Staunton, December 19 – Many in Moscow and the West believe that Vladimir Putin bears complete responsibility for the breakdown in relations between Russia, on the one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other, and thus they believe that if he changes course or is replaced, a more positive partnership can be restored.
But that is a mistake, Igor Bunin and Aleksey Makarkin of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies argue, because in fact the increasing alienation between Russia and the West reflects longstanding social patterns and more recent social pathologies that will define the Russian political landscape for a long time to come (politcom.ru/18362.html).
In a 5,000-word essay, they argue that “the conflict between Russia and the West (not only the US but also Europe) was predetermined by the development of events in Russian society over the last two decades,” trends that have deeper roots than the actions of the current powers that be.
The two analysts point to four. The first trend “consists not simply in the sense of Russians of the self-sufficiency of their own country but also in the sense that Russia is called to be ‘a center of the world’ and a leading power of the planet,” a status they overwhelmingly feel was violated by the events of 1991.
The second trend was a turn to the past. “For Russians,” Bunin and Makarkin say, “the greatness of the country is its history, one in which all its wars are just and the state plays the decisive role,” a sense heightened by the inevitable comparisons between this glorious past and the somewhat less glorious present.
That look backwards does not mean that most Russians want a return to the USSR “in a pure form” but rather that they want a combination of a powerful state with a strong system of social supports and various personal freedoms (although these are understood differently than in the West), the lack of communist ideology, and some opportunities for small business.
The third trend the two point two concerns control of territory. “The loss of even a small portion of it generates among Russians not simply regret but stronger negative feelings,” a pattern they suggest is connected with a history in which “Russia was distinguished by its own religious identity from ‘enemy neighbors’ in the East and West.”
In Europe, up to the Reformation, “the loss of part of the territory [of one or another state] represented a specific foreign policy defeat but not a spiritual catastrophe” because it did not call into question religious issues. But for Russia to give up territory to the Catholics or Muslims meant something more, they write, and it does once again.
Russian feelings about the sale of Alaska to the United States are the exception that proves the rule. On the one hand, because there were so few Russian Orthodox there, Russia wasn’t losing them. And on the other, some Russians still feel that the whole matter was a betrayal and want Alaska back.
And the fourth tendency is “the conspirological approach to various processes in politics and economics,” an approach which sees conspiracies behind everything and one that affects not only the population as a whole but the elite as well and has given rise to contempt for expertise even as it is promoted by the mass media.
What these factors mean, Bunin and Makarkin say is that “the anti-Western attitudes in contemporary Russian society” are likely to be long-lasting rather that something that will fade if the Ukrainian crisis is resolved or if oil prices and the ruble exchange rate return to where they were a year ago.
The idealization of the West which preceded the collapse of the USSR, they suggest, has been reversed and won’t return anytime soon if ever. The West’s actions against Serbia started that process, and it has only intensified, with Russians sharing Putin’s view that annexing Crimea was an act of historical justice in the post-Yugoslav world.
But this commonality of views between Putin and the Russian population is not as all-embracing as many think. Russians do support the Kremlin leader when he seeks to restore Russian power, but they do not support him or his regime when he or it moves against socially-popular programs, something Moscow may increasingly be forced to do.
Under current conditions, Bunin and Makarkin say, “the authorities have no indulgence” from the population for decisions which have “a negative impact on the well-being of the population.” But Putin has one advantage arising from another long-standing traditions: When the tsar and the boyars fight, the population “usually prefers the former.”
That is all the more so now, they continue, because of the ways in which the elites have acted, and Putin thus faces less pressure from these elites than many think because they are unable to attract widespread popular support.
Obviously, Putin and his actions matter. Until 2008, Putin tried to adapt himself to the West in the hopes of a partnership. But then disappointment set in with the West’s opposition to his third term and to his invasion of Georgia, and since that time, he has promoted rather than restrained these underlying Russian tendencies, especially after the elite protests of 2011-2012.
But even then up until February 2014, Putin continued to view the West “as a non-optimal partner but a partner nonetheless with whom it would be possible to achieve informal ‘gentlemen’s’ agreements on the basis of compromise.” But Yanukovich’s exit from Kyiv under pressure from the Maidan ended that by casting doubt on Russia’s influence there.
“The value of the relations with the West that he had established fell practically to zero,” Bunin and Makarkin say, and the notion that Moscow should make any further concessions to the West became anathema. For Putin and for many other Russians as well, “political freedoms, a market economy and the openness of the country are not values which take precedence over the historical unity of a great country.”