May 1, 2007  

Russia rising

Putin’s prods at the West belie its natural affinity withOld Europe

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unusually strong statement that openly blasted the U.S. and NATO. This led pundits to proclaim that Russia, after two decades of unsuccessful flirtation with Western political models, has returned to its Soviet, century-old totalitarian/authoritarian model and re-emerged as a power hostile to the West.

This explanatory model of Russian politics can be traced to the 19th century or even earlier. It seems to have emerged from the grave at a time when dreams about “the end of history” — Francis Fukuyama’s final triumph of liberal Western capitalism — disappeared and Samuel Huntington’s theory about the clash of civilizations became popular. The assumption that Russia is on the way to confrontation with the West and is engaging in ambitious plans for rearmament seems to be reaffirmed by Sergei Ivanov, until recently Russia’s defense minister.

Russia’s continuous flirtation with America’s enemies or would-be enemies — Iran and China — provides additional grist for the mill of those who believe that Russia and the West are on a collision course.

It is true that oil and gas dollars and Putin’s authoritarian role brought some modicum of stability to the country. This windfall made it possible, at least if judged by recent statements of the Russian elite, to introduce cash into the much-depressed Russian defense industry, which survived for most of the post-Soviet era on arms sales. It is also true that Russia increasingly flirts with China and Iran, providing them with sophisticated weapons and know-how.

But a close look at Russian politics indicates that this theory does not work. True, Russia has become stronger and more independent from Western guidance or pressure than in the Yeltsin era. However, the major premises of Russian foreign policy continue to be those set almost a generation ago. First, Putin has no desire to re-establish the USSR in some form as a springboard for a confrontation with the West in Cold War fashion. Moreover, as recent events with Belorussia demonstrate, Russia is ready to shed the last pieces of its imperial Soviet legacy. Second, and most important, pro-Western — actually pro-European — sympathy is shared by the majority of ethnic Russians, from Moscow to the provinces and from liberals to neo-Nazis. And Putin’s harsh February statements were mostly the complaint of a broad European constituency.

The dream of a resurrection of the USSR, actually of the historical Russian empire, has been quite popular among a considerable number of post-Soviet elite. They usually employ a variety of ideological paradigms that justify why Russia and most of the former Soviet republics should be united in a sort of quasi-empire. Some employ Eurasianism, the political theory/philosophy born among Russian émigrés. Its proponents assume that Russians and other Slavic people, along with the other minorities, mostly Turkic, of the former USSR, constitute “Eurasian” quasi-nations, in which Russians actually dissolved themselves. The other theory, “Slavophilism,” much older and narrower, implies that Russia should be a part of an alliance of Slavic, mostly Orthodox, nations that exists today among Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia. If Russia is, indeed, preparing for a broad confrontation with the West, this theory should be going into practice, building up alliances among states of the former USSR. The opposite has taken place, however.

It seems that part of the elderly Russian population — ethnic Russians raised during the Soviet era — were ready to accept the idea that Russified minorities are also “Rossiane,” equal to ethnic Russians as citizens of the Russian Federation. But even they had a strong aversion to a grand imperial Eurasia, which in their view implied Russia being donor to “brotherly” people who would still have an ill feeling toward Russians. Moreover, increasing numbers of ethnic Russians have discarded the notion of “Rossiane” and demanded that the regime focus its attention on the needs of ethnic Russians.

For all these people, “brotherly” countries of the former USSR should be treated like everybody else; the risk that this pragmatic treatment would eliminate any possibility of alliances does not bother them at all. This aversion of most Russians, both populace and elite, to any re-creation of the USSR, an essential prerequisite for confrontation with the West, could be seen when Belorussia was deprived of cheap Russian oil and gas. The Belorussian threat to cut its relationship with Russia and turn to the West does not seem to bother Putin much.

While Putin is ready to forsake friendly Belorussia, an essential power in the conflict with the West, forsaking the grand Eurasian dream of some Russian nationalists, he continuously presses for improving ties with “Old Europe,” the key countries of the European Union, such as Germany. Indeed, while trying to cut off Belorussia from oil, Putin continued to build the gas pipeline along the bottom of the Baltic Sea to Germany, a key NATO country. And this might better than anything else underscore the desire of the majority of the Russian elite and public to be part of Europe, or at least closer to West/Central Europe than to any other part of the world. The analysis on Russian television, which is tightly controlled by the authorities and conveys the ideology of the elite better than anything else, proves it clearly.

While some commentators believe that Russia is still not part of Europe and merely expects to enter the European family in the future, a majority believe that Russia is already part of Europe. Neither Russian authorities nor the leading TV commentators spare any words in emphasizing Russia’s attachment to Europe, even while stressing that Orthodox Russians should not to be seen as identical to West Europeans. Dmitry Medvedev, one of Putin’s deputies and a possible successor, pointed out that Russia is a European country and that the future president should remember this. And, according to nationalistic commentator Konstantin Leontev, the EU and Russia are two European countries that benefited from the end of the Cold War. The general public also believes that Russia is an eastern outpost of European civilization and that Russians saved Western Europe many times from menaces from the Mongols to the Nazis. According to TV commentators, Russians have always loved Europeans and been ready to help them.

Any problems in European-Russian relations resulted from some external force. For example, Russian soldiers fought courageously in France in 1914-1918, but were later betrayed by Trotsky and Lenin. While at present there is no formal alliance with Europeans, Russians would support Europeans in other ways. A commentator on soccer in Germany stated that the Russian team would not participate in world games but that most Russians would wish victory for Brazilian, German and British teams.

Besides the statements of political commentators on the direct link between Russia and Europe, the best testimony is that the Russian elite and masses do their best to follow the European way of life. European technology is seen as of the highest quality, and European goods are the most desirable. This desire to follow Europe can be seen even in the provinces. On TV, the governor of Rostov praised the “European standard” equipment and medicine to be found in his region.

The intention of making Russia — or at least part of it — similar to Europe has started to bring results. The mores of the Russian middle class are increasingly similar to those of the European, actually Western, middle class. They enjoy European consumer goods of the highest quality. In Ekaterinburg, in the Urals, the mall is filled with an abundance of European goods; the selection is greater than in a midsized American city. Well-dressed women in European dress hardly indicate that the country is mobilizing for a generation-long Cold War-type conflict.

While trying to be part of Europe, or at least seeing in Old Europe their closest kin, Russians are quite aware of the split between Old Europe and the U.S. and are eager to exploit it. They emphasize that their criticism of the West is actually a criticism of America, not of Old Europe. Indeed, in his February speech, Putin attacked the U.S. for imperial propensities, and his barb about a new missile-defense shield near Russia’s border was actually aimed against East European countries seen as America’s proxies. Nothing was said about Old Europe, that is, Germany. And, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel could well be taken aback by the apparent Cold War rhetoric, average Germans and quite a few other Europeans support Putin’s ideas. At least two-thirds of Germans, according to some polls, support it, and the majority do not see anything threatening in the rise in Russia’s military spending, either real or imaginary. They see the threat for global security not in Russia but in the U.S. The Russian elite is anxious to support this spreading European attitude and emphasizes that Russians understand that Europeans had nothing to do with America’s misdeeds.

While always ready to blast NATO as an abstract political entity, Russian commentators have never criticized European NATO members, especially Old Europe: France, Germany, the U.K. Russian TV emphasizes that Europeans have nothing to do with American “imperial adventures,” such as the war with Iraq. The Russian section of the BBC made a presentation on Russian radio, informing listeners that the U.S. did not respect human rights; British involvement in the war was not discussed at all. Europeans’ negative views of the war were conveyed by showing appropriate European movies. For example, according to a Western European documentary translated into Russian, an American pilot took drugs that made him kill innocent people. In fact, everything about Europe is presented as positive, and the idea that Russia is in love with Europe has been propagandized in all possible ways.


While anxious to join or at least to be informally affiliated with Old Europe, Russia pays little interest to its Eurasian brothers and Asian neighbors. In fact, the relationship with them is controversial and potentially explosive. At the state level, Russia has increasingly moved toward some Asian countries, such as Iran and especially China; that relationship improves constantly, with the sale of Russian weapons and joint military maneuvers.

There is, however, another dimension to consider: demographic expansion and the general attitude of ethnic Russians to those they regard as non-Europeans. With the decline of Eurasian — Soviet and Slavophile — identities, in which “Russianness” was dissolved in a bigger and more abstract entity, Russia is turning to 19th-century European traditional nationalism, where nationality is defined not by citizenship or culture but by race-biology. Non-Russians, even if citizens of the Russian Federation, evoke nothing but animosity. The majority of ethnic Russians want to reduce the number of these minorities to a minimum. Some are even ready to shed minority enclaves, such as Chechnya, where ethnic Russians cannot dominate. Asians outside Russia’s borders, especially the Chinese, evoke in the minds of ethnic Russians nothing but dread if they are seen not as an abstract entity that counterbalances the U.S., but as potential migrants to Russia.

Since the beginning of the Putin era, the Russian mass media have been full of stories about how the decline of Russia’s population would lead to a final Chinazation of the Russian Far East, Siberia and the entire country. Nationalistic Russians increasingly seek help, including a solution to Russia’s demographic problems, from Europeans and all “fellow Christians.” These ideas could be found in a recent discussion on Russian public radio, which led listeners to the conclusion that although Russians have saved Europeans in the past, Europeans can now help Russians by saving Russia from demographic decline and final assimilation by increasing numbers of Asiatics. One listener mentioned past “German settlements.” Peter the Great, the reformer czar who transformed Russia into a powerful European-oriented nation, did not rely just on the expertise of people from the “German settlements” — which actually included all types of West Europeans — but also attracted many Europeans to settle in Russia. The radio listener was fully in support of such plans for today, not because he believed that Russia needed foreign expertise, but because Russia’s depleted population would be reinforced by people racially and culturally close to ethnic Russians. This is an urgent need, the listener implied, for Russia is now under the threat of being absorbed by Asians; he complained that instead of Europeans, Russia sees increasing numbers of Vietnamese, Chinese and Central Asian settlements. The listener continued that it would be better if Russia would attract, for example, Frenchmen, who “could find quite a profitable life in Russia as farmers.”

Under Putin, Russia has become more stable and much richer than during the Yeltsin era. Because of these changes Russia became more assertive toward the U.S. and engaged in several flirtations with Iran and China for pragmatic geopolitical reasons. But it would be wrong to assume that Putin’s rhetoric and some of his actions imply that Russia is once again going to be an imperial power ready for confrontation with the West in Cold War fashion. The ease with which Putin discarded Belorussia indicates that he has no desire for a Eurasian empire. The mores of the elite and the masses indicate that Russia looks at Eastern nations with apprehension and dreams of joining Europe. In fact Putin’s master plan is to uncouple Western Europe from the U.S.; his bellicose speech was a “Freudian slip” of Western Europeans. Thus the American approach to Russia and the gamut of related problems such as China and Iran should be connected with America’s geopolitical posture toward Old Europe and beyond.

DMITRY SHLAPENTOKH is an associate professor of history at Indiana University South Bend. He graduated from Moscow State University and has taught at Harvard University’s Russian Research Center and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of “East Against West,” “The Proto-Totalitarian State” and “Russia Between East and West.”