Russia is trying to reestablish its status of global power and the West does not want to let this happen and is trying to retain its dominance
Interview with Vadim Trukhachev, Senior Lecturer, Department of International Relations and Foreign Area Studies, Russian State University for the Humanities.
Rethinking Russia: What are some of the reasons you would give for the political tensions
between Russia and Western Europe and the USA?
Vadim Trukhachev: There are enough reasons for these tensions. The main reason is that Russia is trying to reestablish its status of global power and the West does not want to let this happen and is trying to retain its dominance. The West is unlikely to take into account its partner’s interests because Russia is perceived as a loosing side of the Cold War, which should be regarded only to a limited extent.
One more reason is that politicians both in Russia and in the West have a vague notion of each other. Many politicians and experts do not have enough knowledge of the mentality, culture, traditions, values and even everyday habits of the opposite side. Speaking about this, they have both similarities and differences, and all of them should be taken into account while entering into a dialogue.
Often Russia itself is not able to find its place on the global stage, understand whether it is a part of the Western civilization or an independent civilization. This hinders the country in implementing coherent policy. Besides, this annoys the West, which is wary of the reappearance of Russia’s imperial ambitions and tries to stay one step ahead of Russia at the same time weakening it just to be on the safe side. This annoys Russian authorities, so the dialogue is not launched.
RR: What groups of state and non-state actors would you say benefit from tense relations between Russia and the West, cultivated both in the political elite and the population? Why do they benefit?
VT: Mostly military-industrial circles benefit from tense relations. This concerns the USA and NATO to a greater extent and Russia – to a lesser extent, but it still does concern Russia too. Presence of a big potential adversary increases the number of military contracts and, as a consequence, profits of companies, enterprises, laboratories and research centers working in military-industrial sphere.
Besides, both in Russia and in the West there are some circles that perceive each other exclusively as permanent enemies. And they take advantage of all tensions and misunderstandings to turn the society and elites to their views. Unfortunately, these circles are quite influential both in the West and in Russia. These elite groups need tensions to increase their political heft.
As for ordinary people, I do not see any groups that would benefit from tense relations between Russia and the West. It is difficult to imagine people either in Russian or in the West who would like to go to war or to be killed.
RR: Does Russian population mistrust the West? Why?
VT: The majority of Russian citizens mistrust the West and are suspicious of the West. In contrast to the Czech Republic and Poland, Russia suffered from the reforms of 1990s, which resulted in the impoverishment of its population. People lived low. As these reforms were implemented under the slogan of “the rapprochement with the West”, in the eyes of Russian people Europe and the USA, which supported the reforms, became responsible for the deterioration of the situation.
This mistrust is also connected with NATO expansion to the East and numerous anti-Russian statements of the leading European politicians, which quickly spread in Russia. The bombings of Serbia of 1999 took a heavy toll on Russia’s relations with the West, while Serbia is perceived as a fraternal country in Russia. The War in South Ossetia of 2008 also had a negative effect.
The Ukrainian crisis played the major role in the growth of anti-Western sentiments. Millions of Russians were born in Ukraine, one in three have relatives or origins there. That is why, the possible rift with Ukraine is so sensitive to Russia. It is almost like the Berlin Wall dividing, in fact, one nation. And Russians are sure that mainly the West is responsible for what happened in Ukraine in 2013-2016.
RR: What are the origins of this mistrust?
VT: Russian citizens mistrust the West because they have little knowledge of Europe and North America. About 70% of Russian population have never been abroad. And many of those who traveled abroad have never gone to Europe. The reason for this is the harsh visa regime between Russia and EU and especially between Russia and the USA and Russia and Canada. It is a big obstacle that does not allow Russians to stop being afraid of the West.
I would also mention Western media. They pay much attention to Russia, but almost 80% of their materials are strongly negative towards Russia. There are many planted or highly provocative articles, where Russia is precariously charged with either sending refugees to Europe or cooperating with terrorists. And there is no information about Russia without politics. As a result, people in Russia think that their country is deliberately demonized in the West.
RR: Do you think this wariness renders peoples’ choice of the media they read/watch selective?
VT: No, there is no direct links. The matter is that near a half of Russian population does not use Internet, people in villages and small towns often have access only to 2-3 federal TV-channels and the can not afford buying a satellite dish. The problem is that not only those who watch federal channels, but also those who surf the net, read Western media and travel abroad mistrust the West.
I would say, pro-Western minority of the Russian population avoids state media. And vice versa: anti-Western part of the population rejects Western and pro-Western Russian media. But once again it is not a majority.
RR: Do you think a negative opinion of the West amongst Russian people has an impact on the state’s decision making?
VT: Unfortunately, it is true. For the last 20 years, mistrust and suspicion towards the West have been spreading amongst Russian people. If tomorrow somebody says that the policies of the EU and the US are right (especially of the US), people will not even understand this. So, the majority of the decisions are made by the authorities in accordance with public sentiment.
For its part, the West has not made efforts to overcome these sentiments. Criticizing Vladimir Putin and Russia is not a way out. And the refusal under the doubtful pretext to lift or at least to ease sanctions provokes even more annoyance with the fact that Europe and North America are closing from Russia, not from its authorities, but from its population. This annoys people and only range them around the country’s authorities.
RR: How has the perception of the West by the politicians in Russia changed since 1991? What about popular opinion? What are the reasons?
VT: In the early 1990s Russian elite was oriented towards the West and was ready to cooperate in all possible spheres. Russian authorities even tried to make a copy of Europe out of Russia and saw themselves as a part of the Western elite. But Europe and the USA perceived this openness of Russia as weakness and decided that Russia may not be taken into account. And nobody was going to make Russian elite a part of the Western one.
NATO expansion, bombings of Serbia and a number of color revolutions in the post-Soviet area provoked wariness of Russian political elite. It still wanted to become a part of the Western elite, but these steps made it seek for an alternative to the cooperation with the West. Russia needed a plan B in case that their attempts to establish relations with the West fail. And the Ukrainian crisis only stirred up this search.
As for the population, it was first of all concerned with open borders, which they did not get. The authorities’ attempts to fit in the Western elite caused wariness among people for the same reasons that the authorities began to mistrust the West. In this case there are no great differences between the elite and the population.
RR: Do you think cooperation between Russia and the West is desirable? Is it viable? What forms should this cooperation take?
VT: The only alternative to cooperation is confrontation or even war. At least from this perspective, cooperation between Russia and the West is highly desirable. There are some evident areas of common interest. Russia cannot do without western technologies, Europe (and to some extent the USA) – without Russian raw materials. Many Russians immigrating to Europe or the US work for the leading laboratories, so there is need not only for our raw materials, but also for our brains.
Despite all obstacles, cultural cooperation is developed. Russia and the West cannot do without each other in the sphere of space exploration. They should cooperate to combat international terrorism. Cooperation in the sphere of tourism would be quite promising, but here comes the problem of visa regimes, that I have already mentioned.
Whichever sphere of cooperation we talk about, it should be a two-way road. The West should not demand one-way concessions from Russia. Russia, in its turn, should not call the West “a different, hostile civilization”. The rules of the game should be set out by the states together.
RR: What groups of state and non-state actors would you say benefit from the cooperation of the West and Russia?
VT: Almost all actors involved will benefit from the cooperation except for military-industrial sector, “professional Russophobes” in the West and “professional anti-Westerners” in Russia.
Interview by Nora Kalinskij