Russia is trying to promote its post-West narrative that challenges the future of the U.S.-led global order. However, it remains to be seen if Moscow succeeds in its efforts to frame the meaning of a new historic era.
“Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” read the title of the Munich Security Report. Its authors describe the current situation as “a geopolitical recession.” Pictured: the participants of the 2017 Munich Security Conference. Photo: MSC
The post-Soviet period ended in the same way that it began, suddenly, and against Russia’s will. It left the country in a state of ontological shock, fearful of what may come next. The initial glimpses of the new future hardly looked comforting. Instead of a shining city, it has been a dark maze of hybrid wars, virtual realities, alternative facts, fake news and false prophets.
Could the post-Cold War period end differently? Probably. But only if the West had developed a plausible plan on what to do with Russia.
How the former Soviet Union would fit into the post-Cold war realities was debated from the start. The initial plan was for a grand arrangement, along the lines of the 1815 Congress of Vienna. In November 1990, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was approved, proclaiming that common values would now rule from Vancouver to Vladivostok. However, that concept did not survive the post-Soviet disintegration and the subsequent challenges of the European integration.
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Without a grand solution at hand, Russia’s integration with the West was put on hold. For smaller countries like Poland or Estonia, the existing structures of the European Union were sufficient. But Russia was too big and too ambitious to be treated in a similar way by either the European Union or by NATO. For twenty-five years, from 1989 to 2014, Russia remained stuck in limbo: neither an enemy of the West nor a friend.
Western experts mulled over the ways of how to resolve this unstable conundrum. There were three main scenarios. The most optimistic was that Russia would make such political and economic improvements that it would become a self-evident candidate for the European Union, a stronger candidate than, for example, Turkey.
The most contentious option was that the West and Russia would face another confrontation, as a result of which the U.S. would welcome a new power into the Kremlin, along the lines of what happened in 1991.
But the most common expectation was that Russia would simply wither away and become so irrelevant politically and economically, that the West would need not worry about it. This was the main assumption, or hope, of many politicians in the West, who were certain that the globalization train would continue to roll forward, with or without Russia.
Instead, something entirely unexpected happened. Within just a couple of years after the Crimea annexation, for reasons that will probably remain forever debatable, a wave of anti-globalization sentiment swept the world. In countries ranging from Moldova and Bulgaria to France, Britain, and even the United States, populist politicians with considerable disdain for the post-Cold War liberal ways gained power.
As the new world leaders looked around for allies, many eyes were suddenly fixed on Russia, and her geopolitical presence in the heart of Eurasia. And even in countries where the leadership did not change, such as in Turkey, political elites understood the benefit of using Russia as a counterbalance to the West. With Russia’s never-ending maneuvers around Ukraine and Moscow’s military campaign in Syria, the Kremlin’s opportunistic foreign policy suddenly looked well-suited to the new uncertain era. Russia had never succeeded in becoming part of the American order, and Russian political elites had come to believe that Russia had not lost much, since the Western world order started coming apart at the seams.
The tragedy is that Russia never desired this outcome. During the entire post-Cold War period, Russia was planning to become part of the West. The common ground was near. The political schism between Russia and the U.S., which started with America’s military campaign in Iraq, and escalated further with Libya, had started to narrow, as both NATO gambits went awry by 2015. The regime change ideology had lost its popularity in Washington, and just about everywhere else.
Eastern European countries like Poland that for so long had an oversized influence on America’s foreign policy, too, had lost their post-Cold War romantic charm. Lech Walesa, the hero of the Velvet Revolution, had been exposed as a communist-era informer, and Poland’s anti-democratic reforms enacted after 2014 had drawn the condemnation of both Washington and Brussels.
And above all, the common security threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) appeared. In more rational times, a security challenge of such magnitude would have surely forced the West and Russia find common geopolitical ground.
But that did not happen. The sanctions designed to punish Russia for Crimea exacerbated the East-West confrontation. By the time the need for closer cooperation between Russia and NATO had become obvious in Syria, it was too late. The Kremlin developed an alternative plan: since the West would refuse to accept Russia, Russia would destroy the West, not physically, but conceptually, by denying the future relevance to the U.S.-led global order.
The Kremlin focused its subversive plans on the idea of the “Historic West,” the allegedly outdated alliance of the U.S. and Western Europe that had entered a state of inevitable decline. Russia’s real challenge, therefore, was not so much the United States, but the post-World War II tradition of Atlanticism that linked the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Continental Western Europe, and America-leaning nations of Eastern Europe.
In addition to undermining the U.S. political and moral authority in Europe and around the world, Russia has promoted itself as part of the European civilization — not Western, but European: the geographic and cultural space that includes Russia, France and Germany, but not America. The project has developed a spiritual dimension. In February 2016, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, met with Pope Francis, the 226th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the first meeting of the heads of the two Churches since 1054 A.D.
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In the long term, the integration of Russia and Europe is probably inevitable for the simple reason of geography, especially in an interconnected world where new technologies continue to reduce distances and erase borders. Thus, Russia’s integration with a more developed part of the world has not been cancelled, but merely postponed. In a sign of changing times and growing ambitions, a 60-foot statue of St. Vladimir was recently mounted outside of the Kremlin. The pagan prince integrated Russia into the Christian civilization a millennium earlier, but did so on Russia’s own terms.
Russia will continue to advance its post-West narrative and offer a vision of how the new world, bereft of America’s leadership, ought to be governed. It remains to be seen if this effort succeeds.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
This column is based on the Afterward of Dimitri Elkin’s book “Russia Turns the Page: A History of New Russia.” It covers the period of Russian history after 2007. It provides an original interpretation of the main events that altered Russia’s course in the closing years of the post-Soviet period: the Russo-Georgian War, the global financial crisis, the modernization attempts by Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s return, the defeat of pro-Western liberal ideas in Russia, and the civil war in Ukraine. The digital version of this book will be available on Amazon after March 11, 2017.