Demonising Russia and the Geopolitical Consequences

The lifting of the Iron Curtain separating the Soviet bloc from the rest of the world led to high expectations from the established powers in the West and the reformers in the East. The public believed that the Cold War and the threat of war had ended. On both sides, statesmen and citizens believed that the dismantling of the planned economies, the elimination of the dominant communist parties and the disavowal of the hegemonic ideology of Marxism-Leninism would provide the conditions for peace. But the end of the Cold War has led to a cold peace. It appears that another iron curtain has been lowered again: this time on an isolated Russia confronted by the hegemonic forces of the West led by the USA. 

In Richard Sakwa’s excellent analysis*, at the root of the division of the post Soviet era is a fundamental incongruity between the vision of what kind of world order would follow in the wake of the end the communist European powers. The vision of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Russian reform movement was that the post-communist states would form part of a new Greater Europe. The divisions in which Russia had previously figured would no longer exist. The institutions of Cold War – NATO and the Warsaw Pact- would dissolve as they would be redundant. They could be disbanded in favour of strengthening the pan-European Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Economically, the CMEA (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) countries could have continued in a trading block, conducting free trade with third parties. This could have taken the shape of either a customs’ union, or bilateral trading links with the (then) European Community. Either of these courses, though to different degrees, would have retained the existing pattern of trade and production whilst leading to a gradual re-orientation to world markets. 

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Why the current Western hysteria? Of course, as with all national hostilities, this builds to some extent on older foundations: the Cold War, around which western security institutions and western ideological propaganda were organised for two generations, and which created NATO itself; and the much older national hatred for Russia (sometimes of course justified) on the part of Poles, Balts, Jews and some Ukrainians.

The former ‘historical Europe’ (the core members of the European Union) would be transformed into a ‘Greater Europe’ encompassing the countries from Lisbon to Vladivostok. An invigorated United Nations might become an arbiter of international politics. This was a vision of a new world order based on pluralism, multi-polarity and democracy between states which would ensure peace. Different socio-political orders would have the political space to coexist. 

Europe ‘Whole and Free’

The dominant geo-political forces in the West had other ideas. George H.W. Bush led the neo-conservative interests whose world-view was based on the formation of a ‘new world order’. The Western powers had triumphed. They had ‘won’ the Cold War. Consequently, the post-Soviet states should be invited to join the Western powers. There was to be a Europe ‘whole and free’. ‘Europe’ however was defined as the states at the core of the nascent European Union, which could (and would) include member states from the former Soviet Union but only if they accepted the Union’s neo-liberal conditions for political and economic membership. These included not only free markets in labour, goods, services, the privatisation of large tracts of state owned property, the opening up of the economy to foreign competition and the right of ‘establishment’ of foreign corporations, but also politically a shift to electoral democracy and the strengthening of civil society. The post-communist New Member States of the European Union partially relinquished their sovereignty in joining the Union. To confirm their political identity, they opted for membership of NATO, thus merging their societies with the values, institutions and geo-politics of the West. Except for the Baltic states, the former Republics of the USSR were excluded.

Underlying these developments was a failure by the West to create, as Sakwa puts it, an ‘inclusive peace order’ to integrate the post-Soviet states into a world political community.

The Atlantic Alliance not only remained but became more assertive following the triumph of winning the battle with communism. Rather than transforming international relations in a new geo-political context, the West insisted on the superiority of ‘Western values’ and institutions.

It was made clear by the leaders of the United States that the new rules of the international order would be the rules laid down by the American world order. These included not only capitalist economies and competitive electoral democracy but also civic individual freedoms, diversity and identity politics. While many other countries have different values to the Atlantic countries (China being the primary example), they have not led to confrontation and to the demonising of their leaders. Russia’s concern to be recognised as having a sphere of interest in its near abroad was resisted, even dismissed. Its leaders were dubbed as pursuing anachronistic great power politics and Russia was denied a major power status. 

Russia’s Post-Soviet Weaknesses

The process of transformation led to humiliation for Russia. Unlike the Soviet Union which had an ideological identity backed by economic weight and military power, the post-Soviet Russian Federation was economically weakened, ideologically exhausted and politically divided. Russia lacked political power and a civilisational identity. Between 1990 and 2009, Russia’s ranking in the United Nation's world development indicators (which not only include economic but also health and education measures), for example, fell from 31st to 70th

These weaknesses, however, are insufficient to explain the rise of a new ‘cold peace’. A major factor is that Russia, under President Putin, did not accept a subaltern role in the world political system. Disrespect has turned to demonization.

While the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, the American military and security elites were sufficiently powerful to keep in place the institutions of the Cold War, notably NATO. Also to reduce the geo-political space of Russia, the newly formed European post-communist states were drawn into membership of, or binding linkages to, the European Union. Economic and strategic interests were involved in seeking the subordination of Russia to American hegemony. It is here perhaps that one should acknowledge the role of what C. Wright Mills in the 1950s dubbed as the military-industrial complex. Economic interests played an important role in claiming an area for investment and exports in the former Communist countries; they were predisposed to believe that threats existed from a ‘resurgent’ Russia as this legitimated further military expenditure on research and military hardware. 

There is a contradictory logic at work here: Russia was considered too weak to be a world power but concurrently strong enough to be regarded as a military threat to world peace. 

Richard Sakwa has plausibly argued that Russia is not a revisionist state - the post-Soviet leadership is not opposed to the international structures and procedures laid down by the West. But it does seek a respected place in the international political order. Russia is committed to the promotion of ‘universal human values’: Article 15.4 of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation recognises the ‘principles and norms of international law’ and thus tempers Russian sovereignty. The Russian leadership under Putin has sought an accommodation with the West. In his address to the Valdai Club in 2013, he emphasised the commitment of Russia to Western Christian values. The implication is that ideological differences between the West and Russia could be bridged. However, conflict is never solely ideological. Economic and geo-political issues and interests are at stake. And these too could be reconciled as Russia has no need for geographical expansion and there is a reciprocity of interests with the European Union through trade. However the conditions offered have not been acceptable. Russia’s response has led to the founding of the Eurasian Union and to the forging of stronger economic and political links with China, particularly through institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

Towards a Restless Peace

As a consequence of Western misperception of Russia’s interests and potential power, Russia will develop its self-conception as an alternative civilisation to the West.

Geo-politically, Russia’s growing alliance with China is an outcome of the West’s misguided hostility to Russia – expressed in the expansion of NATO, the abrogation of nuclear arms agreements, support for extra-legal political regime change and a series of destabilising economic sanctions.

The future of a possible economic, cultural and military alliance with China and countries to the East defines a new geo-political strategic order. Chinese leadership is unlikely to be aggressive. And the relatively equal military balance between a Russia-China alliance and NATO will ensure a restless peace. 

* Russia against the Rest. The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2017.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.