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What Does Russia Think?

  • Andrew Wilson

Under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is trying to invent its own political model.

Under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is trying to invent its own political model.

If we want to deal with Russia, we need to understand it. But since the end of the Cold War the dominant discourse in the West has focused on what Russia lacks -- be it Western-style democracy, the rule of law, or property rights.

These may indeed be missing, but Russia has ways of justifying their absence or claiming that they are present in uniquely Russian forms. This may be just a cover story, but we need to look at the Russian debate to find out.

One thing is clear. Since the end of a period in the 1990s when anything that smacked of ideology was anathema, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been quietly rediscovering the power of ideas. Today’s Russia has a lively intellectual debate that cites thinkers as diverse as Slavoj Žižek and Carl Schmitt, and also produces a range of domestic ideas on national identity, the Russian political system, modernization, globalization, and international politics.

What Does Russia Think?” is a collection of essays by leading Russian political observers that was released this month by the European Council on Foreign Relations. The papers are the product of a conference of the same name held in Moscow on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia in July, and they form a useful guide to the intellectual discussion currently going on in Russia.

In the Western media, the Russia debate is normally presented as a straightforward face-off between the regime’s apologists and its liberal critics. But this masks a far more complex reality. The common ground shared by Putin’s generation is neither liberal proselytism nor nostalgia for Stalinism, but the cumulative experience of the “20-year crisis” since the late perestroika era and the existential crisis produced by the unexpected independence of the Russian Federation in 1991.

Their worldview is shaped by what they see as a double failure – of both Soviet authoritarianism and of Boris Yeltsin’s anarchic version of democracy.

The Putin Consensus

Vyacheslav Glazychev, a publisher and a member of Russia’s Public Chamber, claims in his essay for the volume that “a fear of empty space” is the main underlying reason for supporting Putin. Free Russia NGO Union head Modest Kolerov identifies the secret of Putin’s success in the fact that he is the first Russian leader to embody both a security and a social consensus -- restoring the power of the state after its near collapse in the 1990s and supposedly reigning in the oligarchs.

Both authors claim it is wrong to think of this consensus as a temporary aberration, soon to be replaced by a resurgent liberal elite. The “Putin consensus” is not just a transactional relationship based on high oil prices.

While Yeltsin’s Russia was inclined to imitate Western models, the Russia of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev is trying to come up with a model of its own. As the essay by political scientist Leonid Polyakov shows, the overarching quest for most Russians is not to join the West, but to free themselves from the West. And in the long term, “the task before us is to turn Russia from an imitator of other civilizations into a model to be imitated by others.”

Nevertheless, for the moment at least, the “Putin consensus” is still largely a negative phenomenon. The regime’s intellectual supporters can agree on what they do not want, but they do not agree on what the Russian economy or society should look like in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Center for Post-Industrial Studies director Vladislav Inozemtsev argues that “there is no consensus in favor of modernization. In most countries that have successfully modernized in recent years, there was a widespread feeling that the country was trailing not only the great powers but even its regional partners. However, the political elite claims that Russia is already successful, while a large part of the entrepreneurial class and the ruling bureaucracy derives its riches from oil and gas extraction and other resource-producing companies, and is therefore not interested in modernizing industry.”

Inozemtsev continues: “There is little understanding of what modernization actually requires. Modernization is often confused with the development of a high-tech knowledge economy rather than improvements in manufacturing industry.”

In the early stages of the global economic crisis, therefore, many in the West predicted that as the oil price collapsed, Russia’s modernizing economists, such as Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, would seek to patch things up with the West. “Ekspert” editor Valery Fadeev argues that the crisis has in fact strengthened the statist elements of the Putin consensus, leading the Kremlin to consolidate its grip on the economy and to clip the wings of various oligarchs. Moreover, the fatalism of Inozemtsev’s piece shows how beleaguered economic reformers have become now that the price of oil has returned to over $70 a barrel.

Multipolar Or Unipolar?

Russian foreign policy is less stable, however. One important source of tension and ambiguity is that Russia is a status-quo power on a global level, but a revisionist power in Europe. The essay by Timofei Bordachev, of the online magazine “Russian Journal,” shows that Russia’s global policies are guided by its obsession with different models of polarity.

After the old Cold War bipolarity collapsed in 1991, Russia’s overriding obsession has been opposing U.S. unipolarity with effective multipolarity, where all poles have sufficient resources to check one another. Moscow is therefore only interested in its status relative to other powers, in particular the United States. “Reset” diplomacy may therefore face real problems. If Russia’s main goal is to prevent unipolarity, it is actually interested in a stronger Iran.

At the European level, however, Russia’s ambitions are revisionist. First, the traditional fear of Russia’s elites that its current borders are vulnerable -- hence its constant drive to surround itself with satellites or buffer states. Second is the psychological insecurity that Putin’s elite developed in the 1990s. Third is resentment against European institutions that it feels are biased against Russia, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights. A return to a state-centered Westphalian world is, in Russia’s view, the only way to bring stability back to Europe.

In Moscow’s view, the global economic crisis is an opportunity to realize some of these goals. It will reverse the process of globalization and strengthen the trend toward regionalization -- hence Russia’s decreased interest in the World Trade Organization and its struggle for the post-Soviet space to be recognized as a sphere of its “privileged interests.” Russia also expects the crisis to accelerate the decline of Washington’s influence and of the EU’s global relevance.

The EU will only be able to develop an effective approach to Moscow if its policymakers rediscover some of the curiosity for Russia’s internal debates that they had during the Cold War. As the historian Vojtech Mastny has argued: ‘If the Cold War and its ending demonstrated anything, it showed that beliefs can be as powerful as realities and illusions more compelling than interests.’

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a coeditor of the new volume “What Does Russia Think?” He was assisted in the preparation of this article by the volume’s other editors: ECFR board member Ivan Krastev and ECFR Executive Director Mark Leonard. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.