How The West Is Losing Russia – Again

Russia, again, is back in the news in recent months. This time, speculations and fears are rife concerning its treatment of its imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny; its interference in foreign elections; its support for Belarussian president Lukashenko; and its recent mobilization of troops and armaments along its Ukrainian borders. The response of the west, again, has been one of bafflement, intrigue, and mistrust– somewhat uncomfortable, sometimes hubristic, and most often unable to comprehend the unfathomable mystery that is the “Russian soul.”

However, there is no novelty in the west’s current conundrum. As often in the past, the west has struggled to understand the entity that is Russia and the peoples that inhabit its territory – their psyche, their struggles, and their worldview. Winston Churchill rightfully stated that “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma….. but perhaps there is a key, and that is it’s national interest.” In fact, the fallacy of the west emerges from its own constructs and narratives that it uses to understand and frame Russia. Yet, the origins of Russia and its continuation up to its current state share little with the Westphalian traditions of its western counterparts. To understand the Russian ‘soul’ or its national interest, one must understand its landscape and its infiniteness – an idea postulated poetically in 1918 by Nikolai Berdyaev in his book The Fate of Russia.

While Berdyaev’s ‘soul’ certainly conjures an emotive appeal, Tim Marshall in his book Prisoners of Geography appeals to the ruthless and unsentimental consequences of geopolitics that has shaped Russian grand strategy from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin. Whereas the West can be forgiven for not comprehending the Russian enigma, there is no excuse for not being considerate of geopolitics. To understand Russia’s current manoeuvres, we need to revisit Churchill’s national interest once again – Russia has always longed for superpower status in the eyes of the rest. However, and throughout history, it has had to catch-up with the West (first as a Baltic power; then as a European power; and finally, as a global power). This catch-up, compounded by its immense geography and civilizational makeup, has shaped its national interest and foreign policy – from its policy of ‘near abroad’ (Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus) ‘access to warm sea ports’ (Crimea) and its conflictual relationship apropos its identity as Atlanticists or Imperialists/Eurasianists (since Russia straddles the Eurasian continent). While many in the West may find modern Russia under Putin to be a revisionist state, a deep dive into history will demonstrate that it is nothing but a repetition of history. Being a prisoner of its geography, there is no value that Russians admire more than strength and abhor more than weakness. As a reactionary land power and having faced with the tragic consequences of the two World Wars and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the last century, a revisionist Russia finds itself in no position to compromise its national interests. This show of strength and zero tolerance for any infringements against Russian national interests were clear in Putin’s address during the day of the Crimean annexation – that Russia was finally demanding respect after its subjugation by the West (the famous ‘compressed spring’ anecdote). Also, as recently as April 2021 during the state-of-the nation address –Putin warned the West of asymmetric response if the ‘red line,’ as defined by Russia, were to be crossed. However, the West has kept ignoring Russia’s national interest. The expansion of NATO post-Cold War to Russia’s borders, its interventions in its near abroad as a strategy of containment; and its sanctions against it in recent years has further isolated Russia. No wonder, a cornered Russia is now snapping back – with the modernization of its nuclear arsenals, its alleged interference in foreign elections, annexation of Crimea, support for Lukashenko in Belarus, and the recent movement of troops along the borders of Ukraine. For its support for separatists in the Donbas region, Russia understands that in the grand chess game between the itself and the West, Ukraine is the endgame. Taking a page out of its history, the current Russian foreign policy is a manifestation of pure realpolitiks – of survival. Hence, the present dilemma of the West is born not out of a failure to understand the mystery that is Russia, but out of its own hubris, its disregard for Russia’s national interest, and its failure to integrate Russia in the international system.

Yet, something more insidious may lurk behind the reasons why the West is losing Russia again? It emerges not from the failure to understand Russia and its national interests, but from its own historical reluctance to integrate and recognize Russia and its peoples. Historically, although Russia shares many cultural, religious and traditional bonds with the West, it has been always been viewed by the West as being suspicious and inferior. In fact, according to Stephen R. Cohen, the first Cold War started as early as 1917-18 when the Soviet Union began taking shape. Due to the fear of threats to its democratic and free-market principles, the West ostracised the Soviet Union until 1934 when it was finally allowed to join the League of Nations. There could have been a redemption for this failure in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In hindsight, this was probably the most opportune moment to integrate Russia in the global community. Instead of welcoming and assimilating Russia, the West treated it either with fear and mistrust as the successor state of the Soviet Union, or with careless oblivion. Fear begets fear, and many of the Western policies apropos Russia since 1991 have been driven by fear. Although there have been cases of successful cooperation between Russia and the West, particularly in nuclear disarmament and the fight against global terrorism, nevertheless, the rapid expansion of NATO and western interference in the erstwhile Russian spheres of influence since 1991 have further isolated Russia. A subjugated Russia was probably manifest during the Yeltsin era, but not under the revisionism we have witnessed under Putin – one of prochnost (toughness). Suspending Russia from the G8 in 2014 and the diplomatic, economic and trade sanctions placed on it in recent years have further isolated Russia from the international community. And today, more than ever before, ordinary Russians are beginning to understand the arrogance of the West and its reluctance to accept it within their order.

It is not that the West should blindly condone every actions and manoeuvres of the current Russian regime, but it is vital for the West to understand that international stability in the long run would depend on assimilating Russia and its peoples into the global order – otherwise the Cold War is far from over. Past experiences show that a successful assimilation of Russia by the West could have witnessed a less aggressive and probably a more democratic Russia playing by the international rules today. It is a chance the West has lost on many occasions. In the words of Leo Tolstoy – the two most powerful warriors are time and patience – and we may just be running out of both.

Dr. Suddha Chakravartti
Dr. Suddha Chakravartti
Dr. Suddha Chakravartti is the Head of Research, and Lecturer in International Relations at EU Business School.