How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 6)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 6)

Victoria Silaeva
Moscow State Institute of International Relations

Victoria Silaeva (MGIMO) offers the next in our series of responses to the current state of Russia-West relations, following her participation in the second UC Module at the Davis Center, Harvard University.

Why the collapse of the USSR was not a turning point in Russia-West relations.

To be more precise, it could have been a turning point. Although twenty-five years have passed since the end of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the West - and immediately after the collapse of the USSR we might have witnessed some sort of rapprochement in the relations between Russia and NATO - nowadays the relationship between the two poles has returned to the lowest point since 1991. So what happened in the 1991 and why did this tectonic shift fail to entirely transform those relations?

Obviously the collapse of the USSR entailed fundamental changes within Russia and its neighboring countries. It was followed by the systemic transformation of all spheres of internal life, as well as the foreign policy of more than 16 new states. However, here I would like to focus on aspects of Russia-West relations and why they unexpectedly failed to change after the end of the ideological competition and Russia’s “return” to the camp of capitalist countries.

To begin, the collapse of the USSR was the collapse of an imperial entity, and contrary to common opinion, this transformation is very often much more traumatic for the former center than for the peripheral parts. While its peripheral parts remained mostly untouched after having gained independence, with existing and functioning administrative bodies, elites and national identity staying intact (that is considered, for example, by Roeder Ph. G. as a necessary precondition to a successful state project), the former center experiences fundamental and painful changes that are difficult to deal with.

After the collapse of the USSR, modern Russia found itself within new boundaries comparable not only to the former Soviet Union, but also to the former Russian Empire. Along with the destruction of communist ideology that put an end to the Cold War, this presented several significant challenges to Russia, all connected with the necessity of finding its new place and role in the world. These challenges included the necessity of re-identification, while establishing relations with its new neighbors.

The first serious problem was that of identification. According to a famous political scientist V. Morozov, a change of boundaries of a community inevitably leads to a shift in attributes of the community. So a new community, in order to be integral and cohesive, has to redefine itself. A logical solution for Russia would be to rely on historic roots, however, this country is facing two key challenges in this regard. First is that the Soviet period broke the continuity of Russian history; second is that the characteristic feature of Russia’s identity, notwithstanding all its historic modifications, has for several centuries always been its dual character: continuous debate between traditionalists and progressivists, with both traditions very much entrenched in Russian culture. What unites the two traditions is the perception of the West as the ‘Significant Other’, combined with either a positive or negative attitude to the West. This strategic identity choice has always played a crucial role in the relations between Russia and its Western neighbors. Obviously, in 1991 Russia again faced this choice, and the dialogue between traditionalists and progressivists was renewed. Although the first move was anti-Soviet and thus westernizing, disappointing results of liberal reforms, as well as frustration with foreign policy failures of early 1990s led to the following gradual shift towards traditionalism that we are witnessing currently. The sustainability of this trend is supported largely by our Western counterpart’s own actions: displaying a persistent unwillingness to admit Russia as a part of the Western world, pursuing enlargement of Western institutions, and issuing numerous accusations against Moscow.

The second Russian problem caused by changed boundaries is the emergence of new neighbors and the necessity of building relations with these countries. Most of these new neighbors used to be part of the same state, sharing with Russia a mutual history, economic ties, infrastructure, language (in most cases), culture and ethnicity. This new environment Russia found itself in has not at all been stable or predictable; on the contrary, most former Soviet republics have been torn apart by internal conflicts spurred by nationalist sentiments. This leads to Russia being compelled to play a stabilizing and very engaging role in the region at least for the purpose of its own survival. At the same time, Russia’s turn to traditionalism in its perception of the West is reinforced by a reciprocal negative perception of Russia by our ‘Significant Other’. This leads to a vicious circle, a downward spiral that, on the Russian part, is reflected in an attempt to create alternative institutional structures involving Russia’s neighbors. But these processes are not limited to a regional dimension. First, besides Russia, East European countries border the European Union and NATO, both of which display expansionist tendencies. As a result, these countries stumble into a strategic choice, the so-called dilemma of integration that never loses its urgency: either to join Russia-led Eurasian structures, or to become part of the EU and NATO.

Finally, Russia had to redefine its role in the world. The collapse of the USSR has resulted in the emergence of a new world order. While during the Soviet era, the USSR was one of the two major pillars in the bilateral system, with the systemic transformation of its modern reincarnation, the Russian Federation has lost this role, which is a very painful experience, contributing to the popularity of anti-westernizing trend.

Failure to understand these problems of Russian development has led to Western misperception of Russia as a newly imperial state with expansionist inclinations, which is obviously not as clear as it might seem. Mutual mirror misperceptions continue to reinforce each other in a form of a vicious cycle, triggering new crises in Russia-West relations and creating a highly unfriendly and confrontational environment, disadvantageous for both parties.