Category Archives: Russia

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  However, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, this approach seems not only outdated, but essentially of little use to explain the limits of today’s NATO-Russia relations.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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Raising Russia’s National Happiness

By Michael Davies, MA – Research Assistant, Australian National University, AU

War. According to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that is the best way to increase Russia’s national happiness. In August 2008, Russia and Georgia fought over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict ended with Russia recognizing the independence of the two breakaway regions after pushing Georgian troops back into Georgia-proper. The situation has remained stable, but tense ever since. Both states are fighting internal problems, and neither can really afford to initiate hostilities again knowing both have much to lose. Nevertheless, President Medvedev declared during a press conferenceon 18 May 2011 that the 2008 conflict “was very important for the country…for making it feel strong.” Thus, if war against a tiny, weak state helps Russia to recover its sense of lost status, is it the harbinger of future conflicts?

The conflict began officially during the night of 07-08 August 2008 after Georgia launched a military offensive into South Ossetia. Georgia claimed it was responding to attacks on its soldiers and native Georgians within the territory. Russia responded by launching its own offensive into both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops came within only a few kilometers of entering the Georgian capital, Tibilsi as the Georgian military crumbled. On 12 August, President Medvedev declared he had ordered the end to all military operations. Two weeks later on 26 August, Russia officially recognized the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Only Belarus, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru have recognized both states along with Russia, while Vanuatu recently recognized Abkhazia only, though clarification on this has been difficult.

Since the recognition, Russian security forces have remained in the two ‘countries.’ Russian soldiers patrol the administrative borders on Roman;”>land and sea, and maintain precision >weapons systems on ready alert. Because of the number and type of troops in both regions has led US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) to define that presence as an occupation. Though her use of this term is primarily because of her pro-Georgian stance, it does provide an apt description of the Russian presence as neither state can stand by, nor protect itself.

The 2008 conflict is the first real successful use of Russian military power since the end of the Cold War. The decimation of the Soviet-era military machine holds much of the blame for this, as does the weakness of Russia’s political system. The Russian intervention in the Georgian civil war era after independence achieved little. The First Chechen War of 1994-1996 ended in an ignominious Russian retreat. The Second Chechen War that began in 1999 was only ‘successful’ after the puppet leader Ramzan Kadyrov used his fathers name to take the Presidency and rule at the behest of Russia. Even then, the insurgency in the North Caucasus is not based entirely in Chechnya. Dagestan and Ingushetia suffer daily attacks as well. The insurgency has penetrated so deeply into Kabardino-Balkaria, that political and military parity between the security services and the militants has likely been achieved. All this has occurred as Russian troop presence has increased in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Strategically, Russia is doing just as poorly. Russia’s ally, Serbia, was forced to relinquish control of Kosovo to NATO peacekeepers in 1999, which led to its declaration of sovereignty in early 2008. The Baltic states joined NATO. Ukraine threw out its pro-Russian leader in the Orange Revolution, and even though the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych is currently President, a strong pro-EU, pro-NATO section still remains in the body politic. China is gaining influence in Central Asiaas its GDP grows ever larger, and as its political weight is used effectively through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Moreover, in an ironic twist of fate, as Russia and its leaders intend to promote the image of a strong Russia, to Western publics, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev are treated more as Internet memes or sources of humor. Putin is looked upon as the real-life version of a Bond villain. In turn, Medvedev is seen as Putin’s ‘Mini Me.’ Video of either man dancingor singingmakes greater headlines than a statement on the operation currently underway in Libya.

Chris Hedges says that “war is a force that gives us meaning.” His book by the same name stated that “even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” Continuing on, Hedges notes that Manichean view created in battle: “[w]ar makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us.” Medvedev’s comments certainly correspond to Hedges’ analysis.

The establishment of meaning and the effective use of military force is likely why Medvedev claimed the 2008 conflict “made the country feel strong.” It was the first time Russia had really defeated an enemy and forced its policy preferences on anyone since the end of the Cold War. The conflict also intended to show how far Russia was willing to go to protect its interests. A message that was clearly aimed at NATO and its expansion plans. This war gave Russia the ability to prove it was a Great Power once again.

It must also be acknowledged that this feeling is not unique to Russia. In the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, the same feelings were expressed within the United States. On 02 March, 1991, US President George H.W. Bush declared that“we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The statement was an affirmation in support of renewed US engagement with the world. The comment was made to show that the ‘Ghost of Vietnam’ had been exercised for good, and that military force can be used effectively in support of US interests, and above all else, its values. In other words, the Gulf War, as declared by the sitting president, made the country feel good about itself once again.

Medvedev’s comments were not unique, nor surprising. Examples exist across generations of leaders making similar statements. War has always provided meaning to society. As the 2008 Georgian conflict was the first key victory against an ally of NATO and the US, a certain degree of pride would naturally be felt within Russia. What these comments offer is an insight into the nature of Russian foreign policy thinking at the current time. As the comments were made at a press conference, it also suggests that Medvedev wanted the international community to be plainly aware of Russia’s new sense of self. Therefore, if Russia does feel stronger and better about itself, and is already willing to use military power to ensure the security of its interests as well as regain the title of Great Power, it should not be surprising that they will engage in more military operations into the future to achieve that status once again.

Michael Davies is a Research Assistant for the Center for Strategic Research at INSS. He has been awarded a Master in Strategic Affairs from the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University, as well as a BA (International Relations/Political Science), also from ANU. He has previously worked as a media analyst at Media Monitors Australia, and as a Research Intern, Armed Conflict Database at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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