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The What-Not-To-Do List

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If the West really wants to build a new relationship, then it has to understand Russia much better than it does today. Here are a few recommendations on what to avoid when patching up relations with Moscow.

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Artwork: Cristóbal Schmal

Stop thinking that Russia can be turned into a country that will live by Western rules and notions. One of the fatal mistakes of the 1990s was the conviction in Europe and the US that Russia should be “steered” onto the right track by actively promoting internal transformations. The complete opposite was the result: Western prescriptions for Russia led to a “hybrid” democracy and market economy that are largely a parody. In addition, many Russians see their governing systems not as products of internal development, but as a model imposed by the West. Had the West refrained from active participation in Russian politics, there would be no reason to hold it responsible for the result.

Do not demonize Vladimir Putin and exaggerate his significance. The role of Russia’s president is weighty, but the country is going through a difficult transformation that follows its own logic. Contemporary Russia is not a product of Putin. Rather, Putin is a stage in Russia’s development. The fall of the Soviet Union meant not only the collapse of the previous form of statehood, but also of a common lifestyle and identity. Russia is beginning to pull out of the Soviet rut, but its society has yet to build a new foundation. Twenty-five post-Soviet years have amounted to an unsuccessful transition, leading the country into a blind alley. This state of affairs started long before Putin, and its consequences will be felt long after he is gone.

Do not count on coercing Russia with force and military pressure. Russian history shows that all attempts to influence the country from the outside have led to Russian society closing ranks, with disastrous results for those trying to exert influence. Russia’s main enemy has always been – and remains – its incapacity for timely internal renewal, but only Russia itself is capable of managing its own development, creating conditions for bringing about or avoiding disasters. Outside pressure gives rise to national pride, even in those who are dissatisfied with the government in place.

Do not think that Russia is destined to interact with the West, and that sooner or later it will realize it. It is true that Russia has witnessed two centuries of intellectual discussion on the subject of its Western or non-Western orientation. Those who regard the Western vector as inevitable have always prevailed. However, until now this was not a real choice – Asia could not serve as a source of economic development and innovation. Today the West is still in the lead, but Asia is growing into an ever-larger competitor. Russian supporters of an Asian orientation are putting forward concrete arguments and are offering concrete opportunities. If current trends persist, the picture of Russia’s external relations and its priorities will look quite different. China is ready to invest huge resources into the construction of Eurasian infrastructure, which will bind Russia tightly to the East.

It is pointless to explain to Russia its “genuine interests.” Europeans make this mistake often; Americans make it all the time. This causes genuine irritation and triggers an inclination to act differently.

Do leave history alone and do not call on Russia to reevaluate its past. Both Russia and Europe have had many different historical narratives and views of events, and so it is better to avoid going into this altogether. Otherwise a heated conflict is inevitable, especially since Russia is going through a period of creating a new identity wherein the past plays an important role.

Do not tell Moscow that the West has abandoned the zero-sum approach and is formulating its policies based on the common good. First of all, it is not true; each country – or group of countries – regards its own interests as primary. Secondly, no one will believe it anyway, in Russia or in the rest of the world, but will regard it as hypocrisy. A rational conversation about the balance of powers and interests would be much more productive.

Do not pay attention to all of the public statements coming out of Moscow. In today’s communication environment, where information flows resemble tsunamis, even diplomats have stopped thinking about what they are saying. What counts is the speed and toughness of the response, which in Internet communication is known as trolling – the art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off. The peculiar irony of Russian responses (especially from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense) is sometimes a reaction to the total dominance of Western opinion on the global media scene. They attempt to outmaneuver it with the help of paradoxical and sarcastic pronouncements.

Do not regard Russia as an anomaly, and Putin as a person “living in a parallel reality.” The reality of Russian politics is the reality that the overwhelming majority of the world is accustomed to, one which has existed for the duration of human history. It is the EU that lives in a parallel reality, trying to build an entirely different type of international relations. The deviation from the norm is more likely to be found there.

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