The term “Russia” raises different associations for everybody. Be it the Soviet Union, vodka, Pushkin, or oligarchs, it always carries either a very positive or rather negative connotation. History contains many unambiguous episodes demonstrating Russia’s contribution to global peace and stability (two World Wars) as well as its share in the division of the world into two blocs (the Cold-war).
Russia is indeed a land of contrasts: Of poor and rich, megalopolis and slums, ballet and crimes. Even in the international arena, it is often viewed in opposition to the West, despite belonging to European civilization. Similarly, the West is also perceived rather antagonistically from Moscow. This has increased in the face of the Color Revolutions in Russia's "sphere of interest", missile-defense deployments in its neighborhood and the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO and the European Union. This mutual skepticism reached its peak during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.
Such mutual mistrust has dominated Russian-Western relations for far too long. Global terrorism, weapons proliferation, poverty and natural disasters require immediate cooperation from all sides. The cost of unwillingness to unite in combating these threats is too high. Russia is too large and significant to be left behind the scenes, any attempt to do so would leave a hole in the fabric of an interdependent world. It is uneasy with it, but without it, it would be disastrous.
The words of famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, "you will not grasp Russia with your mind", have become a saying among Russians themselves. Understanding and perception of Russia in the West could also fit this description. However hard Moscow tries not to appeal to Western States, ambiguous attitudes and even mistrust can be relied upon for years to come.
What is more, Moscow sees Europe as a trusted partner and a large market for its exports. However, the US is still viewed with the retrospective logic of a bipolar world, which seems to be mutual; narrow military and security dialogue is proof of this. Such a view only divides the world into friendly and not-so-friendly regimes even further. One example is Iran aspiring for nuclear weapons. Were it not for obsolete Cold War morals, Iran would not have become a problem, as this is where it draws its motivation and support from.
Three areas can be determined to improve the state of affairs between the West and Russia:
- Investment in Russia’s modernization
- Grassroots activities
- Russian face-saving
Investment in Russia’s Modernization
The counting of missile-warheads within the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) framework and the inclusion of Russia in anti-terrorism activities are not enough to lay the foundations for further cooperation. This military logic is outdated and shortsighted in a transformed world where the global economy and even the climate can act very unexpectedly and have even more deteriorating effects than wars.
Russian President Medvedyev has called for a social and economic modernization of the Russian State. Why not use this appeal to foster development in Russia and further its integration into Western institutions? Broadening of areas of cooperation is required. Russia’s goal of WTO (World Trade Organization) membership would serve a good basis for increased emphasis on trade and economic reforms.
Corruption and human-rights violations are another field in which Russia needs assistance. Just scolding Moscow for its poor record in this area is not enough. It is therefore unrealistic to demand that social change take place overnight because the country has lived with these problems through 75 years of Soviet rule. Mere criticism of such affairs in Russia is not enough. Western partners, and Germany in particlar, should help educate Russian civil society in democratic values and good governance practices.
If the West wants a trusted and stable partner, it needs to invest in it.
Just as the Russians themselves admit, ordinary citizens should have a strong connection with a political leader for him or her to successfully take on the state cabinet and proceed with their job. A president is not just there to serve his term, or two. Voters are mostly guided by personal sympathy and not a candidate’s professional characteristics, as it is common in the West. Khruschev was a beloved son of the Russian folk, Yeltsin – a minion, and Putin and Medvedev became saviors after a protracted state-collapse.
Antagonism towards the West which is mediated by the Russian media still dominates public sentiment. Therefore, for further investment and exchange projects to be supported in the long-term, activities on a grassroots level are needed. Sowing the seeds of cultural and educational exchange programs is the best way to achieve protracted cooperation.
If the West wants a reliable partner, it needs to help educate it.
Help Russia Save Face
There are certainly some Russian actions such as the war in Georgia that are hard to tolerate. However, this is rather an exception than a rule guiding its behavior. Having recently experienced a growth both in the economy and its self-confidence due to an enormous amount of natural resources, Russia is striving to gain back its status of superpower. This sense of power is fresh in the memories of its people.
This also creates space for activities with the West. Russia desires to be listened to and consulted with to retain its status as a respected partner in the international arena. Even such matters as missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic are negotiable. The issue is rather sensitive in the eyes of Kremlin and having acted unilaterally, NATO has provoked Russia’s “muscle flexing” in Georgia. What was needed instead was consultation. Concessions are achieved by dialogue, not Kalashnikovs.
Medvedev’s call for new European security architecture is explained by Europe’s security being built on two pillars – NATO and the EU. The fact that Russia’s assistance in anti-terrorism, non-proliferation, and climate change efforts, as well as providing transportation routes for NATO operations in Afghanistan, all speak for its legitimate inclusion in the European security construct. In addition, utilizing Iran’s perception of Russia as a trusted and supportive state, Moscow could help move steps forward in the dialogue on Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear-weapons.
Guli Babadjanova is an MA student of Peace and Conflict Studies at Phillips University, Marburg.
This article is shortlisted for atlantic-community.org's student
competition "Ideas with Impact: Policy Workshop 2010" sponsored by the
U.S. Mission to Germany.
Read the other shortlisted articles in the category "Russia and the West" here.