In their latest piece for Newsweek, Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova do an excellent job explaining all the reasons why Russia has tumbled toward authoritarianism and confrontational foreign policy: it serves the unending quest for respect. By spending most of the article attempting to place the decisions of the Russian leadership in a rational context, as well as provide reasoning for why the citizens largely support and even celebrate the regime, Matthews and Nemtsova help to bridge the yawning gap of misunderstanding between the West and the complicated Russian mindset. My only complaint might be that we should be careful not to view what we would call “Russia’s self esteem paradox” as the sole determinant of what has happened to the country over the past decade, as we should remember that corruption has proliferated and public office has become the fastest way to become a state corporate millionaire … in other words, there also exists a parallel defense of the status quo which is much more about respect for one’s checking account than global respect for Russia’s influence.
Two other thoughts – how should illogical partners such as Venezuela and Sudan feel about being instrumentalized as simple bargaining chips that could be dropped at any moment as the result of a new, miniature Molotov-Ribbentrope-type agreement? Secondly, why is it always the responsibility of the West to generate these kinds of excuses for Moscow? At any rate, from an article worth your time over at Newsweek:
That idea of a “sphere of influence”–or what Medvedev, a little more tactfully, calls a “zone of special interests”–is really a budget version of the old empire. The Kremlin seems to have bought its own rhetoric and to have convinced itself that Russia remains a great power–and deserves to be treated as such. “The world’s problems cannot be solved without consulting Russia,” says Gorbachev. But like it or not, he’s wrong. Russia still has nukes and enormous energy reserves. Yet it has little ability to project military power beyond its borders, and the Kremlin’s saber rattling has pushed even erstwhile allies like Belarus and Ukraine into the arms of the West. In economic terms, Russia’s GDP has recently grown close to Italy’s in terms of size, thanks to high energy prices. But shorn of natural resources, the rest of its economy remains mired in inefficiency and corruption.
The key question, as Russian power continues to shrink, is whether Moscow will ever be able to come to terms with the loss of its empire and acknowledge the right of its former colonies to make independent strategic choices. So far there have been few signs of an attempt to move beyond imperial thinking, with school curriculums and national holidays all continuing to emphasize the country’s lost greatness. “Russia has been an empire for most of its history; we don’t know how to act as a national state,” says Margelov.
But rather than pining for the past, Russia would do well to look to Great Britain, another fallen empire, for lessons in how to stay relevant in a post-imperial world. Britain ran into disaster in 1956 when it tried to assert itself militarily in its old imperial space by making a grab for the Suez Canal. Since then, London has contented itself with slowly building new constructive relationships with its neighbors, former colonies, and big powers like the U.S. The result might not be as grand or as satisfying as macho strutting and military adventures, but it has helped keep Britain at the center of world politics long after the sun set on its empire. If Russia would realize that its best hope for influence is to engage rather than confront the rest of the world, it could start truly rebuilding its influence–and putting to rest the misunderstandings and suspicions that shaped the lives of John Fischer’s Cold War generation.