If Russia hopes to “normalize” relations with the West, it will have to play a more active role in resolving diplomatic impasses around the world.

Will the West be able to reassess its perception of Russia? Photo: Reuters

Despite President Vladimir Putin’s attempts from the very first days of his leadership to “normalize” relations between Russia and the West, relations remain fundamentally abnormal. Putin’s definition of “normality” was straightforward: that Russia would no longer be treated as a special case, but as just another sovereign and independent country.

To this end, at the first opportunity possible, Putin paid off the bulk of sovereign debt and ended the various dependencies that had built up in the 1990s, such as Russia’s dependency on the IMF. At the same time, Putin accelerated the integration dynamics that had languished in the Yeltsin years. This included intensified relations with the European Union, and after 9/11, the attempt to create a fundamental partnership of equals with the United States.

However, it soon became clear that Putin’s “normalization” strategy would not work. Russia was not able to become just another normal great power. The enormity of the challenges facing the country, including fundamental threats to its territorial integrity in Chechnya and elsewhere, meant that although no official ‘state of emergency’ was declared, profound elements of emergency rule were incorporated into the daily practices of governance.

These include crude administrative interventions in the electoral process and the management of the political sphere in general. In part these emergency features have been a long-standing part of Russian political culture, since the geopolitical threats, while not constant, have been permanent.

The political demands placed on Russia are high, in part because Russia itself accepted these demands as part of the process of becoming a nation-state in 1991, and in part because of its self-identification as a European state and a core member of the international community of nations.

In short, the systemic and identity contradictions that remain unresolved in Russia means that ‘abnormal’ features will remain in Russia’s relations with the Western world for the foreseeable future. The language of boycotts and threats by Western powers and activists only exacerbate the contradictions of the Russian polity rather than helping resolve them.

On the other hand, Russia’s acceptance into the transatlantic community was problematic from the very beginning, hence President Boris Yeltsin’s talk of a ‘Cold Peace’ as early as December 1994. The Western powers proved unable to achieve a widening of that community to encompass Russia’s obviously distinctive characteristics, and instead simply intensified, in a self-satisfied manner, the features of the existing system. Not surprising, this not only perpetuated but reproduced Cold War stereotypes and patterns of behaviour.

One of the features of this ‘Cold Peace’ syndrome is the absurd language of ‘resets’ and ‘pauses.’ No normal countries would talk to each other in these terms, and it is humiliating for all parties to have degenerated to the point that they do so now. Such language is precisely a measure of how far there is to go until normal relations can be established.

A need in more mature collaboration

It is time for a more mature relationship to be established on all sides. For the West, despite much talk about Russia’s relative marginality and insignificance, a strong relationship with Russia is essential for strategic, economic and simple diplomatic reasons. Although plenty of American senators and civil society activists seek to drag themselves from obscurity by bashing Russia – and there is always political mileage to be made out of that activity - that sort of politics is sterile and dangerous.

President Vladimir Putin (center), European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy try to find commonm ground. Photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev

Equally, Russia should continue its normalization strategy by reducing the ‘emergency’ quotient in domestic politics. This includes allowing the more spontaneous development of civil society and political engagement.

The tragedy of recent years is that the European Union has not been able to develop a distinctive voice of its own, both as one of the fundamental representatives of the European nations and as a mediator in transforming the transatlantic community. Paradoxically, at the very time that it effectively claimed to lead the drive to create a unipolar continent, its credibility as an autonomous actor has never been weaker.

While Europe does have a voice of its own, its failure to challenge the mistakes of the dominant power in the Western hegemony over a whole set of issues, including the war in Iraq, has undermined its credibility as a normative power in its entirety.

Of course, this allows Russia to rise to the occasion, and instead of reinforcing the marginality that its opponents wish to impose on the country, Russia can intervene in a positive manner to help resolve some of the impasses of the West’s own making. Supine subservience of the British type to American hegemony helps nobody. It is the duty of a friend to point out the errors of one’s friends. Thus, Russia can reposition itself from perceived troublemaker to problem solver.

Both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin understand that there is no fundamental ideological divide between Russia and the West, hence talk of a new Cold War is misplaced. Yet tensions do exist that foster the atmosphere of the Cold peace. From Syria to Snowden, there is no end of issues where Russia has its own views. Even though a whistleblower is naturally not to Putin’s taste, Russia was right on normative grounds to offer him asylum, if only for a year. Equally, Russia’s analysis of the Syrian crisis from the very beginning has been fundamentally more accurate than that of the Western powers.

The fundamental question is whether these are normal differences of view or whether they indicate a fundamental incompatibility of strategic interests. There is little evidence of the latter. Even the West’s blunt attempts to foster the geopolitical disintegration of Eurasian space cannot be taken as a reflection of a fundamental conflict.

That is simply what the Western imperial powers have always done, and will continue to do until the West itself can move to a genuine “post-modern” form of international politics. The dressing up of traditional imperial ambitions in the garb of the advance of democratic governance convinces very few.

Thus, the main source of Russia’s influence today is to act as a moderating force in international politics. The West has got itself into quite a few pickles, and as in Yugoslavia in May 1999, Russia can act as the broker to alleviate some of these conflicts and contradictions of Western policy.

However, for Russia to able to play this role effectively, it needs to move towards resolving some of its own domestic systemic contradictions by alleviating the ‘emergency’ elements of rule by strengthening the constitutional state. If it could do that, then a golden age of Russian international diplomacy beckons.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.