Ivan Samolovov's Blog

Russia vs. the West: a theoretical view on a real crisis

August 8, 2014
It's been a while since the rivalry between Russia and the West took such harsh forms. Actually, the object of the contestation - Ukraine - may imply that apart from China and few other countries Zbigniew Brzezinski may be a beneficiary. "Told ya", thinks probably the former security advisor to President Carter awaiting reprintings of his Chessboard. All kidding (or not?) aside, let theory work.
The current crisis can be explained from different points of view. The simplest and most obvious is realistic. In the post-Cold war era, the anarchic international system went out of balance due to NATO enlargement to the East. A possible discord can result from different perceptions of what kind of a system is more stable: bi- or multipolar. Anyway, there's a broad consensus on what system is most prone to conflict. A hegemon faces forming hostile coalitions of weaker or has to act pre-emptively. From this perspective, the actions Russia took after Kosovo were predictable and logical. A realistic approach of Russian leaders is most obvious in Ukraine and the recent trade embargo.
The authorization to use military force in Ukraine President Putin received from Federation Council displayed Russia's willingness to bypass the U.N. in certain circumstances which deals another blow to this international organization and reminds everyone that there is no international 9-1-1 to dial in the event of a danger. One has to rely on oneself. It is worth noting that the trade embargo has been laid without the two other members of Customs Union - Belarus und Kazakhstan. Perhaps, because of these two countries' refusal to restrict their trade with Ukraine within Customs Union. Consequently, Moscow's acting not unlike as - say - Washington: defiance in case of low relative gains (it is, however, hard to discern what kind of gain the embargo provides; thus, I equate gain with national interest in this case).
On the other side, assuming that 'anarchy is what states make of it', it becomes clear why the most peaceful period of USSR/Russia-West relations falls within Gorbachev's perestroika and Yeltsin's democratization (prior to Balkan events). Persisting superpower militiary capalitity notwithstanding, the bipolar confrontation faded away. There was no reason to divide the world in the first and the second. The West didn't afraid Russia rather because there was a dominant perception (illusory, unfortunately) that we share the same worldview, than Russia's 'humiliation'. If the latter was true, why, then, do military capabilities of North Korea draw so much attention in the West and in the East alike? The current rivalry is partly due to traditional values coming to the fore in Russia as well as 'Eurasian' ideology that hardly anyone - except Eurasian protagonists - understands. But the message is clear - we are not you.
Finally, from a liberal perspective, Russia's international activity is determined by its political system. Russian rulers can afford a harsh confrontational foreign policy course, for the costs resulting from this course can be passed on the Russian population. Russia lacks effective democratic institutions, hence, the accountability of the government is very low. While the trade embargo can inflict rather indirect costs on the population (price surge), the costs from recent freezing of private pension plans are very straightforward for Russian citizens. Liberals say that national interest varies depending on preferences of those who can exert political influence. In the Russian democracy, citizens can merely express their influence through occasional voting. Civil movements and protest mobilization has been highly restricted since Putin's reelection to president. Thus, I argue that policies pursued by the Russian government are hardly the result of the population's articulated preferences, face, nevertheless, almost no opposition.
Summarizing all factors - anarchic international system, re-emergence of 'us-and-them' thinking and unevenly distributed political power in Russia - the confrontation will most likely be prolonged and assume a character of 'normality'.
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