How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 7)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 7)

Anastasia Tkach
The Harriman Institute, Columbia University

Anastasia Tkach (Harriman Institute) 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.

Russia and the West reached their current state of confrontational relations primarily from a lack of mutual understanding. In the post-Cold War era, both sides created their geopolitical views of the world and spheres of influence from differing definitions and beliefs. While the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘universal human rights’ have come from the West and proliferated across the globe, they have been transformed to mean many different things by the nations who use them. Democracy in the West is often tied to the idea of freedom of people, of movement, of trade, and of capital enterprise, while democracy in other parts of the world has come to mean institutions of mass participation and governmental stability. Ideas surrounding revolution and protest in the West have become tied to democratic transformation, while in Russia they are associated with outside interference, chaos, and instability. It is not that either of these conceptualizations is more correct, but that using the same terms to mean very different things has resulted in uncertainty and misunderstanding between Russia and the West.

In addition, there has been a lack of understanding concerning Russia’s place in the post-Cold War order, and its seat amongst the top world leaders. While Russia views itself as an equal to the United States, and as deserving the cooperation and dialogue that accompanies this role, the Unites States no longer considers Russia a major world power of equal stature. This has led to the exclusion of Russia from Western-oriented institutions and a lack of direct communication between the two sides. When Russia views itself as excluded, targeted, and on the defensive, this further pushes it away from the West.

These differing definitions and global views have led to unfulfilled expectations on either side, further increasing separation and confrontation. What needs to be done in order to bridge these relations is increased cooperation and dialogue between the two sides in order to truly understand each side’s motives, priorities, and potential actions. Russia and the West must find common ground on issues that separate them, as well as find mutual issues and spheres in which to cooperate. Both must carefully define their geopolitical terms, and must use these words purposefully. Gatherings like the University Consortium show how important this dialogue can be, and the continued importance of scholarly trade and communication. To this end, increased visa liberalization across the world could extend ties and increase dialogue and understanding.

Finally, the haze of threat and attack must be cleared from the air and Russia and the West must make way for diplomatic dialogue and action. As long as both sides remain in defensive positions, fearing a physical escalation by one another, dialogue will be marred by base concerns for safety and stability. We must move past this antagonistic point in order to confer as sovereign, equal states, as guaranteed by the international order.