On request of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Francisco de Borja Lasheras, Director at ECFR Madrid Office (Spain), reflects on Russia and misconceptions on it in the West:
It is well-known that relations between the EU and the West in general and Russia suffer from mutual mistrust fanned by conflicting assessments of each other’s actions and intentions in the European space and in each other’s domestic politics. The role here of propaganda and misinformation spearheaded by powerholders and spin doctors in Moscow and their allies no doubt contributes negatively to the profoundly distorted vision that many ordinary Russians seem to have on Europe and our politics – not to mention the conflict in Ukraine or Syria, or institutions, such as NATO.
Yet one thing that has struck me ever, since I became interested in Russia and the post-Soviet space, is how much our understanding on Russia is overwhelmingly dominated by a sort of geopolitical or strategic thinking prism that it leaves little room for other angles. This perspective stresses notions of power, Grand Strategy and geopolitics (e.g. Russia’s strategic interests and history as an empire, NATO’s posturing, etc.) over a more societal or, if you will, a bottom-up approach that also lays emphasis on people-to-people interaction, societal understanding, impact of globalisation on popular perceptions, etc. At least in my experience, many Western pundits and policymakers, whether they favour a rapprochement with Russia or they see it as a challenge, tend to equally fall in this conceptual trap. Further, such debates are many times suffused by a mixture of pre-conceptions, common places, and clichés that certainly do not help to better understand modern Russia.
So-called Russlandverstehers are especially prone to see Russia from such myopic, often idealised lens that tend to equal Russia with the Kremlin (or Putin himself), modern Russia under Putin with the tsarist empire or the USSR. These views are wrapped up in notions of Great Nations and historical ties that, when looked at detail, actually reveal the usual amount of competition, confrontation, and cooperation. Russia herself, with its lights and problems, the role of its elites and powerholders (often cynical and kleptocratic, as we know), its nationalities, the legacy of changes in recent decades, let alone Russians themselves, are often overlooked – not to mention the specific circumstances, strivings and will of other nations of the post-Soviet space, such as Ukraine or Georgia.
Ironically, in the West, it is not unusual that those who call louder for Europe and the West to lift sanctions on Russia, regardless of its actions in Ukraine, and favour rapprochement, alliances and “partnerships” are those who seem to know the least about this fundamentally complex country. While France’s far right leader, Marine Le Pen, called into the Kremlin, requesting sanction lifting, protesters were taking again to the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities. These Russlandverstehers repeat as a mantra the need to “understand” Russia, but they end up foolishly justifying the Kremlin without really understanding it nor Russia, or what this agenda ultimately means for the European model. It is also unclear that any rapprochement on the basis of either the Russlandverstehers or the Kremlin will be to the long-term interests of either Russia or the Europeans. Moreover, it is not rare that such simplistic pre-conceptions and ideological views espoused by such forces, pundits, and academics in the West smack of an unconscious patronising of Russians. The argument goes as follows: Given the high levels of support enjoyed by Putin, it is useless to invest anywhere differently than power circles and the Kremlin; Russians unquestionably “love” their leaders, etc. This argument, heard in policy circles too, overlooks constraints on the political opposition and the, to put it mildly, uneven public and media space in Russia. At bottom, it posits that nowadays’ Russians are incapable of not just democratic but any politics as citizens: They are like vassals in an empire allured by the Great Leader.
So many Western intellectuals and politicians do not quite understand modern Russia, even less so the post-Soviet space in general, and do not seem interested in overcoming their pre-conceptions and biases. Any policy towards Russia should be well informed on the country’s context and circumstances as well as on its leadership’s rationale and intentions. If anything, election debates in France or political discussions in the West, when it comes to Russia, thus far prove otherwise.
Overall, and ideally, we would aim to somehow de-link our relations with the Russian state as such and our web of relations with Russian society as a whole. The former level, from a European perspective, should roughly reflect a balance between the need to uphold our principles and interests in key dossiers, such as Ukraine, Syria, the integrity of our democracies and allied reassurance, on the one hand; and the importance of fostering effective mechanisms of de-escalation, confidence building measures (for instance in the OSCE) and frameworks for political disputes, on the other. Regarding the societal angle, it makes much sense to invest more in meaningful initiatives at the level of civil society, aimed at building bridges, and debunking perceptions and myths. In this regard, with the appropriate mechanisms in place, this begs for decisive progress on visa liberalisation between the EU and Russia, something that Spain has been consistently supportive of.
But these are not times to be naïve. Promoting mutual understanding is easier said than done, especially in the current context of tensions and misinformation – it takes two to tango. Much will therefore depend on the will of the Russian authorities to allow for such deepening of ties. Judging by the host of measures launched since nearly a decade (e.g. the “foreign agents” law), it is not possible to be optimistic, as it is not possible to be optimistic with the state of democracy in Russia in general.