More than twenty years have passed since the fall of The Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These events left the world in an optimistic spirit. With the end of the Cold War, people all around the world dreamed about a world of cooperation. Russia started to transform into a market economy and began seeking normal relations with the Western world. Things looked good back then. Looking at the rising tensions between Russia and the West today, one could argue that things didn’t quite live up to expectations. This development leaves us with the question, why didn’t it?
For the 2016 US election, Hillary Clinton made it very clear who was to blame for much of the failed cooperation on international problems. One of her policy positions on her website was: “Stand up to Vladimir Putin”. Whether it was the Middle East or problems in Europe she was quick to point to Putin as an ignorant leader who didn’t want to cooperate with the West. However, she wasn’t the only one to point out Putin as the clear enemy. Throughout the Western world, we all seem to be indoctrinated by the James Bond movies and see Russia as a synonym for evil. We are eager to be judgmental and view all Putin’s actions as bad and unjustified. But if you take a step back and try to be objective about his situation, there are some interesting points to be made.
The year is 1991 and Russians all over the country queue to empty supermarkets in desperation for food. The economy is in tatters after the communist regime. The newly elected president Boris Yeltsin is now starting the process of transforming Russia into a market economy. Several economists from all around the world are called to help Russia in their transformation. They summarized their ideas for the country in a reform plan called the Grand Bargain for democracy in the Soviet Union. One of the many points that were made was that Russia was in desperate need of debt relief and economic aid to be able to handle the economic and democratic transformation. If we are to learn from history, we can truly see the impact this type of support can have. After WWII, the USA implemented the Marshall Plan in Europe which led to a huge success for their democratisation. The USA never provided this form of aid to Russia even though they were in desperate need of assistance. Instead of showing them will of cooperation the USA tried to take advantage of the situation.
Jeffrey Sachs, who is an American economist partly involved in the transformation of Russia, states that the USA saw the weakened Russia as an opportunity to increase American influence around the world. He says that they used the situation for example to push Russia out of the Middle East. Even though the Cold War was over, the USA still saw Russia as an enemy instead of a potential ally. In the face of waning support, the Russian economy was in free fall and oligarchs seized power during the rapid privatisation of the country. In these desperate times Putin made his way into power, as Russia’s first democratically elected leader Boris Yeltsin resigned.
Russia’s GDP surged during the early years of the Putin presidency. Data source: IMF
Putin quickly gained popularity, and to many Westerners’ surprise Putin is viewed as a star by many in Russia. Some would argue that it’s only because of faked polls and suppression, but looking at the graph down below there is another explanation to his popularity. Since Putin took office in 2000, the economy has steadily grown. Whether he truly is the reason for this economic growth or if it’s because of rising oil prices, can be discussed, but he has taken glory for it. Arguably something he achieved well was that he took back control from the oligarchs.
Another explanation to his popularity is his nationalistic rhetoric. Russians seem to enjoy that he stands up to the West and talk about making Russia a superpower again. But why would Russians seek a strong ruler that can “Stand up to Hillary Clinton”? One could look at it as a reaction to the global development after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USA has spread its influence around the world and NATO has moved drastically into Eastern Europe. Russia is now more or less surrounded by a military alliance. Putin has said in an interview that NATO’s territorial advance goes against unofficial promises made by Western leaders in the 1990s. Independent of the validity of these claims, if the Western world truly wanted to cooperate with Russia, is surrounding them with a military alliance the right approach? Putin has answered this by having military formations near the county’s Western border, violating airspace and drawing attention with military exercises. Of course from a Western point of view, this aggression is the reason why NATO needs to advance. This may very well escalate to an arms race, and perhaps mutual respect and openness is the key to breaking this vicious cycle.
It is true that Putin is centralising power in Russia and showing authoritarian characteristics, but just as he says in an interview, Russia has been ruled by a strong leader for its entire history, and it’s a long history stretching from tsars to the communist regime. Russia’s first encounter with democracy and market economy was characterized by a cold hand from the West and poverty. With this being said, we should not back on our democratic values and stop criticizing Putin’s undemocratic reforms and actions. But we should understand the historical context of their democratical setback.
Unless we want Russia as our forever sworn enemy, perhaps we should try to step back from our ethnocentric point of view and be a bit more reflective. The Western narrative demonises Russia and pushes them into a corner. This needs to change, in today’s globalized world we need international cooperation more than ever to meet global problems such as global warming and terrorism. We should work with Russia and support their democratisation, not isolate them with Putin. No matter if he is a star or a tsar.