Together but Separate: Russia and Europe in the New Century

By Zlobin, Nikolai | Harvard International Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Together but Separate: Russia and Europe in the New Century


Zlobin, Nikolai, Harvard International Review


Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia continues to search for its new role in the world. Forming relationships with Western neighbors is a crucial part of this search, since both Europe and Russia are undergoing tremendous internal changes. However, questions far outnumber answers in the search, since the quality of this relationship depends in many ways on international security and the global order.

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Over the course of many centuries, Russia's main security interests concentrated around Europe. From the time of Peter the Great up to the end of the 20th century, Europe was the major partner, the magnet, the irritant, and the catalyst for every aspect of Russian life--from military arts and science to architecture, literature, and fashion. The onset of 20th century came at a peak of Russian and European power. The geopolitical scene was abruptly altered by World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the ensuing series of revolutions, and then World War II. Europe was divided into two enemy camps, intensifying the trend of decay on the continent.

The Soviet Union was a superpower for much of the 20th century. The map of Europe primarily interested Soviet leaders from the perspective of security: observing which side a country took in the global struggle, deciding how a country could be used to the Soviet Union's advantage, and preventing the United States from pulling it into their own sphere of interest.

However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia was forced to urgently develop a new foreign policy framework. The collapse of Communism and the crash of the Soviet central-command economy demanded that this foreign policy be built on fundamentally new principles. The Kremlin found itself in a sort of political isolation, without a clear understanding of how to behave in Europe. It was forced to take into account the opinions and positions of countries which it had previously ignored, or, in the cases of Ukraine and the Baltic countries, had been a part of the Soviet empire. Russia could no longer ignore economic interests in the pursuit of its political and ideological goals. It had to ensure its own political and economic security. But perhaps the most serious factor influencing post-Soviet foreign policy in Europe was its lack of a coherent European policy.

The relationship between Russia and Europe is a combination of contradictory domestic and foreign factors. These include the Kremlin's periodic attempts to formulate a new European policy doctrine, as well as its desire to play an international role on the continent for which it has neither the economic nor the political capacity. They also include the rejection of US unilateralism and Moscow's repeated attempts to create a multipolar world while maintaining certain former Soviet republics under its control. Russia also faces a geopolitical nostalgia for empire and attempts to transform the country into a global energy export leader. All these factors have resulted in a Russian foreign policy defined by unpredictable zigzags and frequent improvisations in its agenda. Additionally, Russia's own internal processes, the shift in its elites, and the shift in its system of values have all had a direct influence on policy choices, including those dealing with Europe. Russian behavior toward Europe can be understood by analyzing several important factors, a complex mix of Communist heritage, a new democratic approach, increasing nationalism, chauvinism, and possible regional imperialism.

Cold War Heritage

In many ways, the Russian elite continues to base its understanding of the world on beliefs from during the Cold War or even earlier. Over the past decade, Russian foreign policy has frequently ended up in the hands of dilettantes; it has been hostage to the Kremlin's internal struggles, and its course was monopolized by special interest groups or sold off to various lobbies that have intensified these ideological remnants of the Cold War. …

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