Some observers of this troubling scenario have imputed it to political paranoia. There is undoubtedly a case to be made in that respect. Since the implosion of the Soviet Empire there has ensued a failure of democratic institution which were allegedly replacing the old order. Russia is not, by any stretch, the free and open society the West had hoped for at the end of the Cold War. This failure usually comes together with insecurity. Insecurity usually ensues when the people have no true and tried way for power to change hands without violence and unfairness. Indeed, ideally, within a democratic system, the people are in charge.
What obtains in Russia nowadays is the rule of oligarchs who hold power undemocratically over and against ordinary citizens. Those oligarchs are constantly fearful of a coup that may remove them from power. The old paranoia of Western encirclement seems to have resurfaced. The way they deal with the insecurity and paranoia it to bully and intimidate neighboring countries. One’s security is in inverse proportion to the insecurity and destabilization of one’s neighbors; hence the destabilization of the Ukraine; the outright annexation of the Crimean peninsula; the suring up of Syria; the funding of far right fascist ultranationalist “law and order” authoritarian organizations in the EU in countries such as France, Turkey, Hungary, just to mention a few, which aim at the destruction of the EU (such as the party of Marine Le Pen in France); the discrediting and lampooning of Western institutions, the exaggerated accusations of allegedly rampant corruption and immorality within Western societies, the dissemination of chaos and confusion in EU democratic elections, not to mention the hacking of the US election system. But these are not so much actions as they are reactions to moves made by the West first.
We’ll get to that later. For the moment, it must be understood that to fully control the above authoritarian apparatus one has to exercise control on the media, thus substantially diminishing accountability, the democratic process and transparency, while keeping one’s favorability numbers within public opinion artificially high. Free speech, rule by consensus, dissent, are all held in low esteem, while order, without justice, is at a premium. This is the sad scenario of today’s Russia. Little remains at present of a mutually beneficial working relation between Moscow and Washington.
How did we get to this precarious state of affairs and the impasse of a second Cold War? The leaders on both sides seem to be unwilling or unable to turn back or at least change direction. In part this is due to a failure on the part of the West to try to understand Russia’s paranoia, its strategic importance, nuclear arsenal, continental dimensions, natural resources and its potential to create trouble around the world. Also, it is largely due to a failure to recognize Russia’s concerns about the expansion of NATO. When Russia was weakest, in the mid-1990s, NATO chose to announce plans for eastward expansion, in violation of a gentleman’s agreement that Mikhail Gorbachev had struck with the first Bush administration. Boris Yeltsin objected angrily to NATO’s reneging, but to no avail. The first round of enlargement came in 1997 and included the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. Three subsequent rounds inducted other Eastern European countries, including the Baltics in 2004. Ukraine and Georgia, though denied invitations to initiate membership proceedings in 2008, were assured that they would eventually be allowed to join. The 1999 NATO intervention over Kosovo in Yugoslavia, with which Russia shares a religion and Slavic ancestry, provoked long-lasting anger. During the Soviet decades, NATO would not have launched an unprovoked 78-day bombing campaign on the border of Warsaw Pact countries.
There is also a failure to understand that Russian is neither Western nor Eastern, but is what it is sui generis. Russians have spent the last hundred years surviving various apocalypses, many of their own making—the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and civil war; famine, both man-made and natural; the Nazi invasion and the loss of at least 25 million souls; almost three decades of Stalinist despotism, with 20 million Soviets dispatched to the gulag, mass executions, the deportation of entire peoples, and ecological disasters. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, sudden widespread impoverishment, two separatist wars, and an Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus that involves terrorist attacks in Russian cities to this day. It is no wonder that most Russians feel that the worst is already behind them and it may have inured them to any further suffering. Putin in some way represents that kind of defiant attitude toward attempt by the West to punish Russia for its misbehavior on the international stage. This may only further provoke the angry bear who may be roaming about ready to replicate in the Baltics what it has done in Crimea.
To return to the original question: will Russian democracy, such as it is, manage to survive? Some have already declared it dead. They see no vestige of it as practiced in the mid-nineties. What seems to have survived is the seething anger over everything lost with the fall of the Soviet Union: the social-welfare state, national pride, low crime rate, and last but not least, superpower status. Democracy, to most Russians, seems unable to restore these values. Putin seems able to do so, or so it seems to popular perception, as misguided as it may appear to Western eyes.
In conclusion, considering the above analysis, the following crucial question seems appropriate: why, in the interests of peace in our time, are Russia’s interested not better accommodated at the table of international relations? If the West did not totally exclude it from that table during the Cold War, is it wise to do so now and thus provoke a second Cold War, perhaps even a hot one?