At first blush it appears that it’s no longer a game of raw power and economics, but one of “soft power,” if not exactly that of reasoned philosophical dialogue, morality, and spiritual vision.
The question arises: has the leopard changed its spots? Is this a new ideology based on a vision, on the “inner strength” to be discovered in centuries upon centuries of Russian history and spiritual ties, the way a Dostoyevsky understood it? In other words, while acknowledging that Russia is not the West with its particular notions of electoral democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights, Mr. Putin and company would like to promote the idea that Russia remains unique: it is not bourgeois, essentially greedly capitalistic; it is no longer tied to the Communist ideology, nor is it corrupt and decadent as the West.
A corollary question arises: is this a new, less ideological, definition of Russianness? A mishmash of patriotism coupled to religious fervor (Russian Orthodoxy), the cult of the mother, sports, and the resurgence of provincial intelligentsia? Putin, after all, seems to be a genius in finding out what people want and then cleverly manipulating them. There is an affinity here with Donald Trump’s kind of populism, which may go a long way in explaining their mutual, if perplexing, sympathy.
The problem persists however: there is a colossal lack of trust between Putin and his people despite what he’d like us to believe about his popularity. It is a trumped up popularity due to the fact that he totally controls and manipulates the media, and just about everything else in Russia. Restoring that trust may prove harder than articulating a new national idea.
Many Russians no longer accept the idea of being subjects of the State; they wish to be citizens contributing to its overall prosperity. Here Putin and his oligarchs, who have greatly enriched themselves after the demise of the Soviet Union, leave much to be desired. Until that trust is restored and people feel that their aspirations, input and contributions are respected, beginning with credible and legitimate elections, authoritarianism will continue to increase in Russia at the expense of a truly democratic society.
Be that as it may, let’s return to the struggle, be it cultural or be it geo-political, between Russia and the West. It’s hard to imagine a period, since the end of the Cold War, when relations between Russia and the US have been so disastrous. What happened to the new era, the so called reset, which the end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in? Some political science experts today talk of a New Cold War, others mention an enormous misunderstanding in the grasping of a new Russia and the new ideology as above delineated, which of course they alone are able to understand and explain. It gets pretty confusing. Let’s see if we can unravel some of this mess.
The undeniable fact is that Russia, since the end of the Soviet Empire, has returned to the world stage with a vengeance, wielding an agenda that wants to appear visionary, for Russians at any rate, but looks progressively more Machiavellian. It seems rather to be eager to redress the real or perceived slights perpetrated by the West, NATO and the Atlantic alliance, and restore a semblance of its former global role. Some have imputed this attitude to the slightly paranoid narcissistic mind of a former KBG operative named Vladimir Putin.
But the question persists. Where did it all go wrong with the relationship and who is to blame? Is it a question of US overreaching or one of Russia’s nostalgia for Soviet imperial greatness buttressed by a new powerful ideology? Since the economy of Russia is smaller than that of Italy and California, is it gambling it all on nuclear weapons and intimidation, not to dissimilar to the North Korean misguided strategy? To answer that question may require a book the length of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but let’s try a few brief pointers.
Perhaps the initial fault does lie with the West, after all. It began when the West miserably failed to treat Russia as a nation that had had the courage to shake off Soviet Communism. Instead of welcoming it into a new community of nations, NATO treated it almost as a successor state to the USSR, inheriting the distrust of the West toward it.
Russia was later admitted into the G7 club making it the G8, but not as a full respected member but as an observer. This mistake was compounded when the West enthusiastically approved NATO’s expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, countries with their own nationalistic traditions of struggle against Moscow’s rule. Then it added the Baltic States who also had been satellites of the Soviet Union. Should we really wonder why Russia is so adamant about stopping the absorbing of Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO’s orbit and that Putin may be already eyeing those Baltic countries while pursuing a strategy of divide and conquer. That strategy is quite apparent even in the Western part of the EU where ultra-nationalistic movements are being funded and interference in their elections is being practiced via misinformation and cyber-warfare.
Of course there is another side to this coin, that of the West which prefers to speak of Russian “revanchism” as personified by Vladimir Putin who once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Lately he has been showing an extremely assertive behavior in the Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria. And of course the experts debate which side is the correct side.
The fact remains however that presently there is no discernible politically super-charged ideological competition going on, one resembling the one that went on in the Cold War. And that is a good thing. There is however a competition for influence and here it must be admitted that economically Russia is still a power of a lesser order. The temptation remains for Russia to vaunt its nuclear weapons or its new found weapon: weaponized misinformation and cyber-warfare with which to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, and about which the US Congress is presently investigating.
While it may be true that Pax Americana is over with and a firmer NATO alliance based on cooperation and trust may be needed, a new reset button with Russia is nowhere on the horizon. In any case, for the sake of global stability, can a new warmer sort of relationship with Russia be envisioned? Hard to tell at the present moment.
The experts will continue to explain away to demonstrate their expertise, the spies will continue to misinform and conduct cyber warfare, but in the final analysis it will be history which will render the final verdict on this thorny conundrum.