The dismantling of the communist governments and the intention of moving to a liberal electoral democratic system were greeted with enthusiasm, even euphoria, in the West, though with mixed feelings within the Soviet Union. Among the political elites, there was a vision on both sides of the Iron curtain that 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.
Initially, there 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. There was much to warm the hearts and stimulate the minds of the Western commentariat. It appeared that Russia had moved into a different mode of civilisation. Archie Brown in a popular book (Seven Years that Changed the World) published in 2007 lists ten major achievements of the post-Soviet regime: freedom of speech and publication, release of dissidents from prison, freedom of religious observation, freedom of communication across frontiers, the introduction of competitive elections, the development of civil society, progress towards the rule of law, the replacement of Leninism by a ‘commitment to pluralism’, the independence of the Eastern European countries and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. In addition we might add the granting of independence to the Union republics, the move to privatisation of major and many minor Russian economic enterprises, the replacement of planning with market exchange, the convertibility of the rouble, and the right of establishment of foreign companies to set up subsidiaries and invest in Russia.
In April 1993, Bill Clinton, on meeting with President Eltsin, declared that he welcomed the 'heroic deeds of Boris Yeltsin and the Russian people' who had steered Russia onto its course of economic reform and democracy. There was a prospect of a 'newly productive and prosperous Russia'.
This congenial relationship was not very deep. Even in 1991, Dick Cheney had declared that he ‘wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union, but of Russia itself, so it would never again be a threat to the rest of the world’. Even within Russia some have called for the dismantling of the new order and others, such as Garry Kasparov, have called for a ‘war’ with the Putin regime: ‘dictators only stop when they are stopped’. Within ten years the expectation that Russia would become one of ‘us’, had changed to one of criticism, despair and outright hostility. Russia has now become the hostile ‘other’.
To mitigate a presumed ‘threat’, the central European post-socialist states were brought directly into the Western alliance by granting membership of its economic bloc, the EU, and its military arm, NATO. EU strategy shaped the economic and political alignments of the post-socialist European states. It brought the central European countries back into the orbit of the West. The detrimental effects for Russia and Ukraine were the loss their markets and ties in the former European socialist countries, and political exclusion from the European club. The next step was to detach Ukraine from Russia which was secured through a cooperation agreement with Ukraine – this has had the effect of binding Ukraine to the EU. In September 2017, the EU pledged 3.3 billion Euros to support the EU Association Agreement, and Ukraine became part of its Common Security and Defence Policy from December 2014.
NATO enlargement brought the former Central European members of the Warsaw pact into a Western alliance; this was a threat to Russia, exacerbated by the siting of missiles in these states. Also events were moving in the direction of extension of membership of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. The internal wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria saw intervention by the US in support of interests opposed to Russia. The American military budget in 2015 was ten times greater than the Russian; the USA has 195 bases in 74 countries. Russia has 6 bases in 6 countries. It cannot be said to have offered any substantive threat to NATO or the USA.
Has anything substantively changed from Archie Brown’s list of transformation achievements – which were universally accepted in the West under President Yeltsin? There have been no substantive changes to the processes or institutions set up under Eltsin. While contemporary Russia is clearly not a Western democracy, the list of achievements attained after perestroika has been maintained and in many respects under Putin the country has progressed. For example, according to data provided by the World Bank, corruption has decreased. Whatever the faults of the current Russian regime, they also present under Eltsin; they are not without parallel in other states following political upheaval, and they do not pose an economic or geo-political threat to the West.
The much trumpeted Russian expansionist foreign policy boils down to the recognition of Crimea’s wish to secede from Ukraine and this is not outside the bounds of Western intervention in Kosovo. The West has also pursued regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Finally, unlike the former communist powers, the Russian Federation presents no ideological alternative to capitalism. The question to be addressed is not whether Russia threatens the West but why the West believes that Russia is a threat.
Russia, in terms of its institutions, political and economic processes and ideology, is now a very different place to the Russian Federation before Gorbachev. For better or for worse, the Russian Federation has entered the world economy; it has a convertible currency; there is widespread private property giving rise to a class of oligarchs; there are competitive (albeit imperfect) elections; the ideology and policy of the government seeks recognition and acceptance by the West (which is not reciprocated). The globalisation of culture, communication by media and personal movement has eroded the borders of Russia, as in other countries. English is rapidly becoming a second language and the street architecture in Moscow – cluttered with adverts, motor cars, fast food - is almost identical to any Western city. Consumerism has arrived: people cannot get enough of it.
It is the separate ‘identity’, which Russia is alleged to possess in distinction from the West, which presents the country as a ‘threat’. In current discourse, the political leadership represents either a ‘deep state’ which is favoured by Western commentators or the ‘deep nation’ as suggested within the Russian Federation by writers such as Vladislav Surkov. Surkov goes even further by endorsing its outwardly ‘honest’ character. The problem with this concept is not only the vagueness of its content, but also the absence of any drivers of domestic or foreign policy.
Labeling Russia as a threat to the West is a Western invention. As neither the USA nor the EU could realistically consider Russia to be an ideological, economic or geo-political danger, the explanation must be found in the internal structures of the hegemonic Western states. Cold war thinking, which had been an organic component among political, economic, military and media elites, was reconstituted. It also provides an explanation of Western conduct. The riddle is resolved in the Thucydides dilemma. A potential rising power is feared by a hegemon as it may challenge it. It has to be disabled, even defeated, before it is strong enough to overpower the hegemon. The reinvention of the Soviet Union in any form has to be prevented.
Geo-politics has changed in one important respect since the time of Thucydides. Despite the military disparity with the USA, Russia is still as nuclear power. As military action would result in fatal retaliation, war is conducted by other means. Regime change is pursued by psychological, economic and media wars. This explains why internal dissent is promoted, by institutions such as the US National Endowment for Democracy, in foreign states in the form of civil society promotion, and challenges of ‘stolen’ elections. Direct public action is legitimated by a form of adversarial democracy predicated on a civil society with interests which must be able to confront governments. Neo-conservatism promotes not just a minimalist state, but one which actively promotes a free market economy and the rule of law.
For the explanation we should turn to the structure of the American power elite – in whose interests it is to define Russia as a rising rogue state? Who controls the levers of psychological and media warfare? Who benefit from this policy? Economic and strategic interests are involved in seeking the subordination of Russia to American hegemony. Whereas in Soviet times it was the ‘military-industrial complex’ that drove the Cold War, it is now a military-industrial-media-academia bloc.
Economic interests play an important role in claiming an area for investment and influence in the former Communist countries. The Pentagon is predisposed to believe that threats exist from a ‘resurgent’ Russia as this legitimates further military expenditure on research and military hardware. NATO as a major military arm of the US can claim a purpose if Russia is set up to be a military threat. The mass media organs are closely integrated into the political and foreign affairs establishment. Think tanks, especially those backing neo-conservative policies, articulate policies and shape public opinion.
These strategic elites not only amplify criticism against Russia but project Russia as a ‘rogue’ state. They also diminish, through the CIA and the Endowment for Democracy, political movements in Western states which seek to reverse these trends. President Trump’s early attempts to change policy towards Russia, his skepticism towards NATO, his reversal of US involvement in Syria have all been opposed by the Pentagon and the American political classes. Identification of political rivals as sympathizing or socializing with national enemies is a potent political weapon which can be used against opponents. The Corbyn faction in the British Labour Party is subject to ridicule if it questions the interpretation of Russia as a ‘threat’. In both the UK and the USA, the foreign policy establishment and the organs of mass media echo this policy.
The need to define an ‘other’, preferably weaker state, as a threat is not only a psychological predisposition but also legitimates military and business interests; politically it deflects attention from domestic issues. The ‘other’ provides a continuous source of scare stories for the media and a welcome focus for debate among academics in political science and international affairs. The psychological predispositions inherited from the cold war can be realised only if they have a material, ideological and political base. In the West, the material basis is clear, the ideological opponent cannot be defined; thus in its place is invented a psychological ‘other’ in the shape of President Putin.