Richard Sakwa argues that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the culmination of a long period of increasing tensions between Russia and the West. The West not only ignored the portents, but misunderstood them. Russian security concerns thus became part of a broader cultural alienation
What provoked the war in Ukraine? A partial answer lies in the intensification of a long-standing security dilemma. The defensive actions of one party were interpreted as threatening by the other, provoking an action-reaction cycle that in the end tipped over into the abyss. However, this is only part of the story.
Competition over status and identity also played their part. From the very first days of its emergence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has asserted its great power status.
Western powers could indulge but effectively ignore such pretensions because during the 1990s, Russia was weak and divided. However, when Russia later rebuilt its military and once again became a full-service economy, its restored self-confidence would have explosive effects.
From 2000, Vladimir Putin set about restoring Russia’s position in the world. Initially he sought to achieve this by working with the Western powers. The broad foreign policy framework established by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, remained in place. The New Political Thinking, after all, had allowed a relatively peaceful end to the Cold War, and Russia was the successor state to the Soviet Union.
As Russia revived, its leaders revolted against the fundamental logic underpinning the European security order
As such, it considered the end of the Cold War a common victory. Russia thus refused to place itself in the same category as Japan or Germany at the end of the World War II. Defeat would not provide the opportunity for a drastic rethinking of identity and national purpose. And, of course, the Soviet Union had been among the victors in 1945, hence the endless celebration of that victory.
Russia’s post-communist development reincorporated elements of the Soviet experience, which prevented a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of the past. Early attempts at decommunisation during the Boris Yeltsin years of the 1990s ground to a halt as Putin consolidated power. Instead, as Russia revived, its leaders revolted against the fundamental logic underpinning the European security order.
Post-1989, the goal had been to transform the historical West into a greater West. The political and institutional West forged in the Cold War would be transformed by Russia’s membership of its reconfigured security and political community. The ambition could hardly have been greater.
But the material and normative basis driving such a transformation was slender. Why should the historical West, which ultimately believed that it had ‘won’ the Cold War, adapt to a struggling and ultimately relatively inconsequential power? Instead of transformation, the historical West began a long process of expansion. NATO doubled in size from 15 members in 1989 to 30 today. And during that time, what became the European Union swelled from 12 states to 27.
Enlargement, rather than transformation, became the order of the day, fostering hubristic ambition. This was accompanied by what Moscow perceived as NATO militarism in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of Libya in 2011, quite apart from the nobly conceived but poorly conducted campaign in Afghanistan. What were those outside of this operation to expand the collective West to make of these interventions?
Post-communist Russia believed that its destiny was to become part of a transformed West. When that ambition failed, a process of profound alienation set in. Russia's geopolitical and ontological security concerns grew immeasurably, accompanied by increasingly shrill condemnation of Western high-handedness, double standards and malpractices.
Instead of transforming, the historical West expanded, setting in motion a process of profound alienation within Russia
This, however, was only a symptom of a deeper shift. A fundamental identity transformation was also underway. During the Soviet years there had been profound admiration for the achievements of the historical West. But afterwards, official thinking gradually moved towards a position of disgust at the moral and political failings of Western societies. This attitude also percolated into mass consciousness; a process assiduously fed by the state-controlled media. The media lauded Russia’s moral exceptionalism to reinforce the view that the country represented a more authentic type of civilisation.
Geopolitical and identity-based resistance to the unmediated expansion of the historical West was now accompanied by a cultural critique of the opponent's moral depravity. In the Soviet period this critique was based on the failings of capitalism. Now, it broadened to encompass the entirety of Western liberal culture.
In his Valdai speech of September 2013, Putin railed against the degeneration of the West, presenting Russia as a ‘state-civilisation’ based on a religious-conservative ideology. Russia, in this light, was a moral bastion against the decadence, sexual licence, pornography and gay rights of the West. He returned to the theme in his Valdai speech of 21 October 2021, reinforcing the ideological overlay to the intensifying new Cold War. Putin contrasted the progressive ideologies of the West with Russia's ‘healthy conservatism’ that repudiated revolution and pursued organic forms of development.
Putin's ideology was bolstered by the deteriorating external security order. In particular, he perceived the government that came to power in Ukraine in 2014 as nationalist and virulently anti-Russian. This then fed into domestic regime insecurities, prompting intensified domestic repression.
Security concerns intersected with identity issues to stoke a revolt against liberal modernity. Russia condemns the West for expansion into what it considers its own security sphere, and denounces it as the antithesis of Russia’s traditional culture and civilisation.
Russia has not reckoned with its past. This failure hinders its attempted revolt against liberal modernity
The basis of this Russian revolt is as shaky as the initial attempt to transform the historical West into a greater West. Only a more profound and forward-looking programme could combine the genuine development of a distinctive cultural and civilisational voice with the resolution of real security concerns. This requires a candid reckoning with the past – and a genuine understanding of the present.