Home/Daniel Larison/The West Needs The Bogeyman Even More

The West Needs The Bogeyman Even More

This Lilia Shevtsova column makes a claim that is not all wrong:

The key reason behind the crisis is the failure of the post-Soviet liberal project and the return to a hyper-centralised state. In order to justify the about-turn, the political elite needs an enemy.

I would not discount external challenges, whether perceived or real, as part of the cause for the turn back towards a “hyper-centralised state,” and I would certainly not lay the responsibility for the crisis in Western-Russian relations solely at the door of Russia.  The Russians did not compel us to bomb Yugoslavia, occupy Kosovo or withdraw from the ABM Treaty.  Washington did those things despite knowing how much it would disturb the Russians.  Obviously, they did not make us incorporate eastern Europe into NATO, nor did they push us into backing what are effectively puppet regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, and they also did not force us to announce the deployment of weapons systems to central Europe.  The “failure of the post-Soviet liberal project” also had something to do with the political and moral bankruptcy of said project as it was actually implemented, and since the “liberal project” was connected to the advice and assistance of Westerners it was inevitable that its failure would sour people on future Western meddling.  Further, the fact that Americans and western Europeans may not see things this way or reject this reaction as irrational is irrelevant–if this is how Russians remember and view these events, this is what matters for understanding what motivates their actions. 

Later, Shevtsova allows for some of this:

The West is also to blame for the current crisis through its failure to integrate Russia at the beginning of the 1990s. Instead, the West – mainly America – has merely presented the Russian elite with a series of pretexts to help perpetuate that “enemy image”.

Where Shevtsova’s column fails to persuade is when it retreats to the mythical realm of “values” and pretends that the West has been too generous and understanding of Moscow over the last 15 years.  The idea that Westerners need to be more united in a common front of value-exporting intrusiveness seems absurd and dangerous.  I agree that integration with Europe, to which Russia properly belongs, should be the goal, but Shevtsova insists that the terms of the integration be set in such a way as to make integrating Russia in the near future all but impossible, and here I think she makes another mistake.

Any student of the history of Russia, or indeed of almost any country, must be aware that centralisation of power is very often a response to perceived and/or real external threats, or centralisation will be justified in terms of providing the government greater ability to respond to threats in the future.  If the Russian elite did not think that the West was encroaching on its sphere of influence and attempting to encircle it, it might be less inclined to embrace this concentration of power.  In any case, the memory of domestic chaos and lawlessness is another factor behind the push for centralised control. 

It is certainly not sufficient to see this crisis in relations as the outgrowth of only one side’s attempted power grab.  If the Russian elite is making a power grab at home and in its near-abroad, the U.S. and NATO are making a power grab abroad in and around Russia.  The latter feeds the former by providing the authoritarian nationalist with a plausible foreign threat (which can then be tied together with a more generic opposition to U.S. policy elsewhere in the world, lending a different sort of respectability to Russian intransigence, which in turn has the notable effect of making Russia more respected in the world than America).  Those in the West who are most agitated by Putin’s authoritarian practices are doing their very best with all their shouting and complaining to confirm Russians’ worst suspicions about Western hostility and interference in Russian internal affairs.  Whipping up hostility towards Russia encourages nationalist, anti-American reactions there–this has been and will continue to be the end result of neoconservative, liberal and libertarian critiques of Putin.  Those in the West who are most upset by the excesses of Putin are doing their very best to ensure that the rift between Russia and the West will widen and deepen, which is in the long-term interests of neither and serves to distract us with old conflicts when we have much more pressing concerns elsewhere in the world.  These Putin critics are actually encouraging the very things they purport to despise by casting them in the ludicrous framework of a malevolent and aggressive Russia that poses a threat to its neighbours and the West.   

Our political elite has needed to find new enemies as much as the Russian elite has, and actually even more because they have that much more power and prestige bound up in the structures of U.S. hegemony.  Resuming a rivalry and renewing hostility with a state with which you have no real conflicts of interest are foolish things to be doing, unless you regard any other world power as a threat to your own predominance.  The crisis in relations stems in part from recent Russian resurgence and the Western, and specifically American, refusal to accept Russia’s attempt to once again play an active, sometimes contrary, role in world affairs.

Shevtsova writes:

The Russian elite does not see the West as a real threat, but is deliberately describing the West as the bogeyman for its domestic needs. The Kremlin’s chest-beating and repetition of the litany of grudges towards the West has multiple purposes: it is a means to justify backtracking, a way to consolidate support around the regime, a loyalty test for the elite and a technique to conceal the true reasons behind the crisis [bold mine-DL].

Suppose for the sake of argument that this is true–what difference does this make for the Western policymaker?  Whether they are doing it to play to the crowd at home to shore up their own power or are “genuinely” worried about Western encroachment, our response should be tailored to suit the proper security interests of both countries in such a way that reduces the chance for conflict and improves mutual relations.  Our vital interests do not dictate any great concern over who rules in Kiev, for example, while the Russians are decidedly unhappy with any sign of meddling or attempts to incorporate Ukraine into Western security and political institutions.  This is because they want to dictate who governs in Kiev, and we all know that, so why needlessly agitate another major power over something that does not actually matter to us?  This is the question that the Putin and Russia critics seem to be unable to answer, because their own excessive protestations about withering Russian democracy and freedom are typically masks for their own preoccupation with justifying the policies that so disturb the Kremlin.  Even when they are themselves sincere in their motives in drawing Western attention to the internal affairs of another country (something that never ceases to puzzle and amaze me), their statements are routinely used to justify the worst courses of action against that country.    

Consider Shevtsova’s description of the rationale for the Russian elite’s complaints against the West and then compare it to our own political and media classes.  In much the same way, I could say: complaints about authoritarianism in Russia and Russian “bullying” of its neighbours have nothing to do with American security concerns, and only very rarely stem from any great concern over Russian democracy or the independence of an Estonia or Georgia.  They are used to justify continued American meddling in the region, consolidate support around our broken Russia policy, provide a loyalty test for members of the establishment and to distract observers from the real goals of that establishment in pressing for NATO expansion or democracy promotion.  All of this could be true and it would still not detract from the rhetorical and political power of the ideological arguments in favour of using American power to spread freedom and democracy, nor would it mean that the interventionists in question do not believe in certain political abstractions, just ascynical domestic political reasons for Russian complaints against Western behaviour are not necessarily separate from actual concerns about national security and nationalist resentments against perceived foreign threats. 

Ideology and the desire for consolidating power are not distinct or opposed things, but are deployed in a complementary way.  Cynical elites deploy nationalism or some other ideology to acquire and keep power, but they also develop an attachment to a certain ideology because they believe it is the best for acquiring and keeping power, which makes it appear true to the elites.  Militant democratists actually do believe in some sort of democratic politics, but the same genuine believers can also be fairly cynical hegemonists who think that promoting this kind of politics and promoting national and their own power are perfectly compatible things.  They are wrong about this latter point in practice, but we would protest in vain that they do not “really” believe in some kind of democracy.  They believe in it to the extent that they think expressing support for it will enable them to wield influence and power at home, and they are very keen to do these things, which means that they are frighteningly real believers in this kind of politics.   

This is the dangerous thing about ideologues in power and powerful people who adopt ideology: the former always find a way to justify their wielding power through some interpretation of the ideology, and the latter legitimise whatever they have done or want to do with their power by appealing to some abstract ideal.  At some point, posing as if you have a nationalist grievance and “actually” having a nationalist grievance cease to be different things.  For all intents and purposes when it comes to making policy, you are supporting certain policies as if you were a nationalist.  The nationalist is doing this to shore up your power at home, but that doesn’t mean that he does not at some level come to accept the substance of the rhetoric and the critique of foreign threat.  Furthermore, if agitating against a foreign threat is the bread and butter of the nationalist, how better to deflate the appeal of that nationalism than for Westerners to denounce the counterproductive, senseless policies that fuel resentment and suspicion (or which serve as useful pretexts for whipping up a sense of resentment and suspicion)?  Obviously, the worst response is to moan and cry about the authoritarian nationalism itself directly and repeatedly, since this serves, in this context, to confirm in the mind of many ordinary Russians that the foreign critics are actually hostile to Russia and the Russian people themselves.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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