How Russia became doubly delusional

THE LITVINENKO AFFAIR gives a human dimension to what we in the West find most disturbing about modern Russia. It leaves the impression of rogue elements of the Russian State murdering enemies with impunity, at home and abroad. Add to this Andrei Lugovoy’s surreal claim that MI6 had a hand in the murder and Russia’s use of its “energy weapon” to bully its neighbours and it is as if the Cold War never ended.

How Russians see the end of the Cold War is actually a good place to start to understand the muscle-flexing of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Two explanations are popular in Moscow. Liberals argue that the Russian people voluntarily renounced their oppressive, incompetent system, but then the West trampled all over them, claiming victors’ rights over large swaths of former Soviet territory. Conservatives, however, acknowledge that the USSR lost the Cold War – due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “stab in the back” – but want a replay, this time with the windfall from Russia’s oil wealth.

These two explanations for the end of the Cold War have given rise to two influential doctrines – Anatoly Chubais’s “liberal empire” and Vladislav Surkov’s “sovereign democracy” – that form the ideological basis of Russian foreign policy. Chubais, architect of Boris Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 presidential election, is head of the electricity monopoly UES; Surkov is deputy head of Mr Putin’s Presidential Administration. What is striking is the similarity of vision between a leading spokesman of “liberal” Russia and the Kremlin’s chief political manager.

Chubais’s theory of a “liberal empire”, first aired in a speech in 2003, was clearly influenced by the debates in Washington about invading Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1991, Chubais claimed, “the greatest empire of all time ceased to exist”. Russia should now construct a “liberal empire” of its own from the pieces of the old Soviet Union.

While respecting its neighbours’ “inviolability of borders and territorial integrity”, Russia’s “mission” should be to promote its culture and protect Russian populations in its “neighbourhood”; establish a dominant position in their trade and business; and guarantee their “freedom and democracy”. Only through “liberal empire”, Chubais argued, “can Russia occupy its natural place alongside the United States, the European Union and Japan, the place designated for it by history”.

Surkov’s phrase “sovereign democracy” dates from a speech in 2005. By democracy, he does not mean Western democracy with its “artificial checks and balances” but something more like “independence”, particularly independence from America. Surkov explains Russia’s claim to “sovereignty” as follows: “For 500 years [Russia] was a modern state. It made history and was not made by it”. Some states, it turns out, are more “sovereign” than others. “We differ strongly,” Surkov says, “from Slovaks, Baltic nations and even Ukrainians – they had no state system.”

Surkov’s world view points to the same conclusion as Chubais’s. Russia is one of the world’s natural “great powers”. Greatness is defined by sovereignty. Sovereignty is conferred by history, geography, and the will to power. Some countries are destined to be sovereign, others to be subjects.

Several factors have fed into the new Russian ideology of greatness. One, of course, is its refusal to accept that the Cold War ended in a Russian defeat. It may have ended in an ideological defeat, but geopolitics rises above ideology. A second is the perception that the “West does not love us”. Gorbachev had hoped to “join the West” but was repudiated, so Russia must carve out for itself a separate Eurasian destiny. A third is the realisation of Russia’s potential as an “energy superpower” playing off Europe against China. Russia has also tapped into that Western current of thinking which holds that nation states are doomed – the inevitable victims of a takeover by a US-led global empire or by regional empires.

However, the Chubais-Surkov doctrine has severe problems. Russia’s claim to be protector of the rights and interests of all the Russians of the old Soviet Union is incompatible with respect for the inviolability of its neighbours’ borders. Like the implicit threat to dislodge the US from its new positions in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it carries the seeds of dangerous conflict. This is particularly so in the light of Putin’s military doctrine that all postSoviet airspace may be subjected to “preventive” attack by Russia.

Nor is Russia a plausible guarantor of “freedom and democracy” in its near abroad. Not only is it neither liberal nor democratic now, but it won’t be able to expunge the memory of centuries of autocratic, then totalitarian, rule over the space it now reclaims. Finally, both “liberal empire” and “sovereign democracy” conflict with Russia’s ostentatious commitment to the UN Charter based on the idea of equal sovereignty.

For all its cosmetic adaptation to reality, Russian thought on how to restore national pride remains obstinately stuck in the grooves of tsarist and Soviet strategic thinking. Russian policy-makers cannot yet contemplate a genuinely different future – or at least find a way of talking about it that does not simply echo the past. Of Russia it can be said, as Dean Acheson said of Britain in 1961: “It has lost an empire, but has not yet found a role.” Its moment of truth still lies ahead.