By Robert Skidelsky
Was the hope that post-Soviet Russia would “join the West” always a delusion? A quarter-century later, with the Kremlin and Western populists identifying a common enemy in the global order headed by the United States and abetted by the European Union, convergence might finally be occurring, though in the opposite direction.
LONDON – The fixation on the ongoing World Cup, during which an estimated one million foreign football fans, many from Europe and the United States, are expected to converge on Moscow and other Russian cities, risks masking the extent to which Russia and the West have drifted apart. In fact, relations between the two sides nowadays are purely functional; a new Cold War has started.
Was the hope that post-Soviet Russia would “join the West” always a delusion? Some dig deep into Russian history to find support for this conclusion, invoking the Tartar yoke and the absence of an “enlightenment.” Others view the estrangement more contingently.
For example, in his recent book China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, Russian political scientist Alexander Lukin argues that, even though China has more territorial grievances with Russia than with any other country, the Kremlin’s turn toward it was a “natural outcome.” As a vanquished superpower, Russia sought to create a counterweight to the victor.
That was not inevitable. After the Soviet collapse, the West, writes Lukin, had two options: make a serious attempt to integrate Russia into the Western world by bringing it into NATO and offering a new Marshall Plan, or cut piece after piece from what he calls this “center of the inimical world.” In the event, says Lukin, Western leaders chose the second option, expanding NATO and the European Union, while paying no heed to Russian liberals who warned that these policies would strengthen Russian authoritarianism.
In this account, Russian reactions are to be seen as largely defensive. Thus, “Russia annexed Crimea in response to…NATO’s obvious attempt to move too close to Russia’s borders and push Russia’s fleet out of the Black Sea.” But just how obvious this was is open to debate: no major power within NATO was calling for Ukraine’s membership, and Ukraine’s leaders were not asking for it.
Lukin is an exponent of the “realist” doctrine of international relations, which holds that sovereign states will always try to regulate their relations according to the principle of the balance of power. The West’s effort to cement its Cold War victory was no less predictable than Russia’s effort to reverse it.
By contrast, the general view in the West is that states now behave, or should behave, according to the principles of international law. This debate is an old one. In his classic 1939 study The Twenty Years Crisis, the historian E. H. Carr argued that international law has always been espoused by “satisfied” powers but is always challenged by powers that hope to change the international system in their favor.
Today, the West sanctions Russia for violating international law, while Russia accuses the West of trying to dismember “its” space. The new cold war will not end until either the West or Russia abandons its ambitions, or both sides come to perceive substantial common interests.
In Russia and the Western Far Right, the Ukrainian academic Anton Shekhovstov offers a different, but equally contingent, explanation for Russia’s estrangement from the West. He views it as the paranoid response of Russia’s “authoritarian kleptocracy” to the West’s far-from-vigorous attempts to defend the independence of new sovereign states like Ukraine and Georgia. President Vladimir Putin’s regime has spun a narrative in which these efforts are depicted as a threat to the integral Russian space and soul.
For Putin, the turning point came with the “color revolutions” of 2004 and 2008 in Ukraine and Georgia, respectively. Unexplained by Shekhovstov is how “authoritarian kleptocracy” established itself and why it remains popular with most Russians.
Part of the reason must be economic. Russian reformers eagerly embraced economic liberalism at the end of the 1980s. This was not the older Keynesian economics of the 1950s and 1960s, but the neoliberalism of Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher. The immediate consequence of attempting to implement these doctrines in Russia was economic collapse.
Admittedly, the reformers, headed by Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s first post-communist prime minister, faced dreadful choices, as the post-communist state had almost disintegrated. Nevertheless, their religious faith in privatization, unfettered markets, and monetarism led them to over-hasty asset sales, reckless deregulation, and savage deflation. Out of this economic catastrophe was born the Putin kleptocracy.
By embracing economic neoliberalism so uncompromisingly, Russia’s political liberals lost any chance of inheriting the succession to communism. One could say that the liberals had too little time. In any case, the political damage they inflicted on the liberal cause was too great to be repaired by subsequent economic recovery.
Shekhovstov’s book is particularly interesting for its account of how Putin’s regime and Europe’s right-wing populists have made a common enemy of the global order headed by the United States and abetted by the EU. At the center of the spider’s web imagined by the populists sits a creature called “finance capitalism.” Heedless of frontiers and jobs, it is allied to a liberal elite pushing an agenda of same-sex marriage and other supposed “abominations” on “healthy” populations. Since 2011-2012, Putin, a purely opportunistic technocrat at the outset of his rule, has made such rhetoric his own.
Shekhovstov argues that the rise of populist parties in Europe has for the first time given Putin’s regime powerful Western interlocutors. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s League party who is now Minister of the Interior in Italy’s coalition government, recalls the cozy atmosphere of his meeting with Putin in 2014: “We talked about the absurd sanctions against Russia introduced by the cowardly EU that defends the interests not of its own citizens, but rather of the economic oligarchs,” and about “important topics ranging from the protection of national autonomy to the fight against illegal immigrants and defense of traditional values.”
Russian and Western values, then, are converging, at least among some in the West. Since the economic collapse of 2008-2009, globalism and its supporting economic rules and norms have been challenged not just by US President Donald Trump, but by populists entering the European mainstream. Those who vote for them all feel “left behind,” not just economically but also culturally. So we see the curious fusion between protectionism and Christian conservatism.
All of this is music to Putin’s ears, for it suggests a West that is no longer implacably opposed to his regime’s practices. No wonder the Kremlin has been courting – and financing – populist parties all over Europe.
The tactical alliance between the Kremlin and the populists pumps up the dream of an ideological union, stretching “from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” based not on Western but on “Eurasian” values. That such geopolitical projects are moving from the fringes to the mainstream should give everyone pause.