Russian Stereotypes: A Flawed Analysis Resulting in Inadequate Policy Choices.

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By Isabelle Francois and Brett Swaney
Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

The relationship between Russia and NATO is in dire need of radical rethinking.  In the past two decades, the evolving security environment has provided opportunities for NATO and Russia to establish new levels of cooperation.  However, diverging perceptions continue to cause the relationship to stagnate.  Is this only a matter of “old thinking,” or is there more to the lack of genuine progress?

 For the better part of the last decade, Western analysts and decision makers shaping the NATO-Russia relationship have relentlessly drawn on stereotypes of Russia to explain their inability to engage with Moscow. For their part, meanwhile, Russian analysts and decision makers have referred to their inability to promote Russian interests in the framework of the post-Cold War European security architecture.  Thus much of NATO-Russia relations continues to be a remnant of the Cold War, and these ties to the past regularly suppress creative thinking.

 One often hears of Russian stereotypes vis-à-vis the West. Their existence has been a quick and useful explanation for some Western observers who decided that Russia was trapped in the past and thus couldn’t be dealt with effectively.  Referring to stereotypes comforts those who believe that only time – if that — will permit cooperation with Russia, and that only patience will ultimately prevail, as if we were contending just with an issue of generational change.  However, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, this approach seems not only outdated, but essentially of little use to explain the limits of today’s NATO-Russia relations. Yet this analysis continues to inform inadequate Western policy choices.

 The problem with stereotypes is that they pretend to explain everything but, more often than not, these spurious variables explain nothing.  For instance, stereotypes may explain how 32% of Russians polled still perceive NATO as an enemy in 2011[1], according to data obtained from the Levada Center.  Yet, how does one explain the fact that, at the same time, 39% say that they desire cooperation with NATO on issues of general security? [2] 

 It is tempting to resort to stereotypes to account for the precipitous drop in Russian opinion when it comes to strengthening ties with the West, which fell from 75% in 2007 to 57% in 2008 following the Georgian War.  Western analysts may indeed interpret this as a typical knee jerk of old Soviet ambitions to exert hegemony.[3]They and Western policy-makers all too often turn to stereotypes to fill the void created by lack of an adequate explanation for what could be misguided perceptions when, in fact, deeper issues of Russian self-perception are in play.  Indeed, there are more fundamental forces at work than a stereotypical explanation of Russian intransigence rooted in old thinking.      

Certainly, human beings are creatures of habit, inimical to change; in the context of NATO-Russia, switching from an image of “arch enemy,” which separated NATO from the Soviet Union, to that of a (potential) partner and friend in the post-Cold War period have not gone very far. 

 Of course, stereotypes are always present in society, but so too are change and creative thinking – or at least the potential is there. For example, reliance on old stereotypes certainly does not explain the 2002 vision developed by then President Vladimir Putin and NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, which led to the creation of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) – a vision yet to be implemented, but a vision nonetheless.  This agreement led to two years of serious cooperation in a decade that was otherwise marked by a lack of trust and progress.  One could argue that these were two visionary men who perhaps came too early for their time, while their contemporaries could not shake off stereotypical views inherited from decades of Cold War.  It may just be, however, that the success of this vision — if only for a few years – was rooted in a smart political analysis which offered Russia an equal voice around the NATO table, restoring some pride to a country that lost the Cold War and thus breaking away from the past.

 Russians were clearly dealt a significant psychological shock with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Out of the chaotic post Cold-War period, the first post-Soviet generation to come of age in the mid 90’s did so at time when Russia was experiencing unprecedented declines in economic, military, and social power.  The Soviet – read “Russian” — sphere of influence contracted dramatically, and the stability and security of millions of people were undermined by inflation, corruption, and a dramatic loss of national prestige.  The disillusionment, frustration, and loss of identity in the 90’s skewed Russian perceptions of NATO, as a prominent symbol of Western primacy. 

It should not be surprising that those who won the Cold War – in the West – find it easier to be partners than those who had to accept losing.  Indeed, there can be little doubt that Russians’ pride – or assaults on that pride – has played a more decisive role in their seemingly lukewarm embrace of the West than have stereotypes. 

 Moreover, stereotypes are of little use in explaining the anti-Western sentiments among Russian youth.  Polls clearly show that both the lack of support for NATO-Russia cooperation and the negative reactions toward NATO’s role and policies are just as preeminent — if not more important – within young generations in Russia as among older generations.

In the midst of the frustration of the 90’s, Russia also suffered the collapse of its national ideology.  To fill the void, the government has turned to a renewed and redefined concept of Russian nationalism.  Nowadays, Russian textbooks and teacher manuals downplay Stalin-era repression and praise Putin’s role in “restoring Russia’s sovereignty” in a U.S.-dominated international order.  In higher education, Russian scholarship increasingly points to Russia’s leading international role and celebrates Russia’s unique cultural-religious heritage.[4] 

 The overall message presents the Soviet era as a more attractive vision than the chaos of the recent past.  With this message comes a resurgent belief that Russia should be an international power to be feared – or at least respected — by other nations.  Russian youths are thus encouraged to value elements of their national history that, in turn, generates increasing levels of uneasiness in the West and points to Russia’s possible return to an assertive role abroad. These perceptions among Russian youth run the risk of heightening a level of xenophobia in Russia toward the West, as Russians attempt to chart a unique path back to great power status.[5] This perception of Russia’s return to great power status is reflected again in polling conducted by the Levada Center, where a plurality of Russians, 45%, perceives Russia currently as a great power.  This has changed significantly from 1999 when only 19% of respondents viewed Russia as a great power.[6]  There is of course nothing inherently wrong in believing one’s nation to be a great power.  The challenge lies in the fact that 42% of Russians polled in 2011 felt there were grounds for the West and NATO to fear Russia as a result.[7]

 It is thus time to “retire” stereotypes as a poor explanation for the lack of progress in NATO-Russia relations, and start paying attention to explanations rooted in Russian self-perception and the pride of Russian citizens.  Certainly, understanding the Russian mentality is fundamental to devising smart policies.  The complexity of Russian self-perception may actually assist policy-makers in explaining and making best use of some positive trends.  For instance, support for mutually beneficial ties with the West has increased from 46% in 1998 to 74% in 2011.[8]  Yet these gains are fragile and will require nurturing by both sides in order to improve mutual understanding, in the hope of making progress in future cooperation. 

 Exposing the flaws of stereotypes in explaining the lack of progress in NATO-Russia relations over the past twenty years points toward the value of a different approach to engaging with Russia.  It is not simply an issue of waiting for the next generation.  One should also caution against expecting very much out of increased information sharing on NATO’s role and policies and additional public diplomacy efforts on NATO-Russia cooperation.  It is perhaps less an issue of “debunking myths” about NATO in Russia, than an issue of reaching out to Russia by first understanding the impact of Russian self-perception.  


[1]Levada Center, 02/03/2011.  “Does Russia Have Any Enemies?”
Accessed 9/5/2011 http://www.levada.ru/category/rubriki-saita/press-vypuski
[2]Levada Center, 21/03/2011.  “Russia’s Foreign Policy.”
Accessed 9/5/2011 http://www.levada.ru/category/rubriki-saita/press-vypuski
[3] Levada Center, 01/06/2011.  “Relations to Other Countries.”  Accessed 9/6/2011 http://www.levada.ru/category/rubriki-saita/press-vypuski
[4]Mankoff, J. (2010). Generational Change and the Future of US-Russian Relations. Journal of International Affairs , 63 (2), pp 9. 
[5] Mankoff, J. (2010). Generational Change and the Future of US-Russian Relations. Journal of International Affairs , 63 (2), pp 3. 
[7]Levada Center, 03/28/2011.  “Russia in the International Arena” Accessed 9/5/2011 http://www.levada.ru/category/rubriki-saita/press-vypuski
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