The recent diplomatic spat between Russia and the European Union, which resulted in Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threatening to break off ties with the twenty-seven member bloc of European states, is only the latest crack in Russia’s relationship with the West. Although Lavrov’s comments were later retracted by the Kremlin, international pressure will continue to be exerted upon Russia over the jailing of dissident and harsh Putin critic, Alexei Navalny.
The jailing of Navalny and subsequent protests across Russia in which thousands have been arrested, harkens back once again to Russia’s authoritarian past. In the process, Vladimir Putin continues to do neither himself, nor his people any favors after it was revealed that both the United States and the European Union will be coordinating a new round of sanctions aimed at Russia. Yet, as former United States Ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst writes in his recent piece, any policy towards Russia must be accompanied by an understanding of Vladimir Putin and his intensions.
From Putin’s perspective, the arrest and jailing of Navalny is not only an attempt to stifle internal dissent, but simply another instance of the West refusing to respect Russia’s absolute sovereignty. However, embedded within Lavrov’s threat—that continued pressure upon Russia would force it to effectively isolate itself from Europe—is an assumption that in doing so it would naturally turn further east towards China. Thus, there are broader cyclical patterns of behavior to be found within this narrative that will continue to affect relations between Russia and the West and the global balance of power entering the decade.
In 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, both the Obama Administration and European Union levied a package of economic sanctions aimed at punishing the regime of Vladimir Putin for its actions in Ukraine. Just two months prior however, Putin and a cadre of Russian businessmen and advisors had met in Shanghai with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The aim was to continue to foster increased cooperation in the realm of energy security between the two powers. As described by Daniel Yergin in his book The New Map: Energy, Climate and The Clash of Nations, the renewed relationship between China and Russia eventually would culminate in a $400 billion natural gas deal and construction of the Siberian gas pipeline. The pipeline began making deliveries into China in 2019.
As such, the ensuing six years have also seen increased military cooperation between the two powers, as well as renewed partnership in space exploration and research. Politically, Xi and the Communist Party bear no immediate external threat towards Moscow; they respect Putin’s heavy hand over Russia’s internal affairs, just as they do with other regimes throughout the Caucuses and Southeast Asia that also share questionable human rights records. Historically, Russia’s desire to pivot eastward at one point or another has often been as a reaction to what it perceives as western betrayal or imposition. As far back as the mid-nineteenth-century, the Russian novelist Fydor Dosotevsky was warning of a Russian resurgence following its defeat in the Crimean War, in which it would look towards its “Asiatic Russianness” after the Christian British Empire allied with the Ottoman Turks. This desire for Russia to invoke its eastern cultural roots is a prominent theme throughout the development of its multilayered national consciousness.
Regardless, Vladimir Putin has seemed to use cooperation with China as both a geopolitical and domestic hedge against perceived Western encroachment since becoming President. By no surprise, this coincides with his future as leader of Russia. Naturally, this leads into the subject of the 2020 referendum to amend the Constitution of Russia that would allow for Putin to extend his stay in power until 2036. As Yergin writes in his book, leading up to the referendum Putin was quoted as telling his Parliament that “he would continue to be the guarantor of the country’s security, domestic stability and evolutionary development.” This was essential he claimed, because “Russia’s enemies were waiting for us to make a mistake or slip up.” This former point, on Russia’s “evolutionary development,” also has its foundation in a national consciousness perhaps borne from its Soviet forebearers.
Indeed, Putin makes no effort to hide his belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union was perhaps the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century. While there have been varying interpretations of the context in which he was specifically speaking, it is generally thought he was pointing to the national humiliation suffered by Russians as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent shift of the global balance of power undoubtedly to the West. In this, the blame in Putin’s eyes has been cast at one time or another on Mikhail Gorbachev, whose introduction of reformist liberal ideas from a cabal of dissident intellectuals eventually manifested itself in perestroika and glasnost.
Throughout the 1980s, the rapid decline of the Soviet economy would combine with Gorbachev’s attempts to introduce democratic reforms through a combination of pluralism, cultural exchange and “new thinking.” This would be reflected in his effort to completely close the chapter on an era of Soviet isolationism and philistinism under the old Stalin-era apparatchiks. He would subsequently begin to pivot towards westernization and with it, attempt to steer the fledging superpower towards a more democratic socialist society. This would have the opposite intended effect, as the world would witness the gradual disintegration of Soviet communism and renewal of nationalism throughout the various republics.
In the nadir of the Soviet Union, this nationalism would eventually coalesce within communist circles to form a conservative, hardline backlash first against Gorbachev and then eventually Boris Yeltsin as the newly elected President of Russia. Once again, a similar maximalist phenomenon would apply to the initial Yeltsin years, as a desire to completely break free from the last remains of the Soviet Union and international socialism would usher in an era of economic shock therapy and Russian nationalism.
As occurred with Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, a Russian messianic tendency to witness the “finishing off of history and the inception of a supra-historical process, in which will be realized a realm of equality, freedom and bliss upon earth” grabbed hold of Soviet leadership. In effect, each new stage had to not only break shape with the former, but it had to usher in a new type of Russian morality centered on the repudiation of the previous historical era.
Vladimir Putin was a first-hand witness to all of this. His time as the leader of Russia has been ideologically centered on a strong aversion to Russia’s communist revolutionary past and the internal societal division it has caused. Subsequently, he has entrusted himself as the protector of “traditional” Russia from the liberal, democratic West. On a personal level, he no doubt has a deep financial interest in retaining power. However, on an ideological level he also has likely realized the maximalist tendencies of his predecessors to bring about a new Russian often times came with a lack of awareness of how rapid changes can affect the composition of society at home and its power and influence abroad.
If Putin’s grasp of Russian history holds true, then his effort to implement constitutional changes is in line with a desire to guide Russia on this evolutionary path and prevent it from succumbing to western liberalism and cultural hegemony.
There should subsequently be no expectations on the part of the United States and its allies that Russia will change its behavior any time soon, especially in light of the ongoing Navalny episode. Russia will continue to effectively invite outside interference into its internal affairs through its behavior. It will refuse to move on from the traditional litany of offensives and causes for which it believes that Western involvement in unwarranted. Yet by continuing to cling to these past offenses, Putin is presenting Russia to the world as both a victim and a bully and inadvertently continuing to ignore the wellbeing of his people. Just as his Soviet forebearers once did, this image is incongruent with Russia’s massive natural resources, rich cultural heritage and multicultural and multinational makeup. The image of a noble and mature Russia, one which has a tradition of healthy liberal dissent, humanism and cultural affinity with the West, continues to take a backseat to the irredentist, reactionary and authoritarian version. As a result, just as Bolshevik propaganda efforts in 1917 were overshadowed by a truly democratic component embedded in the October revolution, such are the massive number of recently arrested protestors overshadowing Russia’s highly successful coronavirus vaccine rollout. In turn, if Putin wants to promote a truly multipolar order in the era of globalization, one must accept a certain amount of global humanitarian responsibility that comes along with it.
Conversely, as the administration of President Joe Biden attempts to chart its foreign policy towards Russia following the recent extension of the New START treaty, the opportunity for a mutually respectful relationship between the two countries over the coming years should still be a desirable goal. To begin with, a renewed sense of accountability on the part of the Biden Administration and its Obama-Clinton holdovers for the various foreign policy blunders over the past decade should proceed any fervent set of demand towards Putin. As the leader of the free world, and as someone who has been deeply involved in America’s foreign policy for the better part of three decades, it should be incumbent on President Biden to practice responsible ownership of the countless U.S. interventions throughout the Middle East. Accompanied with this, should be a commitment to defer from traditional parochialism and engage Russia on an equal plane at the bilateral diplomatic level. In order to assuage Russian fears of being diplomatically isolated from Western Europe and threatened with North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion, there must be some level of trust cultivated on the part of the United States to ensure that it really does want Russia to be a responsible member of the European community.