By Valerie Toranian
The war in Ukraine highlighted the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between Russia and the West. Explanations and analysis with Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations.
Revue des Deux Mondes – What is the chasm of misunderstanding between the West and Russia based on?
Thomas Gomart – At the beginning of the Putin years, political and economic circles considered Russia mainly as one of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), that is, as an emerging market. The prevailing idea at the time was that economic convergence would eventually lead to political convergence. However, Russia only joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2011, ten years after China. The first misunderstanding is, therefore, not having seen that Russia was also, and above all, a re-emerging power. When it progressed economically, especially with rising energy prices, it rearmed itself. We must not forget that Vladimir Putin began his term by losing a nuclear submarine in August 2000. He revived the war in Chechnya and offered revenge on his soldiers. This strategy allowed it to regain credibility and international prestige. He thought that to be respected, you had to be feared.
Second misunderstanding: Russia is a civilization apart, the famous orthodox world described by Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations, or is it a country that fully participates in globalization? Is there a specific specificity for Russia? Due to its continental dimension and the organization of its power, Russia cannot have a development comparable to that of Poland or the Baltic countries. In the second half of the Putin years, the discourse on Russian “specificity” hardened. Russian elites approach, with differences, the “Huntingtonian” view of the world. Putin presents himself as the personification of a civilizational bloc fundamentally opposed to decadent Occidentalism, but capable, unlike Westerners, of interacting with other great “civilizations”, in particular the Muslim world. For us, this has led to geopolitical interpretations that are often caricatured and instrumentalized, as in the case of Eastern Christians, either out of ignorance or blindness. However, the dual relationship maintained with Chechnya and Syria is constitutive of Vladimir Putin’s power. Internally and externally, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is personally loyal to Vladimir Putin and is part of his power apparatus. He sends his troops to fight in Ukraine to the cry of “Allah Akbar”. It is worth remembering that when the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were committed, a million Chechens marched through the streets of Grozny against the publication of the cartoons. In Syria, Russia has fought less against the Islamic State than it has guaranteed, through massive bombings, the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
‘Few international leaders have experienced such a dazzling personal journey. Therefore, his personality has nothing in common with the leaders produced by our democratic systems.’
Finally, the third misunderstanding concerns Putin’s personality and his point of view on other Western leaders, simply because of his ideology, his intellectual frame of reference – he is addicted to Russian history, a hard drug he cannot afford. stop letting go – and for their lived experience. The streets of Leningrad, law studies, a rather mediocre career in the KGB, his time in East Germany where he saw a system collapse, his return to Russia in the early 1980s, the economic chaos that benefits serious crimes… his return from the GDR, he was elected president of the Russian Federation. Few international leaders have experienced such a dazzling personal journey. Since then, his personality has nothing in common with the leaders produced by our democratic systems. Leather is not the same. Especially since Vladimir Putin imprints his will to power through his ability to act.
Revue des Deux Mondes – Is this turning point, from which Vladimir Putin inserts himself more into Russian civilization, linked to the eastward advance of NATO?
Thomas Gomart – I hardly subscribe to the thesis of Russian humiliation, insisted by Russian embassies in Europe and repeated ad nauseam. I only partially subscribe to the one dealing with NATO enlargement as the main cause of post-Soviet Russia’s behavior. The fundamental problem is the nature of the Russian regime after the fall of the USSR. The latter collapsed of its own accord the day the Soviets stopped believing in it. It is above all an economic, political and ideological failure before being the result of Western manoeuvres. The USSR lost the Cold War because it was no longer able to continue with the competition. From 1993 onwards, by repressing Parliament, Russia plunged into a presidentialism that annihilated any idea of institutional counterpower and immediately returned to political violence. Russia of the 1990s was based on four forces: the Kremlin, the army, the security services and criminal circles, which will outfit themselves with presentable facades with oligarchs playing the game of globalization to the fullest. While the Russian economy is being violently privatized – it is undoubtedly in this area that Western influence will have been the most damaging – Russia is militarily defeated in Chechnya. If the West knows how to take advantage of privatizations, it takes two major initiatives: on the one hand, a NATO-Russia Council in 1997, which establishes a symbolic parity that does not correspond to the real balance of power, and, on the other hand, the entry into of Russia in the G7, which becomes the G8. At the same time, of course, there are the modalities of American strategic domination, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. The bombing of Belgrade by NATO, without a UN mandate, marks an ideological and strategic rupture. Moscow openly denounces Western “double standards”, at the same time as it takes notice of its military demotion. Russia defaulted in 1998. For Putin, recovery can only rhyme with nationalism.
‘Let us remember that NATO does not annex countries. (…) This “kidnapped West”, to use Milan Kundera’s expression, suffered from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, it was vital for him to obtain Western security guarantees in view of Russia’s political evolution and its way of waging the war in Chechnya. ‘
Regarding Russia’s feeling of insecurity, let us remember in passing that NATO does not annex countries. For Poles or Hungarians, the Warsaw Pact was not exactly the house of happiness! His desire to finally break out of Russia’s historic orbit also reflects the feeling of having been left to fend for himself during the Cold War. This “kidnapped West”, to use Milan Kundera’s formula, suffered from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, it was vital for him to obtain Western security guarantees in view of Russia’s political evolution and its way of going to war in Chechnya. The situation is again different for the former members of the USSR: comparing the development of the Baltic countries and Ukraine, thirty years after the collapse,
Russia’s real sense of insecurity lies in the country’s strategic culture, which needs “thick borders”, to use Sabine Dullin’s phrase, to protect the heart of the Federation. As such, the feeling of insecurity is both internal and external. Internally, with instability in the North Caucasus, it was confronted very early on with a militarized jihadism that Westerners did not necessarily want to see. External, with the continuation of a strategic rivalry with the United States. After the 9/11 attacks, Russia immediately supports Washington and even aids in the intervention in Afghanistan. But soon after, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) treaty, which is, in my opinion, more important from a Russian security point of view than NATO enlargement. The two are linked, but the Russians have become aware of the possible downsizing of their ballistic arsenal, the cornerstone of their security system. The United States is already thinking about the rise of China and especially Iran, and is leaving this treaty to establish its own anti-missile system in Europe. For Russia, it is an immediate strategic deterioration.
Revue des Deux Mondes – The evolution of Putin’s term can be analyzed in two ways. Either we didn’t respond to his proposals, or we didn’t want to see that he always wanted to get to the current situation…
Thomas Gomart – The first thesis is not completely wrong. At the beginning of his term, Putin supported the Americans on 9/11, insisted on ties between the European Union and Russia and proposed a four-way regional integration project between Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Europe supports regional integration all over the world, except in the Soviet space, as it prepares for the 2004 enlargement to include countries that finally want to leave Russia’s orbit. It is therefore starting to get stuck, especially with the Orange Revolution: Putin cannot conceive, a fortiori in Ukraine, that there is a form of democratic aspiration. It would necessarily be fostered by the intelligence services.
The second possible reading is that the war is consubstantial with Putin’s power. He comes to business shortly after the 1999 Moscow attacks, which have never really been elucidated, and starts a new war against the Chechens. Chechen jihadism was a harbinger of militarized terrorism with hundreds of deaths, either at the Beslan school or during the hostage-taking at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow. The Russian way of doing counterterrorism is very different from that of the West.
‘2013 marks for Putin the beginning of the end of Western interventions, ten years after the war in Iraq, which he had opposed with Paris and Berlin.’
There are two inflection points with regard to the West. First, in 2013, Barack Obama did not react after Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite making it a red line. I’m not sure Russia’s qualification as a “regional power” has satisfied Moscow. The Syrian army was trained by the Soviets especially for chemical weapons. The year 2013 therefore marks the beginning of the end of Western interventions for Putin, ten years after the war in Iraq, which he opposed, by the way, with Paris and Berlin.
The second turning point is the defeat of US troops in Afghanistan in August 2021. Putin is already exerting military pressure on the Ukrainian border and carrying out intense naval activity in the North Atlantic, Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, where he has become dominant. He also recruits mercenaries in Syria and sends 1,000 of them to Mali, which ends Operation Barkhane. He now fully takes over to take effect when acting.
Revue des Deux Mondes – Putin singles out Western interventions in Libya, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan to justify his own. He’s wrong?
Thomas Gomart – A Russian colleague put it this way: Russia’s current crime is simply having violated the Western monopoly on the violation of international law. Westerners fought wars for regime change, freeing themselves when it suited them to international law. This argument is admissible, as it shows the impasse to which Western interventionism has led. We are paying the consequences of NATO’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia without a UN mandate. Our discourse and the legitimacy of action are thus weakened.
The 2011 intervention in Libya is a bit more legally sound because there was a UN Security Council resolution, although Russia deplores the broad interpretation that has been made of it. Basically, Russians see the West as teaching them governance lessons when they turn to interventionism and regime change themselves, even if it means bending international law to their own interests. They point – and for that they find echo in sectors of the international opinion – the western hypocrisy, what they call the “double standard”. […]