A distorted picture of the domestic reality in Russia

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow offers a distorted picture of reality, argues Lilia Shevtsova in her contribution to the debate 'Who is to Blame for the estrangement between East and West?' If he is right and the Tsar will indeed rule forever, why bother to look for other options? On the contrary, says Shevtsova: Russian society is moving in a different direction. People want change and start to criticize the Kremlin’s foreign policy. But reform is impossible while preserving the backbone of the old system and its anti-Western paradigm of foreign policy. 

by Lilia Shevtsova

The debate on the relationship between Russia and the West, hosted by RaamopRusland, demonstrates that the expert community is still divided in its assessment of the subject. But our attempts to understand each other’s positions, it is to be hoped, can help in unwrapping some of the myths regarding Russia and the West that have been reproduced for decades. 

Dmitri Trenin, one of the most respected and knowledgeable Russian foreign affairs experts, has offered explanations that create a good base for our discussion. He belongs to the most intelligent and shrewd wing of the Russian foreign policy mainstream and he has significant influence on Western perceptions of Russia. That is why his narrative (Russia will rely on itself) deserves our attention.

The Soviet Union never claimed the right to pursue its line inside Western institutions, current Russia does

Trenin’s approach could tentatively be called Objectivism. He usually ignores normative dimensions. He looks at foreign policy through the prism of ‘national interests’ (as perceived by whom?) and the balance of power, and thus avoids discussion of the domestic roots of foreign policy.  However, the bitter irony is that an ‘objective’ view of the subject turns (probably against the author’s intentions) into justification of the Kremlin policy and legitimation of the Russian system based on one man rule.

Let’s s look at some of the main points of Trenin’s narrative. The first, aptly criticized by his first opponent Hannes Adomeit, concerns the question as to who is to blame for the current confrontation between Russia and the West. Trenin has consistently argued that it was the West, and first of all the United States, by rejecting Russia’s ‘pretensions to a special status in the West’ and its demands for ‘equality’. ‘Russia seeks great power status,’ Trenin argues, but the West refused to support the Kremlin’s longing for this status.

For starters, what does a ‘special status’ for Russia actually mean? Surely it implies a Russian veto of Western decisions and the right to interpret liberal principles without any intention to follow them. And what about the demand for ‘equality’? This is evidently the pretense for equal status with the United States (not with Sweden, of course!) irrespectively of the resource asymmetry and (the lack of) acceptance of this ‘equality’ by European countries.

On the face of it, this looks like a return to the US-Soviet bipolar system of the Cold War. But there is a difference: the Kremlin de facto claims the right to pursue its line inside Western institutions – that is something the Soviet Union never claimed and never did.

Trenin also asserts that the West did not respect Russia’s demands for ‘great power’ status. This is not true. Russia continued to exercise its special role as a full member of the UN Security Council, it became a member of the G-8 and was offered a special partnership with NATO. What, then, were other elements of the ‘great power’ status that the Kremlin needed? Apparently, recognition by the West of Moscow’s ‘right’ to the post- Soviet space as a Russian sphere of influence. But was it possible, let alone legitimate, after the collapse of the Soviet Union to return to the status quo ante? Surely not (even though some Russlandversteher − Henry Kissinger, amazingly being one of them − have been ready to support schemes of the post-Soviet space’s ‘Finlandization’).

Annexatie Krim 2014 Foto Oleg Klimov
GRU-troops in Simferopol, March 2014. Photo Oleg Klimov.

I have a feeling that those who have been reproducing the litany about Russia’s ‘neo-Versailles’  mood in reality were not so naïve and never expected that a country struggling with post-Soviet woes and economically dependent on the West would get the recognition of a ‘special status’ and ‘great power’ role. The humiliation mantra looks more like an endorsement of the Kremlin’s instrument for internal mobilization around the flag against some external enemy, and a means of influencing Western audiences.

Primat der Innenpolitik

Hannes Adomeit has correctly pointed out that Trenin fails to mention the domestic factors that have impacted on the Kremlin’s foreign policy. But how persuasive is a foreign policy analysis that does not take into account the internal dimension? Inevitably, analysis of the domestic dynamics would have demonstrated the linkage between the strengthening of the authoritarian rule and the need to legitimize it with grievances about having been mistreated.

Why did the Kremlin feel ‘humiliated’ by America precisely when, according to the Russian foreign policy doctrine, the West’s belle époque ended? 

There are some other questions as well. Why, one should ask, did the Kremlin feel especially ‘humiliated’ by America when the US under president Obama started to retrench and tried not to irritate Russia? Why did this feeling show up precisely when, according to the Russian foreign policy doctrine and Russian officials and experts, the West’s belle époque ended and a ‘post-West’ system evolved  (see for instance Sergei Lavrov in his article Russia's Foreign Policy in a Historical Perspective). 

Furthermore, Trenin writes, ‘if you leave a country lying somewhere, it will most likely [become] an opponent’. So frustrating to imagine your Motherland in such a pathetic situation! But why the expert does not mention the billions of dollars of Western aid and Russia’s membership in the Western institutions to help Russia to get accustomed to the post- Soviet reality?

Besides, how can the accusation that the West left the country lying down be squared with Trenin’s argument that Russia should build itself independently? Several years ago he warned: ‘Russian liberals are making a mistake if they expect too much from the West. […] Too close cooperation of the liberals with the West could bring them to be associated […] with the Western states’. If that is correct, then why complain about the lack of Western attention and assistance?

Trenin’s approach perfectly fits the Kremlin litany of grievances, of being ‘rejected’ and ‘humiliated’ by the West. In the words of Sergei Karaganov, one of the most vocal defenders of the Kremlin: ‘The Russian elite and society wanted to be part of the Western world on dignified terms. The West did not respond to this longing’ . Similarly Putin recently said: ‘Nobody listened to us. So now you will listen!’ And foreign minister Lavrov is lamenting: ‘the United States and its Western alliance are trying to retain their dominant position at all costs’.

Listen to us now Figaro
Putin: ‘Nobody listened to us. Well, listen to us now’. Photo Kremlin.

Best of both worlds doesn’t exist

According to Trenin, a turning point in the relationship between Russia and the West was the ‘Crimea crisis’ which started the Hybrid War between the two opponents. But what exactly was this ‘crisis’ all about? Who started it? And what were its roots? In 2014, just after the annexation of Crimea, Trenin wrote on Carnegie Moscow that Russia felt ‘betrayed by its Western partners because of their support for regime change in Kiev [and] stepped forward to protect its vital interests’ in Ukraine. That view coincided with the Kremlin’s position.

In december 2017, however, Trenin changed his position: now the developments in Ukraine were not caused ‘by internal conspiracy or external plot but are the result of the political process of forming a Ukrainian national state’. This is an important shift from the Kremlin’s propaganda slogans to an adequate analytical perspective. It undermines, however, Trenin’s earlier argument about the alleged obligation for the West to respect Russia’s ‘great power’ status and the post-Soviet space as a Russian sphere of influence. The Kremlin cannot have it both ways. It cannot play ‘great power’ games and assert rights to a ‘sphere of influence’ and at the same time allow Ukraine to choose its own destiny, as Trenin now states.

Brezjnev Doctrine
Stamp from the DDR when the Brezhnev-doctrine was still valid

In his Clingendael lecture Trenin does not say much about possible solutions to the confrontation. But he does so in other publications. He believes that an ‘equilibrium’ can be established in the relationship if NATO would stop admitting new members from the former USSR (and beyond, e.g. in the Balkans?) and if Russia would stop opposing its ex-Soviet neighbors ‘from expanding their ties to the EU’. An amazing proposal! Should the EU now belatedly accept the Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty for EU-Europe’s and Russia’s neighbors? And, conversely, should the independent post-Soviet states voluntarily agree to Soviet-style ‘Finlandization’? Why should they?

Furthermore, in an article in The Guardian Trenin stated that the Crimean crisis had been provoked by the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Association Agreement. Why does he think that any substantial deepening of the relations between the EU and Ukraine would not trigger a new crisis? 

Finally, let’s look at Trenin’s metaphor of a future Russia ‘in a swivel chair’, the country ‘turning to partners, counter-partners, adversaries, wherever they emerge’. Yes, ex-Moscow ambassador Sir Roderic Braithwaithe in his response is right: this ‘swinging’ option could be better than some other alternatives. But what does it mean? It will mean that Russia will have no permanent partners, no permanent interests, and no permanent alliances. Is it possible to have a clear strategic trajectory when you are sitting in a swivel chair? It might be a feasable scenario, but to view it as favorable, one needs a lot of imagination.

russia ukraine
In Russia are our brothers. In Europa we are slaves.’ Photo Business Insider.

Finally for Trenin the basis of a value-deficient, ‘pragmatic’ approach appears to lie in the fact that the expert does not see any demands for change inside Russia and that he believes that society will forever approve of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. As proof in an article for Carnegie in summer 2017 he refers to the ‘consistent support of Putin’s tough policy on the part of the population and political elite’. Thus, if the Tsar and his chosen successors will rule forever and a day, why bother to look for other options? Of course, one could also decide to write about the disastrous consequences of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, but there is a price for that. Repetition of the litany of grievances and whining about ‘humiliation’ is safe and is well received in some quarters of the West (as we can see in the response by Braithwaithe).

Future based on past is obsolete model

However, it is a fact that Russian society is moving in a different direction. People want change and they increasingly look critically at the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Thus, 59 per cent of respondents in a poll by Levada Center conducted last year think that the main priority of the Kremlin’s foreign policy should be the ‘promotion of a peaceful and secure existence’ of the country (that is, not bullying the world!); only 19 per cent supported the idea of containment of the United States; and a mere 14 per cent considered ‘expansion of Russia’s influence in the world’ to be a priority.

In a Levada-poll poll from May 2018 even a majority of 54 per cent of respondents indicated that Russia should ‘strengthen relations with the West’. These results show that there is growing rejection in Russia of the foreign policy doctrines advocated by Trenin and other supporters of the ‘humiliation’ argument.

In that way Trenin’s narrative offers a distorted picture of reality. It supports an obsolete model of Russia’s existence and future based on a return to the past. In another article for Carnegie, clearly in a more realistic analytical mood, he acknowledges, however, that the continued emphasis on mobilization for Russia’s development ‘in the end will bring collapse’.  How true! Here, therefore, he mentions the need for reform in Russia. ‘Reforms are needed.’

But how is reform possible while preserving the backbone of the old system, the anti-liberal and anti-Western paradigm of foreign policy?