Western notions about Russia have become outdated. But they won’t change unless Russia stops believing its own propaganda and offers a clear picture of its long-term interests.
By Nikolai Zlobin
After decades of living in the United States, I have grown accustomed to the difference between what Americans actually think about Russia, and what Russians think Americans think about Russia. For example, I have never heard anyone in America seriously believe that bears roam the streets of Russian towns. The latter is a purely Russian stereotype about the image their country has in the United States.
In reality, the American outlook on Russia is more respectful and benign. While the number of Americans who hold a favorable or very favorable opinion of the country has significantly declined during the last few years, their number, according to a 2014 Gallup poll, still amounts to more than a third of the population. Meanwhile, another poll conducted by Gallup in December 2014 placed Russian President Vladimir Putin among the top-10 most admired men in America, and one of only three foreigners to make the list.
Obviously, the events of the past year couldn’t help but influence how Americans view Russia. And the image of a bear roaming the taiga, which President Putin has actively employed in his recent statements on Russia, doesn’t add to the country’s appeal. When the president of a country compares its own foreign policy to the behavior of an animal, what kind of reaction does he expect from a typical foreigner? It is highly unlikely that a bear – which many associate with cunning – could be the promoter of conservative values, let alone serve as a modernizer or a beacon of morality, as Putin claims Russia to be. Nevertheless, many Russians seemed delighted by the comparison of their country to a wild bear and by the ensuing discussion on justice and law.
The Western school of Russian political studies can be divided into two groups. The first – and the most populous – works from the assumption that Putin is turning Russia into an authoritarian and deeply corrupt country, with an economy that is ruled by the bureaucratic apparatus and a weak civil society that is fully dependent on the state. This is a Russia that sees the West as an enemy.
Members of this group, which includes the current U.S. administration, consider Putin to be the chief political architect of Russia today; if not for him, Russia’s position in the world and its relations with other countries would look completely different. Moreover, they believe the current Russian system will not survive after Putin leaves power, just as it was the case with the departures of his predecessors, from Ivan the Terrible to Boris Yeltsin. “Their” Russia quickly vanished, while the new leaders who took their place manually changed the political direction of the country, sometimes in radical ways.
The other group sees Putin as a fairly typical leader in the course of Russian history. From the outset, Putin sensed the traditional Russian demand for strongman leadership, which became particularly pronounced by the beginning of the 2000s. He then based his entire strategy on catching the nuances of this demand and responding to it with tactical precision. Putin, as he once admitted himself, is no politician. He is rather a talented “political animal” (zoon politikon) in the positive sense of the term. His goal is not to implement a particular program (in fact, he doesn’t have one) but to maintain the status quo in the leadership, as well as to preserve the traditional approach to Russian development that emerged many centuries ago and is not eligible for reconsideration.
It follows that there is no such thing as “Putin’s Russia.” Instead, there is a “Russia’s Putin,” who is himself a product of Russia’s political culture, institutions and traditions. If these don’t change, then in the place of the current Russian president we will likely see a “Putin 2.0” who might turn out to be even less skillful and restrained than the original. In that sense, Putin is invincible.
The second outlook mentioned above was part of the basis of U.S. policy toward Russia in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Americans were actively assisting the creation of democratic institutions in Russia, but were indifferent to individual political personalities, in the naïve belief that laws, institutions and procedures would prevent any possible emergence of authoritarianism.
Of course I’m simplifying the situation. These two groups are far from clear-cut and are interspersed by a wide range of diverse opinions. Russia itself is a complex and multifaceted construction that doesn’t fit within a black-and-white framework. The West is often blamed (and not without reason) for its preference to deal with the “virtual Russia” created in the offices of Washington think tanks rather than with the Russia that really exists. While the degree of inadequacy among expert opinion merits its own discussion, the real issue is that the world today needs a significantly more advanced approach to Russia – free from both conservative smugness and demonization, as well as pseudoliberal criticism. It’s time to set aside the typical notion of Russia as a country under the eternal yoke of an anti-popular government, or the idea that Russia is a uniquely backward country whose citizens, despite looking like Europeans, are incapable of grasping the basics of Western political culture. As a result of our current approach, Russia has become one of the countries most vulgarized by outside observers.
At the same time, the main responsibility for becoming understandable to the rest of the world lies with Russia itself. First and foremost, this means understanding and identifying its long-term national interests and priorities. One can sympathize with the confusion felt by the global community after the “reunification” of Crimea was presented as almost a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy, when only a year ago it hadn’t been mentioned once by neither the president, the military, nor the Russian expert community. Moreover, such a goal has never appeared in any official Russian foreign policy document.
It is doubtful that one of Russia’s national interests is to make future generations of Ukrainians hostile to Russia, and even less so to see the collapse of Ukraine. Whether justified or not, the West has already formed the opinion that Russia, in “rising from its knees,” has simultaneously tried to bring to their knees its Ukrainian “brothers,” along with several other neighboring nations. Little wonder that U.S. and European officials experienced significant motivation to use this behavior to their advantage.
It is likewise naïve to believe that a country that in the last 100 years has undergone several revolutions and collapses, robbed its citizens of their property, destroyed its churches, built camps for the children of “enemies of the people” and spread communism throughout half of the world will suddenly be perceived by the international community as a moral leader and a protector of traditional values. A nation’s reputation forms over a long period of time and must have something of substance at its core, not just a mere belief in its own propaganda. Frankly speaking, what ideas does Russia offer to the world today? Is there anyone in the country who holds absolute moral authority? What industrial or economic brands has Russia created? What specific factors make Russia a model of successful government?
The West, in its approach to Russia, has long since worked out a “division of labor:” the United States develops an overall strategy and ensures its continuation, while Europe carries out the tactics within the boundaries set by Washington. Despite their frequent disagreements, the general policy line doesn’t change. Moscow’s attempt for the last two decades to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe is therefore premised on a deeply misguided notion about the West. Finally, it is wrong to equate competition between countries with conflict and animosity, which is a typical approach in Russia. Naturally, Russia wants to become the main viable competitor to the United States and the West in general. Washington understands and accepts this. But it is no less natural for the West to then view Russia as a competitor and to act accordingly.
Today, it has become clear that the West’s long-term approach to Russia is in need of significant reform. In that regard, the current sanctions regime has only complicated the situation by limiting Western access to the country. The sanctions should have been accompanied by incentives to integrate Russian society or some of its parts into the European political climate and the global community at large. To simply push all of Russia to the world’s periphery due to a disagreement with part of its foreign policy was a very short-sighted move.
However, a fundamental change in the Western view of Russia won’t be possible without a radical adjustment of Russia’s long-term approach to the West. The latest political squabbles in Russia have resulted in an extreme distortion of the Western civilization and its values inside the country. Russia also needs to determine its own position on the issue of “Putin’s Russia” versus “Russia’s Putin.” How much longer will the world’s biggest country be willing to call itself a bear? ______________________________________________________________________________
Nikolai Zlobin is the President of the Center on Global Interests. This article was originally published in RBK News. Translation by Olga Kuzmina.