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East or West? Russia's Identity Crisis in Foreign Policy

[Cover of East or West? Russia's Identity Crisis in Foreign Policy]

Andrei Piontkovsky

January 2006

Download East or West? (190 kilobyte PDF)

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a geopolitical earthquake that redrew the map of Europe and Central Asia. In his state-of-the-nation address, in April 2005, Russia's President Vladimir Putin went so far as to describe it as the 'biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century'. His declaration caused a stir among the world's political scientists, sociologists, economists and even philosophers. Yet the full import of his words was lost on much of his foreign audience. 'For the Russian people', Putin continued, the collapse of the Soviet Union 'became a real drama'.

This paper starts from the viewpoint that the drama was not merely geopolitical but also psychological, and that its aftermath led to a kind of schizophrenia at the highest levels of post-Soviet society. The paper diagnoses symptoms of this 'psychodrama' in Russia's foreign policy today.

For the past 15 years Russia's foreign policy has been engaged in a quest for a new identity. The paper draws on a variety of specialist studies, as well as on the speeches of President Vladimir Putin, to describe Russia's identity crisis in terms of the bitter ideological wars between so-called 'liberal Westernisers', 'pragmatic nationalists' and 'fundamentalist nationalists' that have influenced the country's foreign policy in recent years.

The paper argues that Russia's key but vulnerable strategic position in the heartland of Eurasia aggravates its post-imperial crisis of identity and threatens not only its 'vertical power' in the political system and economic spheres but also the very integrity of the Russian Federation itself.

The main topics discussed in the paper and, it is suggested, the main challenges now facing policymakers in the Kremlin can be divided into three categories: Russia's internal instability, the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and the growing might of China looming over Russia's Far East and Siberia.

The broad outlines of Russia's identity crisis are well understood. Indeed the paper claims that its psychological symptoms may even predate the Soviet era since the arguments of today's nationalists and liberals merely echo the nineteenth-century debates of Slavophiles and Westernisers. In other words, Russia is permanently at a crossroads in its history and having to set a course between East and West. The decades-long standoff of the Cold War merely tranquillised the patient.

Yet the paper proposes a different analysis of the post-Soviet malaise. Some Western observers may claim to identify a nostalgia among Putin's siloviki for the ideological purity and straightforwardness of the Cold War era. But Russia's top politicians and generals are fully aware that the West no longer poses a military threat. Yet many of them refuse to accept, for example, the eastward expansion of NATO. Only psychology can help explain this paradox.

The paper argues that, in the first year or so of Putin's presidency, Russia's foreign policy assumed a clearly anti-American tone. The chief objective was publicly to counter the United States on all fronts, not least by abrogating the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement on ending Russian military sales to Iran, by ostentatiously visiting Cuba and by floating the idea of an anti-American pact with China. Yet in confronting the West certain things have become clearer even for the most fanatical Eurasianists and the most fervent anti-Westerners. As the rising superpower of the 21st century, China has no intrinsic need for any strategic partnership with Russia, least of all one with an anti-American basis. Therefore, in formulating policy, the Chinese leadership will be guided by anything but the post-Soviet complexes of Moscow's politicians.

The paper will argue that, unlike the ideological menace of the Cold War, with all its stabilising predictability, Russia's next civilisational clash will be rooted in religion and culture. It will argue that Russia should urgently relinquish its time-honoured suspicion and fear of the United States, in order to deal with the spectre of Islamic radicalism not only in Central Asia but within the borders of the Russian Federation itself, namely in Chechnya.

The key policy finding is that:

Only by facing westwards can Russia achieve its foreign policy goals and secure a European identity for the twenty-first century.

This paper contends that Putin and his siloviki accuse the West, and the United States in particular, of exporting a version of democracy that will deprive Russia of its sovereignty. Such propaganda threatens to drive the traditional anti-Americanism of Russia's political elite to the level of hysteria. But the negative outcome will not just be psychological. It will have a long-term effect on Russian policy and lead to the country's isolation and marginalisation.