How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 2)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 2)

Ivan Loshkaryov
Moscow State Institute of International Relations

Ivan Loshkarev (MGIMO) offers the second in our series of responses to the current state of Russia-West relations provided by our Consortium Fellows, who participated in the inaugural UC Module at the Harriman Institute.

The reason why Russia and the West are conflicting from time to time seems quite obvious: they have different (even contradictory to each other) interests in long-term perspective.  The West tries to establish its global leadership which implies certain mode of containment of all actors that are powerful or can secure a relatively significant amount of power. The Russian Federation is determined to rebuild the most efficient part of the Soviet legacy which is the network of production chains. By taking such actions Russia gets or can get a certain degree of economic (and later political) power and that is something that can undermine or complicate developments in Western countries’ global policy.

Conflicts in the international system are often mitigated by a set of institutions (organizations, rules, procedures). If these institutions succeed in accomplishing their mission, they constitute political order. Order means that states cannot maximize their profits; they must operate under a multitude of constraints. Unfortunately, after the collapse the Eastern bloc, the West rejected the whole system of constraints. The logic of the US and European leadership was simple: the winner takes all. There is no room for doubt that institutions such as the UN still exist but they have failed to deliver any visible solution in conflicts in Somalia, Afghanistan or Bosnia. So, there has been no global political order for decades.    

The last problem is the misleading perception of each other. Decisions of Russian and Western governments are greatly affected by stereotypes and stigmas. The core element of such misperception is essentialism: one country attributes non-existing features to the opposite country (or society). For example, the majority of Russians strongly believe that the West intends to exploit their country or has a long-term strategy of destabilization in Russia. Moreover, people in Russia commonly agree that the West tries to create a more chaotic world in order to govern it. But it would be irrational for the West to pursue such a strategy, because increasing chaos would give rise to unintended and unpredictable consequences on a global scale. It seems that the West is more about managing risks that about trying to ‘divide and conquer’.

The same misperception (and essentialism) exists in Western countries. Russia is often described as gangster-lead or oppressed society. This perception implies several explanations of Moscow’s actions in the international arena. Let’s name the three most preposterous ones. The first is that the Kremlin intends to restore the Soviet Empire (even without proper resources and mind-attracting ideology). The second claims that Russia behaves like a gangster and destroys its neighbourhood in order to be taken into account. The third is that the Russian leadership is almost free of popular influence on the decision-making process and that this is the reason for its adventurist approach to global and regional issues. The Russian secret is the following: the political leadership does exactly what citizens expect even without exact democratic procedures. To be precise, the list of people’s desires simply does not include the restoration of the Soviet Union or any long-term war (or the threat of use of force) in the near abroad.    

All in all, Russia and the West face three fundamental problems – misperception, non-existence of world political order and different objectives. Also, they have two things in common: the same planet and disapproval of the current non-existent global order. What can be done from that point of departure?

At the very least, Russia and the West should start by elaborating their priorities. It seems to me that dealing with misperception should come first. People of Western and Russian “worlds” share the territory of one and the same planet, which means they are able to communicate, to get to know each other. When the amount of communication reaches a critical mass, the leadership of both the West and Russia can achieve profound results in setting new rules and starting a new world political order. Then they will be forced to reconsider their interests and objectives under the pressure of new constraints and procedures.