The rise of Donald Trump’s administration in the United States was supposed to be a boon for Russia. Instead, it has become a source of profound disappointment for the Kremlin.
Russia’s expectation was that Trump’s remarkable electoral victory would enable Moscow to achieve a long-standing goal – to be regarded as Washington’s equal as a global player. But geopolitical parity once again has turned out to be elusive for Russian leaders.
And now, it is hard to imagine how the United States can engage Russia in any constructive way for the foreseeable future, given that Trump finds himself embroiled in a burgeoning scandal relating to his campaign’s and administration’s dealings with Russian officials, and his firing of FBI Director James Comey amid the agency’s ongoing investigation into those ties.
Yet, even before the scandal erupted, the mercurial president did not seem to make Russia a diplomatic priority. Over his first hundred days in office, Trump wined and dined plenty of foreign political leaders. Conspicuously absent from the guest list in Washington or at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s “Southern White House,” was Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
This situation is a far cry from the “pragmatic and respectful relationship of equals” that Kremlin planners had imagined in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election win. To say that the Russian leadership feels slighted is an understatement. American disinterest in Russia, in the words of Konstantin von Eggert, a prominent Russian foreign policy commentator, “is the worst insult for Moscow. Enmity — no problem, adulation — you are most welcome. There is nothing the Kremlin hates more than indifference.”
Of course, the recent course of events swirling around Trump offers up a cautionary tale for the Kremlin. While no one evidently can control what Trump says and does, Russian hubris provided critical fuel for the fire that now burns at the White House, and which has rendered Russia toxic in the eyes of many American political leaders.
Specifically, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s haughty and mocking behavior surrounding an Oval Office visit shortly after Trump dumped Comey represented a major misstep for Moscow. The optics, courtesy of a TASS photographer, along with Lavrov’s needlessly provocative rhetoric, were pivotal points in stoking outrage in Washington, and culminated in the appointment of an independent investigator.
Lavrov’s visit to the White House came at the specific request of Putin. Had Russia not released the photos, and Lavrov kept his smugness under wraps, the White House might have kept the brewing scandal from spinning out of control.
Historical factors helped to drive Russia to overreach with Trump. Throughout the centuries, Russia has long yearned to be regarded as an equal to Western powers. But insecurity on Russia’s part has driven it to go about trying to gain parity in all the wrong ways.
Since the days of Muscovy, Russian rulers have presided over a vast yet peripheral and relatively backward empire. Try as they might, they were able to attain only partial recognition of their empire’s place in the European order, thus perpetuating the seemingly never-ending cycle of “catching up with the West.”
Arguably, Russian history is best understood as the process of the adaptation of (relative) backwardness and perceived external threats. Historically, this pervading sense of backwardness vis-à-vis the “developed West” seems to have been (and remains) one of the key elements of Russian self-understanding.
In a vast, economically poor and sparsely populated country with long and difficult-to-protect borders, a sense of insecurity and vulnerability developed and inevitably led, over the past half-millennium, to the practice of mobilization of all available resources for the purpose of combating (real or perceived) foreign threats.
This specific type of mobilization of economy and society by a highly centralized state bred a paradox best formulated by William Fuller in his work, Strategy and Power in Russia: it was precisely “because Russia was so ‘backward’, according to European standards, that it was so powerful.”
Another important paradox is that Russia’s pattern of adaptation to backwardness and perceived threats appears to have been the principal reason why the more advanced Western states regarded it with wariness. “This was not because Russia was an exceptionally aggressive state compared to the other Great Powers,” Columbia University professor Jack Snyder has written. “It was because the distinctive nature of Russia’s power, institutions, and ideologies, arising from the pattern of late development, created a situation in which Russia and the West seemed inherently threatening to each other.”
Put another way, what appears, at the first glance, to be a foreign policy problem is, in fact, rooted in Russian domestic developments. What Moscow claims to be primarily a security issue (for example, Russia’s rivalry with the European Union in their shared neighborhood) is rather a problem stemming from Russia’s inability to fully embrace modernity and complete the construction of an enlightened polity—a law-governed state that upholds political and economic pluralism, and which strives to strike a balance between the state’s interests and the individual’s pursuit of happiness.
From a European perspective, the key problem that Russia is facing in its quest for recognition as an equal is a social one. Briefly, it boils down to the incompatibility between the Russian and European regime types, and, specifically, between the ways they structure the relationship between state and society.
From the viewpoint of many in Washington, meanwhile, a significant barrier to parity is connected with economic achievement. Given that Russia’s GDP roughly equals that of the state of New York, Moscow’s pretence to cast itself as America’s peer is perceived as ridiculous by many American policy players.
These days, some leading Russian foreign policy analysts assert that a major paradigm shift is occurring in which the “renationalization of international relations” is trending. The “historic” West has been eclipsed by the non-West, these experts argue. In addition, they maintain, the aspects of Russian conduct that seemed outdated and belonging to the 19th century diplomatic toolkit – policies such as the reliance on hard power, realist geopolitics, privileging national over international, and prioritizing an enhanced role for the state – actually constitute the “post-modern” reality of the 21stcentury.
The problem is Russian experts are misreading global events, and are thus making mistaken assumptions about trends: states are not moving backward, they are more accurately having trouble keeping up with the pace of change in the modern world. In this scenario, Russia stands to fall farther behind, if it continues to doggedly adhere to 19th century concepts. Accordingly, the goal of parity with the West will grow ever more distant.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Sweden.