Misperceptions and Illusions
Why does the West so often view Russia through a borrowed Russian lens? AP editorial board member Lilia Shevtsova explores this and other questions with Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Lilia Shevtsova: The “book of Russian fallacies,” it seems to me, begins with the abysmal failure of Western political science scholars to understand the Soviet Union. Sovietology asserted that the USSR was solid as a rock, right up to the moment it began to crumble. And then after the collapse, Western experts simply applied their old myth-creation techniques to post-Soviet Russia.
Stefan Meister: True, the West was not prepared for the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the unravelling began, the Western analytical and policymaking machine was paralyzed, and politicians, experts, and economists without Russia expertise were in the driver’s seat for post-Soviet policy.
LS: There’s a lesson for us today in the fiasco of Soviet studies. The Western intellectual community appears to be in love with certain sacred axioms. Once these axioms have been set in stone by certain revered gurus, the analytical machine moves right on ahead without questioning or doubting them. Meanwhile, the politicians rely on the work of these analysts for guidance. The blind leading the blind!
SM: Again, I think it is about us—about the Western community’s existential pattern. We simply could not imagine a different world. The existence of the Soviet Union gave the West its meaning and stability. We also overlooked the points of continuity between the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.
Plus there was the “victory” thesis. We had won the competition with the USSR; there was supposedly no alternative to Western liberal democracy. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, the crisis of liberal democracy and the liberal order had begun.
LS: In hindsight one can also see a great deal of naiveté on the part of the Russian democratic community, as it tried to accelerate the transition to the new world. Without much deliberation or hesitation, we borrowed Western comparativist arguments and transition theory. The belief among Russian democrats and liberals was that generalizations that had proven relevant in Latin America and Southern Europe could readily be applied to Russia as well.
SM: The West was happy to give Russia advice, despite having only a dim understanding of the country. We saw what we wanted to see: the projection of our wishful thinking. Russian elites accepted Western advice and produced imitations of it to fulfill our expectations. At the same time, they created a brand-new landscape by introducing the Soviet legacy into the capitalist system.
LS: It was a weird process of mixing the real with the fake. The old traditions and stereotypes were wrapped in modern garb. In times of analytical confusion, one is ready to borrow any garment at hand to keep oneself covered.
SM: In the 1990s the political West began to believe in the inevitability of democratic expansion. The U.S. establishment regularly referred to “the worldwide democratic revolution.” “Transitology” became the new Bible. Russia was viewed as part of a global transformation. But the mold never fit; the local and regional preconditions were missing. Russia’s historic legacy and political culture were ignored.
LS: However, the Russian elite astutely used the right axioms to guarantee their control not just over power, but also property. The new rulers, coming from the Soviet nomenklatura, succeeded in sacrificing the Soviet state in exchange for building a personalized system of power disguised by Western principles. The West thought it was on a crusade to help build democracy, when in fact it was helping to build a kleptocracy.
SM: The best Western minds thought that Russia was on the path to becoming a modern state. We lacked the terminology to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition period. If you don’t have the right words, you cannot understand a phenomenon, much less explain it. This problem is still with us, and it is part of the manipulation and self-manipulation that became the substance of Western thinking and politics related to Russia.
LS: Look, we Russian experts have our own sins to answer for as well. We followed Western advice without giving it much thought. We believed Juan J. Linz, who wrote, “We cannot exclude the possibility of transcending those conditioning factors by political leadership and political engineering.” The result of that leadership and engineering in Russia was one-man rule. But the brilliant Linz was not to blame for the fact that we, Russians, failed to “engineer” our way of “transcending those conditioning factors.”
SM: We in the West wanted to see Yeltsin as a democrat, but we did everything we could to help him win the election with manipulation. We cultivated Russians’ cynicism, showing them how one can win the game with money and technology. We failed to notice when Russians took up the deception game themselves.
LS: The West offered financial assistance to help Russia build a market economy and democratic institutions. Did Moscow abide by the agreed preconditions for the assistance? Boris Fyodorov, former Russian minister of finance, admitted, “We followed the IMF recommendations, when it suited us.”
SM: Western leaders offered Yeltsin their unequivocal support in the Russian presidential election in 1996. That year, under pressure from President Bill Clinton, the G-7 summit was held in Moscow as a sign of support for Yeltsin, and the IMF loaned Russia $10.2 billion.
LS: Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov later said that French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl infused Yeltsin’s campaign with secret emergency loans. Kasyanov himself went to Paris and Berlin to negotiate. The Kremlin received $3.5 billion from Berlin and $1.5 billion from Paris just before the 1996 election. For the West, the main goal of this support was to prevent the Communists from returning to power.
SM: Europe was actively pursuing its “embrace” policy with Yeltsin, and the European Union concluded a partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia. But Moscow had no intention of adapting Russian legislation and practices to EU norms.
LS: And yet the flow of funds from the West continued. In 1998, the IMF, World Bank, and Japan gave Russia a stabilization loan of $22 billion on condition that Moscow would finally begin the economic reforms. But once disbursed to Moscow, the loans vanished without a trace. Russia’s economy collapsed. The irony was that the Western aid had propped up an inefficient economy and destroyed any incentive for reforms to bring it in line with the rule of law.
SM: In 1999, the IMF stopped making loans to Russia. The Western establishment began to feel that things were not going in the expected direction.
LS: But by that time, the Russian-Western laundering machine had already been built—with Western participation, of course. Western advisers responsible for helping Russia create a market economy were often involved in this corruption.
SM: Indeed. Dresdner Bank and Deutsche Bank were part of this laundering machine, aided by former Stasi officers. The latter were helping to build up Russian businesses and assisted the Russian elites in bringing their money into the Western financial system.
LS: Russian liberals also played a role in this imitation drama. Their very existence became a source of many misperceptions about Russia. Watching the liberals in government, the West believed for years that Russia was on the path to transformation. The liberals, meanwhile, had become just another element in the new personalized system, where they had been successfully working with the siloviki (representatives of the special services).
SM: The West preferred to live in a fantasy, with Russia playing the part of the hero. Germany launched the partnership for modernization; Chancellor Gerhard Schröder flipped from being a Putin critic to becoming his buddy. Putin’s pro-Western speech in the German Bundestag in 2001 was music to our ears. The same pattern would later play out with President Dmitry Medvedev.
LS: For me, Kissinger’s reflections on issues related to Russia were most fascinating. He welcomed Medvedev’s presidency and argued that it signaled a “transition from consolidation to modernization.” I wonder why nobody bothered to inform the Great Realist about the real power situation in Russia.
SM: Mythology related to Russia and the West is mainly created by Russia and echoed in the West. One of the goals of this mythology is to allow Russia to retain its great-power status not by dint of success, but by cultivating a sense of resentment. Perhaps the most ominous expression of this Russian “humiliation syndrome” is to be found in its constant reminders to the world of World War I and what humbling a great nation can lead to.
LS: Indeed. Russia’s “Weimar syndrome.” The key points of the Russian “humiliation” mantra are unequivocal: the West has always underestimated Russia; it refuses to grant Russia its “proper role” in the international arena. But what does “proper role” mean? Does it entitle Russia to proffer its own interpretations of the global rules of the game?
SM: There is another chapter in the Kremlin playbook: “The centerpiece of Russia’s foreign policy has been—and remains—winning full sovereignty for Russia.” But who on earth is threatening Russia’s sovereignty?
LS: In reality, the opposite is happening: the Kremlin itself is undermining Russian sovereignty through its own choice of economic model. The more Russia morphs into a petrostate, becoming a mere appendage of the developed nations, the more it will depend on them. Moreover, the constant complaints about threats to sovereignty undermine the Kremlin’s own demands that Russia’s superpower role ought to be widely recognized. It’s a contradiction: Great powers don’t whine about their weakness!
Among the many variations of the humiliation narrative, one in particular strikes a chord in the West, especially among intellectuals on the left: Russia demands equality on the international scene, especially in relation to the United States. But Russia enjoys the same rights within international institutions as other states. What else is needed for equality? To accord Russia with some sort of “special rights,” or to give it a pass on accepted international norms, would be to place it above other states, not make it equal to them. Are some states more equal than others?
SM: One more point on Moscow’s resentment: Western leaders showed no real interest in integrating Russia, they say. Indeed, they’re trying to undermine Russia and to surround it with all kinds of “fences,” from NATO to the eurozone.
LS: The truth is that the West has offered Russia various grounds for integration, from the G-8 to the NATO-Russia Council to membership in the Council of Europe. The problem is that Russia wants to be integrated into these groups without giving up its preferred rules of the game.
SM: One wonders why advocates of the humiliation theory do not themselves feel humiliated by Russia’s corruption, its pathetic health care system, and its declining educational and living standards.
LS: Complaining about being humiliated is a way to turn people’s attention away from painful domestic problems. Russia’s Weimar syndrome has not prevented its elite from personally integrating into Western society over the course of the past thirty years.
SM: An elite class suffering in a state of submission and inferiority would never have been able to launder trillions of dollars, to create its own Londongrad, to create a self-defense machine composed of Western support groups, or to hire dozens of former (and sometimes current) Western politicians to lobby on behalf of its interests.
LS: And how does Russia’s humiliation correlate with the decline of the West, which the Kremlin constantly harps on? Declinism and the Spenglerian end of the West have become the key premises of Russia’s foreign policy concept. How can a weak and declining West humiliate Russia?
SM: The Weimar syndrome that Russian propagandists have injected into discussions about Russia and the West is the key ingredient of the Kremlin’s anti-Western campaign. This humiliation device serves a dual purpose. It helps legitimate the Kremlin domestically, and at the same time it is a means of blackmailing the West: “If you continue to humiliate Russia, we could find ways to retaliate!”
The West Writes Its Own Book of Fallacies
LS: The West has produced a veritable army of analysts who repeat Russian misperceptions and arguments straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook. Western “accommodators” lament how NATO expansion threatens Russia’s security and accuse the West of failing to respect Russia’s right to its own “areas of influence.” They even argue that the West provoked the Ukraine crisis.
SM: One more belief among Western punditry: “Russia is not ready for democracy, nor will it ever be.” Quite a fewWestern observers argue that Russians cannot live in the rules-based world and are not ready to accept a rule-of-law state.
LS: This can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from respecting the rule of law. Let me quote an open letter by a set of respected U.S. analysts:
Ultimately, the reality is that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, operates within a strategic framework deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike. An eventual successor, even one more democratically inclined, will likely operate within this same framework.
The message is clear: Russia is hopeless!
SM: This means that Russians are a predatory nation that can survive only by being subjugated by their rulers. This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians but a racist one as well.
LS: To be sure, we cannot ignore traditions and historic legacy. But these factors do not always determine the path of the future. In reality, a majority of Russians long for change. Only a minority prefers the old rule! Over the past decade, about 60 percent of Russians say that they accept liberal principles. According to Levada about 58 percent of Russian respondents today agree that “among all freedoms and rights freedom of speech is one of the most important.” In 2017, only 34 percent thought so.
True, a majority of Russians expect this change to come from the top. Meanwhile, there is currently no force among the ruling class that can offer Russia a viable alternative to the status quo. This is Russia’s drama.
SM: Here’s another axiom: “Relations with Russia should be built on interests, not ideas and values.” Ideology does not matter anymore; foreign policy should be viewed independently from the nature of the regime, and should be based on interests, not principles.
LS: This cliché is popular among both Russian and Western “realists.” They typically argue as follows: The global liberal order has ceased to exist; there are no longer grounds for taking a universal approach to values; “sovereignty” is the global watchword today. The world has entered an era of moral, ethical, and normative pluralism.
SM: The “declinists” cannot say what has replaced universal values. I am not sure they understand what rejection of moral principles would really mean for political life. It seems as though the Jurassic Park perspective does not worry them!
LS: As for the “death” of ideology and rejection of the correlation between political rule and national interests, I would agree with Robert Kagan, who said, “Ideology is decisive in shaping foreign policy. A government’s perception of its interests is shaped by the nature of the regime.”
SM: There are various motivations for the rejection of normative rules. For instance, some experts view the values approach as the source of “emotionalism” and call for a “less emotional” approach. They demand that we “not confound normative preferences and analytical truth” and plead for a “less toxic” discussion about Russia. But can truth be achieved without principles?
In any case, realpolitik and pragmatism based on interests haven’t prevented confrontations between Russia and the West.
LS: One popular idea still cherished by the Russian political community is the idea of “multipolarity,” which endorses the idea that there are galaxies of lesser states orbiting around major great powers. However, even Russian pragmatists, seeing how China and Turkey have entered Russia’s area of influence, have begun to doubt that this model is feasible.
SM: A further analytical invention is “equilibrium” as the goal that must be reached in relations between Russia and the West. Equilibrium is a state of balance due to the equal action of opposing forces. But is this state even possible between actors that have an asymmetry of resources and opposing agendas?
LS: What about the popular idea of “strategic stability” in relations between the United States and Russia—what does this mean? It would presumably include dialogue about possible common interests: climate change, Covid-19, nuclear non-proliferation. But again, the question arises: Is stability possible for actors who are on opposing trajectories and who hold different understandings of their “common interests?”
Take climate change, for example. The Russian leadership sees it not as a shared challenge but as a source of bargaining chips that it can use to gain the recognition as an important international actor that it believes is Russia’s due. Likewise, with Covid-19, Moscow sees vaccines and vaccine diplomacy as the new axis of the competition between the West and Russia.
How Do We See Each Other?
SM: Russia is viewing the world through the lens of its relations with the United States. The reason is clear: Russia has made the United States into a systemic factor playing a dual role. First, it helps to preserve Russia’s great-power status. Second, as the leader among the liberal democracies, the United States serves as the “key enemy” helping the Kremlin to mobilize its population.
LS: The irony is that both U.S. containment of Russia and U.S. cooperation with Russia fit the needs of Russia’s personalized system. The Kremlin has learned to balance this “dual track” model. Meanwhile, America cannot afford to ignore Russia. Ignoring Russia would strike a severe blow against the Russian system.
SM: The basic assessments of the relationship used by the realists provoke consternation. They agree that confrontation between the two sides is “systemic.” They agree that both sides are “divided by visions of world order, geopolitical interests, and values.” At the same time, they call for a “sustainable cooperation.” Does that sound feasible?
LS: The terminology used by the U.S. realists also raises questions. They call for a mix of competition and cooperation. Competition in which areas? One would assume in the economic realm and in the arena of ideas. But Russia abandoned these battlegrounds after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One can see why the pragmatists prefer to use the term “competition:” It holds out hope for mutual beneficial cooperation. In the meantime, preserving anti-U.S. mobilization is more important to the Kremlin than cooperation.
SM: There is a strong group of normativists in the United States who argue that Washington should make dialogue with Moscow conditional on the Kremlin’s readiness to respect human rights inside Russia and the sovereignty of its neighbors. The question is: Given America’s current demoralized state, can one expect Washington to pursue a “normative approach” in its foreign relations? Is the United States (or even the European Union) ready to enter into a conflict in order to defend the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors? Is the West ready to defend today the sovereignty of Ukraine?
LS: The Kremlin’s readiness for isolation and recklessness allows it to dictate its own preferred balance of competition and cooperation. This stance baffles the West, often appearing irrational. However, the Kremlin’s sense of what is rational has nothing to do with Western notions, or even with Russia’s national interests.
SM: At any rate, absent transformation, the Russian system cannot afford to stop viewing the United States as an enemy. A policy of U.S. containment could force the Kremlin to diversify its policy kit and explore more astute means of expansion and power projection.
LS: One has to admit the sad truth that Russia will respond to any U.S. or Western pressure with a crackdown on Russian civil society and opposition. Thus, Russian civil society and opposition are paying the price for Western demoralization and distortion of liberal principles.
SM: The month of March brought with it a crisis in U.S.-Russia relations that proved how fragile they really are. Biden’s affirmative answer, when asked in his ABC interview whether he considered Putin a “killer,” forced the Kremlin to look for a response. The chain of developments that followed proves how difficult it would be to manage the U.S.-Russia relationship within the competition-cooperation model.
LS: The Biden Administration has demonstrated from the beginning that it does not view Russia as a priority. This undermines one of the pillars of Russia’s great-power status: bipolarity with the United States. It also devalues the role of a powerful community in the American foreign policy establishment that has for decades considered itself indispensable in formulating Russia policy.
Both sides could hardly wish for the crisis to go deeper. But one consequence is clear: the Kremlin will toughen domestic repressions against “foreign agents” and pursue patriotic consolidation at home. The slogan “You’re with us, or you’re against us” is alive and well.
SM: The United States will have to calibrate its containment so as not to bury the chances for dialogue on the issues that remain on the U.S.-Russia plate. As history shows, Washington invariably softens its policy in trying to reach compromise with Moscow.
LS: At the same time, a normative approach by the United States toward Russia can produce results only if it is endorsed by the collective West.
SM: One could expect that the European Union, as a global normative project, would influence Russia’s transformation. In reality, the EU’s impact on Russia has turned into a game of “let’s pretend.”
LS: Having witnessed Brussels’ willingness to play the imitation game, Moscow doesn’t take European institutions seriously. Moreover, the game of pretending had two effects: first, it demoralized Russian civil society, and, second, it encouraged the arrogance of the Russian authorities.
Moscow has begun to demand that the European Union accept its rules: We can talk about foreign policy issues and trade, but you have no right to discuss Russia’s domestic life.
SM: Russia has a long history of ignoring the European Union. “We deal with national capitals and dust Brussels” has been Moscow’s motto for years. And EU member states are willing to play this game.
LS: Russians mostly have Washington on their minds. But it is Germany that has exerted an enormous influence on Russia down through the centuries. In any case, the gas-for-pipes “deal of the century,” concluded in 1970, sealed Russia’s fate for many decades to come.
SM: The USSR promised to ship natural gas to West Germany. For its part, Germany was obligated to pay with pipes.
LS: This deal laid the foundation for the infrastructure-and-money-for-gas model, which allowed the Soviet Union to become an energy power and to make Europe dependent on its energy shipments. The agreement made Russia into a raw-material appendage of Germany and, subsequently, Europe.
SM: Ostpolitik is another factor that influenced not only the relationship between Russia and the West, but Moscow’s view of the West. Both German politicians and the business community believed that Russia might change as economic interdependence with Germany grew. The renewal of Ostpolitik under the partnership for modernization label didn’t help Russia to modernize.
LS: In fact, with its rentier class integrated into the West, Russia moved in the other direction, convinced that Germany would always remain its loyal partner.
SM: Germany became the headquarters of lobbying structures that supported the appeasement approach toward the Kremlin. “Not a single country in Europe managed to build anything that comes close to the cooperation with Moscow built by Bonn and Berlin for the past forty years,” said Egon Bahr in 2011. This is true. But this cooperation made Europe dependent on Russia’s resources.
LS: Do you believe the German-Russian love affair is over? Russia’s annexation of Crimea forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to become a stalwart architect of European unity with respect to sanctions.
SM: But Merkel was caught in a government with the Social Democrats, who linked the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with the survival of the coalition. Nord Stream 2 was describe by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the only bridge to Russia that is left over. There are still many politicians in nearly all German parties who believe that peace and stability in Europe is only possible with, and not against, Russia.
LS: The “mythology industry” has various root causes: naiveté; the difficulty of assessing trends at the moment of their emergence; the inability to admit failure; and the tendency to cling to old axioms. However, there is one problem we are not ready to acknowledge yet: that Russia rejects the Western paradigms of—and criteria for—stability, rationality, and survival. Moreover, we still have problems understanding the drama of the Russian system’s adaptation to, and rejection of, modernity.
SM: One thing is clear: Russian mythology not only helps the Russian system to limp along, it also exerts a distorting influence on liberal democracy.
Lilia Shevtsova is a board member of the Liberal Mission Foundation in Moscow and a member of the editorial boards of American Purpose, the Journal of Democracy, and New Eastern Europe. Shevtsova is the author of many books, including Russia—Lost in Transition: The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies.
Stefan Meister is an associate fellow at the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of the Brookings books The Eastern Question (2016), Eastern Voices (2017), and The Russia File (2018).
This dialogue is part of a joint publication series between American Purpose and Robert Bosch Academy’s Quarterly Perspectives on political misperceptions. The first essay in the series was “Fallacies and Failures in the Western Perception of Russia.”
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