Russia, between fear and defiance


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Anna Matveeva
Anna Matveeva

As I arrived in Moscow this month, the talk of town was the BBC’s hypothetical drama ‘World War Three: Inside the War Room’, which had dismayed the Russian public. Everyone I spoke to believed that the film was intended to rally public support in Europe for a war against Russia. I of course protested, but when I heard in response: ‘OK, if not, what is the purpose then?’, I was not sure myself.

If the idea behind the programme was to create an impression that such a war is imminent, it had a receptive audience. Russian society is experiencing an acute sense of insecurity vis-a-vis the West. Threat perceptions in the minds of the elite and among young people has never been greater, and is certainly higher than during the Cold War. Defiance predominates as the reaction to this genuine fear. Wanting to be in Europe, embittered by rejection, humiliated by sneer and plagued by a myriad of domestic problems that have to be solved immediately, Moscow is unable to come up with a strategy for normalising its European relationships. Pushed into a corner, the country feels it has to fight its way out.

Russians no longer see western values as universal, but instead regard them as anti-Russian

After NATO’s expansion, promises made and not kept to Belgrade over Kosovo, crises in Georgia and Ukraine when the West was quick to prop up Russia’s opponents without looking into their merits, few remain convinced that norms serve as Europe’s guide to international behaviour. Russians no longer see western values as universal, but instead regard them as anti-Russian, leaving a sense that Russians are victimised by what they see as cultural prejudice.

This attitude makes professional life a misery for the generally loyal but independent-minded liberal intelligentsia, from whose brains the establishment has benefitted for over 20 years. In this era of anxiety, it is the media that provides certainty. Most people turn to the news not for ‘objective’ and ‘factual’ coverage, but to find positions on right and wrong that correspond to their beliefs. Diverse sources of information are available in Russia, including foreign media such as BBC Russian Service and Euronews, or the opposition Dojd TV channel and independent newspapers. The bulk of Russia’s audience, though, watch state TV, which is the most trusted resource.

No Russian leadership could survive a humiliating defeat for the rebel movement and the prosecution of Russia-oriented Donbass communities

Since the Ukraine crisis took hold, members of Russian society have felt that Europe is not interested in their perspective and so they have to follow their own path. State control over the reins of the media has worked to the Kremlin’s advantage, enabling the government to project its key messages through different outlets and present them in different styles and with varying degrees of subtlety. Yet the crisis over Ukraine was not the turning point in Russia-Europe relations, but a symptom. Well before that, western leaders had decided to snub the Sochi Olympics, which they did not regard as the ‘must attend’ event the Russian leadership hoped for, missing the chance to develop a common approach to the developing confrontation in Ukraine. A resolution in Ukraine is unlikely, therefore, to have a huge bearing on the relationship. Moscow no longer believes that the lifting of EU sanctions is dependent on the implementation of the Minsk-2 Agreement.

Donbass is indeed a liability for Moscow, but no Russian leadership could survive a humiliating defeat for the rebel movement and the prosecution of Russia-oriented Donbass communities. The initial strategy behind the Minsk Agreement was to reintegrate the region with Kiev under iron-cast political and security guarantees for its residents and leadership. Only then would the Kremlin relinquish its control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. The price – de facto federalisation of the region – was too much for Kiev. Moreover, accepting this solution would demonstrate that Moscow was right in March 2014, proposing federalisation as a way out of the developing tensions.

Presently, Moscow is geared for a ‘no war, no peace’ situation without end in sight. However, time is considered to be working in its favour. Kiev is too gripped by its extensive political crisis to dedicate attention outwards. Minsk is seen in Ukraine as a concession too great, and there is no political will for constitutional change for the sake of Donbass. There are also private yet widespread doubts over whether the devastated region is worth the effort. If the price of war and peace is debated more openly in Ukraine, it may signify the way forward. From Moscow’s perspective, Europe will grow fatigued with the lack of progress in Ukraine, the foreign policy aspect of the Donbass conflict will diminish, and it will be easier to find common ground with the future Ukrainian elite – those who emerge as winners of the current political battles.

Moscow is geared for a ‘no war, no peace’ situation without end in sight

Now that trust has evaporated from the relationship between Russia and the EU members, a new strategy is needed on all fronts. Urgent dialogue is required with mainstream Russian opinion-makers who adequately represent the political discourse and social attitudes in Russia. Diplomacy should be geared into action with confidence-building measures, joint inspections, measured transparency in military arrangements and cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

The assumption that Moscow is solely to blame for the failure of cooperative security should be replaced with more self-reflection.Our rhetoric in the West has become dangerously self-righteous. Rather than showing the Russians how they are going to lose the Third World War, Europe must rise above divisiveness and communicate better. We need to examine our own attitudes and perceptions, and find the reasons why they changed towards increased hostility to Russia.

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