The conflict over Ukraine has put the Russian elite before a hard choice it has tried to avoid for 25 years. Russia’s rich and powerful are caught between the perspective of Western economic sanctions on the one hand and the continued erosion of Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space, which might ultimately endanger their own security on the other.
Despite the seemingly definite choice in favour of the first option (sealed by Putin’s action in Crimea, seen as annexation by Russia’s Western critics), the choice of way forward is far from final. Oscillations between confrontation and appeasement with the West will continue for many more years. The recent decision of Russia’s Federation Council to withdraw its “blank check” on the use of troops by president Putin in Ukraine is indicative of this sort of oscillation.
Why is the Russian elite undecided?
History of an Attraction
Following Alexander Pushkin’s famous phrase about “the government being the only European in Russia,” the new Russian elite since 1991 has been remarkably well disposed towards the West. “ Attitudes toward each other in Russia and the United States are inverted”, says Yevgeny Sevastyanov, a former activist of the 1990s democratic movement and now the vice-president of the Moscow-based Centre for Russo-American rapprochement. “ In the US, the people are more or less sympathetic towards the Russians, but the anti-Russian sentiment is strong in the elite. In Russia, on the contrary, the elite is a lot more sympathetic towards the US and the West in general than an average citizen.”, For decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian elite tried to combine pursuit of Russia’s national interests (seen much more modestly and unassumingly than in Soviet times) with economic and, if possible, political integration with the West, primarily with the European Union. In the 1990s, this task seemed to be easily achievable, since the interests of Russia, the EU and the US in the most unstable regions of the planet – in the Middle East, the Balkans and even in the Caucuses – didn’t seem to contradict each other. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union did not object to Bush- senior’s war in the Gulf in 1991. After all, it was in both Russia’s and the West’s interests to have peace in these regions, with gradual transition to democracy encouraged.
This sort of benign attitude to the West (some would call it appeasement now) dominated Russia’s foreign policy under Boris Yeltsin, leading the late president to grudgingly acquiesce to the first “wave” of NATO’s unnecessary expansion in 1999.
For much of his initial two terms in office, president Vladimir Putin continued in the same vein. Sergei Udaltsov, an active leader of the “leftist” wing of anti-Putin protests in 2010-2011, still accuses Putin of “selling off” Russia’s security, reminding the public of Putin’s decision to withdraw from the old Soviet bases in Cuba and Vietnam in 2003. This move of Putin, which attracted a lot of criticism in Russia, passed largely unnoticed by the US and the EU. With this concession, like with many other ones under Yeltsin, the intended “appeasing” PR effect in the West was not achieved. No one even said so much as thank you.
Putin: A Forced Change from Yeltsin’s Course
There is a lot of evidence that at least until the year 2005 Putin planned to continue this policy of appeasing the US and the EU. This view is backed up by the evidence of Russia’s active cooperation with the US in crushing Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001.
The “orange revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in (2003 and 2005) and especially the violent change of regime in Ukraine in 2014 put this policy to rest – for years to come.
The Russian elite simply could not understand why Viktor Yanukovich, who was not anti-Western and who turned down a lot of tempting economic proposals from Russia in favour of his country’s eventual European integration, – why was this man declared an “impersonation of evil” (a summarizing expression of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza) by the EU and the US? His request to postpone (not even to cancel) the association agreement with the EU in November 2013 looked like a ridiculously small transgression in comparison to the truly tragic events that followed. And, what was worse, Western “ opinion formers” did not conceal their desire to see a Russian version of Maidan in Moscow and openly relished the Russian elite’s presumed “fear” of such a turn of events.
Waiting For a “Wakeup”
The other, even more puzzling development, was the lack of balance in the Western reaction to the civil war which engulfed Eastern Ukraine in recent months. The Western media mostly dwelled on the losses of the Ukrainian military (146 men) and the “intimidation” of pro-Kiev election officials, but what about many hundreds of “disloyal” civilians killed and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from Donetsk and Lugansk to Russia? There was a real discussion inside the Russian expert community on the way to react to this sudden deafness of the West.
“Most of the top people in the Kremlin are Westernizers (”zapadniki”) by their mentality, they don’t believe that Europe can shut its eyes to the tragedy of the Donbass people endlessly,” said Sergei Markov, an expert on Russia’s internal politics believed to be close to the Kremlin. “So, they expect that Europe will see the scope of the tragedy and get more critical of the authorities in Kiev. But I think it is a vain expectation.”
Markov also said he did not believe in a “rift” between the US and the EU on the ways to tackle the Ukraine/Russia problem. Strange as it may seem, this rift is expected and predicted not by the anti-Western nationalists, but rather more often by the Westernizers inside the Russian polity: these people think that Europe, seeing the attempts by the US to replace cheap Russian gas with more expensive American Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), will show more consideration for a more economically advantageous partner, i.e. Russia.
Liberals vs. Hawks
In Markov’s opinion, the current strategy of the “liberals” inside the government is to wait for the moment when Europe will “wake up to reality” and ease the sanctions.
“I also don’t think that Europe will open its eyes to the crisis in Ukraine, largely because it is a crisis of its own making,” said Mikhail Delyagin, editor-in-chief of the “Svobodnaya mysl” (“Free thought”) magazine, a left-leaning economist and political activist with experience of working as an adviser to the cabinet of ministers in 1996-1999. “Russia’s strategy should be more active. If we just wait for positive changes in Europe’s attitude, we risk repeating the sad fate of the former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who during the war against Yugoslavia in 1999 put all his hopes on “breaking through the information blockade” in the West.”
Both Markov and Delyagin advocate active support for the Russian minority inside Ukraine, with humanitarian aid for the helpless and more political pressure applied to the regime in Kiev. They don’t believe in finding a common solution with the West, based on respecting the West’s pragmatic interests in Ukraine. Both think that the Western governments have shown their ability to act against their own national interests in Iraq and Syria, so there is no hope they will react to pragmatic calls from Russian Westernizers, trying to appeal to the Western politicians’ common sense.
Fear of Isolation
However, the voices of the liberals, advocating a refusal to “burn bridges” with the West are more audible. It should be noted that liberals still control the economic and financial policy of Russia. The minister of economic development Alexey Ulyukayev is a disciple of the late reformer of the 1990s, Yegor Gaidar, he spent most of his career working at the Institute for Transitional Economies, named after his mentor. The Central Bank’s chief, Elvira Nabiullina, is also a liberal with strong ties to the Higher School of Economics, founded with Gaidar’s support in 1992. So, these liberals call for more caution with the West and reject the idea of “anti-Western self-reliance”, pointing to Russia’s already achieved integration into the global economy.
“Self-isolation is a road to nowhere, and my impression is that neither Putin nor the [first vice-premier Igor] Shuvalov plan to go down that road,” says Sergei Dubinin, the former director of the Central Bank. “I got this impression from many sources, including Putin’s and Shuvalov’s speeches at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May. As for the sanctions, there is only one way they can really knock us out. If they cut our banks from the SWIFT system of inter-bank communications (something they did earlier to Iran) – this would be a heavy blow, tantamount to the cold war, probably even worse. But it will hurt the West too, since it is not clear in what way then they will pay for our gas. No one will deliver gas for free.” The liberals’ strategy is to point to the material interests of the West in Russia, explaining that damage from sanctions will be mutual.
In recent days, there were some signs indicating that the liberals’ strategy is starting to work. According to a report by Bloomberg, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers are preparing to run newspaper advertisements in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, warning that more sanctions risk harming U.S. workers and businesses. A 2013 report by Ernst & Young cites General Electric Co., Boeing Co., and Caterpillar Inc. as important investors in Russia. Exxon Mobil Corp. and OAO Rosneft had been set to start their first Arctic well this year, targeting a deposit that may hold more oil than Norway’s North Sea. European companies have even bigger interests in Russia. So, not only the Russian elite, but also the European elite will have to choose between some very real interests and some very dubious ideological goals in their policies on Ukraine. The future direction of the Russia-West relationship is not yet set in stone.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.