Co-operation between Russia and the West had recently appeared to be back on the cards but is now further away than ever, as evident from the latest events in Ukrainian crisis. Vladimir Sarkisyantis explains why.
There are palpable economic and geopolitical reasons behind the Russia-West stand-off, but the deeper underlying cause is ideational incompatibility of the West and the East: a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy whereby Russia-advanced integration projects are a form of ‘authoritarian diffusion’ that tries to push back the ‘democratic diffusion’ emanating from the West.
As Libman and Vinokurov note, the ‘autocracies “breed” autocracies in their neighbouring states, and post-Soviet integration is one of the tools of this autocratic diffusion.’ The Kremlin thus promotes what Allison calls the ‘protective integration’ among illiberal Eurasian states. This is achieved through initiatives expressing collective political solidarity institutionalised within the format of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As highlighted by Ambrosio, the SCO’s ‘Shanghai Spirit’ is defined as ‘a consolidating component, a source of unity and spiritual power […] a common concept of security, a civilisation [sic] formula, a concept of development and a system of values.’ Putin’s Eurasian Union initiative is the latest and most comprehensive institutional manifestations of the protective integration logic.
During his first two presidential terms Putin did not object the EU enlargement. Instead, Russia’s concerns were focused on NATO’s eastward expansion. This outlook gradually changed and it is now not only NATO that Russia opposes, but also the EU. Competition with the EU is often perceived as a struggle along civilizational lines, a contest of differing value systems and ideologies. Politically, it is a contest between Russia’s authoritarian state order and the democratic model promoted by the West.
Post-Soviet Russia’s problems are compounded by the fact that it failed to become politically attractive regional centre. Association with the EU, on the other hand, is still appealing for many of its neighbours. Much of Ukraine’s elite seemed to have made up their mind regarding the alignment of their country with EU and the West more broadly in the lead up to the Vilnius Summit in November. For Russia, this course represents crossing of a ‘red line’ that current Kremlin’s occupiers cannot allow. Ukraine is extremely important for Russia and reasons for this are many.
What Moscow attempts to prevent in Ukraine is not merely economic and geopolitical loses, however. One of the Kremlin’s key motives is a perception of the democratic diffusion spread by the EU as a threat to Russia’s state order based on a different political philosophy. It is the adverse internal effects on Putin’s regime that EU-guided restructuring of Ukraine along genuinely democratic lines that is at risk. Therefore, so long Ukraine continues its pursuit of closer association with the EU, Russia will continue to instrumentalise the rebels in the eastern Ukraine.
Internationally, what Moscow envisions is a hierarchical global structure inspired by the view of the world governed by a consortium of great powers that respect each other’s ‘spheres of influence.’ Such construction is in line with the formally embraced conservative ideology employed to legitimise hierarchical internal arrangements within Russia itself.
This Russian discourse is ill aligned with the current Western outlook that views the rules of the game suggested by Moscow as drawn from an outdated nineteenth century manual. For its part, the language the post-modern West employs is not appreciated by the Russian officials, experts in realpolitik. They consider Western liberal discourse a smokescreen meant to conceal cynical agendas. This leaves little room for a modus vivendi when socio-political arrangements within crucial borderland are at stake.
Although a re-run of the Cold War is unlikely, the ideological struggle between Russia and the West has recently crystallised and is here to stay. At its core the dispute is grounded in ideological disagreement on ultimate values, articulated by differing and irreconcilable views on governance and political legitimacy, the relationship is inherently conflict-prone and genuine alignment between the two is problematic in principle.