A new report by two leading Russian foreign policy experts argues for a radical reassessment of Moscow’s way of engaging with its western partners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony at a Zale Cemetery in Ljubljana, Slovenia, July 30. Photo: AP

A recent report by two respected members of the Russian foreign policy expert community argues that rather than looking for a way to work with Europe on global problems, Russia should “detach” from the West for the foreseeable future.

Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs journal and a professor at the Higher School of Economics, and Alexei Miller, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, who have long encouraged Russia’s engagement with the West, are the driving forces behind the document.

Last October Lukyanov and Miller presented their 32-page report “Detachment Instead of Confrontation: Post-European Russia In Search of Self-Sufficiency” at the Bruno Kreisky Forum in Vienna — one of the Austrian capital’s prime venues for international political discussion. 

With the Moscow-Brussels relationship devolving into a never-ending series of mutual accusations, the key goal of the report is “to get away from the senseless discussion of the relationship between Russia and the West that endlessly reproduces the same stereotypes, and to look at them from a different angle,” as Lukyanov told Russia Direct.

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According to the report, the current crisis in relations between Russia and the West began long before it was exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis.

“What makes the situation dangerous is that, having regained geopolitical agility and tactical mastery, Russia feels insulted, estranged and unnerved, and understands that if it backs down again, it will be 'finished off,'” the report reads.

However, it is not just Russia that is behaving “hysterically” in the international arena. There is profound insecurity in countries around the globe. This insecurity can be seen both in the ongoing debates in Europe about the future of the EU as well as in the U.S. presidential race — where the concept of an existential threat plays a central role.

As indicated by the 2016 American presidential cmpaign, the West publicly identifies Russian President Vladimir Putin as a sort of insidious power. After all, "'the Russian issue’ in the U.S. elections" is very prominent. At the same time, Russia itself "suffers from the 'besieged fortress' syndrome and is convinced of the omnipotent and omnipresent 'hand of Washington,'” the report reads pointing out that the Kremlin and the majority of the population "no longer associate Russia’s future with a Western perspective.

Barbarian or apprentice

Is it possible to come up with a new common agenda for Russia and Europe today? According to Miller, Russia needs to detach itself from Europe. While Russia has been living in a Eurocentric world for at least 300 years, Europe has seen Moscow as “the other" throughout the centuries, he said. At the same time, Russia has gone through the same phases of fascination, expectation, disillusionment and outright confrontation for the past 25 years as it was previsouly from the early 18th to early 20th century.

According to Norwegian scholar Iver Neumann and his book “Uses of the Other: ‘The East’ in European Identity Formation,” Europe saw Russia either as the “barbarian at the gate” or the “eternal apprentice”.  The apprenticeship in this case is “eternal” because it can never end, as the criteria for “graduation” is constantly changing.

Russia has been at times ready for the role of the apprentice, but the length of the course kept growing. Both classical 19th century Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin and the Russian elites of the early post-Soviet era believed that Russia would, after a time, be accepted as an equal by its Western counterparts, but this never happened. Both in the second half of the 19th century and in the late 1990's, Russia’s "graduation" to the status of peer to the developed countries of the Western world was indefinitely postponed.

When U.S. President George H.W. Bush proclaimed that the West had won the Cold War, it marked a divide that only grew, the report argues. This declaration was a turning point not only because it failed to take into consideration the Russian perception that it, too, won the Cold War by shaking off Communism, but also because it entailed a refusal to create new, inclusive institutions.

Instead, the West, led by the U.S., declared that the institutions that had previously served the Western world, such as NATO and the European Community, had to be expanded to include the entire world. Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the only European body that included Russia as an equal partner, “underwent fast degradation after the Cold War to the role of an election watchdog in the post-Soviet space,” the report says.

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“By 2012-2013, well before the Crimea crisis, we had a feeling that the agenda is empty, that the idea of Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok doesn’t work,” Miller said. “After the Ukraine crisis and the Crimea annexation, what we see is a very serious shift in Russian public opinion. I would argue that it is not just a reaction to the crisis. It is a shift which reflects the entire post-Soviet experience.”

What comes next

Today, the Western analysis of Russia is transfixed on Putin, who is seen as the cause and end of all changes happening to the country and its policies, said Ivan Krastev, the co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Yet it is necessary to foster "a debate about Russia, not about Putin,” he said. That's why the report is very important, because it deals with general trends in Russia primarily. It highlights that the formula “Russia is not Europe” is becoming the dominant — and popularly held — view domestically for the first time.

There are grounds to believe that this is a stable trend, and not a short-term response to the worsening of relations with the West," the report reads. "One of the reasons for this is the West itself, firstly, is drifting away from an expansionist strategy to locking itself up inside the perimeter fence and, secondly, losing the 'monopoly on progress' amid the rise of other development centers.

According to the report, Europe must change its approaches toward Russia and "enrich its discursive strategies." And such reassessments are necessary "not because the apprentice has mastered all skills (or not mastered them at all),” but because the Kremlin doesn't identify itself as an apprentice anymore and is not eager to "be a member of the guild and achieve the guild’s recognition.” However, it is not the best way to deal with Europe, according to Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator with the Dozhd TV, an independent channel.

"It is impossible to detach from Russia's largest trade partner," he told Russia Direct. "It is impossible to detach from a partner, where you keep your assets and teach your children. It is impossible to detach from a partner, with which you have a historical and cultural connection for at least 300 years, beginning with Peter the Great. The key to the problems is within Russia."

As Eggert argues, Russia should reject "confrontation and attempts to control the post-Soviet space at any cost." Lukyaonov's and Miller's report echoes this view, in fact. According to it, Moscow and Brussels need to leave their emotions aside and be more rational and pragmatic

Estrangement, not emotional and impulsive, but conscious and instrumental is crucial to get Russia and Europe out of the quick sand of insults, jealousy, groundless expectations and deceived hopes that have been amassed over the years since the Cold War," the report concludes. "Odd as it may seem, bilateral ties require rationalization, and the latter is impossible without taking an estranged look at each other.

In this regard, Lukyanov argues that Moscow should "look at Europe as an extremely important partner, but not as an existential condition for our normal development." In this case, "many problems that we have now will disappear” immediately. 

Igor Zevelev, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agrees. "In 2012-2016, a remarkable spillover of Russian national identity debates into foreign policy took place. This has created dangerous tension in relations between Russia and the West," he said. "If Russia continues to craft its foreign policy as a function of its own existential search for an identity, it will run the risk of missing important opportunities and overlooking grave threats."

Zevelev argues that Russia's pivot to Asia should not be overestimated. "This is reinforced by the fact than no one in Asia perceives Russia as an Asian country," he said. "All this would make the attempts to redefine Russian national identity extremely difficult for any Russian leader in the foreseeable future. For better or worse, Russia’s detachment from the West will be more difficult than it may seem."

Likewise, Alexander Dubowy, the scienetific coordinator of the Research Center for Eurasian Studies at the University of Vienna, argues that "the overwhelming majority of Russian political elite perceives themselves undoubtedly as Europeans." According to him, "a cautious attitude to Asia is evident" in Russia.