As the Kremlin continues strengthening its “power vertical,” the West appears to be stepping up its criticism of the Putin administration, accusing Russia of moving in the wrong direction. Numerous Russian “hawks” say the Western reaction only reveals the Euro-Atlantic community’s perfidious designs on Russia. But some liberal commentators decry the widening rift, arguing that the “tragic misunderstanding” between partners in the anti-terrorist coalition is undermining common efforts to fight what has come to be known as the “plague of the 21st century.”
In September 28 letter to the leaders of the European Union and NATO, a large group of American and European foreign policy specialists accused Russia’s President Vladimir Putin of building an authoritarian regime domestically and pursuing neo-imperialist policies towards its neighbors. Moscow’s current “strategy for fighting terrorism is producing less and less freedom,” according to the 115 signatories. They forcefully suggested that the Western democracies “rethink how and to what extent we engage with Putin’s Russia” (Moscow Times, September 30).
The authors of the open letter specifically stressed that it was not an “anti-Russian document.” The matter is, Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, told Vremya novosti, “Many people [in the West] are concerned that the Putin regime is being bogged down in policies that decelerate the development of democracy and, in the long run, will likely block the prospects for economic development.” And this, the Swedish politician argued, would be a “bad scenario both for Russia and the rest of Europe” (September 30).
Yet the need to thoroughly revise the foundation of the West’s relationship with Russia appears prominently throughout the letter, contends another well-known signatory, Stephen Sestanovich, a former top U.S. diplomat and veteran Russia hand. In Sestanovich’s opinion, the problems that hinder the West’s interaction with Moscow are not limited to the defects of Russia’s underdeveloped democracy. Of great concern is what he termed “Russia’s institutional limitations in the struggle against terrorism” — such as the rampant corruption in law-enforcement agencies. Given the level of Russian corruption, it is unlikely that broadening cooperation with Moscow will bear fruit, he argues. “I believe, here [in the U.S.] there is now less hope that, as far as the war on terror is concerned, President Putin has ideas that stand a chance to succeed,” he said in the interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta (October 1).
The calls coming from both sides of the Atlantic to reassess the status of Russia-West relations seem to confirm the view shared by a significant part of Russia’s policymaking community that their country is indeed a “besieged fortress.” Such a catastrophic outlook was best encapsulated in the recent pronouncement by a top Kremlin aide who painted an apocalyptic picture of Russia encircled by hordes of enemies seeking to “destroy it and fill in its enormous space with lots of unviable quasi-state formations” (Komsomolskaya pravda, September 29).
For some liberal commentators, the political attitudes of Russian elites reveal a very troubling trend. The besieged-fortress mentality and the talk of a global anti-Russian conspiracy are not new phenomena; they have always existed along the margins of political discourse. But now these ideas are entering the mainstream. The triumph of this homegrown political philosophy will likely “result in the final marginalization of Russia on the world stage,” remarked one influential foreign policy expert (Gazeta.ru, September 30).
A possible parting of ways with the West is viewed as the biggest mistake, if not an outright tragedy, by the small group of Russian liberal and pro-Western political strategists. Despite the Kremlin’s anti-democratic proclivities that rightfully make the United States and Europe wary, Russia and the West face the common threat of international terrorism — “the most serious one since the Cold War times,” according to Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of Moscow Carnegie Center. In a wide-ranging policy paper, Trenin has suggested that of all the large countries, Russia is currently the most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It is the “weakest link” in the international community, he says, which means that Russia’s nuclear power plants, stored nuclear materials, stockpiles of chemical weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction are potential terrorist targets. The West can ill afford to stop cooperating with Russia, Trenin argues. In fact, Western nations should “offer Moscow real help in the struggle against terrorism.”
In order to better understand Russia’s dynamics, Western experts should change their analytic lenses, suggests Trenin. The problem with Russia-watchers, he argues, is that they apply a normative approach where an historical one would be much more appropriate. According to Trenin, “Today’s Russia is a classic European country of the first half of the 20th century,” with all the accompanying downsides, be they “managed democracy” or heavy-handed reaction to separatist movements (Vedomosti, September 16).