How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is one of six essays in a series published on American Interest a portal devoted to the broad theme of “America in the world.”

Let’s turn back to the Western pragmatists. By the end of 2014 many of them were forced to admit, as did Samuel Charap, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, that the “‘narratives’ on Russia and relations between Russia and the West were not adequate. They need to be dumped and new approaches have to be found…. U.S. perceptions of Russian objectives in the post-Soviet Eurasia are distorted.” Paul Saunders (executive director, the Center for the National Interest): “America’s dominant narratives about Russia have been inaccurate since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” These admissions, which have become a popular refrain in the pragmatist community, sounded encouraging, since they could be interpreted as a step toward a rethinking of past misjudgments. But the follow-ups disappointed. Here is how Charap assessed theinadequacy of previous narratives: “[They] create an impression of a neo-imperialist Russia bent on subjugating its neighbors at all costs.” But isn’t that, in fact, what the Kremlin wants to do—subjugate them? How else can we interpret the Kremlin’s policy toward Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia? A mutual romance?

Saunders presented a similar analysis, stating that the narrative of a “revanchist Russia” is wrong. Why is it wrong? Because “Moscow in reality appears profoundly reluctant to launch a large scale invasion of the region.” I take this statement as meaning that the Kremlin didn’t do enough to merit an accusation of aggression or even assertiveness. What would it take to make Saunders admit that “the invasion” in Ukraine took place? Russian soldiers in Kiev? These quotes point to the pragmatists’ attempts to cling to their old premises while somehow acknowledging that their previous assessments don’t reflect reality. What is their new narrative about, then?

Western pragmatists (like their Russian soul mates) keep repeating arguments straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook. I want to believe that perhaps they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. If they do realize, how one could call what they do analysis?

Let me turn my attention to the leading voices in the pragmatist chorus: John Mearsheimer and Stephen Cohen, who, like the majority of the pragmatists, argue that the West—more precisely, NATO expansion—is to blame for the confrontation. Both are very helpful because by their clear cur arguments and their insistency they present the pragmatists’ position in its most articulate form.

Stephen Cohen & John Mearsheimer on RT

I will turn to Kirk Bennett, the American analyst, for response. He argues,

Central European countries have not been dragged or lured into NATO by the West; they’ve been pushed by Moscow. Russian revisionism and great-power chauvinism constitute the finest NATO recruitment tool ever devised…. If Moscow doesn’t like NATO enlargement, it might usefully stop creating the conditions that make NATO membership such an attractive proposition for so many of Russia’s neighbors. An exaggerated fear of hostile encirclement drives Russian policies that antagonize other states, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; by definition, Russia can never have secure borders as long as it keeps making enemies of its neighbors.

“The United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine,” Mearsheimer argued. This is Cohen’s position as well. “Putin did not begin or want this crisis”, Cohen kept saying. Really? What about Putin’s own admission that he ordered the Crimea annexation and was personally in charge of it? Or is this annexation not a sufficient cause for crisis?

I am focusing on these arguments because they still are quite common in the expert community. I will let Michael McFaul and Stephen Sestanovich respond to Mearsheimer. Here is what McFaul said: “[Mearsheimer’s] explanation of the crisis in Ukraine demonstrates the limits of realpolitik.” Mearsheimer, McFaul said, fails to explain “why Russia kept its troops out of Ukraine for the decade plus between NATO’s expansion, which began in 1999, and the actual intervention in 2014.” Really, an excellent question: why? Here is one more of McFaul’s arguments: “In fact, in the five years that I served in the Obama Administration, I attended almost every meeting Obama held with Putin and Medvedev, and for three of those years, while working at the White House, I listened to every phone conversation, and I cannot remember NATO expansion ever coming up." [1]

Let’s listen to Stephen Sestanovich now. The problem with Mearsheimer, he says, is that “he takes everything that political leaders say—whether Obama’s pieties or Putin’s lies—at face value.” By the way, all pragmatists evince the same tendency. This is quite ironic: in their efforts to be pragmatic and world-weary, they come off as rather naive: they do believe the Kremlin’s propaganda! Sestanovich is right: “Had NATO not grown to its present size and borders, Russia’s conflict with Ukraine could be more dangerous than what is occurring today.” I also agree with the following argument: “In proposing to turn Ukraine into a ‘neutral buffer between NATO and Russia,’ Measheimer offers a solution to a crisis that ignores its real origins and may make it worse…. Why should anyone think that declaring Ukraine a permanent gray area of international politics would calm the country down?” Really, why?

I will contribute my own thoughts to this discussion. Mearsheimer (like many other pragmatists) believes Putin to be “a first-class strategist.” Even the Russian political class has its doubts about this today. Can the leader who pushed Russia toward economic crisis, the leader who constructed one of the most corrupt post-communist regimes, the leader who started two wars—in Ukraine and Syria—and one confrontation with Turkey and does not know how to end them, the leader who brought Russia to international isolation be considered a strategist? Mearsheimer must be joking! [2]

Regarding Mearsheimer’s idea “to make Ukraine a neutral buffer state between Russia and NATO,” I will let the British historian Timothy Garton Ash respond:

Well, thank you Professor Realist. Perhaps you would like to seal the deal yourself? We have the perfect location for your realpolitik summit: Yalta, where in 1945 Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill gave an ambiguous legitimacy to the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe. That’s Yalta in now annexed Crimea.

Crimea Conference in Yalta 1945: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin

One can’t avoid thinking that such an open declaration by Mearsheimer is useful because it so thoroughly discredits itself.

I will cite another example from the wealth of pragmatist arguments: “When the West ignores Russia’s interests, as it did in the lead up to the Ukrainian crisis, confrontation reigns.” Why should the West identify the Putin regime’s interests with Russia’s interests?

One more version of the same arguments. Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings senior fellow, wrote of the causes of the confrontation during 2014 in the following way. “The Euro-Atlantic institutional architecture had increasingly become a source of friction between Russia and the West”; NATO and EU “could never fully integrate Russia.” This is a favorite song of all Russian pro-Kremlin analysts.

Those who blame the West for failing to integrate Russia should be asked whether an illiberal system can be integrated into the framework of a liberal civilization. And what would have happened to the West if such an attempt had indeed been made? But if such a scenario were actually possible, what should the West have done to make Russia reform itself? In fact, the pragmatists have always opposed interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. Hence, we can assume that the “integrators” are talking about the inclusion of authoritarian Russia into the Euro-Atlantic structures—an intriguing experiment, indeed. Are the “integrators” ready to see collapse of the West?

Here is yet another explanation of the origins of the confrontation between Russia and the West during the crisis around Ukraine. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock: “The tensions between Russia and the West are based more on misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and posturing for domestic audiences than on any real clash of ideologies or national interests.” Matlock is trying to soften tensions by reducing the general problem to specifics. But, first, can’t the Ambassador, who lived in Russia, see the difference between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes? Second, attempts to avoid discussing conceptual differences between Russia and the West will only create fertile ground for new misunderstandings. And finally, this approach is a perfect case of misjudgment that left the West unprepared for Russia’s “shock and awe” project.

Stephen Sestanovich, pondering what went wrong and whether Moscow’s fears of encirclement have any ground, reminds us of the West’s “historic and ongoing demilitarization of the European continent” after the Cold War. During the Cold war, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers were deployed in Europe; today, only 28,000 remain. The U.S. also allocated billions of dollars (via the Nunn-Lugar program) to improve the security of Russia’s military-industrial complex. This means that what the pragmatists label as expansion in reality has been NATO backtracking and even losing its mission.

Today even some convinced Russia pragmatists have started to review their old axioms regarding NATO. Thus, Fiodor Lukianov recently wrote, “Let’s imagine another scenario—Central and Eastern Europe is left outside of the NATO alliance…. In this case most probably the geopolitical conflict between Russia coming to senses after the shock of the ’90s and self-assured West would have taken place, but not on the territory of Ukraine, but in the same Europe…."[3] This truth was apparent a long time ago, wasn’t it? And here is what Lukianov is thinking on the chances of Russia’s joining NATO: “…Russia did not liberate itself from its historic tradition and psychology of a great power. And it would have been too tough an effort to subordinate itself to the alliance discipline under the US leadership….” I hope Lukianov would explain this to his Russian and Western colleagues who continue complain about the West rejecting Russia.

Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe center, came up with a response to the pragmatists who accuse the West of ignoring Russia and disrespecting its interests. He stated that “contrary to common myth, the West went out of its way to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia after the end of the Cold War”; all Western institutions—from the Council of Europe to EU and NATO—“bent over backwards to invite Russia in and to accommodate Russia.” And how did Moscow react? Moscow’s position amounts “to demanding a veto right over all institutional arrangements and political forums while trying to avoid all possible limitations on Russian power.” Techau speaks about another Western illusion: “that a firm position vis-à-vis Russia will inevitably be seen as a provocation by Moscow and will lead to a deterioration of relations.” Meanwhile, the Western soft approach did not prevent this deterioration.

Here is what Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum has to say on the issue: “Constant efforts were made to reassure Russia.” She reminds us that no NATO bases were placed in new member states; until 2013 no exercises were conducted there; and no nuclear installations were moved there. The NATO-Russia Council was set up in 2002. Ukraine and Georgia were denied NATO membership action plans in 2008. Russia preserved a great power seat in the Security Council and joined the G-8. But, as we know, all this was not enough to satiate the ambitions of the Kremlin, whose goal is to participate in Western forums while playing by its own rules.

Two former Swedish Ambassadors to Moscow (Tomas Bertelman and Johan Molander) and an Ambassador to the EU (Sven-Olof Peterson) gave their interpretation of the causes of the confrontation between Russia and the West:

The current crisis in Russian-Western relations has its roots in internal developments in Russia. Russia’s tragic failure to democratize and implement the economic reform agenda of the 1990s had many causes, but none of them can be blamed on the West…. This image of a Russia encircled by hostile forces, including an aggressive and growing NATO and European Union, was created to legitimize the regime’s actions… Conflict with the West simply serves a vital function for the current Russian leadership.

Still, we need to reflect on the question of why Russia didn’t join NATO. One of the reasons Sestanovich mentions is worth quoting:

For Russia to embark on this condition-strewn path was just as unthinkable as it was for NATO to offer membership unconditionally. Russian officials would have had to endure insufferable Western bossiness…and reviews of whether Russia was abiding by its ‘membership action plan.’ NATO did not want to start down that road any more than the Russians did.

Thus there were two ways to solve the problem: Either Russia had to be whisked into the alliance without meeting the qualifications of membership (and expect that Russia in NATO will undermine it from inside), or it would have to suffer even more humiliation by having to abide by Western rules—an unpleasant prospect for the Russian elite! This seems like a sufficient response to those who lament that Russia was not integrated into the Euro-Atlantic structures.

One more brushstroke to the pragmatists’ landscapeThe pragmatic narrative on Russia is usually based on an idealized portrait of Russian domestic developments. When looking at Russia’s internal scene, the pragmatists simply cannot recognize the decline of the Russian System, because doing so would ruin their foreign policy concept: how does it make sense to accommodate a regime in an advanced state of decay? Therefore they must find evidence of the Russian regime’s capacity not only to solve problems but even to modernize itself. Russian political reality isn’t uniformly rotten, say the pragmatists. The Putin regime still has the potential to reform itself. Don’t bury it quite yet.

Let’s see how Richard Sakwa described Russia in 2014: “The regime was forced to make concessions through liberalization of the political system…. [The] ‘Medvedian line’ in Russian politics remains alive—the soft-liner strategy of gradual ameliorative change.” What country is he talking about? This is the same period in which Putin hardened the regime and actually eliminated political pluralism. Where does he see this soft “Medvedian line”? It never existed, and the Kremlin has even stopped pretending that it does exist: Why go to the trouble of faking it, when the West is just as interested in keeping up appearances as the Kremlin is?

Medvedian line never existed

Here is another example of an expert seeing a Russia that does not exist. Writing about popular misconceptions of Russia, Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert at ASG [Albright Stonebridge Group], offered his view of Russia, “Many outsiders would be surprised at how much freedom the average Russian enjoys. Today the majority of Russians take for granted the ability to travel abroad, own property, build businesses, read what they want on the internet, and basically, be left alone by the state.” It’s certainly true that the regime mostly leaves people alone as long as they keep to themselves (although this is no longer a given!). But the Russian state does not protect private property rights, and in fact constantly violates them; it encroaches on Internet freedom; and it treats “travel abroad” as a way of ridding the country of dissidents. The area of Russians’ personal freedoms has been shrinking constantly. What “freedoms” is Weiss talking about? It does not look Putin’s Russia today!

The pragmatists have been spending a lot of effort to prove that the Russian regime is both solid and enjoys popular support. They cannot recognize that the regime is vulnerable, and that its prospects are uncertain. “The President manages to stay in touch with ordinary Russian people”, writes a pragmatist. Indeed, the situation may seem this way to inattentive observers, since the polls still indicate mass support for Putin. How much credit should we give polling in a country that has been shifted to a wartime footing and that has an aversion to telling the truth?

Apparently, the pragmatists (not only in Russia) are still captivated by Putin’s approval ratings and the images of optimism and unity transmitted on television. Russian reality, meanwhile, is moving in the opposite direction, toward a deeper crisis, greater public discontent, and a clearly befuddled government. By falling for the mediated reality of Russian television, the Western pragmatists repeat the same basic errors made by the Sovietologists.

And finally, on how the Western pragmatists are viewed by the Russian liberal democratic community. Let me turn to an essay by a popular Russian analyst, the former chairman of the Russian Union of Journalists, Igor Yakovenko: “The Munich Seed.” In the essay he analyzes a recent interview for the Russian media by Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, which has made a splash in the Russian liberal debates on how the West views Russia. Needless to say, Rojansky’s comments did not increase the Russian liberal community’s trust toward the West. Rather it proves that the Western pragmatists would prefer to have cozy relations not with the Russian liberals or civil society, but with the Kremlin. Here are segments of Yakovenko’s analysis of Rojansky’s interview:

‘Classical American mistake: an attempt to enforce on Russia our perception about her ideal statehood,’ declares Rojansky…. No doubt his view has the right to exist; moreover, such a position…flourishes among the Kremlin propagandists who, exactly in the same way, accuse the U.S. of interference in the domestic life of other countries….

Rojansky explains his position in the following way: ‘I am mentioning the phenomenon that exists today: Americans want others to enjoy the same rights and freedoms that they have themselves. This is a very strange instinct. Imagine that, walking in the park, I saw another family and demanded that its father give his child as much freedom as I give mine.’ Rojansky may have not noticed how clearly he pointed to the gap not only between him and George Kennan, but between him and Woodrow Wilson, Reagan, Churchill, Thatcher…. Returning back to the park where we left Rojansky having a walk, we’ll specify his example…. Imagine the father of that family beats his kid viciously or publicly rapes him…. Would you, Mr. Rojansky, insist … that one can’t demonstrate one’s ‘strange instinct’ and rush to save this kid? This is exactly the same Putin is doing with his citizens… Matthew Rojansky is so consequential in his pro-Kremlin position, he expresses it so fully and clearly, that one can get an impression that the Kennan Institute is the department of the Russian presidential administration and Rojansky himself is getting salary in the Kremlin’s accounting office.

Here is his position on Syria: ‘I think that compromise on Syria and struggle with the ISIS could be pursued successfully: in order for this to happen an agreement is needed that the future of Assad will be discussed as the last issue.’ If this is a compromise, I don’t know what total surrender is because this is the articulation of the Kremlin’s position. On Ukraine: ‘I hope that we’ll see positive changes in Eastern Ukraine: the local authorities with the support of Russia will hold the elections and will return the border control to Kyiv.’ Here Sovietologist Rojansky outdid the Kremlin. Because even there no one demands that the elections on territory that still is recognized as Ukrainian should be held ‘with support of Russia’…

Maybe, here we have a certain analog of the Stockholm syndrome in which the observer accepts the value system of the object he analyses… This syndrome—let’s call it the ‘Rojansky syndrome’—is a pretty nasty thing, because U.S. politicians still listen to Russia experts’ advice.

End of quote. No further comment.


Lilia Shevtsova is a member of TAI's editorial board. The author wishes to thank Daniel Kennelly for his editorial assistance with this series of essays.