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Pavel Koshkin

Ph.D., Fellow of The Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, Former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an analytical media outlet, RIAC Expert

After Russia intensified its foreign policy efforts on all fronts, from Ukraine to the Arctic, the West started accusing Moscow of attempts to revise or undermine the existing world order, which is based on the liberal U.S. model.

To a certain extent, this new confrontation between Moscow and Washington involves framing, i.e. the creation of notions and definitions that reflect the way the conflicting sides think. In this sense, Russia and the U.S. speak totally different languages and live in different universes: what the West perceives as revisionism and aggression is, to Russia, the restoration of justice and the protection of its national interests in the ruthless world of geopolitics. Russia’s thinking is based on the premise of neorealism, according to which revisionism is rather a norm than a deviation. In Russia’s view, revisionism means protecting its national interests, not the desire to aggravate confrontation with the U.S. The West, for its part, leans more on idealism: within its framework revisionism is nefarious in its nature. No matter what Russia does, its actions will cause fear, criticism, and condemnation in the U.S.

In this sense, Moscow, just like Washington, should develop empathy: the ability to see the situation through the opponent’s eyes. If the parties learn this, any recriminations will not resonate so strongly, and the two countries will be able to react to each other’s actions in a more reasonable manner. This skill will allow them to avoid excessive emotions in their dialogue, which is so important today.


U.S. politicians have criticized the Russian application FaceApp, which reads biometric data from user-uploaded photos and generates altered images: those of the user in the future, in the past, and so on. In the second half of July, Chuck Schumer, who leads the Democrat minority in Senate, requested that the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission look into FaceApp’s potential for endangering U.S. national security and the private life of the millions of Americans who use the app.

One of Schumer’s key arguments was that the FaceApp developer is based in Russia and that the app’s authors have “full, irrevocable access” to the personal photos and data of the app’s users who allow access to their smartphones. The following day Schumer again addressed U.S. FaceApp users. On July 18, he tweeted: “Warn friends and family about the deeply troubling risk that your facial data could fall into the hands of something like Russian intelligence or military.”

Despite the fact that IT specialists have already disproved the allegations of FaceApp-related risks, Schumer’s concerns indicate that the U.S. believes the Kremlin and Russian hackers to be one of the key threats. Western politicians’ fears are to a certain extent based on the fact that, after the takeover of Crimea, Russia is viewed as a country that undermines the liberal world order and attempts to promote its own alternative.

It’s easy to understand this thinking if we recall European leaders’ reaction to a statement made by the Russian president in a June 2019 interview with The Financial Times, when he said that the liberal idea “has become obsolete.” This statement was countered by European Council President Donald Tusk and Boris Johnson, who was later elected as Britain’s new prime minister on July 23. Tusk argued that it was not liberalism that had become obsolete but rather authoritarianism, even though it might still seem effective. Johnson, for his part, referred to Putin’s statement about liberalism’s ineffectiveness as “the most tremendous tripe.”

It should also be noted that Russia’s revisionism, in the eyes of the West, implies not just an active foreign policy but also intervention in other countries’ internal affairs.

“U-turn over the Atlantic” and Munich

Revisionism, in its broad sense, is a reassessment of values, views, theories, established standards, and rules in a certain field. In the narrower field, such as international affairs, revisionism is seen as a revision of the world order, accompanied by individual countries’ attempts to intensify their foreign policy efforts and take a fresh look at their role in the world.

Russia, strictly speaking, does behave like a revisionist power. Nowadays, Moscow clearly defines its foreign political vector and conducts independent policy on the global arena without taking into account the West’s opinion.

However, what Washington and Brussels view as revisionism is, to Moscow, the “restoration of historical justice” or the protest against the unipolar world model and what Russia calls “U.S. hegemony.” After its victory in the Cold War, the U.S. became the sole superpower and, in the words of Russian politicians, the world turned into a unipolar system in which Washington predominantly imposed the rules of the game. During the long period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, from 1991 to 1999, Russia perceived the U.S. as a close ally and an economic donor, but then everything changed.

The key factor here became the NATO military operation in Yugoslavia, and the main symbol of Russia’s protest came in the form of the so-called U-turn over the Atlantic. On March 24, 1999, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was on his way to Washington for talks with Vice President Al Gore. As the Kommersant daily reported at the time, Primakov was to negotiate the nearly $5 billion loan to Russia from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), secure U.S. approval for the restructuring of Russia’s foreign debt, and sign a number of trade and economic agreements, including on the use of Russian launch vehicles in orbiting U.S. satellites, lease plans for agricultural equipment, and the supply of Russian steel to the U.S. market.

However, as Primakov’s aircraft was passing over the Atlantic, he received a phone call from Gore, who said that an aerial bombing of Belgrade was imminent. The Russian prime minister then called President Yeltsin, canceled his U.S. visit, and returned to Moscow. According to Kommersant’s estimates, this U-turn cost the Russian economy $15 billion. Already back then Russia had demonstrated that it would be carrying out an independent policy and that Moscow was prepared to sacrifice its economic welfare for the sake of its principles. The Primakov U-Turn became Moscow’s first protest signal, one that denoted its categorical disagreement with the West’s appraisal of the situation in Yugoslavia. In essence, this was also an attempt to revise Moscow’s take not only on U.S. foreign political decisions but also on its own policy. While the West believes that this may be described as revisionism, Russia views it as a manifestation of a self-sufficient and independent foreign policy.

Notably, it was Primakov who proposed the concept of “multipolarity” and argued that the unipolar world model imposed by the U.S. was no longer working. Putin redefined Primakov’s ideas and went even further, consistently criticizing the U.S. “hegemony” and expressing hope that more than two geopolitical poles would emerge around the world. Putin’s February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference came as a shock to the West. He said that the U.S. unipolar model was no longer working and that it was “not only unacceptable but also impossible”: “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”

In essence, Putin completely revised the legacy of the Cold War, which, in his opinion, had left the world with “live ammunition” in the form of ideological stereotypes, double standards, and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking. It is no wonder, then, that his speech was viewed as an early harbinger of the current standoff between Moscow and Washington, which some experts refer to as a new Cold War.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates jested at the time: “As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time.” The late Senator John McCain noted that Putin’s speech indicated a pronounced autocratic turn and that Russia’s foreign policy was becoming more opposed to the principles of the Western democracies and, oddly enough, of multipolarity: “In today’s multipolar world, there is no place for needless confrontation.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, noted that Putin’s rhetoric had “done more to bring Europe and the U.S. together than any single event in the last several years.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said that Putin’s speech “takes us back to the Cold War.”

The Ghost of the Soviet Union

After Putin’s Munich speech, the West began fearing a revival of the USSR and came to view any of Moscow’s foreign political moves across the post-Soviet space through this particular lens. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in December 2012 that the Kremlin’s policy (such as the establishment of the Eurasian Union or the Customs Union) resembled attempts to reinstate the Soviet Union.

These fears were first voiced in the declassified 1992 documents  of the U.S. National Security Council, informally known as Defense Planning Guidance. The documents stated that Washington should use its status as the recognized leader in order to strengthen the new liberal world order. In fact, the Clinton administration did not rule out the possibility of the USSR being brought back in one form or another.

“Democratic change in Russia is not irreversible, and despite its current travails, Russia will remain the strongest military power in Eurasia and the only power in the world with the capability of destroying the United States,” the Defense Planning Guidance reads. The document reiterates several times that the U.S. must prevent a possible Russian “hegemonic position in Eastern Europe”: “Should there be a reemergence of a threat from the Soviet Union’s successor state, we should plan to defend against such a threat in Eastern Europe.”

From Crimea to the Arctic

The West’s fears may not necessarily have been justified, but they intensified after President Putin’s position became stronger in Russia. In the past, Russia’s possible revisionism would be mentioned – in fact, very rarely so – in classified U.S. National Security Council documents. Nowadays the West talks about it openly and frequently, and for good reason too: Moscow has been actively restoring its influence in the geopolitical arena since 2014.

First Russia took over Crimea, and then it launched a military operation in Syria in 2015 while simultaneously attempting to restore its positions in the Middle East and actively negotiating with governments in the Gulf following a sharp drop in oil prices. In October 2017, the king of Saudi Arabia, one of America’s key Middle Eastern allies, paid a visit to Moscow. Since 2015, Putin has regularly held bilateral meetings with Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia: in Moscow, Sochi, St. Petersburg, and on the sidelines of the G20 summit. At least seven such meetings have been held to date, and Putin is planning to visit Riyadh in October 2019.

In addition, Russia probably sees itself as a new mediator in the Palestine-Israeli settlement process. Putin has held at least eight meetings and three phone conversations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas since 2014. Over the same period, Putin has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than 40 times and held some 11 personal meetings with the Israeli official: mostly in Moscow but also once in Paris.

According to Russian and international media, which quoted anonymous sources close to the Libyan authorities, the Russian Ministry of Defense, and British intelligence services, Russia opened a new foreign political foothold in October 2018 by sending troops to Libya in support of the field commander Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army. Haftar, who controls Libya’s eastern regions, had previously visited Russia and repeatedly met with senior Russian officials, including Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu. In fact, Moscow supports the Libyan forces opposed to the UN Security Council-recognized Government of National Accord, which is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

In 2019, Russia openly declared its interests in Venezuela, where the Juan Guaido-led, U.S.-backed opposition forces had attempted to depose President Nicolas Maduro, whose economic policy they believed to be untenable and destructive to the country. Indeed, Venezuela was living through a drastic economic and social crisis, with inflation going through the roof at 130,000%: the population found itself on the poverty line and took to the streets in protest. The U.S. and its allies (more than 50 West European and Latin American states) supported Guaido, who had declared himself the new president. Russia and China backed Maduro.

Media reports emerged in March to the effect that 99 Russian troops had arrived in Venezuela. Washington then demanded that Moscow withdraw the troops. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied that “the presence of Russian specialists on Venezuelan soil” did not contravene the Venezuelan constitution and strictly complied with the bilateral military-technical cooperation agreement that Moscow and Caracas signed in May 2001.

The Russian and U.S. presidents have repeatedly discussed the Venezuela issue during telephone conversations and personal meetings; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov have also actively discussed this matter. In the meantime, Western journalists, experts, and politicians suggest that Venezuela is becoming yet another topic for the ongoing Moscow-Washington conflict, which is starting to resemble a new Cold War.

Russian revisionism can be found even in Africa. Leading U.S. news outlets report that Moscow is strengthening its positions on that continent. Russia has been steadily expanding its military influence across Africa, alarming Western officials with investments in local mineral extraction and energy projects, increasing arms sales, security agreements, deployment of mercenaries, and training programs in support of local dictators, The New York Times reports. Bloomberg, for its part, says that Russian political advisors rig elections in African countries in favor of candidates that suit Moscow.

Finally, the West is concerned about Russia’s Arctic activities. The New York Times cites NATO spokesperson Dylan White as saying that Moscow is bolstering its military presence in the Arctic. U.S. intelligence services suspect that Russia is conducting low-yield nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya. “The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

Any Arctic move by Russia invariably causes concerns. The website of the TV channel Current Time points out that Russia has, since 2016, launched the nuclear-powered icebreakers Sibir, Arktika, and Ural: “Moscow has not built so many vessels of this class since Soviet times.” On the other hand, Russia sometimes offers a good reason for concern, and the West usually interprets Moscow’s statements in the context of possible aggression.

Shoigu said in December 2017: “Over the past five years, 425 facilities with total area of 700,000 square meters have been built on Kotelny Island, Alexandra Land, Wrangel Island, and Cape Schmidt in the Arctic. They house over 1,000 troops complete with missionized weapons and equipment.” Shoigu added that Russia would continue its efforts to build “a full-blown airfield” on Franz-Josef Land that would be able to handle aircraft movements around the clock. The minister stressed that not a single country had previously managed to implement any such massive-scale military projects in the Arctic in the entire history of the region.

By 2020, Russia is planning to complete construction on or modernize six military bases in the Arctic. In this light, it is quite understandable that the West treats such plans with suspicion, despite Shoigu’s assurances that Russia is “not rattling its saber and not intent on waging war against anyone.” However, the second part of his statement – “at the same time, we would not recommend anyone to test our defensive capacity” – sends a totally different message to the West: Russia is not intent on living with the old world power and will act based on its own national interests.

The Russian dossier, again

“They are doing it as we sit here,” former Special Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice Robert Mueller said during a June 24 hearing in the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee as part of comments on Russia’s alleged interference in the upcoming November 2020 elections in the U.S. Mueller’s testimony indicates Washington’s serious concerns.

The Mueller probe, whose results were made public this past spring, exposed Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. Even though Moscow has been consistent in denying any attempts to influence the results of the 2016 presidential campaign and dismissing Washington’s attitudes as lunacy and “Russiagate hysteria,” the U.S. is convinced that the Kremlin is lying. In this sense, Russia’s alleged interference with the U.S. election may be viewed as a form of revisionism.

Putin, for his part, has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, including the organization of protests during the 2011 and 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. The Kremlin continues to reiterate the thesis that the U.S. is instigating “color revolutions” in post-Soviet countries. So, if one takes into account U.S. statements about Russian interference (including Mueller’s viewpoint), then Russia denies its involvement in the U.S. presidential race while letting Washington know that, from now on, it is not just the U.S. but also its geopolitical rivals that can influence political processes in other countries.

Lost in translation

How should Russia respond to the constant accusations of revisionism? Before we answer this question, one needs to understand the causes of this revisionism. There are two, and they are not hard to grasp.

First, Russia and its political elites are suffering from a post-Soviet inferiority complex. Moscow has always attempted to prove to Washington that it is more than just a regional power; that it can be an equal partner for the West and not just its “little brother”; that both sides won the Cold War, not just the U.S.; and that Russia’s national interests, including those in other regions, need to be reckoned with.

This inferiority complex is evident from both Russia’s history (from way back when it was indeed respected internationally) and from Putin’s numerous statements in which he says, time after time, that the West has virtually never reckoned with Russia and always attempted to “drive it into a corner.” At the same time, in his 2005 interview with CBS, Putin said that a cornered animal “turns back and attacks you, and does so very aggressively, pursuing the fleeing opponent.” It is no wonder, then, that Internet channels of Russian government media currently put up headlines along the lines of “Putin has driven the presumptuous West into a corner!” If we are to resort to metaphors, then revisionism, in effect, constitutes an attack on and the pursuit of the opponent in response to an insult.

The second cause of Russia’s revisionism is the Western superiority complex, namely America’s conviction that it won the Cold War. Back in 1992, Washington stated in no uncertain terms in its Defense Planning Guidance that it was the U.S. who was the victor and not Russia. The excessively protective attitude of the U.S. towards Russia, as well as NATO expansion, which the Kremlin opposed, ultimately led to Russian political elites growing disillusioned with the West and turning their back on it. This resulted in a crisis of trust between the two countries and the “new Cold War,” complete with all its attributes such as increased state propaganda on both sides, the arms race and a war of ideologies, which has transformed into a confrontation between Russian-style state capitalism and the U.S. liberal democracy in the 21st century.

To a certain extent, this new confrontation between Moscow and Washington involves framing, i.e. the creation of notions and definitions that reflect the way the conflicting sides think. In this sense, Russia and the U.S. speak totally different languages and live in different universes: what the West perceives as revisionism and aggression is, to Russia, the restoration of justice and the protection of its national interests in the ruthless world of geopolitics. Russia proceeds from the premise of neorealism, in which revisionism is rather a norm than a deviation. In Russia’s view, revisionism means protecting its national interests, not the desire to aggravate confrontation with the U.S. The West, for its part, leans more on idealism or the critical theory: within their frameworks revisionism might be destructive in its nature. No matter what Russia does, its actions will cause fear, criticism, and condemnation in the U.S.

In this sense, Moscow, just like Washington, should develop empathy: the ability to see the situation through the opponent’s eyes. If the parties learn this, any recriminations will not resonate so strongly, and the two countries will be able to react to each other’s actions in a more reasonable manner. This skill will allow them to avoid excessive emotions in their dialogue, which is so important today.

In practice, this means that Moscow, for example, should recognize, understand, and respect Washington’s concerns with regard to Russian interference in U.S. elections. Rather than ridiculing the U.S. and dismissing Mueller and Congress probes as Russophobic hysteria, Russia should avoid such statements and propose more constructive ways out of this deadlock. This is the only way to restore at least partial trust and create a new platform for dialogue.

A “non-interference pledge” would be a step in the right direction and a good example of this approach. In mid-June, Russian and U.S. experts proposed the concept in connection with the mutual accusations of attempts to influence elections through modern technology. The essence of this hypothetical agreement is that Moscow and Washington should develop a set of rules that would oblige the parties “not to make public information of political significance obtained by state agencies,” not purchase political advertisements on social media, and refrain from public assessments of the quality of elections “before international observation missions issue their reports.”

This also applies to other issues: in response to the West’s accusations of revisionism, Russia should not deny the facts and attempt to defend itself; rather, it should begin the dialogue with the words: “We understand you.” This approach sets a positive tone for seeking a compromise. Even if the Kremlin sees statements by U.S. or European colleagues as exaggerated or contrived, it stills needs to persuade Washington that Moscow is ready to cooperate in order to get out of the current crisis in mutual relations. However, this equally applies to Washington: if the U.S. resorts to raising confrontational rhetoric to the detriment of empathy, the existing problems will remain unresolved.


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