Staunton, January 8 – Because of the pandemic, 2020 was “’the year of the Apocalypse” for both Russia and the West, but the two responded in opposite ways: the West sought to address the underlying problems the coronavirus revealed, Liliya Shevtsova says. Russia instead sought to return to the past.
Given the interrelationship between Russia and the West, one especially fraught since 1991, the Russian analyst says, it is clear that Moscow may soon find it impossible to go backwards and do without the West as it imagines and the West in turn will view Russia until it changes as increasingly alien.
In a 5500-word interview with Fontaka news agency Nikolay Nelyubin, Shevtsova argues that both sides felt that the pandemic had shown that each had to change. This pushed the West toward development and reform even as it helped the Kremlin push its ongoing return to the past (fontanka.ru/2021/01/08/69683416/).
This continues and exacerbates a longstanding pattern, she argues. “Russia has always tried to restrain Western civilization, but at the same time, it has used it for the goals of developing its economy, securing its defense capacity, and supporting ‘the peak’ of one-man rule and its status as a Great Power.”
“Liberal civilization has not been able to transform Russia, but Russia has been able to convert the West into its support and its resource.” After the last year, however, it is “difficult to say” whether the West will continue to play that role. At the very least, the West must confront the fact that Russia’s disappearance as a enemy in 1991 caused the West to lose its “drive.”
How things will work out in the coming months and years is far from clear, Shevtsova says. “But certain trends are already obvious.” The US “has lost the right to hegemony,” and China has become “its most important challenger.” Europe is searching for a new role as a result. And rightist populism, so popular a year ago, is losing ground.
But equally clear, she continues, “Russia is losing the signs of being a great power” because “the world is beginning to ignore it.” At the same time, “Russia is losing its positions in its own sphere of influence.” China is moving into Central Asia, Turkey into the Caucasus, “Ukraine has been lost forever,” and Belarus appears headed in the same direction.
Moscow can’t afford to stand up to the West: Russia’s defense budget is 46 billion US dollars; the US defense budget alone is 770 billion US dollars. Anyone can see that Russia can’t base its power on its military alone, at least for long. It can threaten and destabilize some, but it will alienate all and unite them against it.
“We are accustomed to saying that Russia is unpredictable,” Shevtsova says. But “one thing is obvious.” If it continues to try to move to the past, it is “doomed.” The issue is whether this end will come in five to ten years or in 50.
What all this means is that Russia has to change and adapt rather than seek to go back to a splendid isolation which never was and now could prove fatal. It has to learn to play chess rather than act as if it can sweep the board with shear force. It doesn’t have enough of that to do more than bluster.
If the Kremlin refuses to learn to play chess on the international board, others will decide to play another game with it, one in which their strength will defeat an ever-weaker Russia. This isn’t the future that even those who want to go back to the past hope for in the coming years.