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The war in Ukraine has introduced the final episode of Russia’s alienation from the West. The outcome of this war will determine which side will dominate the future world order: an autocratic East or a liberal West. 

Earlier assumptions that Russia was “part of Europe” have in effect been stifled by the war as Russia looks east for allies against “the threat from the West”. Russian domestic politics have also been mobilised by relentless anti-West propaganda and oppression of dissidents, justified as a threat of menacing iniquity by the outside world.

The schism runs deep, seemingly irreparable, the price astronomic, leaving international society in a state of escalating chaos, perpetuated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unrelenting warmongering revisionism. 

Incompetent Western diplomacy before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 shares some of the blame for Russia’s fears that the West is hell-bent on destroying its very existence and primordial values. The reality is the West wanted a feeble, compliant Russia in the place of the Soviet Union, stripped of its erstwhile role as a global power on par with the US.

After all, according to Washington, the West had “won the war” and could call the shots. Russian national interests were disregarded in cavalier fashion as Nato and the EU encircled Russia, forming a virtual Western buffer despite having been warned of the potential consequences.

Anatoly Chubais, previous head of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s administration, protested as early as 1997 that Nato was “an affront to Russian security interests, a vote of no confidence in Russian reform ... and incompatible with the very idea of partnership’’.

The West should have realised from the start that challenging Russian national sovereignty and security was playing with fire

In 1997 American diplomat George Kennan stated that “expanding Nato would be the most fateful error [of] American policy in the entire post-Cold War era”. And in 1999 Gregor Gaidar, a leading liberal in the Yeltsin government, argued that the Nato bombing in Yugoslavia was inflaming anti-American sentiment in Russia, “pushing Russia towards isolationism, xenophobia and a new Cold War’.’

Putin has proved that these early warnings were not mere posturing. In the face of the threat his anger was fully justified by Russian patriots and right-wing dictators, but roundly condemned by the UN. But historians maintained that much of what had happened was indeed predictable: the West should have realised from the start that challenging Russian national sovereignty and security was playing with fire.

As pointed out by Keith Naughton in The American Spectator: “Ignoring Russian history is costly ... a large nation does not engage in the same pattern of behaviour for centuries for no reason.” Of course, what historians and diplomats alike failed to consider was not so much the West’s misreading of history, but the consequences of its feeble response to perennial, provocative Russian military expansion, most recently in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014).

Throughout the Cold War era the US wrestled between two policies: containment and military supremacy. Washington’s foremost Kremlinologist and super diplomat, George Kennan, proposed a policy of containment, putting his faith in Soviet restraint and believing it would not start a war of influence in Europe.

In response, the Cold War introduced a policy of cautious and pragmatic containment that would give Russians time to get over “being Soviets”, rather than consigning Russia and the West to endless stalemate. To avoid catastrophe, Kennan proclaimed, the two superpowers must agree on arms control measures rather than getting stuck in endless military one upmanship.

Provocative assertiveness

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War brought hope that the policy of containment (pax Americana) had finally been vindicated. But this was not to be. Containment was replaced by Western provocative assertiveness, resulting in Russian alienation and resentment.

Inevitably, the first noxious seeds of Putinism were planted as the Russians chose to become Soviets again. After a brief interlude between Yeltsin’s “democratic revolution” and Putinism in the 1990s, the KGB siloviki (strongmen) took back Russia. In his presidential acceptance speech on May 7 2000 Putin gave notice that the Yeltsin democratic legacy would not last. It was not a new beginning.

“We should know our history as it was and take lessons from it, and always remember those who created the Russian state and defended its values, who made it a great and powerful state. We will preserve this memory and this connection through time ... and all the best from our country we will hand over to our descendants”, he said. 

As intimated by Naughton, “the run-up and trajectory of the war in Ukraine is very much a repeat of Russian history, yet Western governments have completely ignored this, and their obliviousness is proving costly’’. Of course, this presupposes an untouchable Russia operating within certain given inalienable historical parameters rather submissively, “red lines” that should be respected.

Yet this seems utterly naive, defeatism à la Neville Chamberlain at best, particularly in the context of Putinism.

Manipulated history

Through the ages Russia created its own myths, followed its own preferred history and interests irrespective of the rule of law or the dictates of human rights. Russian history is what Putin pronounces. Like other dictators, he has manipulated Russian history to enhance his own image, using the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, state security apparatchiks, state-controlled media and sycophants in academia, the church and business to verify his self-serving notions.

For example, official Russian history “à la Putin” legitimises the view that “eternal” Russia is undefeatable, while the liberal West is utterly decadent and a real danger to Russian perennial values and interests. At the 43rd Security Conference in Munich on February 10 2007 an aggrieved Putin declared that America’s “unilateral and frequently illegitimate” actions have made the world a more chaotic place, created new centres of terror and caused new human tragedies. 

After that the totalitarian Orwellian state developed in full swing in Russia; no opposition was tolerated, with perfidious Putinism the uncontested creed of the land. The West, also termed in Stalinist terms “enemies of the people”, or “foreign agents”, were relentlessly used by the Kremlin to justify the repression of its own people.

On the other extreme, sycophantic praise singers such as Alexander Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University, swooned: “There are no more opponents to the Putin course, and if there are they are ill and need psychiatric treatment. Putin is everywhere, Putin is everything, Putin is absolute, and Putin is irreplaceable”. Orthodox Patriarch Kiril chimed in, calling Putin “a miracle, of God for Russia”.

Except during the brief Yeltsin democratic interlude in the 1990s, Russia never got over being homo sovieticus (conformist Soviet) again. Through his repressive politics, unrelenting falsities and propaganda, Putin has succeeded in closing the Russian mind. In 1996 polling by the Russian Levada Centre showed that 39% of Russians preferred the old Soviet model; only 28% opted for the democratic alternative.

In a more recent Lavada survey half of the respondents preferred the Soviet planned economy, while on the statement “Russia is not a European country” affirmations shot up from about 36% in 2008 to 64% in 2021. These are ominous indicators that the war in Ukraine is also about the future of a free world, which now faces its greatest test.   

• Olivier is a former SA ambassador to the Russian Federation and emeritus professor at Pretoria University. 

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