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Is Russia really on the right side of history?

Russia has become a hostage of its own holy mission. It makes dealing with Western partners a challenge.

July 9, 2018 - Evgeny Pudovkin - Articles and Commentary

Kremlin. Photo: gphoton (cc) flickr.com

The 1917 Russian Revolution, the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in his book, “The Clash of Civilizations”, encompassed more dimensions than just a class struggle. Aside from destroying bourgeoisie, he suggested, another one of the Bolsheviks’ great goals involved transcending Russia’s inferiority complex towards the West. 

The revolution, Huntington noted, “enabled Russia to leapfrog the West, differentiating itself not because “you are different and we won’t become like you”, as the Slavophiles had argued, but because “we are different and eventually you will become like us”, as was the message of the Communist international.  

The Marxist dream hardly lived up to the revolutionaries’ expectations. Far from striking a mortal blow to the global bourgeoisie, the most the 70-year Communist rule achieved were Russia’s economic destitution and cultural degeneration. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there returned a familiar a taste of Moscow as a backward, perpetually aggrieved power. 

A conservative revolution 

Russian president Vladimir Putin – an authoritarian nationalist with a penchant for macroeconomic discipline – may not have much in common with Communist leaders. In one respect, however, they are alike. Putin, too, is eager to place Russia on the right side of history, perceiving its fate as being greater than that of the ugly duckling of Europe. 

The lens through which Moscow looks at the West, though, has changed. The twentieth-century Russian Marxists considered Western advancement on the road to socialism as not rapid enough. These days the Kremlin’s intellectuals, by contrast, regard Europe as too removed from its traditions. Having abandoned its roots, so the argument goes, the Western civilisation has succumbed to moral decay, economic indebtedness, and, should worse come to worst, even physical extinction.  

“The Europeans are dying out; do you understand that or not? Same-sex marriages do not produce children”, Vladimir Putin said, explaining the rationale for his law to ban ‘gay propaganda’ in Russia during an annual Valdai conference. Birth rates across the EU states, he warned, are plummeting – and the governments are running out of options to arrest this decline. “You want to survive by importing migrants? But it seems you don’t like that option either”, Putin then mused, derisory, hinting at Europe’s trouble with integrating the newcomers. 

For more insight on the Kremlin’s thinking consider the ideas of Sergey Karaganov, Putin’s silver-tongued adviser. The West, Karaganov asserts, is no longer “the self-confident alliance that proclaimed itself victor of the cold war”. Rather, it is “a directionless gaggle, beset with economic insecurities and losing sight of its moral convictions”.

To survive, Karaganov is convinced, the West will have to become more like Russia. If it is to satisfy electorates’ cravings for constraining rampant individualism and achieving greater economic equality, he predicts, in the coming years Europe is bound to move towards greater authoritarianism.

In contrast to crude Marxist materialism of the Soviet era, Russia’s elites today espouse a more sentimental ideology. Their is the strain of conservatism that has less in common with Edward Burke’s skeptical forbearance and more with a reactionism of a Carlylian sort – anti-egalitarian, mystical, and sanguine on the virtues of strong leadership. According to this logic, what was once regarded as Russia’s backwardness – its traditionalism, its lack of democratic mechanisms – emerges as its strengths when considered against the backdrop of globalisation and lavish consumerism.  

The limits of meddling 

Had Russia limited itself to proffering its shrewd insights, this would have hardly merited a western response. Alas, Moscow doesn’t stop there. The last few years have seen the Kremlin trying to destabilise the EU through disinformation, hacker attacks, and subversion campaigns in its neighborhood, most notably the Balkans

From Moscow’s point of view, moves like that make sense. A weaker, less stable Europe may be more susceptible to geopolitical or economic bargains with Russia on terms favorable to Putin. 

Better still, rising anti-establishment sentiment might strengthen some of the unequivocally pro-Russian forces such as the French National Front party, whose leader Marie Le Pen met with Putin in Moscow in 2016.

The question then arises as to how veritable a danger this nascent ‘Reactionary international’ poses to western democracies. In recent months, much ink has been spilled in warning about the specter of Putinism haunting Europe. As illustrations of the rising authoritarian tide alarmists point at Brexit or the rising popularity of ‘strongmen’ in Eastern Europe. 

And yet, for all the talks regarding Eurogeddon, there are several reasons to doubt the gloomiest of doomsayers’ prognosis.

First, the impact of Russia’s disinformation campaign has been limited at best. The Kremlin can Troll western powers. Disrupt European politics, not so much. Although malevolent, Moscow’s interventions, as several case studies might attest, hardly had any considerable impact on any elections. And with western intelligence coming to grips with tools of Russia’s disinformation, it will soon learn to tackle this problem at little cost. 

If anything, Russia’s meddling has been an own goal by dealing an additional (and unnecessary) blow to the Kremlin’s credibility on an international stage. It consolidated European and transatlantic solidary, making the topic of rapprochement with Moscow ever more toxic.  

True, politicians like Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz or Italy’s governing coalition are willing to engage with Russia. Having said that, however, mending ties with the Kremlin is hardly at the top of their agenda. Indeed, the manifesto of the League, the party headed by Italy’s vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, states explicitly that rapprochement with Moscow can only be possible if it doesn’t harm Rome’s relations with Washington, “Italy’s most important ally”.  

Second, too much is being read into Europe’s authoritarian drift. Sure, the electorates’ ostensibly ‘populist’ demands are nothing to sneer at. The benefits of migration, for one, may not be as unquestionable as some liberals would have it. It’s also true that wage growth in many EU counties has been stagnating, or that global economic imbalances fueled unemployment in some European regions.

That said, the elites are hardly nonchalant about current challenges. European politicians – including the leaders of Germany, France and Sweden – recognize the limits to which they can go to accommodate new migration. Equally, attempts have been made to address economic insecurity – whether through adopting new rules for taxation fit for the technological world, or via the use of structural funds. 

Current account imbalances within the euro area, too, are being corrected, albeit at a slow pace. Southern states have been undergoing internal devaluation, whereas Germany’s trade surplus with the rest of the eurozone has effectively vanished.  

Bouts of destabilisation have been an inherent feature of democracies. They are painful, sure, but, come to think of it, they also play a crucial role. Periods of volatility act as a safety valve, pointing the elites to society’s real concerns and allowing them to correct problems before the situation gets critical. From Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 19th century United States to the Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy in 2000s, western democracies have seen populists come to power – and survived. 

The price of history wars 

If voters in Europe want to reverse the clock, they only have to go as far back as the 1990s. Liberalism was still the creed of the day. It’s just that the migration levels were lower and there was more public cash to spare. What Europeans don’t by any means entertain, however, is joining Vladimir Putin in his reboot of the Holy Alliance. 

The Kremlin’s interventions, then, will only exasperate European elites further without breaking them. Such a scenario would not be advantageous for Moscow anyway. It is worth remembering how much Russia gained from its commercial relations with the EU, its largest investor and trading partner. The bloc also plays a crucial stabilising role in both Eastern Europe and in the Balkans. So even if, despite all odds, both alarmists and Europe’s critics turn out to be right and the EU will suffer a downturn, this will deal collateral damage to Russia. 

There is hence little to gain for the Kremlin by continuing to irritate the EU. Politically, European leaders are much more reticent than the US when it comes to stamping new sanctions on Moscow. Why give Europe reasons to toughen up its act? And while it is true that Europe is still very far from attaining any sort of ‘strategic autonomy’ from NATO and the Americans, the rising Russian threat will make this prospect less likely still. 

For the last three centuries, Russia has seen its destiny inextricably linked with that of the outside world. Before the Revolution it strived to protect conservative values against the wave of revolutions, yearning for what Fedor Dostoevsky called “a great universal church on earth”. With the advent of Soviet communism the tables have turned, as Russia’s global vision morphed into a quest for the advancement of socialism. 

This sense of grandiose purpose lingers. In many ways, it prevents Russia from participating in institutions like the EU or NATO, where it would be a secondary-tier nation. This is regrettable, yet it is also something both sides can live with. 

Much less optimal is the situation where Russia tries to somehow undermine the EU. Therefore, Moscow would be well advised to accept Europe as a, if not benevolent, then useful neighbor. This alone can be a great stepping stone to building a more comfortable environment where Moscow and western capitals can discuss pressing issues.

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