On Russia in World Affairs

Why The West Does Not Understand Russia

August 25, 2014
Amid endless talks about the ramifications of sanctions imposed against Russia, Western commentators and policy pundits are missing a critical point. Economic coercion imposed against Moscow, their argument runs, will enfeeble the Russian government and force it to yield to Western demands. Part of the logic is that Russia's extractive economy is Vladimir Putin's Achilles' feet, and economic challenges will likely undermine his legitimacy and popularity in the long run. A corollary of this way of thinking is that sooner or later Russians will realize that something's gone awry in Putin's grandiose strategy. In point of fact, these analyses stem from a deep misunderstanding of Russia. And, as a consequence, the Western world is playing with fire.
In an effort to isolate the Kremlin and compel it to play according to their rules, Washington and Brussels have opened up a genie bottle. Western policy-makers did not glean much from the history of sanctions levied against Belarus in the last decade, and again put economic pressure atop their agenda. Little did they know about the true effect of their actions: sanctions neither undermined Vladimir Putin's legitimacy nor did they dissuade Russians from backing their leader. Instead, much like in other countries under sanctions, they helped to consolidate the society and unite it against a diktat coming from the West. It was a time bomb set to explode, and sanctions gave way for an outbreak of anti-Western sentiments across Russia.
Why did sanctions have the opposite effect? It has been recently argued by J. Mearsheimer that Western elites continue to think that the world functions according to the postulates of neo-liberalism. Put simply, economic development and international cooperation stand above geopolitics in the Western rationale. However, realpolitik never faded into oblivion, and the salience of geopolitical interests can be far more acute than most have reckoned. Many in the West like to think about Russia as a declining power, but this is truly an understatement. Let's now focus on some other things that the West gets wrong about Russia. 
1. Russia heavily depends on oil and gas and, therefore, it will suffer greatly if the exports of these resources are blocked. 
Russia is not Iran, let alone North Korea, and the efforts to forestall Russia's energy trade will be futile since Moscow has an extensive network of existing and future trade partners around the globe. Besides, most of the pressure has been coming from Washington, whereas most European states weren't poised to severe ties with their Eastern neighbor. It simply goes against their interests. 
2. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and its people have embraced the feats of a market economy and do not wish to return to the dark days.
Most sociological polls indicate that Russians' attitudes towards the Soviet past are better than they have ever been since the fall of the USSR. Many Russians have become disillusioned with democratic values and market capitalism, seeing them as Western instruments for controlling Russia. Democracy became a symbol of oligarchy, disorder, and Western manipulation. In short, people want the Soviet Union back.
3. Russia's posture will result in isolation. Its international image will be tarnished, reputation destroyed.
For all its worth, this argument is farther from the truth than any of the above-mentioned ones. The Western-centric view lies at the heart of this thesis as if the rest of the world did not exist. Russia will seek to diversify its trade routes and diplomatic channels towards East Asia, Africa, and Latin America no matter how hard Western powers will try to thwart these processes. Further, many nations are looking upon Russia with respect as it counterbalances the West. A remarkable phenomenon indeed.
Although this is hardly a comprehensive list of the West's misconceptions, they all stem from one simple fact: the Western world knows very little about today's Russia. Had these points been critically considered beforehand, the actions of Western powers would have been quite different and perhaps more effective. The absence of knowledgeable experts in the policy-making circles can be one reason. The other is a lack of interest in Russia's affairs, and Barack Obama's recent debacle in an interview with the Economist points exactly to this. 
In order to play geopolitics with the Kremlin, Washington and Brussels need to understand what's at stake for each side. For Vladimir Putin, it is Russia's sphere of interests and a question of national glory, so, despite the bitter taste of sanctions, most Russians sincerely believe that he's doing the right thing. Above all, to get it right, the West should treat Russia’s leadership with respect, not contempt. If this sounds like an odd thing, maybe it's time to bring kremlinology back in.
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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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