The West today looks at Russia with a mix of disappointment and anxiety. In the eyes of American and European policymakers, the Russian people have been denied the opportunity to join the ranks of Western countries in terms of governance, liberties, and development. For some, Western fumbling is to blame. Following the turbulent 1990s, it was said that the West lost Russia. Two popular schools of thought attempt to explain why. The “too much” camp suggests that the West was too active in pushing Russia to develop into a modern nation by trying to institute reforms too quickly. The “too little” camp proposes that the West’s unwavering support for corrupt politicians enabled the rise of the current regime.
When Vladimir Putin became President at the turn of the century, the government reversed course in what appeared to be a budding democracy. Instead, it began slowly asserting more control over its people in all areas of life. Because of this shift, of which Putin is undoubtedly responsible, Kathryn Stoner and Ambassador Michael McFaul argue that it is Putin who lost Russia. While it is clear that Putin exerted his influence over Russian society, the idea of Putin “losing” Russia is puzzling.
What has Putin lost? He has the hearts and minds of the Russian people, as seen in his high approval rating, which is over 80%. He annexed Crimea, a treasured relic of Russia’s past, with ease. Putin’s expedition into Syria, which Western pundits immediately dubbed a “quagmire,” has bolstered Assad who was once on the brink of being deposed.
The idea of Putin “losing” Russia only makes sense if one views his actions through the lens of Western liberal democracy. Stoner and McFaul assume that the Russian people want their government to mirror the United States, United Kingdom, or even Poland. Yet, most Russians get a bitter taste in their mouths anytime they use the word “democracy,” especially after the instability of the 1990s. It should come as no surprise then that Russians have so quickly embraced their more authoritarian leadership.
Putin has fostered this skepticism of democracy. He has used nationalism from the start of his regime to solidify power and distract from the economic uncertainty of Yeltsin’s administration. He tapped into the public’s growing suspicion of the West and the accumulation of wealth by Russian oligarchs who flourished in Russia during the 1990s in order to assert greater control . Nationalism continued to serve as the bedrock of Putin’s government during the mid-2000s, a time when there was tremendous economic growth and little domestic unrest. This sustained reliance on nationalism undermines Stoner and McFaul’s argument. They assume Putin’s nationalist push came just a few years ago after the Bolotnaya protests and other demonstrations at home. McFaul and Stoner write that Putin’s pivot toward anti-Americanism came about in response to strife at home. In reality, nascent nationalism and a skepticism towards democracy could already be seen in Russia as early as 2000.
From this perspective, Russia’s recent foreign policy decisions are a natural progression of its nationalist policies, not a new development. In their paper, McFaul and Stoner argue that, “Putin’s annexation of Crimea and [the] proxy war in Eastern Ukraine is not a natural or inevitable reaction to either a “too hard” or “too soft” approach from Washington.” I would disagree. The annexation of Crimea was a reaction to the events in Kiev. Although Western scholars may view the Euromaidan Revolution as a wholly organic uprising, Russian officials viewed it as a Western-backed coup that threatened to diminish Moscow’s authority over its former Soviet Republics. Viewing the revolution through this paradigm, Putin and his associates strongly feared the repercussions a potentially hostile Ukrainian government would have on Russia’s national security. The Euromaidan movement also served to push Russia further away from liberal democracy. In the eyes of the Russian people the West would seek to undermine former Soviet states at all costs.
As the West resolutely supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Moscow remains stubborn, it is clear that both sides will continue to dig in their heels. Obama has taken a strong lead on this matter, and Stoner and McFaul appropriately evaluate Obama’s actions. They argue that Obama’s policies are “strong” in response to the Kremlin’s behavior. Indeed they are, but where has that gotten both sides? Most observers expected Russia to break and capitulate to Western demands to recognize, unequivocally, Ukraine’s sovereignty. That has not happened. Despite Russia’s economy contracting about 4% in 2015, no policy changes appear likely. Western leaders, and the authors, argue that the United States must stay the course with sanctions. But Americans can look to Cuba as an example of the failures of long-term economic sanctions. For decades the United States set punitive measures against Cuba with few results. A different policy is needed.
The best way for the West to promote a liberal-democratic society in Russia is to demonstrate its proven track record helping a country achieve economic prosperity and social cohesion. So far the record is underwhelming. Russians look at the consequences of Ukraine’s Euromaidan and see Ukraine’s battered economy, inflation, displaced persons, and corruption. Liberal democracy is hardly seems like something to envy.
If America and the West truly want to change the hearts and minds of the Russian people, they need to lead the way through example. Western leaders cannot leave Ukraine out in the cold: Corruption must be rooted out, the Minsk Accords must be fulfilled without delay, and the economy must be jumpstarted to give the Ukrainian people peace of mind and prosperity. The United States and other Western nations must provide financial and administrative resources for Ukraine to accomplish these tasks. Additionally, the West cannot turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of Poroshenko’s administration, and must hold them to the standards they would of any other European nation. Maybe then we will begin to see a shift in the Russian mentality.
Bryan Rosenthal is a first-year Masters Candidate in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ European and Eurasian Studies program. He has formerly interned at the Wilson Center, the Hudson Institute and Department of State. Bryan completed his undergraduate studies in Russian and History at Ohio State University. He can be reached via email at email@example.com