Moscow’s Status Anxiety
In my secondary school years in the late 1980s, “Deployment of New Missiles in Europe Must Stop,” “Moscow Pulls Out of the U.S. Olympics,” and “Reagan’s Great Lie in the Sky” were the kinds of news stories one had to present in front of the class after spending an evening sifting through the newspapers. We had weekly “political information” classes back then, and these headlines come back to me whenever I remember those times.
It was just the way the world was: they called us “evil,” we called them “imperialists”; they were running their part of the world, we were ruling ours. Underlying all the media noise was a notion firmly held by both sides that they were equals, each power holding a 50 percent stake in the world’s ultimate security "joint venture." The Soviet bloc and other socialist-leaning countries were not called “the second world” for nothing.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia sought to consolidate its former international status. Moscow made sure the Soviet nuclear arsenal was on Russian territory, took up responsibility for the Union’s debts, inherited its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and claimed the former republics’ largest foreign assets. By virtue of this transition, the Russian elites have always considered themselves entitled to the Soviet Union’s stature in the world.
Americans thought otherwise. U.S. politicians—starting with George H. W. Bush, who in 1992 declared that “the Cold War didn’t end; it was won”—tended to see Russia’s stake in the world as diminished. Of course, this was a viewpoint, not a document: the standoff between the powers of the capitalist West and the socialist East had been very real, but no capitulation treaty was signed at the end of the Cold War because the war, itself, had never been formally declared. The same goes for the Soviet-American security “joint venture”: it had never been instituted on paper and could be easily diluted.
Or so it feels now. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was unique in the pace with which the country’s international status crumbled,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, wrote in Vedomosti at the end of January, not long after President Trump’s inauguration. “In November 1991, the USSR was one of the two pillars of the world order. (Mikhail Gorbachev served as one of the two principals, with Bush, of the 1991 Madrid Conference, an attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.) In December of the same year, the newly independent Russia was receiving humanitarian aid from its former adversaries—no military defeat suffered!”
This is today’s vision. I am not sure that many, even among the top officials, felt so strongly about the loss of Russia’s international status back in the 1990s. The overwhelming concern was to make sure the transition was peaceful. “The Soviet Union had more than five million soldiers deployed from Budapest to Vladivostok, and hundreds of thousands more troops in KGB and interior ministry battalions,” the historian Stephen Kotkin wrote in his aptly named book, Armageddon Averted. “It experienced almost no major mutinies in any of these forces. And yet, they were never fully used.”
The second half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s saw a major expansion of the American-backed institutions of the West: NATO and the European Union. Moscow never loved this expansion, but also never protested forcefully against it until a certain point. As late as the early 2010s, the working plan that Moscow seemed to be following was for Russia to be part of a Greater West, a loose community of nations that were too divergent economically and politically to fit the European Union, NATO, or even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but were still parts of a value-based whole.
It was because of this understanding that Moscow tolerated the expansion of the West: it was thinking of itself as an aspiring part of the West, too.
“We all had illusions. We thought that—even after Russia, voluntarily and consciously, undertook absolutely historical limitations to its territory and manufacturing capacity,” Vladimir Putin said in a documentary released in 2015. “As the ideological component was gone, we were hoping that ‘freedom will greet us at the door and brothers will hand us our sword.’” These words—a quote from Alexander Pushkin—are remarkable not just because of a reference to a Russian Romantic poem and a sword, but also because of the conditional character Putin ascribes to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Moscow’s sense of entitlement to great-power status began to grow exponentially. Following the 2011–12 protests, Moscow reconceptualized the so-called color revolutions as being not just hostile acts, but weapons of political warfare deployed against Russia. Under the circumstances, there was only one way that Russia’s leaders could read the events in Ukraine in early 2014, when then president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country following mass protests: the Kremlin read it as a prelude to Western-led regime change in Moscow. In response, Russia broke out of the post–Cold War security agreements and annexed a part of another post-Soviet state, the peninsula of Crimea, a region of Ukraine. The events that followed the annexation and the breaking out of war in Ukraine—the expulsion of Russia from the G8; the introduction of American and European sanctions; a steep economic decline, caused mainly by a coinciding oil plunge—put U.S.-Russian relations into a deep freeze. But Moscow never meant to reach a point of no return.
When acting aggressively, Russia was acting in the belief—a belief that Putin reiterated on many occasions—that the past show of weakness was the cause of Russia’s troubles and that the present show of strength would bring back what was lost. Through its use of force in Ukraine and later in Syria, Moscow was seeking to reinforce its negotiating position for a reinvigorated international status. The Obama administration, in Moscow’s view, did not understand the proposition—and so, the thinking went, a new administration would. A new president in Washington was Russia’s hope for a turnaround in an argument that had been left unresolved for the two-and-a-half post–Cold War decades.
This does not mean that the Kremlin necessarily preferred a Trump win. A weak Hillary Clinton would probably have been an even more desirable outcome from the Kremlin’s viewpoint. We still do not have the full picture of Moscow’s possible interference in the 2016 U.S. election, but the Kremlin was invested in it in the sense that it did expect a lot from the outcome. We do not know all the tools that may have been used; even if we learn more about them, this information will be technical. The nontechnical and fundamental part is that Moscow developed a sense of entitlement to a better representation in the world and tried to push for this entitlement to be recognized in Washington.
I would not be surprised if Moscow did use tricks in trying to help the new administration move in the desired direction. What still surprises me is the kind of approach that Moscow has taken if, indeed, the idea was to get back to a conversation about Russia’s desired role in the world. Russia is a great nation by virtue of its history and culture; few have doubts about it. But being a great world power is a relative value: others have to recognize it. Tricking others into recognizing one’s worth does not work.
The Russian economy and trade were to be the Kremlin’s main concerns if it wanted Russia to be recognized again as a major world power. To secure that recognition, the Kremlin would do better to engage in a relationship with the U.S. that benefited Russia’s businesses and its scientific and scholarly communities—on top of the security agenda that will remain a U.S-Russia subject, no matter what.
The full version of this piece appeared in Wilson Quarterly.
About the Author
Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.Read More
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and 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, and the region though research and exchange. Read more