Will Russia Leave the West?

Will Russia Leave the West?

The new Cold War could drive the planet’s largest country, long anchored politically in both geopolitical worlds, eastward to stay.


Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continued their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)

Some hypothetical but fateful questions are rarely, if ever, discussed. Cohen argues that one such question is this: As the long-established “world order” collapses and a new one struggles to emerge, where will Russia, still the world’s largest territorial country, end up politically? The outcome will be fateful, for better or worse.

Geographically, of course, Russia cannot leave the West. Its expanses include vast Far Eastern territories and peoples and a long border with China, but they also include major European cities such as St. Petersburg. For that reason alone, Russia has long been, to varying degrees at various times, both a European and non-European country. Geography, it is said, is destiny, but Cohen makes the following historical points:

§ The profound divide in Russia’s political and intellectual elites between Slavophiles, who saw Russia’s true destiny apart from the West, and Westernizers, who saw it with the West, originally debated passionately in the 19th century, has never ended. Arguably, it was only exacerbated by the country’s subsequent political history.

§ It was evident in the Soviet Communist Party in the 1920s, when rival factions debated and fought over the nature and future of the 1917 Revolution.

§ The long Stalin era, from 1929 to 1953, imposed aspects of Western modernization on the country, such as literacy, industrialization, and urbanization, but also elements of what some observers called “Oriental Despotism.” These conflicting elements of the West and the East underlay the struggle, mostly inside the Communist Party, but not only, between anti-Stalinist reformers and neo-Stalinist conservatives during subsequent decades.

§ Even during the 40-year “Iron Curtain” Cold War, Soviet Russia, for all its elements of isolation, remained linked to the West. For example, the official Communist ideology, however formal, was inherently Western and internationalist. Still more, the European nations entrapped in the Soviet Bloc (East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and others) retained their Western currents, which flowed from their own Communist parties into the Soviet Russian political establishment. Not surprisingly, many of Mikhail Gorbachev’s close advisers who influenced his program for a Westernizing reformation of the Soviet system, called perestroika, had themselves been strongly influenced by ideological trends and developments in Soviet Bloc countries in Europe.

Indeed, when the Soviet Union ended in 1991, due largely to Gorbachev’s democratizing reforms, it was widely assumed—in Washington, Europe, and by pro-Western factions in Moscow—that Russia was now or would soon be, after a short “transition,” an integral part of the US-led West. And yet today, just over 25 years later, Russia is reviled in Washington and parts of Europe as the “No. 1 threat to the West,” a determined enemy that seeks to disrupt if not destroy Western democracy, from America to Europe. Even though, Cohen argues, this widespread, virtually orthodox, perception is without factual basis, we must ask, what went wrong?

Cohen points to and discusses several factors:

§ The mistaken Western notion that all Russian anti-Communist “reformers” were pro-Western. In fact, if we take into account provincial political and intellectual elites, the majority were, and remain, modern-day Slavophiles (a circumstance Cohen himself was surprised to discover while living in Russia in the 1970s and ’80s), and who now manifest themselves in various forms of “Euro-Asianism” and nationalism. Their influence, abetted by the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose “ideology” lacks the Western elements of “Communism,” has increased very significantly since 1991.

§ More important were the two shocks, for Russia, that followed the end of the Soviet Union and of the preceding Cold War. First came the social, economic, and demographic catastrophe of the 1990s, associated with Western-promoted democracy and capitalism. (Here Cohen points out that Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is regularly misquoted as having said the end of the Soviet Union was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” He said, instead, “one of the greatest catastrophes,” and for the majority of Russians it was a catastrophe.) The second shock was the onset of the new Cold War, in which Washington and Brussels blame Russia for every mishap, from the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 to the election of Donald Trump as American president. Many political and intellectual Russians, perhaps most, believe none of these allegations. Instead, they conclude that the West seeks only to exclude, isolate, and weaken Russia, no matter Russia’s actual intentions. (Here Cohen notes that, while in Soviet times he encountered very little authentic anti-Americanism in Russia, today it is widespread among older and younger generations.)

§ In addition, educated Russians, with far more access to information than is commonly understood in the West, see specific Western, particularly American, policies and actions that they interpret as designed to isolate Russia. Cohen cites the following examples: the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders; economic sanctions, along with warnings, as by Senator Jeanne Shaheen that any “business” with Russia is undesirable; Russophobic demonizing of Putin and thus Russia itself; and violations of diplomatic treaties and norms, as occurred recently at the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, suggesting that Washington may no longer want formal diplomatic relations with Russia—or, considering ongoing efforts to ban Russia’s media outlets RT and Sputnik from the United States, even information relations. As a result, the conclusion of the late, but still influential, Russian philosopher Aleksandr Zinoviev is increasingly quoted as retrospective wisdom: Western foes “were shooting at Communism, but they were aiming at Russia.”

Also not surprisingly, Russia is pushing back against, even retreating from, the West. The surge of Slavophile-like ideological movements is one soft expression of this backlash. A more concrete and consequential example is Moscow’s growing economic self-sufficiency from the West and reorientation toward non-Western partners, from China and Iran to the BRICS countries more generally. There are other examples, including, of course, military ones.

Meanwhile, Cohen adds, the fastest-growing segments of Russia’s populace are its millions of Islamic citizens and immigrants from Central Asia. Eventually, demography will influence politics, if it is not already doing so.

All of these Eastern-bound developments may or may not eventually take Russia politically out of the West. If so, this will be clearer after Putin is no longer Russia’s leader. One indication is that none of his potential successors now visible are, in the Russian context, as “pro-Western” as Putin has been since he came to power in 2000.

Finally, Cohen asks, what would it mean if Russia eventually leaves—or is driven from—the West politically? Most likely a Russia—with its vast territories, immense natural resources, world-class sciences, formidable military and nuclear power, and UN Security Council veto—allied solidly with all the other emerging powers that are not part of the US-NATO West and even opposed to it. And, of course, it would drive Russia, increasingly afar from the West’s liberalizing influences, back toward its more authoritarian traditions.

This possibility, though still hypothetical, is yet another consequence of the new Cold War, one that began and has been perpetuated in Washington and Brussels, not in Moscow.

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