MOSCOW -- The greatest disappointment of the postcommunist era has been the failure of the West – particularly Europe – to build a successful relationship with Russia. Most policymakers and experts expected that, after an inevitably troublesome period of transition, Russia would join the United States and Europe in a strategic and economic partnership, based on shared interests and values. The pace of change might be doubtful, but not its direction. Vladimir Putin’s massive electoral triumph in this week’s Duma elections has put the lie to that notion.
Today, shared interests have shrunk and values have diverged. A resurgent Russia is the world’s foremost revisionist power, rejecting a status quo predicated on the notion of a Western victory in the Cold War. Its two super-power assets – nuclear weapons and energy – make it a potential leader of all those lesser powers dissatisfied with their position in the world. A potential Russia-China axis based on shared resistance to US hegemony carries the seeds of a new bipolarity.
Western expectations of postcommunist Russia’s trajectory rested on three assumptions that proved to be mistaken. First, most of Russia’s elite rejected the view that the loss of empire was irreversible. Second, the Bush administration’s unilateralism shattered the belief that the US would continue to provide the world with “multilateral” leadership; indeed, US unilateralism was a cue for Russia to pursue its own unilateral policy. Third, Russia has not yet become economically integrated with the West, especially Europe, as was expected.
What happens when the pull of a country’s imperial history meets the constraints of its current international position? Will it try to weaken the constraints? Or will it adjust to them? The first option may involve international conflict, the second domestic conflict.