Book Review: A recent book by Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin, “Russia and the World in the 21st Century,” sheds light on the Kremlin’s foreign policy and its impact on how Russian society views national identity.

The gilded bronze sculpture of a two-headed eagle, Russia's state emblem, installed atop the Telegraph Tower of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Photo: AP

The Ukrainian crisis not only revealed the dormant contradictions in U.S.-Russia relations and the post-Cold War international system, but also exposed the deep-seated, hidden problems of Russia itself. The country appears to be facing a serious national identity crisis, with the Kremlin having failed both to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic system and implement its ambitious Eurasian project.

Before the Ukraine crisis, Russia tried to straddle between Europe and Asia and saw itself as an indispensable part of the Western world (within the Euro-Atlantic project) and as the self-sufficient center of the post-Soviet space (within the Eurasian project).

However, conflict with Kiev cut short all of Russia’s attempts to become the bridge between East and West. The conflict cannot help but have an impact on Russia’s national identity and pose a very serious question to Russia’s elites: What is Russia – and what is its role in the new international system?

This was also the question, which Carnegie Moscow Center’s Director Dmitri Trenin addressed in his recent book, “Russia and the World in the 21st Century.” Released in late 2015, the book attempts to shed light on the Kremlin’s foreign policy and its impact on Russia’s society through the lens of national identity, sovereignty and security. Most importantly, the author looks at these problems through historical and political contexts, while explaining the real motives that lie behind the Kremlin’s decision-making process.

Trenin argues that Russia is “a country-continent” that straddles between the West and the East, but because of its setbacks in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian integration processes, it has to come up with a new mission. However, unlike the advocates of Russian Eurasianism, who see Russia as the center of a big and robust Eurasia, Trenin reassesses the idea of Russia being the bridge between Europe and Asia.

“In the 21st century Russia has a chance to become not a notorious bridge between Europe and Asia or the outpost of China near the EU gates, but an important stakeholder with its independent role,” Trenin writes.

However, to achieve this, Russia should come up with its own national idea and modify its national identity concept, adjusting it to the current geopolitical reality. Trenin sees Russia’s national idea as “the idea of an independent, self-sufficient country, successfully integrated into the global world.” Such a country should provide its citizens with security and decent living standards and be “able to produce global and regional goods.”

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At the same time, Trenin warns the government against blending Russia’s new national idea into an upgraded edition of the discredited concept of neo-Eurasianism, which Marlene Laruelle, a research professor at The George Washington University, describes as “an ideology of empire” in her recent book of the same name.

While Eurasianism advocates reject the opinion that Russia is on the periphery of Europe and promote the concept of the country’s messianic, exceptional role in the world, Trenin argues that Russia should be more realistic in its ambitions and not attempt to punch above its weight.

In fact, he describes Russia as a country that is “on the periphery of both Europe and Asia if taken separately.” According to him, Russia takes an in-between position on the Eurasian continent, bringing together Europe and Asia.

“Russia is not the bridge between two parts of Eurasia, but rather, a potential continental integrator,” Trenin sums up. “The roots and the core of Russia’s heft are in Europe, but the advantageous direction of Russian growth in the 21st century goes to Asia.”

Given the fact that full-fledged political and economic integration with the West and the post-Soviet countries failed, Trenin warns against such integration with a Chinese-led Asia. He believes that Russia should be itself; otherwise it will fail again.

Under such logic, Russia should seek modernization, while adjusting different foreign practices to its national, cultural and political reality and traditions. Trenin proposes nurturing what he calls “creative nationalism,” integrated in the global context.

Such nationalism should be sound and enlightened in its nature, “focusing, first and foremost, on Russia’s development, including science, technologies, and public and political institutions.” At the same time, it should shy away from self-isolation: Trenin warns Russia against putting itself into opposition with the rest of the world. 

These warnings are especially relevant for modern Russia, given the rise of anti-Americanism amidst the current confrontation between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine. The problem is that the fine line between sound and unsound nationalism is very subtle.  What is dangerous is that so-called constructive nationalism might turn into ideology in the current political situation and the situation might spin out of control.        

A mix of isolationism, nationalism and imperialism is a commonplace mentality now in Russia and — amidst post-Crimean political overtures — this mentality creates fertile soil for imposing a dangerous political ideology, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, the head of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Nevertheless, Kolesnikov admits that ideology is sometimes necessary as a tool of bringing people together around a common idea and image, for the sake of a strategic understanding of the future. But this can be applied only to politically healthy and robust societies. That’s why, for Russian society and the government that is struggling to propose a cohesive and clear strategy for future development, ideology might be very dangerous. 

Also read Russia Direct's report: "National Identity: The 25-year search for a new Russia"

Trenin echoes this view in his book. According to him, it could lead to a dead end.

“Any ideology distorts reality for the sake of an idea,” he wrote, warning that any attempts to resume ideology, be it neo-Eurasianism or the fight against American imperialism to create a new world order, could backfire and leave Russia behind those countries that seek to be integrated in the globalized world.

Ideology could easily penetrate foreign policy expertise and tarnish it. Even while the goal of imposing ideological clichés could be noble – for example, defending national interests of the country – such means are dubious. It would be more effective if foreign policy expertise were based not only on interests, but also values, including ethical ones. So, realism with a little bit of idealism could be a good recipe for sophisticated and well-balanced expertise.

One of the big advantages of Trenin’s book is his attempt to de-ideologize foreign policy expertise in Russia and spread awareness about the importance of studying and understanding international relations for any Russian, who sees himself or herself as an active and responsible citizen of the country. In fact, his book is good for those who seek to understand international relations and find a well-balanced account about the factors that have been driving the Kremlin’s foreign policy since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2013-2014.

This review was originally published at Russia Direct's June issue “National Identity: The 25-Year Search For a New Russia”. To get the access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.