Fallacies and Failures in the Western Perception of Russia

March 2021

The West has gotten Russia wrong again and again. Moscow has capitalized on these misperceptions to its own advantage using the West to pursue its survival agenda. In order to understand Russia’s trajectory and stop being an external resource for the stabilization of Russia’s system of personalized power, the West has to rethink its approach from the beginning.

By Lilia Shevtsova

Vladimir Putin Russia Media Perception

Misperceptions, illusions, and clichés have become powerful political instruments. For the short-term thinking ruling elite in Russia that tries to stay in power at any cost, fallacies have turned into a means of survival and distraction. Perceptions of Russia are one of the most successful myth generators that help legitimate the current regime, divert attention from domestic woes, and build favorable external relations. This tactic of generating fallacies about Russia has successfully influenced the West and helped build its accommodationist policy toward Moscow.

Post-Soviet Russia – its evolution, relationship with the West, and painful drama of dealing with its own wounds and complexes – has emerged as the source of numerous misperceptions, either intentional or unintentional. One could even argue that myth-building is Russia’s most successful national industry. But for the West, it has become a game of fallacy and failure.

Russia has consciously pivoted its very existence around generating misconceptions about itself. Russian political analysts and misinformation factories are especially skilled at this. But why is it that these misconceptions are readily repeated by Western experts? The past decades contain a litany of failures to understand what Russia is about and where it is heading.

If Russia has become a source of global misperceptions, what about other parts of the world: do they also produce their own fallacies? Even more troublesome is how Russian-generated distortions have global impact, in terms of how they sway the behavior of liberal democracies and other autocracies.

At the core of these phenomena is Western misperception itself. Is it rooted in naiveté, willful ignorance, a lack of information, dogmas, or self-interest? What if the Western interpretation of Russia is also a projection of the West’s own fears, complexes, and demons?

Failure to anticipate Soviet Union’s end

The West’s failure to understand Russia today began with its failure to understand the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the dominant paradigm in the West was Sovietology, which asserted that the Soviet Union was as solid as a rock, right up to the moment it started to crumble.

After the Soviet Union imploded, Western analysts hastily buried Sovietology and then rushed without much deliberation to apply transitology to post-Soviet Russia. Originally created as a framework for market-oriented change in Latin America and Southern Europe, the theory now had to support the inevitability of Russian transition to democracy. In Russia meanwhile, reformers were caught out by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and, lacking their own theories, accepted the West’s analytical assumptions that ignored Russia’s history, political culture, and traditions. It is a bitter irony that for the post-Soviet bureaucracy, the “transition” model appeared to be an instrument with which they could imitate democratic institutions while at the same time monopolizing power and property. The model also had to explain why Russia’s path would be rocky but, because transition was inevitable, any discrepancies or problems could simply be overlooked.

In practice, Western politics was based on a formidable number of illusions that helped reproduce the personalized system of rule in Russia. For example, the belief in Boris Yeltsin as the architect of democratic Russia obscured his actual role as the godfather of the new one-man and manual rule. Even worse, in order to keep him in power, Western PR agencies aided in a series of manipulations to secure Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996. This was the turning point when many in Russia lost their idealism and trust in democratic institutions and procedures.

The West desired a market economy but promoted kleptocracy

Massive and unconditional Western assistance in building a Russian market economy ended with the emergence of kleptocracy. Indeed, Russian liberals supported by the West have become a crucial element of the new authoritarianism. Because the transition to a market economy preceded the establishment of democratic institutions, the new Russian rulers succeeded to privatize public and state property. Observing Russian market reforms, the German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf concluded that “the new economism of capitalists is no less illiberal than the old one of Marxists.”

Outside Russia, Western gurus saw a different reality. Henry Kissinger, for example, welcomed Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008-2012) arguing that it represented the “transition from consolidation to modernization.” Moreover, Kissinger insisted that the two centers of power, Medvedev and Putin, “may appear to be the beginning as an evolution toward a form of checks and balances.” Again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Russian political reality and culture.

Having failed to influence democratic development in Russia, the EU instead chose to play a game of “let’s pretend!” and made-believe that Russia was adapting to EU principles when in fact it was moving in the opposite direction. Like Kissinger, German elites also regarded Medvedev as the answer to all their hopes concerning the Russian transition to democracy and a market economy. Criticisms of Medvedev as an imitator reformist were brushed off by the German establishment as propaganda from the past. Germany offered Russia the Partnership for Modernization even when it was already crystal clear that the Kremlin was not ready to modernize Russia and afraid of losing its monopoly on power. The Kremlin wanted investments and the transfer of technological know-how, but was not interested in either democratic change or the rule of law.

In fact, Germany’s central role in the reproduction of personalized rule in Russia demands serious reassessment. We should not forget that the “gas for pipes” deal struck between Bonn and Moscow in the 1970s sealed Russia’s fate for many decades to come, by creating a petro-state economy, which is at the core of today’s personalized system of rule and rentier capitalism. While Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik towards the Soviet Union helped normalize relations and improve the feasibility of personal contacts, Putin’s Russia has revived this policy based foremost on opportunism, concealing its revisionism.

The Russian humiliation narrative

Russian pro-Kremlin pundits have been successfully feeding the West with their arguments, one of which is the mantra of “humiliation.” This serves to justify Russia’s great power status by cultivating a sense of grievance and resentment: hence the constant reminders to the world of what the humiliation of another great nation (Germany) after World War I eventually led to.

The Kremlin constantly complains that the West underestimates Russia, refusing to grant Russia its “proper” role in the international arena. Meanwhile however, Russia has successfully gained entry into a number of democratic “clubs,” including the G7 (becoming the G8), and the NATO-Russia Council. Moscow became a member of the IMF and the Council of Europe. Furthermore, the EU signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia in 1997, declaring “a strategic partnership based on common values and interests.” The West supported Russia’s entry into the WTO, and poured a multi-billion-dollar aid package into the country.

The latest Kremlin mantra concerns the “decline of the West” and the end of the liberal democratic order. Declinism and the Oswald Spengler-inspired “End of the West” have become the key premises of Russia’s foreign policy, formulated in the official Kremlin position as: “the potential of the historical West is shrinking.” This raises the question of how a declining West can humiliate Russia or threaten its sovereignty (another complaint). Why is a declining West still Russia’s number one enemy? Moreover, the defenders of Russia’s great power status are barely able to explain how this status relates to Russia as a petro-state with the same GDP as that of Spain.

Indeed, it is unusual for Russians to think about their country as a normal state. Yet we need to understand how the view of “great power status” has evolved in Russian society. The country is split on this issue. According to a poll by the independent Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians say that they would like to see Russia as a great power to be feared by rest of the world, while 56 percent would like to see Russia as a power that could guarantee people’s well-being, but should not be one of the most powerful states in the world. This view does not fit what the Kremlin and its Western “accommodators” think.

What Russia means by "equality”

Among the variations of the “humiliation” narrative, one in particular strikes a chord in the West, especially among intellectuals on the left: the Russian demand for political equality and respect in the international arena. One can only imagine what “equality” means in this context. Russia enjoys the same rights in international institutions as other states. What else is needed for equality? To accord Russia with some sort of “special rights,” a veto, or to exempt it from accepted international norms would place it above other states. Are some states “more equal” than others?

A corollary of the Russian demand for “equality” is the insistence that other post-Soviet states should naturally fall within its sphere of influence. In other words, the West should accept that these states have limited sovereignty. Yet where are the equal rights for countries like Ukraine, Georgia, or Belarus?

One further resentful charge from Moscow is that “Western leaders showed no real interest in integrating Russia.” We have already seen that the West has offered Russia various arenas for integration. The problem is that Russia wants integration while preserving its own rules of the game; it wants a special relationship and demands the power to veto within NATO and elsewhere. This behavior will only serve to undermine these institutions, and the result will be dysfunctionality. Russia has never been a supporter of multilateralism, but uses institutions only when they serve the Kremlin’s interests. When these interests are not served, Russia circumvents international institutions.

This essay has been written in cooperation with Stefan Meister, Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). A second part of this essay will be published in the next edition of the Quarterly Perspectives.

The essay is part of a joint publication series on political misperceptions together with the Washington-based magazine American Purpose. It will be followed by a dialogue between Lilia Shevtsova and Stefan Meister in the American Purpose.

Lilia Shevtsova Autor

Lilia Shevtsova is a Russian political scientist and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. She is a member of the Andrei Sakharov Center on Democratic Development, the Liberal Mission Foundation as well as a member of the editorial boards of “American Purpose,” “Journal of Democracy”  and “New Eastern Europe.”

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