Russia vs West: Why the clash will continue

  • By defencematters

Lilia Shevtsova thinks that the clash between the West and Russia will continue until the Russian system is transformed and will find other ways to legitimize its existence.

Octavian Manea

On the margins of the 2015 Bucharest Forum (organized by Aspen Institute Romania), Lilia Shevtsova spoke with Defence Matters about the roots of the Kremlin’s current confrontational mindset. In this context she emphasized that Putin would never have gone ahead with the annexing of Crimea if he believed that the West was strong and not in retrenchment mode. She also thinks that the clash between the West and Russia will continue until the Russian system is transformed and will find other ways to legitimize its existence.


Is it a coincidence that Putin’s Russia is challenging the post Cold War order exactly at a time when Europe is facing a major crisis of values, leadership and norms?

 We should keep in mind that there is no unified Russian approach. There are so many Russias, even in the so-called Russian mainstream there are different shades of meaning. The Russian political system of political personalist power that has been vivid and alive more or less for hundreds of years has adapted after the collapse of the Soviet Union to new challenges, by simply modifying its rhetoric and mechanisms. This system positions itself as the antithesis to the West and liberal democracy. This happened gradually starting in 2004 after the Orange Revolution and after 2007 with Putins’ Munich speech. It became evident that the Kremlin has started to return to the Russia Fortress model. Why? Because apparently the leadership in Kremlin understood that the open windows, the hybrid quasi-authoritarian regime with a lot of freedoms and even with some political pluralism is a threat for the authorities. If you have a half open window the people, society or the wind will just flow through; after people took to the streets in 2011/12 in Moscow, it was a signal the regime had to close the doors and windows. This brought the change of the paradigm from the imitation model to the Russia Fortress model. In this context foreign policy became the key instrument to pursue the domestic policy agenda-the containment and the deterrence of the West inside and outside of Russia. It also meant the resurrection of the spheres of influence and in general the previous quasi-Soviet legacy as well as the abrogation of some international treaties: the Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine, the Paris Charter of the 1990s, the 1975 Helsinki Agreement about territorial sovereignty and non-interference. So the whole post Cold War order was shattered.


There is something positive about what Putin did because after 2004 Russia was imitating friendship, cooperation and partnership for modernization. It was the game of “let’s pretend”. The West pretended that Russia is a democratic country and Russia pretended that it was embracing the West. Today there is no fake performance. It all became clear. In this context, 2014 was a very important year because it is the year of the open confrontation between Russia and the West. This cold truth allows us to understand where we are and it gives the West to reconsider its posture too. Neither Putin nor the Kremlin would have ever attempted the Crimea annexation if he didn’t believe that the West is weak, if he didn’t believe that America is retrenching. We see the signs and receive confirmation that the West is in decline when the global tide of democratization has entered recession and after 2009 Obama starts to take America out of the global scene and begins projecting a posture of retrenchment. The signs of crisis became very visible inside the EU- through a demographic and an immigration crisis. On top of all of that, the EU lost its mission on whether to consolidate or enlarge.

The Russian foreign policy doctrine reconfirmed the whole perspective. The major thesis in the 2013 updated foreign policy doctrine – before the Euro-Maidan – was that the West is in decline and we have to fill the gap. Putin and the Kremlin used this opportunity. At the same time, the appeasement on the part of liberal democracies simply gave Putin one more opportunity to understand that Russia is strong and the West is weak. His slogan became that “the weak are beaten”.


Did the West learn anything?

I do believe that at the beginning the West was stunned by the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. But Putin has also miscalculated because he hardly anticipated that the West was ready for the sanctions. Russia also awakened NATO which had been sleeping for a long time and forced Germany and Merkel to come out of the shadow and take over the responsibility of leadership when the EU has been completely paralyzed. The European unity in the area of sanctions started to be rather painful. Sanctions have started to bite. Another miscalculation was the fact that the oil price has started to go down. All these economic painful costs forced Putin to search for an exit solution. When the West was stunned Russia went further with the incursions into Ukraine. But after the sanctions have been adopted Russia backtracked. The Minsk agreements are the attempts of the Kremlin to buy an exit solution on Russian terms. Current Western reaction is enough to deescalate the conflict but not enough to solve the crisis.


There are many pressures today for a new security arrangement in Europe. But how can the West accommodate a Russia that wants a new Yalta?

Definitely there are a lot of signs that the Kremlin would love to return to some kind of division of power and areas of interest in Europe, reproducing the Yalta model. I would also say that there are some political and intellectual forces in the West, especially in Europe, that would say that Europe needs Russian oil and gas. Many European firms are operating on the Russian market so there is a need for cooperation, trade-offs and bargains. There is mutual interest between different elements of the Western political business class and the Russian political class. There are so many Russian political Trojan horses in the West so there are strong pressures on western governments to accommodate Russia; this is a trend that will continue. These forces demand that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia should be left in Russia’a grey area, a kind of new Finland-ization project. In fact, objectively, we have a grey zone, because without EU and NATO membership, it will be a de facto grey zone. The clash between the West and Russia will continue until the Russian system is transformed and will find other ways to legitimize its existence. We don’t need any kind of new Helsinki 2.0 or any kind of new regimes because we already have a whole bunch of international treaties and we simply need to follow them. Everything is on paper. We don’t need any reinterpretation of the principles.



There is a whole trend - both in the West and inside Russia - that seems to explain the current Russian aggressiveness as the consequence of a humiliated Russia in the 1990s by the rules and by the enlargement of a powerful West to the East. What is the role of the humiliation in the Kremlin’s narrative?

My position on NATO and NATO enlargement is the following: after the collapse of the Soviet Union we are living in a new setting where the bilateral division of the world is over. So every independent state has the right to guarantee and endorse its sovereignty and territorial integrity the way it wants. Maybe there were some elements in the Russian post Soviet elite and they were humiliated that Poland, Romania or the Baltic States left Russia’s pocket. But do you think that the Russian elite that withdrew billions and billions of dollars from Russia and live a fantastic life in Paris, London, Germany or Switzerland, are feeling humiliated? On the Forbes list of richest people in the UK there are two Russians. Is this the sign of humiliation? Hardly. Humiliation is a concept for domestic use, to force a society that does not even have basic rights or where the government does not even solve basic economic and political problems, to be distracted by the issue of the Weimar syndrome.


Lilia Shevtsova is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe, part of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.