By Glenn Diesen, a Professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway, and an editor at the Russia in Global Affairs journal. Follow him on Twitter @glenndiesen.
The West’s mistake with Russia was expecting it to Westernize without any prospect of integration into Western institutions. NATO and the EU wanted a say in Moscow’s affairs while denying it a voice in broader European issues.
This was both wrong and unsustainable and now has brought us to a situation where, after 300 years, Russia has ended its Western-centric foreign policy. The EU has not yet recognized the truly historic shift that has occurred. In the early 18th century, Peter the Great sought to return Russia to Europe. But now, after a brief revival in the 1990s and 2000s, the dream of a Greater Europe has been recognized to be just that, a dream.
Western support for the 2014 Maidan coup in Ukraine drove the final nail into the coffin. But in Brussels and Washington, they are still living in a delusion and have failed to recognize how strongly Moscow feels about what happened.
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Greater Europe has now been replaced with the more feasible Greater Eurasia Initiative – as Russia instead looks towards the rising East for economic connectivity and integration. This implies that the relationship with the West must be fundamentally renegotiated and recalibrated.
Last weekend, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, returned from Moscow after what can only be described as a spectacular failure. Some EU MEPs have called for his resignation following the humiliation in Russia. Borrell had arrived in Moscow to lecture Russia about its failure to uphold liberal values in its domestic affairs, which he wanted officials to dutifully rectify so they can restore constructive relations with the EU.
However, Russia rebuked this initiative and showed him the door, while also expelling EU diplomats who had joined protesters in on the streets over previous weekends.
What happened? Russia has clearly signaled that liberal ideals must be decoupled from power and Russia’s domestic affairs is no longer a subject for international politics. The EU misinterpreted this as Russia simply not respecting liberal norms, which demanded a “firm tone” from Brussels.
The end of the teacher-student relationship
Boris Yeltsin pursued neo-Petrine policies of returning Russia to Europe after the Cold War. His move to include Russia in European institutions entailed that the both sides would gain some influence with the other, which would make everyone equal stakeholders in preserving the new Europe based on common rules.
This never happened. Yeltsin’s commitment to remake Russia as a liberal European power did not result in inclusion in the European security architecture and removal of Cold War dividing lines. Instead, the embrace of liberalism legitimized sovereign inequality with a teacher-student relationship.
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The EU and NATO conceptualized themselves as socializing agents that would civilize Russia towards liberal norms. The West became the teacher of liberalism and Russia was the student. This implied that the West should have influence in Russia’s domestic affairs, yet Russia would not have a voice in Europe and influence beyond its borders was illegitimate.
The “liberal format” for Europe was never sustainable, as it is based on sovereign inequality – the West maintains its full sovereignty as a political subject, while Russia does not maintain its sovereignty as it is demoted to a civilizational object. Democracy is advanced when the West interferes in the domestic affairs of Russia, yet democracy is under attack when Russia interferes in the domestic affairs of the West.
Irrespective of any benign intentions of a values-based system, power and values cannot be decoupled. On one hand, the failure to include Russia in the European security architecture has preserved the zero-sum structures of the Cold War as all security interests are in direct opposition – as evident in Ukraine. On the other hand, the West should be allowed to interfere in Russian domestic affairs to promote liberal values, develop Russian civil society, and shape its political opposition.
The teacher-student format for a liberal Europe that excludes Russia was built on an extremely flawed foundation. The unavoidable collapse of this weak and dangerous format belongs in the first day in class of International Politics 101.
The future of Russian liberals in Eurasian Russia
Paradoxically, Russia’s abandonment of Greater Europe and embrace of Greater Eurasia will likely improve the climate for Russian liberals. Russia needs a responsible liberal presence in its political system, and this can be achieved by looking East and thus decoupling liberalism from power competition.
Since the French Revolution, Russia has been very critical of liberal political movements. Russian liberals often ally themselves with Western powers to the extent they appear as a fifth column. We should have understanding for this in the West as our political-media elites spent the past four years scolding Trump as a Russian agent and traitor of the liberal ideal due to the crime of desiring to “get long” with Russia.
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Following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrist revolt emerged against the Tsar. Soldiers who had expelled the French invaders and then occupied Paris had embraced the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. The Decembrist revolt sowed the seed for distrusting liberals.
To this day, many Russian liberals criticize the Russian victory over Napoleon’s invasion as a drawback for Russian liberalism. This sentiment was depicted in Dostoyevsky’s novel, ‘The Karamazov Brothers’, with the obnoxious brother Smerdyakov arguing it would have been better if Napoleon had defeated Russia as “a clever nation would have conquered a very stupid one and annexed it.”
After Russia’s humiliating defeat in the war with Japan in 1905, Russian liberals sent telegrams to congratulate the Japanese emperor. Duma liberals also used the hardship during the First World War to delegitimize the authority of the Tsar and instigate regime change, although the socialists first seized upon the subsequent chaos.
Excluding Russia from post-Cold War Europe revived the distrust towards Russian liberals. It is common for Russian liberals to express affinity and allegiance towards the West to the extent it is reasonable to question their patriotism.
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Furthermore, much like the political-media establishment in the West, Russian liberals often link liberal movements to violent regime change. The Western-backed color revolutions and the Ukrainian coup in 2014 was therefore supported by many liberals, as a precursor to a “democratic revolution” in Russia.
Protests are a natural part of a democracy, but cheering for regime change every time there are protests in Russian streets and apologizing for violence against the authorities creates a difficult atmosphere for Russians who want to further develop the political culture for protests and a liberal political opposition.
The circus around Alexey Navalny encapsulated what happens when liberalism is interlinked with power politics. Navalny’s radical xenophobia would make him unacceptable to any liberal party in the West, yet his anti-Putin credentials make him a weapon against Russia at a time when our anti-Russian sanctions are failing.
New expectations cannot be achieved by “resetting” relations
The disappointing visit by the EU’s foreign policy chief demonstrates that attempts to “reset” relations can be counterproductive when the purpose is to alter the expectations about the format and nature of relations. Moscow was appalled by EU efforts to interfere in its domestic affairs, while the EU felt disrespected and humiliated.
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As the EU debates whether it should answer the humiliation with more sanctions, a reasonable case can be made that it is better for both sides to just keep out of each other’s way.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov previously questioned whether dialogue with the West had any purpose: “Those people who are responsible for foreign policy in the West do not understand the need for mutually respectful conversation. Probably, we should just stop communicating with them for a while.”
Russia is transitioning from Greater Europe to Greater Eurasia, and a diplomatic pause may be the best approach until the new reality is recognized by Russia’s European partners.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.