Ramona G. Popescu analyses the nature and origin of Russia’s foreign policy and popular perceptions of the Kremlin as ‘the world’s antihero’
Throughout history, political actors and nations alike have thought of Russia as the ‘Other’, namely a territorial and political entity, different from the West. The ’Other’ was strange culturally and lagged behind as it rushed to catch up with the technologically advanced Western European nations.
Russia can be seen as the world’s antihero. The one nation-state that most other countries love to hate, in particular Western Europe and the United States, when suitable. Similarly to an antihero of literature, Russia has become the protagonist on the world stage of international politics. An antihero must necessarily possess flaws and weaknesses, yet these are embodiments of humanity’s frailty and can even draw empathy. The antihero is perceived as unorthodox and does not conform to generally accepted social standards.
If we apply the analogy to the Cold War order of the 20th century and even to the ambiguous political framework of modern day Russia, the Federation can easily be seen as the antagonist – a total opposite to the morals and practices of the West’s protagonists. This argument has been voiced many times, in various formats, but this is a black and white perspective which lacks many of the particularities and nuances of international relations and the evolution state interaction on the international stage. To portray Russia as an evil tyranny, in juxtaposition with the Western lifestyle is inconsiderate of the motivations, culture and rich history of this vast nation.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that Russia’s status as the world’s antihero is partly attributable to Western ideas. Throughout the course of its development, Russia has been defined in relation to the West and has often looked towards it as a model to emulate. Much like former European colonies, Russia found itself in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘waiting room of history,’ headed for a destination of modernity and civilisation but not quite there, unlike the West.
Post-1991 Russia is often portrayed as a nation in decline and with debilitating weaknesses. This is manifested through decline in Russia’s population, the failure of an effective modern economy, exacerbated by the crash of oil prices and Western sanctions and growing tensions between ethnic ‘white’ Russians and other Muslim ethnicities. Its most important weakness lies with the precarious state of the Putin regime. Indeed, with regards to democracy, Russia did not fare too well due to the role of President Vladimir Putin. Given Putin’s expansion of power and application of restrictions, it comes as no surprise that the country does not operate within a democratic framework.
A similar scenario emerges economically: capitalism in Russia has not worked out in the same way that Western democracies saw it functioning. Allowance of private property and a market economy facilitated the rise of a class of oligarchs, whom Putin curtailed soon after. Seizures of assets and re-nationalisation of natural resources, on which the majority of the Russian economy is based, followed. This reliance can be seen from the mark that the impact of foreign sanctions has had on the country in recent months.
There’s no denying that Putin’s current course of action on the international stage is wreaking havoc internally and threatens to spillover onto other nations that link themselves economically with the Russian Federation. However, one pivotal question needs to be asked: how does Putin justify Russian ventures into Crimea, Eastern parts of Ukraine and into the region of Transnistria?
The first theory that springs to mind is nationalism as a powerful force of cohesion and unity. The restoration of a ‘great Russia’ remains very popular amongst many Russians, despite the fact that it only acts as a deterrent from the serious domestic issues at the heart of the Russian society and precarious economy. The flare of Russian nationalism is reflective of the greater shame felt by the people, due to Russia no longer acting as the said protagonist on the international stage. Modern Russia lies on rusty remains of former USSR glory, whose main focus was to reach the tenets of a civilised society in competition with the U.S.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did its strongly propagated image as an international leader. The population yearned for a reason to find pride in being Russian once more. As was the case in post-Communist republics, political leaders tried to redirect popular discontent around the ideas of nationalism and patriotism. Glorifying the Great War, invoking nostalgia of the USSR’s superpower status and emphasising the ways in which Russia was never ‘truly’ Western underpinned this nationalism.
Despite a clear lack of civil liberties in Russia, it is important to note the enormous public support for Putin, even after his imposition of limitations on democracy and control of the economic market. What Putin did manage to restore was a sense of Russian pride and an inkling of stability after the chaotic years of democratic experiments. Even the pursuit of the restoration of Russian glory is not as difficult a quest as it might seem to the outsider. Surrounded by many corrupt states which fall into its sphere of influence, and given its strengthening of relations with East Asia, Russia is likely to become even more of a protagonist on the world stage.
One’s attention is now drawn to Ukraine. The country has always formed a large component of Russian interests, known as the ‘bread basket’ of the Soviet Union, which contained and incorporated plenty of strategic industries. The Ukrainian people understandably hold a strong sense of animosity towards Russia, due to the immense suffering caused throughout the 20th century including the great famine in 1932-33, which saw death by starvation to 7 million people. Stalinist induced fear remains a stain on the consciousness of many Ukrainians. The country is struggling with internal corruption, institutional weakness and a weak economy, which might crumble in the long-term, given the exercise of immense Russian pressure.
NATO’s potential expansion into Ukrainian and Georgian territory might form an excuse for Russia to flex its muscles and showcase some of its new investments in the military. Nonetheless, little is said of an agreement made near the end of the Cold War by Gorbachev and Reagan, whereby Gorbachev had Reagan promising not expand NATO eastwards any more than it was at the time. As NATO expanded into former Communist nations, the U.S. argued that this agreement was never made despite evidence being found by British and French sources. With the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact, the existence of NATO even after the Soviet Union had been ‘defeated’ needs to be assessed. NATO was perceived and continues to be by the Russian Federation as a persistent military threat.
What do we make of Ukraine then? The country is a mere pawn in the bigger power games of Russia and the West. NATO and the European Union are two of the biggest factors that could explain the hostility that Russia feels is aimed towards it. NATO was founded in 1949 as an alliance to oppose the Soviet Union and its potential moves. After the end of the 20th century, many ex-Communist countries joined this alliance to reinforce their loyalty to the West, in case of any potential Russian aggression. This in itself shows that the mere existence of Russia, based on its history is still a threat to Europe and the US. While Russia has attempted some form of cooperation with NATO, it still views it with high suspicion and as a significant threat to Russian interests. Thus, the expansion of NATO to its ‘doorstep’ was seen as a violation of former Russian territory, which the nation feels protective of’; this serves to explains the nature of Kremlin’s actions over the past two decades.
The European Union, on the other hand, is perceived by Russians as more of a cultural threat given that former Communist countries turn away from the Russian market and the political, cultural, intellectual and in some cases linguistic ties they had with the East. This is very much so the case in Ukraine and Georgia who expressed an interest in adhering to the EU, which distances the Russian Federation from Europe. A similar scenario emerges with NATO. Russia would not surrender its sovereignty to the EU or adopt heavy reforms within its political institutions, nor will it increase democratic and civil liberties.
In order to counter-act the unions forming in the West, Russia has sought greater relations with the East and in particular with China and South East Asia. It has also consolidated its influence in the ex-Soviet nations in Asia: Kazakhstan etc. through the creation of a Eurasian Economic Union. Thus, Russian foreign policy has swung between extremes; it fluctuated between being an engaged, strong actor on the international arena to an isolationist policy. Nonetheless, in his address to Russian diplomatic corps, Putin emphasised that Russia is part of Europe. Russia and Europe require each other to attain stability and economic prosperity. Yet, relations between the two are being destabilised by American policy; the current task of Russian diplomacy is to free the continent of external pressure and pursue new prospects for cooperation between the East and the West.
There is considerable outrage at the violations of international laws committed by Russia and media outlets see the renewal of antagonistic discourse against Putin’s regime. Russia has once again become a power-hungry, violent dictatorship pursuing its own interests, irrespective of the means used. These perspectives often ignore the subtle motivations and internal pressures exercised by Russian foreign policy. Western actions posed a threat to Russia’s position post USSR just as the Kremlin has constituted a threat for the West. The West should now look into addressing pressing issues about its future issues, which are as pertinent as ever with the economic crash within the Kremlin.
An antihero is most often used to highlight the problematic aspects of the society they inhabit and the fragility of human nature. Thus, it can be said that Russia is but a product of the various international regimes it took part in as well as making its own contributions, most importantly, Communism. Retaining the antagonistic perspective towards Russia renders all their actions as offensive moves rather than what they represent: strategies within a complex web of relations between nations at the international level.