there is a chance that the Russian political elite will mitigate their policy and put an end to the current confrontation with the West following Putin’s departure. Yes, it is possible that mass anti-Western sentiments will dissipate when (and if) opportunities for economic and political fulfillment open up for citizens. However, these opportunities do not necessarily imply a shift in the essence of the Russian system. On the contrary, such mitigation in foreign and domestic policy would be the easiest way for Russian despotism to preserve itself as well as a perfect opportunity for the elite to muster strength prior to any subsequent attempt at integration with the Western establishment.

Ultimate rejection of the despotic model by Russia is a historical plight with innumerable unknown variables. The nature and quality of institutional changes will prove to be significant factors here and any advances the West makes towards the Kremlin will only serve to prolong this drawn-out process. 

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