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The best-laid plans, as the poet puts it, often go awry. The law of unintended consequences has impacted strongly upon President Putin’s policies. His concern, probably shared with many Russians, with NATO expanding eastwards has come to pass with the force of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reversal of public opinion in Finland was swift and decisive. A very NATO-sceptic population is now overwhelmingly in favor of joining NATO. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine sealed that deal; it resonated profoundly in a country that fought two costly wars against the USSR. There is no discernible political shift in Finland; people here see NATO membership pragmatically as an ‘insurance policy’. Nonetheless, NATO will now have two new members in the Baltic region, one with a 1300-kilometer border with the Russian Federation. 

Another decidedly unintended outcome is the re-creation and solidification of Ukrainian nationalism. The sense of unity and purpose shown by Ukrainians is genuinely inspiring, although it will no doubt be tested as the war continues. The urgent questions are how long the war will continue and if there is something that might be called a victory. A Russian victory would be a massive setback for the faltering liberal order and an enormous human tragedy for the people of Ukraine. It might encourage the Kremlin to new adventures in Moldova, the Baltic States, or Georgia. Yet, a Russian defeat could have very negative consequences over the long run.    

In his majestic study, The Culture of Defeat, Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out that victory typically brings hubris and self-congratulation whereas defeat can get a much deeper historical understanding; the defeated search more profoundly and more painfully for answers. He quotes his countryman Reinhard Koselleck; “The victors may in the short term make history but historical wisdom is in the long run enriched by the vanquished”.[1] Historical wisdom may be asking too much in this case, but historical resentment is more likely. No matter the eventual outcome, this conflict will deepen anti-Western feelings in Russia. “I cannot support the war, but the sanctions hurting my parents are wrong,” said a Russian student in Helsinki who was against protesting the war. The cancelling of Russian performing artists and general Russian culture will also feed this resentment. Opera soprano Anna Netrebko has formally (if belatedly) denounced the war and been called a traitor in her native Russia. Yet her concerts have been cancelled in the U.S. and Germany. Did anyone ever lose sleep over what Maria Callas thought about Vietnam? 

Historical wisdom may be asking too much in this case, but historical resentment is more likely. No matter the eventual outcome, this conflict will deepen anti-Western feelings in Russia.

A feeling of inferiority vis-a-vis the West has long been present in Russia, as Isaiah Berlin and others have argued.[2] Is this still accurate? It is hard to assert because a sense of inferiority is a double psychological burden. Firstly, there is the shame of the inferiority in itself, and secondly, the fact that such feelings cannot be openly admitted. Rather, they are compensated for by arrogance, aggressive nationalism or a sense of victimhood. Scholars have noted much inwardness in post-Soviet Russian thought, some of it revisiting themes of the 19th century -Westerners (zapaniki) versus Slavophiles. In our study of Russian modernization, one of the several pairs on antinomies we identified was global processes versus nationalistic closing.[3] The latter is a drain on the former; this closing tendency will now increase, certainly over the shorter term.  

Russia will probably not become an international pariah despite its current isolation, at least from Western actors. The expression from the U.S. political economy ‘too big to fail’ is often used for bailing out large financial institutions with public money. It might also be applied to international relations, with the financial component as part of the equation. Russia is simply too big a player on the global stage to be designated an outcast. It is not Milosevic’s Serbia, or Iran, or North Korea. 

Iran and North Korea are worth a mention. The former is feared to be working on a nuclear weapons program, the latter has nuclear weapons, if a questionable delivery system. However, North Korea knows well the disproportionate menace it can wield because of its nuclear capacity. If it has little else, it has that. Diplomatic efforts to wean its nuclear weapons away from it are surely doomed to fail. It would be like asking the Gulf States to stop drilling. 

The implicit Russian threat to use nuclear weapons reminds us that one aspect of the Cold War –nuclear terror – is back with us. For some three decades, especially post 9/11, there was serious concerns of a so-called ‘dirty bomb’ being used by some non-state actors, one of the security challenges of fourth generation warfare. We are now, perhaps, receding to third generation (not that this would negate the fear of a terrorist group getting their hands on a weapon that can spread radiation). This is a grim development.

 

The Several Russias and Their Czar 

A much-discussed theory by Natalya Zubarevich posits the existence of four distinct Russias.[4] The most familiar to Westerners is the first Russia: urban, educated, with a strong attraction to, and probably first-hand experience of, the West. They constitute about 20% of the country's population and are most likely to oppose the war. The other three Russias are different: post-Soviet monotowns, smaller cities, rustbelts, and vast rural areas. 

As for the lowest 20%, Mikhail Pirogovsky’s sketch gives a grim picture: “hand-to-mouth living, no savings at all; still using the outhouse and relying on firewood to keep warm — both 20-25% of the Russian population — really. They are often employed, the “working poor,” living below the poverty line despite having a job. $150 is considered a decent monthly salary in the low places.” The horizon of expectancy is narrow as a noose: “… junkies were doing salt in the back of your class in the eighth grade. Collection of scrap metal was an honorable alternative to petty theft, though the metal had to be stolen anyway. Your social circle was all sporting Adidas tracksuits, a third had done jail time. Chances are, you knew someone who killed someone. You sure knew someone who drank themselves to death (maybe it was your dad).”[5] Pointedly, he states these are the young men fighting and committing atrocities in Ukraine. 

As for ‘middle’ Russia, the remaining masses are located between the two 20% extremes. For Pirogovsky, they just want to be left alone, they remember poverty and humiliation of what Russians call the ‘wild 90s’ when ordinary people suffered the humiliation of financial and social collapse while a political gangster class stole the country’s assets. The layer of society below them is an everyday reminder of what things could quickly become again. This was, and remains, a source of Putin’s appeal. That, and the fact the many far-flung areas rely on government subsidies. Putin’s victory in 2000 was, in Richard Sakwa’s words, a “victory of the people over the oligarchs, over-powerful regional bosses, and corrupt bureaucrats. As an ordinary Soviet person, Putin’s life reflected the lives of millions of his fellow citizens. In Putin, people could see themselves. Putin, in short, reflected a mass revolt against the corruption of the Yeltsin years and the humiliation of Gorbachev’s final period in office.”[6] The hardship that sanctions bring to the lives of the aspiring middle class is a rebirth of the chronic economic insecurity of the 1990s. It probably gains more support than it loses for the current regime. 

How much has changed over the two decades? Firstly, it is worth noting that Putin has been a fortunate and skillful politician. As Magda Leichtova observed, he was lucky to arrive in office following a currency collapse and a rise in the price of raw materials that Russia could export very cheaply.[7] Furthermore, a year later, terrorist attacks on the USA changed global politics, not least in being a severe setback for international law.  

Some readers may be surprised that in the late 19th century, Imperial Russia was a promoter of international law – itself being essentially a set of rules regarding interstate war. Peter Holquist’s forthcoming work By Right of War: Imperial Russia and the Discipline and Practice of the ‘Laws of War’ (1868-1917) argues that reactionary Russia was ahead of liberal Britain in establishing rules of warfare.[8] This is interesting in post-Soviet (and again imperial) Russia, which is seen as a ‘non-native speaker’ (of international law).[9] Most big powers are probably non-native speakers, with local accents. In Marx’s famous phrase, they ‘translate it back into the language of the original’ i.e., their own perceived national interests. 

It can be argued that Russia’s national interest – an ambition to be a Great Power – is a source of endless frustration.[10]It cannot establish hegemony over its self-declared Russian World (Ruskii mir). Instead, it supports an illegitimate government in Belarus, and has graduated from subversion and annexation to outright invasion of Ukraine. Measuring itself against the U.S., its old Cold War rival, Russian foreign policy makes exceptionalist claims for itself, but these are not accepted or validated by third parties in the way American exceptionalism is. America, this logic goes, breaks international law with little cost, and gets away with this due to its hegemonic position on the global stage. Why can Russia not do likewise? Why was Iraq accepted and Ukraine not? George Bush’s recent gaffe when he condemned Putin’s ‘wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq’ only underlines this disparity. 

Measuring itself against the U.S., its old Cold War rival, Russian foreign policy makes exceptionalist claims for itself, but these are not accepted or validated by third parties in the way American exceptionalism is.

If this manner of relativizing seems like the grandchild of Cold War ‘whataboutery’, it is. It might be said that if ‘whataboutery’ is the lamest and most tedious form of political discourse, it is not entirely without value. Bad precedents will be imitated and repeated by other actors. 

Secondly, we must note that if there are four Russias, there have also been several versions of Vladimir Putin. The streetwise Petersburger who then absorbed advice is now a botox-bloated autocrat, surrounded by abject yes-men. He has amassed personal wealth like any other corrupt dictator. He no longer listens to helpful opinion, and his timid courtiers are offering none. 

 

A New Cold War?

To go back to unintended consequences, Russia has strengthened NATO, and given many Western countries a sense of unity that was recently lacking, due to, among other things, Brexit and the turbulent Trump presidency (a second one cannot be entirely ruled out). From the Russian side, this Western unity will only seem to confirm what was long believed, at least in three of the four Russias; that is, the whole degenerate West was essentially the same. This can be seen in cultural stereotypes, i.e., so called ‘Gayropa’, or in the unwillingness to distinguish NATO and the European Union as two separate institutions. Another decidedly unintended outcome is the re-creation of Ukrainian nationalism. 

There might not be a new Cold War, as has been commonly predicted (and contested) but we might see a new division in Europe, though not precisely along an iron curtain.[11] With fewer countries committed to official neutrality, a new sense of `Us versus Them´ will emerge. This may not prove to be such a neat division, however. As of June 2022, Vikor Orban still provides Putin with a friend in the West; this ‘friendship’ is a political combination of fossil fuel dependency and shared conservatism, especially on matters of gender and family politics. Serbia will remain in the twilight zone of wishing for the EU membership while retaining a deep cultural attachment to Russia. This ‘special relationship’ is not based on rational reading of its national interests.[12] For example, Austria is arguably a much larger investor in Serbia than Russia. Yet in the words of President Vucic, “we cannot change ourselves on this issue”.[13]

It must also be noted that the Cold War pitted two economic systems against each other; this is no longer the case. Even communist China has a market economy, a very robust one. However, as argued above, even if we do not have precisely a new Cold War, we do have a new age of nuclear terror. 

 

[1] Wolfgang Schivelbrusch, The Culture of Defeat, on national trauma, mourning, and recovery, (New York: Picador/H. Holt, 2004): p. 4.

[2] Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1979): p. 265.

[3] Kivinen and Humphreys (eds) Russian Modernization, a New Paradigm, (London and New York: Routledge, 2021): pp. 286-291.

[4] See among others, Vladislav Zubok’s Can Putin Survive, the lessons from the Soviet collapse Foreign Affairs

(July/August 2022).

[5] Mikhail Pirogovsky, “The Four Russias and Ukraine, Observations on Russia's stratified population and their attitude to war”, 22 April 2022. Available at https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/04/20/the-four-russias-and-ukraine-a77423

[6] Richard Sakwa, Putin, Russia’s Choice (London and New York: Routledge, 2002): pp. 249-50.

[7] Magda Lichtova, Misunderstanding Russia: Russian Foreign Policy and the West, (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014): p. 152.

[9] See, Anna Dolidze, “The Non-Native Speakers of International Law: the Case of Russia”, Baltic Yearbook of International Law (2015).

[10] Kivinen and Humphreys, (2021): pp. 78-79. 

[11] See, for example, Edward Lucas’ The New Cold War, How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West, Bloomsbury (2008), a work long ago warning of a dangerous kremlin, or Alex Doherty’s argument about a new China/US rivalry, “The US's cold war with China won't disappear if Joe Biden becomes president,” Guardian, 12 October 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/12/us-cold-war-china-disappear-joe-biden-president-beijing?CMP=share_btn_link

[12] See, for example, Brendan Humphreys, “Russian and Serbia: between piety and politics,” in Conservativism and Memory Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia (edited by Katalin Miklóssy and Markku Kangaspuro) (London and New York: Routledge, 2021).

CONTRIBUTOR
Brendan Humphreys
Brendan Humphreys

Brendan Humphreys is a Senior Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, the Finnish Center for Russian and East European Studies. He specializes in East European political and cultural history. Recent publications include Russian Modernization: A New Paradigm (Routledge 2021).

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