Russia and the West – polar opposites or two sides of the same coin? Part I

MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti)


After returning to Frankfurt after my first extended stay in Moscow in 1988, my German Russian teacher agreed with my observation that the reality in the Soviet Union bore little relation to the impressions we gained from Western academic work and, especially, the Western media.

Little has changed. A few years ago, an American Sovietologist and former aide in the Reagan White House said to me that “as soon as most Westerners arrive in Russia, the blinders come on and they suspend their critical faculties.”

International reactions to President Putin’s speech in Munich proved the point once again. Rich, advanced and democratic, the West sees itself as superior in all respects to poor, backward and authoritarian Russia.

So his assertion that U.S. foreign policy had increased global instability and his question, “Against whom is NATO’s eastward expansion directed?” were met with the usual clichés about “the Russian bear growling” and the ad hominem argument that having suppressed the media, Putin was anti-democratic and hypocritical.

Martin Wolf, writing on February 21 in the Financial Times, claimed Putin had taken Russia “back to the future” by his assault on dissident oligarchs, his reassertion of state control in the economy and the reallocation of rents to the secret police. East European countries, Wolf said, want to join NATO because Russia had brought oppression and mass murder to its neighbors, as it was now doing in Chechnya.

Quoting with approval a paper co-written by Douglass North, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, he goes on to argue that Russia is an example of a “limited access order,” in which an elite uses the political system to create rents and then uses the rents to stabilize the political system.

This, of course, stands in marked contrast to Western societies, which have “open access orders,” allowing competition in the economy and politics.

There is much truth in Wolf’s claims, but there are also two big problems: there are egregious sins of omission, and there are no policy recommendations on how to get from a “limited access order” to an “open access order.” In other words, how do non-Western states become Western-style liberal democracies? Can they, indeed, make this change?

Wolf’s claims reflect widespread Western beliefs about Russia’s security, history, politics and future development, but a closer look reveals that these assumptions are not quite accurate.

Russia – a conciliatory power with legitimate security interests

One imperative behind Russia’s imperial expansion in all directions has been its own security in the featureless vastness of Eurasia, where few natural barriers stand in the way of invaders. Russia was under the Mongol yoke for 300 years, and Napoleon and Hitler’s armies drove deep into the country.

As Norman Davies pointed out in God’s Playground, his magisterial history of Poland, the Anglo-Saxons have the luxury of living on their own islands and continents and therefore usually fail to understand the security concerns of Europeans. America has two countries on its two land borders. Russia has to contend with thirteen – fourteen counting Japan, fifteen counting the United States, and seventeen counting Iran and Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea.

Writing in the early 1990s, Seyom Brown was one of the few American scholars bold enough to go beyond the American and Western triumphalism that claimed “we won the Cold War.”

Brown pointed to the large number of unilateral concessions the Soviet Union made under Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, including acceptance of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, peaceful and rapid withdrawal of Soviet troops from the German Democratic Republic and Eastern Europe, Gorbachev’s encouragement of political self-determination for Poland and the other countries of Eastern Europe (a.k.a. the Sinatra Doctrine – do it their way), allowing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and releasing East Germany, withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending subsidies to Cuba and reducing support to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.

As Brown says, “the end of the Cold War saved both sides a disastrous misallocation of resources. Rather than being forced to eat humble pie by its former adversary, the Gorbachev regime deserved substantial credit – not just in rhetoric, but in material resources – for its courage in unilaterally taking the steps required to bring to an end the mutually draining and planet-threatening superpower rivalry.”

Brown’s views are echoed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, both of whom have gone on record as saying the end of the Cold War was down to the Soviet side – although Hurd remains puzzled by how the Soviet Union could throw away its prize of Eastern Europe, the jewel in the crown.

Moreover, the Soviet Union’s “withdrawal from Empire” was astonishingly peaceful and was achieved with few shots fired. Compare this with the violence that broke out in the Indian subcontinent in the late 1940s and French North Africa.

But as secretary of state from 1997, Madeleine Albright continued the “eat humble pie” line with her mantra that “Moscow does not have a veto over NATO expansion.”

This may be perfectly true, but such attitudes are hardly conducive to dialogue and confidence building.
Many in the West may have forgotten the concessions the Soviet Union made, but the Russians – including President Putin – certainly have not.

It should surprise no one that after awaking from its hibernation in the 1990s, “the bear” is refusing to roll over on its stomach and accept the stationing of anti-ballistic-missile defenses in Eastern Europe.

Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.

Part I of III. The continuation of this article will be posted soon.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.

Now available at, the site of the Sputnik news agency, the successor to Russian state-owned RIA Novosti’s international branch, which became defunct in 2013.

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