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Getting Russia’s Future Right: Lessons from Recent History

Getting Russia’s Future Right: Lessons from Recent History

In 1991, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union opened an unexpected window of opportunity for the creation of a comprehensive, cooperative, and stable European security and economic order. One of the reasons why this promising chance was missed was that the Western community of experts on Eastern Europe had, even as Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was slowly turning into a full-scale revolution, not foreseen such an outcome.

After a brief détente in the early 1970s, most foreign political discourse and expert opinion on the prospects of Soviet-Western relations became, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the stationing of SS-20 missiles in Europe, increasingly gloomy again. Although the growing crisis in the planned economy eventually brought about a serious attempt to reform the Soviet system, most observers kept focusing on the USSR’s remaining imperfections—until the Soviet state no longer existed. Before this event, the West had not developed a clear understanding of, or a coherent plan for, a situation in which the Russian communist regime would falter and an independent Russia would embark on the road to gradual Westernization. As a result, during the 1990s, Western policies toward Moscow were formulated ad hoc, went largely uncoordinated between the various actors involved, and lacked a clear vision of what Eastern Europe’s future structure should eventually look like.

In recent years, Western comments on Russian domestic and foreign affairs have, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the early 1980s, become increasingly gloomy. 

In recent years, Western comments on Russian domestic and foreign affairs have, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the early 1980s, become increasingly gloomy. This pessimistic discourse—to which I have actively contributed—has highlighted, among other things, Putin’s neoimperial plans for the post-Soviet area; the many varieties of post-Soviet Russian ultranationalism; the fragility of the geopolitical gray zone between the Kremlin-dominated sphere, on one side, and NATO, on the other; Moscow’s subversion of the foundations of the world’s nuclear nonproliferation regime through its attacks on the nuclear-weapons-free state Ukraine; the catastrophic scenario of a potential full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war; the grave repercussions of such a new escalation for the whole of East-Central Europe; and the continuing Western naiveté with regard to the origins, nature, functioning, and aims of the current regime in Moscow.

To be sure, it is still necessary to repeat these points, which so far have proved insufficiently salient to Western mass media. Yet it may also be time to develop in parallel a different approach to Russia’s future. At least that is what recent history and the aftermath of the Cold War’s end suggest.

For instance, already in the 1970s the prominent Soviet-Jewish émigré scholar Alexander Yanov had suggested, in a book titled Détente after Brezhnev, that there would be a chance for a far-reaching rapprochement between the West and Moscow after the imminent change of leadership in the Soviet Union. In the 1980s Yanov, in a book titled The Russian Challenge and the Year 2000, warned that if the West missed the emerging chance to help Russian democracy take hold, such a failure would entail considerable future risks for the West. On the basis of an analysis of the reform and antireform cycles in Russian history, Yanov correctly predicted that Russia’s period of liberalization would be short. In the early 1990s he labeled the post-Soviet situation “Weimar Russia,” thereby comparing it with pre-Nazi Germany, warned of an imminent Russian right-wing turn, and repeatedly called for a Marshall Plan to stabilize Russia’s young proto-democratic regime and preserve its relatively pro-Western orientation.

It is true that, during the 1990s, various steps toward a rapprochement with Russia and cooperation with the newly independent states were taken by one or another national Western government and international organization, such as the IMF, the G7, the Council of Europe, or NATO. Yet there was little appreciation of the uniqueness of the world-historic opportunity on the table and the enormous stakes involved in getting this critical moment right. Instead of being guided by sensitivity to history, a coherent strategy, and an appealing teleology, Western approaches toward the post-Soviet world were characterized by spontaneity, complacency, and hesitancy. They did not, for example, include a Marshall Plan, as Yanov had suggested. The more sustained approaches, such as the EU’s Strategic and Modernization Partnerships with Russia, were introduced only after the “Putin system” had started to take shape, when it was already too late. We are now paying the price for this grave geopolitical omission on the part of Brussels, Berlin, and Washington.

To be sure, the emergence of a “Weimar Russia” in the early 1990s has not (yet) led to fascism, but stopped short of it in the post-Soviet equivalent of Paul von Hindenburg’s revanchist authoritarianism in the Germany of the early 1930s. That is to say, the deterioration of Russian democracy has been followed by an autocratic and restorative regime and not, so far, by an ideocratic and revolutionary regime like that of Hitler in 1933–1945. Still, Russia’s irredentist imperialism, its attack on international law, and various subversive activities are now creating enormous costs and risks for the West (if not the entirety of humanity). Retrospectively, the early 1990s look like a historical moment whose promise was missed because of an enormous blunder in diagnosis, analysis, and prognosis.

A positive agenda for a post-Putinist Russia could itself become a factor in its realization and get us away from the permanent repetition of doomsday scenarios. For a prophecy to become self-fulfilling, it needs to be stated first. 

Today, there are reasons to believe that we may sooner or later again be offered a chance to draw Russia into the Western community of states. Unlike in the 1980s, we should already be preparing now for such an optimistic turn of events. A positive agenda for a post-Putinist Russia could itself become a factor in its realization and get us away from the permanent repetition of doomsday scenarios. For a prophecy to become self-fulfilling, it needs to be stated first. A vision of how a future nonimperialist and democratic Russia could gradually be integrated into the Western community of states could become an instrument for Russian democrats, European diplomats, Western politicians, and international civil society in their furthering of such a scenario.

Yet so far there is very little thinking in the West about a completely different Russia and how to bring it about. As in the 1980s, the recent past is seen as the prime or even only analytically sound guide to the future. Anything beyond either mere extrapolation of the present or some even more grim prediction for the future looks like idle daydreaming. Putin’s regime and its drummers inside and outside Russia are themselves setting this agenda: all we can get from Moscow, so the story goes, is either accommodation or confrontation. At worst, instead of the current aggressive kleptocracy, a still more dangerous Russian fascist ideocracy could be in the wings. The Kremlin’s projection of Russian power, intransigence, and unpredictability is finding fertile ground in a Western analytical culture characterized by caution, skepticism, and pessimism.

To be sure, Moscow’s relations with the West may have to get worse before they can get better. Before it eventually self-destroys, Russia’s unviable kleptocratic order might go through big convulsions and a period that would be very risky for everybody involved—perhaps even for the whole of humanity. Yet chances are that sooner or later, Russia will turn again to the West and be ready not only for a resumption of its pre-Putin course and relationships with the West. There may even emerge the chance for a start of Russia’s all-out integration into Western economic and security structures. Such a turn of events may not only mean a second future opportunity to create a “common European home,” as once envisaged by Gorbachev. The very prospect of such a fundamental redefinition of Russian-Western relations and the transcendence of Europe’s current division through Russia’s gradual inclusion in the Western sphere can and should itself be seen as an instrument to bring about that future.

The usefulness of a new visionary Western agenda for “another Russia”—also the name of one of the principal Russian opposition associations—lies not only in its potential rapid implementation, in one way or another, should a radically different constellation in Eastern Europe eventually emerge. Developing such plan—one that includes Russia’s association with the EU and gradual inclusion in NATO—today would provide an instrument to promote such a post-Putinist change itself. One of the reasons for Moscow’s aggressive posture in world politics and erratic search for foreign allies is that the development of Russia’s international embeddedness and inclusion stalled after the annexation of Crimea.

Despite the Kremlin’s eager promotion of the idea of multipolarity, Russia is economically too weak to become a self-sustaining pole in a competitive multipolar world and an unstable geopolitical environment. Its current partnering with China, Turkey, and other non-Western powers will remain limited, as it can only occasionally lead to win-win situations. The Russian cultural affinity with, and geopolitical orientation toward, Europe will not only remain latent but, sooner or later, will prevail once more. The continuing Western integration of Ukraine and the other post-Soviet republics will become an increasingly attractive model for Russia. The unsustainability of Russia’s kleptocratic order and illiberal policies at home, along with the overreach of its revanchist behavior and neoimperial posturing abroad, will become more and more visible to the Russian elite and population. By formulating and publicizing an alternative view of Russia’s geopolitical future, the West can help hasten a change of course in Moscow, and should prepare itself for the moment when the tipping point is finally reached.

About the Author

Andreas Umland

Former Short-Term Grant;
Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Kyiv
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more