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Leigh Sarty: Russia is further than ever from becoming a normal country
There are sound historical reasons why Russia has been wary of the West, but under Putin's direction, the country has become a shrill, paranoid, and destructive dictatorship.
By: Leigh Sarty
Russia’s war on Ukraine has exposed the ugly face of what some analysts (optimistically) call “late Putinism”: a tired dictatorship reduced to brutal excess abroad and deadening oppression at home. Against this backdrop, last week’s sentencing of political activist Alexei Navalny to an additional nineteen years in prison would appear simply to be par for the course. Yet I find myself stewing over this latest outrage. The Russophile within me moved to vent. How did it come to this? Why has a people whose leaders once spoke of becoming “a normal country” and joining the West succumbed to Vladimir Putin’s quasi-fascist pronouncements and anti-Western designs?
I should first clarify my use of the term Russophile. Passions run so high on these issues that admitting fondness for anything to do with Russia opens one to the charge of being soft on Ukraine. Nothing could be further from the truth. I appreciate only too well the stakes in the conflict that Putin unleashed in February 2022, and the importance of supporting Kyiv in the face of that aggression.
Yet after a lifetime in Russian affairs, there are some things that the butchery in Ukraine cannot erase. This includes the Russian people’s storied love of literature, which one encounters constantly in surprising and often touching ways; their love of music, apparent to anyone who has sat in the audience of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall; the majesty of old Moscow in the falling snow… these are just some of the moving images that will always connect me to Russia. But the stark contrast with what Putin and his supporters have wrought leads me again to ask: how did the country get to where it is today?
The roots of Russia’s distinctiveness date back at least to the 15th-century, when the medieval state of Muscovy first emerged on the northeast fringes of Europe. Conditions were harsh there. The soils were poor and the landscape was flat; there were no natural barriers to invasion. In that insecure environment, military affairs took priority. Centralized authority became the norm. Territorial expansion, both to escape rapidly depleted soils and to counter external threats, was hard-wired into the Russian mindset. Half a millennium later, we see the legacy of this history playing out in Ukraine.
The decisive factor shaping Russia’s political evolution has been its fixation with a technologically superior, and therefore menacing, West. This is not some freak product of genetic coding. It is the result of the Kremlin’s rational application of foreign policy realism, which holds that state survival in an anarchical world necessitates “worst-case” assumptions about potential adversaries (since underestimating them can prove fatal), and that it is power relative to others that matters most in interstate relations. And this has been Russia’s perpetual challenge: how to hold its own against the dynamism of the West while facing its own bleak conditions. Harnessing the sprawling country’s far-flung resources to meet this challenge has always been the top priority of Russia’s rulers, which explains the historic bloat of the state, as well as the chronic weakness of civil society. It has proved an effective recipe for authoritarianism.
The notion that Russia (then known as the Soviet Union) might break this pattern and become a “normal country” gained currency nearly forty years ago, when Mikhail Gorbachev startled his people (and the world) with talk of “restructuring” (“perestroika”) and “new thinking”. Yet Gorbachev’s revolution was ultimately driven by the same concerns that motivated his forebears, namely, maintaining competitiveness against a West that, by the mid-1980s, was outdistancing the sclerotic Soviet economy by leaps and bounds. The fear of becoming a second-rate power drove Gorbachev to undertake increasingly radical reforms, including reducing military expenditures and engaging the West. But he was too much a product of the system to appreciate its deepest flaws; this unwittingly set in motion the forces that precipitated the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Vladimir Putin’s entire presidency has been shaped by this history. The conviction that the market reforms of Gorbachev’s successor Boris Yeltsin deeply degraded the Russian state, and that the West had taken advantage of its resulting weakness, clinched Putin’s election as president in 2000. His commitment to make Russia strong again, at home and abroad, resonated widely with a populace worn down by the tumult of the 1990s.
But Putin was never able to overcome Russia’s basic inferiority. What’s more, the triumphalism inherent in U.S. and allied actions in post-Cold War Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan reinforced the Kremlin’s inclination to think the worst of its adversaries. The steadfast insistence of the Baltic states and Eastern Europeans on joining NATO — a product of their own long histories with Russia — has only heightened what Moscow believes to be justified fears. For Russia’s current leader, who is the embodiment of five centuries of geopolitical realism, the West’s refusal to allow him to dictate the destinies of Russia’s neighbouring states ultimately convinced him that the only way to alleviate his security predicament was by the use of force.
The costs all around have been incalculable, above all the loss of life and the irreparable damage across Ukraine. But Russia has lost as well. The cultured if somewhat shambolic polity I recall from my student days in the 1980s and Canadian Embassy service in the 1990s has given way to a shrill dictatorship so insecure that a charismatic YouTube activist like Alexei Navalny is seen to pose a mortal threat. Russians and the world deserve better. But if my reading of history is correct, there is, sadly, little prospect of positive change anytime soon.
Leigh Sarty is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary History at the University of Toronto. He retired from Global Affairs Canada in 2021 after a career that included two postings at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow and five years as Director for Russia at GAC headquarters in Ottawa.
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