The greatest disappointment of the postcommunist era has been the failure of the West – particularly Europe – to build a successful relationship with Russia. Most policymakers and experts expected that, after an inevitably troublesome period of transition, Russia would join the United States and Europe in a strategic and economic partnership, based on shared interests and values. The pace of change might be doubtful, but not its direction. Vladimir Putin’s massive electoral triumph in this week’s Duma elections has put the lie to that notion.
Today, shared interests have shrunk and values have diverged. A resurgent Russia is the world’s foremost revisionist power, rejecting a status quo predicated on the notion of a Western victory in the Cold War. Its two super-power assets – nuclear weapons and energy – make it a potential leader of all those lesser powers dissatisfied with their position in the world. A potential Russia-China axis based on shared resistance to US hegemony carries the seeds of a new bipolarity.
Western expectations of postcommunist Russia’s trajectory rested on three assumptions that proved to be mistaken. First, most of Russia’s elite rejected the view that the loss of empire was irreversible. Second, the Bush administration’s unilateralism shattered the belief that the US would continue to provide the world with “multilateral” leadership; indeed, US unilateralism was a cue for Russia to pursue its own unilateral policy. Third, Russia has not yet become economically integrated with the West, especially Europe, as was expected.
What happens when the pull of a country’s imperial history meets the constraints of its current international position? Will it try to weaken the constraints? Or will it adjust to them? The first option may involve international conflict, the second domestic conflict.
I believe that the attempt by President Putin’s Kremlin to impose “liberal empire” or “sovereign democracy” on the post-Soviet states will fail. Of course, Russia is bound to exercise strong influence in the former Soviet territories, but it will have to share that influence with others. Russia has too little to offer for exclusive dominance.
The European Union, the US, and China offer the former Soviet republics opportunities for “balancing” against Russia. Of course, it is not very difficult to envisage the voluntary reincorporation of the ethnic Russian populations of Belarus, eastern Ukraine, and northern Kazakhstan into the Russian Federation – but only in a context in which Russia emerges as a true regional leader on a par with the EU. Alternatively (or coincidentally), Russia might discover a new business center of gravity in Central Asia and East Asia, though this would hardly be the “liberal empire” that Anatoli Chubais once envisaged, for it would be based on the mutual attraction of autocrats.
Russia also will not transform its economic system along Anglo-American lines. Apart from their incapacity to do so, Russians are well aware of the Anglo-American model’s faults. We may see some compromise between European (Sarkozy-style) capitalism and an authoritarian, protectionist model with a lot of industrial policy. This is the kind of civilizational choice that sovereign countries are entitled to make for themselves.
The territorial and economic imperatives of empire will continue to make it difficult for Russia to develop a political system that conforms to Western norms. The middle class will expand, but there is no assurance that it will become “liberal” in the Western sense. So Russia’s political system will probably remain autocratic for the foreseeable future, with a facade of democracy. While this is disappointing, it is an improvement on anything Russia has ever experienced, except briefly.
It is hard to see Russia offering the world a new type of universalism, as it once did with communism. The Russian strain of political messianism is pretty much exhausted. Nevertheless, Russia may be able to develop, out of its own spiritual and cultural resources, an attractive alternative to both the American and European models, provided it achieves long run economic success.
If Russia fails in its attempt to become an independent center of power to rival the US (and eventually China), what role will it play? A suggestive analogy may be to France during the long period of Anglo-American hegemony. Broadly speaking, France has been the “awkward partner” in the Anglo-American club – a role it played right up to its orchestration of opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.
Twice in the twentieth century – in 1931 and again in 1969-70 – France helped to bring down the world monetary system. Charles de Gaulle took France out of the NATO military alliance in 1966. France, uniquely in Western Europe, built its own independent nuclear deterrent, and has been a champion of creating a European military capacity outside NATO. Without explicitly challenging US leadership, France tried to build its own “Ostpolitik” with Russia, and to use its axis with Germany to create a European position on foreign policy.
The French have been the most insistent that Europe has interests that are not identical to America’s – particularly in the Middle East, where France has been pro-Arab. And, like de Gaulle, Putin has sought to rescue his country from humiliation and defeat by carving out a role consonant with popular feelings of national mission and pride, with national interest interpreted as “sovereignty.”
The Gaullist dream of creating an independent power center never succeeded, but the role of “awkward partner” has given a distinctive flavor to French diplomacy, and it may be equally viable for a shrunken, proud, but no longer hegemonic Russia. Being an “awkward partner” may offer Russia its best hope of reconciling its yearning for independence with the realities of the modern world.