Understanding Russia

On 18th of March, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech to Russian parliamentarians, putting forward his case for why he is supporting Crime’s choice to join the Russian Federation. His speech was passionate and at times emotional, pushing the right buttons that touched the souls of many Russians. Putin and Russia can at times appear mysterious and hard to read. However, the speech opened a window into Russia’s psyche, their fears and desires. Putin’s speech allowed the world to delve deep into the Russian state of mind.

Perhaps the most impactful event that continues to influence the way Russia is today was the break-up of the Soviet Union. For the many inhabitants of the former USSR, the fall of the Berlin Wall and what endured thereafter was such a big shock that many Russians have failed to recover from it. As Putin said during his speech: “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” Indeed it seems that the fall of USSR has resulted in a feeling of perpetual inferiority that encompasses the Russian state, a feeling that Russians have been trying to shrug off over the last 13 years. The fall of the Soviet Union marked the end of Russia’s time as a great power at the centre of an empire. Much of Putin’s strategy over his years in power has been to try and restore pride and confidence in the Russian people. This culminated recently in the successful Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and, even more so, in the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation.

Partly due to historical events, Russia distrusts the West and its intentions. Despite the stereotype that Russia is an aggressive and unpredictable state, it is quite plausible to argue that Russia has been on the defensive ever since 1991. During the Cold War, NATO had a purpose – to act as a deterrent to any military escalation from the Soviet Union. Russia hoped that once the Cold War was over, NATO would dismantle itself, or at least halt its expansion. Quite the opposite happened. The Russians have been completely against substantial NATO enlargement, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries, but due to lack of soft and hard power, were unable to do anything about it. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO, Russia saw this as a red line that cannot be crossed. As Putin said during his speech: “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our own backyard; in our historic territory.”

The fear of NATO has been further exacerbated by its military campaigns and interventions, such as in Serbia, Afghanistan and Libya. Though NATO and the West may view these campaigns as moral and necessary, Russia interpreted them as the West flexing its muscle to bend the geopolitical structure of the international arena in its favour. Putin frequently spoke out against Western interventions and he did so again during his Crimea speech, noting that: “They [the West] act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’ To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.”

The feeling of inferiority, which resulted from the break-up of the Soviet Union coupled together with the expansion of NATO, has resulted in a potent mix of fear, anger and the desire for a reprisal among many Russians. Though Russia may act tough on the international stage, it has a deep seated fear that one day NATO and the West will make Russia its next target, just like the West did with Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Iran, Afghanistan and currently Syria.

In his speech, Putin made the point that “like other countries, Russia has its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected.” It is plausible to argue that currently, Russia’s most vital national interest is to protect itself. Whether it’s just paranoia or genuine security concerns, it is a matter of fact that Russia feels threatened, which is why it has acted the way it did. It also becomes a vicious circle when the West carries out an act that is deemed aggressive by Russia, such as supporting a change of government in Ukraine. Russia starts to bolster its military capabilities, crack down on any internal opposition protests, which in turn leads to condemnation from the West, which allows Russia to conclude that the West is out to weaken Russia. And so it continues.

To break this vicious circle will not be easy, especially with the current Ukrainian crisis. Both sides will have to make concessions. Western powers will need to hold back the anti-Russia rhetoric. Imposing heavy sanctions on Russia will also be counter-productive, as they will most likely result in counter-sanctions against the West from the Kremlin. Expanding NATO into Georgia or Ukraine would be catastrophic for Russian-Western relations; therefore the military alliance would be ill advised to expand any more. Most importantly, the West should understand Russian concerns and act accordingly. If these actions are taken, Russia should reciprocate by cooperating with the West on mutually beneficial projects, such as fighting terrorism, resolving issues in the Middle East, cyber security, etc. A path in the opposite direction may lead to a new Cold War, which would benefit neither side.

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Europe, International politics

Subscribe & Connect

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: