Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Putin: Russia’s last ‘pro-Western’ alternative

Putin: Russia’s last ‘pro-Western’ alternative
Published 7 Jun 2016 

The West tends to anticipate the eventual downfall of Vladimir Putin with certain exuberance and optimism due to expectations of a more ‘pro-Western’ alternative or even the return of Yeltsin-era policies. The anti-Russian sanctions following Moscow's seizure of Crimea were envisioned to turn the population, business community and political elites against Putin, compelling the president to revise policies.

There is now evidence that pressure is indeed mounting on Putin to modify Russia’s stance. The pressure is however not coming from a pro-Western opposition, but the hawks that are calling for the president to abandon his conciliatory approach and respond more coercively to deter NATO.

The main question asked in Moscow is why NATO is suddenly amassing its troops in an unprecedented military build-up on Russia's borders under the pretext of ‘Russian aggression’, more than two years after the seizure of Crimea? The prevailing response is that efforts to reconcile have not only failed, they are perceived as a weakness that has emboldened NATO.

General Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, recently warned that Russia must rapidly develop its military and abandon illusions that a political settlement can be reached with the West.  The resulting debate is mounting pressure on Putin to reverse what is deemed to be dangerous appeasement of NATO, and instead make preparations for the growing prospect of war. The West’s failure to recognise the growing pressure on the Russian president derives from a failure to acknowledge that Putin actually represents the ‘pro-Western’ alternative in Russia. 

The much-neglected reality is that the only real organised nation-wide opposition in Russia is the fiercely anti-Western Communist Party under Gennady Zyuganov, and to a lesser extent the radical nationalists under the leadership of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In the Russian parliament, the only other opposition party represented is ‘A Just Russia’, a socialist party created in 2006 with the support of the Kremlin. Putin’s intention was to cultivate a more moderate opposition on the left that could siphon off the protest vote that would have gone to the communists. The West’s nostalgia for the 1990s under Yeltsin tends to culminate in the support for a political class and oligarchs that are discredited and politically irrelevant. [fold]

Yeltsin’s pro-Western political platform stipulated that Gorbachev’s envisioned ‘Common European Home’ was only feasible by committing to liberal democracy, capitalism and unambiguous alignment with the West. Yeltsin (and Gorbachev) therefore repeatedly warned that NATO expansion would eliminate this entire political platform by repudiating ‘Greater Europe’ and marginalising Russia. As predicted, NATO expansion in March 1999 vindicated the opposition that had been warning the West would not embrace Moscow if it walked away from its empire, but would rather attempt to exploit and perpetuate Russia’s subsequent weakness. Twelve days after NATO’s expansion, NATO abandoned its status as a solely ‘defensive alliance’ by bombing Serbia without a UN mandate. Henry Kissinger warned: ‘The transformation of the NATO alliance from a defensive military grouping to an institution prepared to impose its values by force... undercut repeated American and allied assurances that Russia had nothing to fear from NATO expansion’. Yeltsin’s policies and platform was lost and only radical alternatives remained.

The simplified narrative that Putin reversed the policies of his predecessor neglects that he was deliberately put in power by Yeltsin to reform the untenable pro-Western policies. Yeltsin stepped down on 31 December 1999, three months before the presidential elections, to give his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, the advantage of being the incumbent. After demonstrating his ability to reform the failed policies of Yeltsin, Putin defeated the head of the Communist Party, his main rival for the presidency. 

The question remained, how would ‘pro-Western’ policies be redefined? The expansion of NATO had not simply created an unfavourable status-quo that Russia could gradually improve through cooperation. Rather it implied that another status-quo would not materialise as NATO categorically committed itself to gradual and continuous expansion. Moscow could either encourage expansion by accepting the narrative that NATO was not aimed against Russia, or resist and be perceived as a revanchist aggressor that NATO must contain. Either way, NATO would continue to expand towards Russian borders and political power in Russia would shift to the radical opposition.

Putin’s solution was to reform the pro-Western approach by arguing that Russia should integrate with the West as equals, rather than into the West as an aspirant. This implied negotiating from a position of strength rather than conceding to the demands of the West. Moscow would balance Western unilateralism, while concurrently offering multilateral alternatives. The approach united Russia’s fragmented political spectrum as it accommodated those that recoginised that peace can only be achieved by cooperating with the West, and also incorporating the anti-Western hawks positing that Russia should strengthen and reject any European and international system where Russia is not adequately represented.

A breakthrough was reached with the EU-Russia ‘Common Spaces Agreement’ in 2005.  Both sides committed to harmonise integration efforts towards the shared neighbourhood and ‘thereby contributing effectively to creating a Greater Europe without dividing lines’.  Moscow followed up the agreement with proposals for an inclusive pan-European security architecture and an EU-Russian Union with free trade and free movement of people from Lisbon to Vladivostok. While Russia intended to establish itself as the foremost proponent of European unification, these proposals were immediately rebuffed as ‘anti-European’ since they would undermine the primacy of the EU and NATO as the representatives of ‘Europe’. European integration instead becomes a zero-sum geopolitical project, where the shared neighbourhood would have to choose between the West and Russia. The EU’s proposed Association Agreement with Ukraine largely annulled the Common Spaces Agreement, as Kiev was expected to de-couple from Moscow and pivot towards Brussels economically, politically and militarily. The EU then rejected the proposal by Kiev and Moscow to preserve the neutrality of Ukraine by replacing the Association Agreement with a trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia agreement. 

While the West devotes much focus to Russia violating its trust, little attention is dedicated to Russia’s sense of being betrayed. A consensus has been reached in Moscow that any prospect of a ‘Greater Europe’ has failed.  With the demise of Putin’s reformed ‘pro-Western’ platform, the opposition is winning the argument that Russia must prepare the military to counter NATO.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Firdaus Omar.

You may also be interested in