Much has been written lately about Russia “hacking” the US presidential elections, and how Vladimir Putin’s government is in a new Cold War with the West.
Molly Mckew, who advised Mikhail Saakashvili when he was president of Georgia, writes that the West is already fighting a war in defence of the values on which its liberal order is based. Like many others, she never attempts to define what exactly “The West” is, or what its contradictory state interests add up to. In the Financial Times, meanwhile, Lilia Shevtsova is even more pessimistic. She claims the current situation is without historical precedent, and that current Western strategy “requires ideological clarity, but the ambiguity of the post-Cold War world made the strategy irrelevant”.
Countless pieces like these are churned out in the Anglophone media every day. They share a remarkable deficit of proportion and objectivity; they present what’s happening today as historically unprecedented, an incorrect diagnosis that simply stirs up hysteria and panic.
They also overlook the pattern that Russian foreign policy has followed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and often emphasise the individual prowess or genius of Vladimir Putin over the forces of international relations — forces that since 1990 have made much more difference than any individual leader.
After the USSR collapsed, Russian foreign policy suddenly became unmoored. Without the organising principles of Soviet communism, its leaders struggled to formulate a coherent grand strategy, instead spending years mired in internal power struggles, crises and economic collapse. Their foreign policy record understandably looks chaotic at first glance, but we can nonetheless detect a pattern to it: a cycle of short phases of increased co-operation followed by longer phases of disillusioned confrontation.
Under its first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, Russia became far more Atlanticist, liberalised its economy, and began to participate in the world democratic order. With Russia economically and militarily on the ropes, the Yeltsin government understood that a turn towards the West was in order. But by the mid-1990s, economic collapse, the first war in Chechnya, and pushback from domestic hardliners turned the government away from the West once again.
But even at this stage, Russia was economically and militarily much weaker than its Western rivals – and for all that it protested against Euro-American intervention in the Balkans, it tacitly accepted Western hegemony in Europe.
The second short co-operative phase started around 2001. Just as Russia was mopping up after the second Chechen war, the aftermath of September 11 ushered in a remarkably close tactical alignment between the US and Russia in Central Asia. But again the relationship faltered, this time thanks to the American invasion of Iraq and the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe, which the Russian government saw as a direct threat to its survival. Vladimir Putin chilled any warmth that had crept in with a terse, critical 2007 speech in Munich, and in 2008, things sank to a truly icy level when Russia invaded Georgia.
The cycle has continued ever since, with the Obama administration’s ill-fated “reset” policy ushering some forms of co-operation but eventually giving way to the renewed froideur we see today. But for all the consternation at Russia’s current activities, including its near-incessant efforts to influence European and American domestic politics, the danger it presents and the singular nature of its behaviour are both greatly overstated.
As things stand, Russia measures up relatively poorly on the usual metrics of greatness. It is still in demographic decline; its sluggish economy is overly dependent on a bare few industries, and its technological innovation prowess lags far behind the West’s.
Russia has some recent battlefield successes under its belt in eastern Ukraine and Syria, but it has no clear exit strategy for either situation. Both are showing signs of mission creep, and their costs are starting to bite as Islamist terrorism against Russia becomes the new normal. Russia’s military performance is often unsophisticated and beset with operational failures. And that’s without considerable resistance from an organised national army or air force.
As for Moscow’s supposedly unprecedented global meddling, there is surely no great power on the planet which hasn’t at some point tried to influence the domestic politics of another, or commit espionage even against its allies. That is how great powers have acted since Athens and Sparta went to war.
There is considerable dispute over how successful Russia’s efforts have been, but even if they have achieved their most extravagant ends, that would mostly indicate that the US and Europe had failed to head them off. A more urgent question, therefore, is to what extent Russia and the West’s core interests overlap.
In recent years, the West’s strategy has revolved around the imperative to spread, promote or defend “values” rather than narrower geostrategic “interests”. This strategy is near impossible to achieve or sustain, since it demands that the West simultaneously balances itself against China and Russia while somehow stabilising the Middle East and promoting democracy the world over. No great power, including the Soviet Union at its peak, has ever come close to global hegemony; that is a lamentably foolish aspiration.
The current trend in the West is towards retrenchment. As surveys of public opinion make plain, European citizens are already fed up of their leaders endlessly trying to stabilise the chaotic Middle East at taxpayers’ expense; now they’re growing weary of their governments meddling in what Russia wants to do in its own backyard.
Clearly a change is in order. Realism demands that the West treat Russia as a declining great power, with patient caution and respect for its sphere of influence. It also demands that the West defines just what it is and where its core interests lie; until it does so, it’s doomed to clash with other great powers as its vague, values-based interests and alliances overlap with theirs.
Rather than neurotically treating every threat as an existential one, today’s Western governments need to remember how international politics was conducted when there really was a Cold War on. In the twilight days of the Soviet Union, George HW Bush – quite possibly the last true realist to serve as US president – declined to interfere in Eastern Europe. He understood that the Soviet Union was doomed, and that as far as the US was concerned, a long game was the most prudent approach. He duly waited for the Eastern Bloc to implode on its own — and so it did.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in Great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.