Skip navigation
LMC 2017

The Nature of Our Russia-Challenge and How to Address It

If the West manages to rejuvenate its own democracy, then it can have another conversation with Russia about world order – and have it Western terms.

Kadri Liik
Kadri Liik

Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Scanpix

That Russia is a “challenge” to the West has become conventional wisdom. Hardly a single political speech is given in the West without some mention of the problem. But what is missing is a clear understanding of the nature of the challenge. What does Russia actually want? Does it, for example, want to restore the Soviet Union? Unify the Russian-speaking lands? Conclude a geopolitical deal with Donald Trump? Start a socially conservative revolution in the West? Steal everything? Conquer the world? These questions are rarely thoughtfully answered, but they matter. If we want a win over Russia – or to win Russia over – we should try to understand what Russia stands for, and why. Misconceptions will lead us to misguided responses, and then whether we “win” or not will be down to blind luck rather than informed policies.

This confusion surfaced early this year, when the election of Donald Trump and his promise of a “deal” with Putin prompted numerous pundits to discuss the merits and even the details of such a “deal”, while having wildly different notions of what Russia would ask or offer in return. After National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s departure and the United States’ missile strike on Syria, the discussion shifted: now the debate was about the parameters of an adversarial relationship. But the parameters – what exactly would make it adversarial – remained equally foggy.

If we want a win over Russia—or to win Russia over—we should try to understand what Russia stands for, and why.

Indeed, the challenge posed by Russia is not easy to understand. Changing tactics may create the impression of a changing agenda, and traditional tactics can obscure altered priorities. Furthermore, different influential factions (as a famous Russian political maxim puts it, “the Kremlin has several towers”) have their own ideas of what Russia’s interests ought to be, and how it should pursue them. The struggle among factions may result in occasional shifts in direction.

But despite these tactical shifts, Russia’s agenda is at base consistent. It seems that Russia’s challenge to the West is twofold: it promotes social conservatism, and it threatens the international order. However, in its perception of these challenges as separate, the West is often confusing Russia’s means with its ends.

A socially conservative world revolution?

Russia’s agenda of social conservatism, both at home and abroad (in the form of the assistance that Moscow gives to Western nationalist politicians), is only a means: something that Moscow makes use of, not something it considers important as an end in itself. Social conservatism is not to Putin’s Russia in 2017 what Communism was to Lenin’s Russia in 1917. World revolution is not the ultimate goal.

Russia itself is not particularly conservative, and neither is Vladimir Putin. Putin’s views on the matter can probably best be described as “Soviet”, implying here a specific set of views that is not easily placed on the Western liberal-conservative scale. It is true that Russia has a longstanding and authentic conservative-Orthodox-Slavophile-Eurasianist tradition, with real personal links to the Western far right, but the true exponents of this tradition have never been close to policy-making. At most, they have tried to serve the policy-makers in some freelance capacity. This is the case for the Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin and his financier, Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, two contemporary examples – and their success in befriending the policy-makers in the Kremlin is debatable.

As for the Kremlin, it opportunistically used the social conservative agenda in 2012 as a way of marginalizing and stigmatizing the urban creative class that had protested against the return of President Putin in the winter of 2011-12. It was only afterwards, and probably with some surprise, that the Kremlin noticed the agenda might also be used to win some hearts and minds in the West.

Social conservatism is not to Putin’s Russia in 2017 what Communism was to Lenin’s Russia in 1917.

Still, it would not be true to say that Russia is now making an all-out effort to domestically destabilize the West. In fact, Moscow’s position seems to be somewhat confused. Some believe that destabilization is a way of bringing the West closer to giving Russia what it really wants (and on that, see below). But others think that a confused and paranoid West would make the world more dangerous, and thus cause problems for Russia, too. Moreover, Russia is a hierarchical country, and heavily establishment-focused: it does not really trust subversive fringe groups, neither in its own country, nor, in fact, elsewhere. Finally, Moscow also seems to believe – probably mistakenly – that if the West wanted to, it could do a lot more to influence Russia’s domestic politics than (in Moscow’s view) it has done so far. So, Moscow is not interested in an all-out attack that would give others carte blanche to do the same.

However, even if Russia’s social conservative agenda is accidental and opportunistic, that does not make it any less serious a threat to the West. Just as the reality of life in the Soviet Union never shook the belief of Communist adherents in the Third World, the insincerity of Russia’s social conservatism will not necessarily affect those who vote for Marine Le Pen.

Still, we need to be clear about the real nature and origin of the threat: it stems not so much from Russia, as from the Western countries themselves. What makes Russian “meddling” even worthy of mention is the disaffection of Western populations, and the widespread confusion about the Western model. If the West can address its own fundamental problems, then the threat from Russia will be swept away, just as Western European Communism stopped being a serious force after the success of the Marshall Plan. Foreign interference can only succeed with the help of domestic conditions.

Russia’s real challenge

Russia’s true challenge to the West originates in international politics, and it is a big one: Russia wants a new international order and new rules of the game. It wants to do away with many of the basic concepts of what has been called the post-cold war liberal order: the emphasis on human rights, the responsibility to protect, humanitarian interventions, and so on. This is not (only) a geopolitical quid pro quo or a Yalta-style bargain, but something much more systemic. A limited geopolitical “sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space is part of the agenda, but only a small, even if emotive, part of it. More generally, Russia wants the West to return to conducting international affairs based on realpolitik. In this context, the West and Russia are again locked in a conceptual standoff, not unlike that of the Cold War – this time, not over domestic models, but over the international order.

Russia’s agenda here is long-standing and has internal as well as external roots. The internal roots have to do with Russia’s own trajectory. In the early 1990s, Moscow tried to join the Western system as a rule-taker. When that proved too hard, it became a rule-faker – an imitation democracy – and it stayed as such for more than a decade, before finally making it explicit that it did not want to subscribe to Western rules at all.

Importantly, though, there are also external roots. In the twenty-first century, Western liberal foreign policy has had few success stories and lots of failures or near-failures: Iraq, Afganistan, Libya, and Syria, to name a few. For years, many in Moscow – those still holding onto a paradigm of superpower rivalry – assumed that the hidden aim of all these actions was to weaken Russia and to strengthen the US. By now, however, it is evident to almost everyone that these policies have first and foremost weakened the US.

This is why, today, the debate between the West and Russia often feels like a debate about the laws of nature, about how the world really works, with each side thinking the other one has it wrong. The West sees Russia as clumsily clinging to old-fashioned concepts, unable to adapt to the modern world and its sophisticated ways. Russia, for its part, sees the West as an irresponsible belief-based actor who disregards reality in favour of trying to impose its own notion of how reality should be. Or in other words: the West thinks of Russia as of a person stuck in a geocentric worldview, who has never heard of Galileo or Copernicus. And Russia views the West as a New Age crackpot, trying to cure cancer with homeopathy, and creating catastrophes in the process.

Russia is trying to shape, not break, the West—although the shaping implies overturning many of the concepts that the West considers essential.

Because of this, when it challenges the liberal order, Russia does not necessarily even think that it is challenging the West – rather, Moscow thinks that is trying to make the West come to its senses and abandon a disastrously utopian worldview that is already falling apart and causing chaos. It could be argued that Russia is trying to shape, not break, the West – although the shaping implies overturning many of the concepts that the West considers essential.

This stance has implications for any “deal” between the US and Russia, as was for a time enthusiastically discussed. A frequent question in those discussions was what Russia had to offer the US. But Russia does not think it needs to offer anything. You do not pay someone to come to their senses – it is in their own interest to do so.

In 2001, when Russia offered the US the use of bases in Central Asia and acquiesced to NATO enlargement, it expected a payback of corresponding magnitude. That never happened: George W. Bush’s administration, mistakenly thinking that Russia was helping because it shared the US’s interests or even values, simply said “thank you”. Now, the positions are reversed. Russia takes its relations with the US seriously and might be prepared to make compromises on some practical issues – but at a fundamental level, it does not think it owes the West anything at all. For Moscow, it is the West that needs self-correction, not Russia.

A differently organized world, of course, would not solve all of Russia’s problems, and more thoughtful people in Moscow know that well. Russia would still have its oil-dependent economy and its demographic woes. It would still be in search of an international role that would grant it the great power status it craves – and in a world in which almost all the parameters are changing, finding that role would not be easy. But many of the factors that have caused so much stress in Russia-West relations over the last 25 years would be eliminated.

Can Trump give Russia a new international order?

It was actually surprising to see the jubilation in Moscow when Donald Trump was elected US president. The Kremlin assumed that Trump would deprioritize the American-led global order, which would inevitably open the door to a Russian version of international order. Hardly anyone in Moscow stopped to think that Trump might get rid not only of the Western liberal order, but of any order whatsoever.

A complete absence of order would definitely not be in Russia’s interests. Despite its occasional appetite for risk-taking, Russia would not flourish in a Hobbesian world, in the sense of an anarchic, “all against all” global struggle. Nor would Russia choose a Huntingtonian world, a clash of civilizations, the contours of which are occasionally detectable in Trump’s speeches. Russia wants to be a great power among great powers – if no longer in a bipolar world, then in a multipolar one. It wants to claim the great-power prerogative to break laws every now and then – but for that, it needs laws that can be broken, and partners whose reactions are predictable. In its struggle with the West, Putin’s Russia has sometimes made a travesty of rules, using the letter of the law to violate its spirit – but that does not change the fact that deep down, Russia remains a deeply legalistic country in its approach to foreign policy.

Russia wants to claim the great-power prerogative to break laws every now and then—but for that, it needs laws that can be broken, and partners whose reactions are predictable.

The early expectations of a symbiosis between Moscow and Washington have now given way to expectations of an adversarial relationship. The reality will probably be less clear-cut and linear than either expectation: under Trump and Putin, the US-Russia relationship is likely to be first and foremost messy and confusing, and prone to frequent changes of tone.

Many pundits have entertained themselves by discussing the similarities between Putin and Trump – how the two are both straight-talking, authoritarian, macho leaders who will (to paraphrase Dmitri Trenin) either collude or collide precisely because of their similarity.1 In fact, two people have rarely been less similar than the Russian and US presidents: one rational, calculating and systemic, and the other the exact opposite.

The West is not measured against what Russia is, but against what the West ought to be.

But Trump does have some telling structural similarities with another Russian leader: Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Like Yeltsin, Trump came to power against the wishes of the establishment (even though being himself part of the establishment). Like Yeltsin, he governs with the help of his family. He has strong intuitions and he is a weak systemic thinker. He deprioritizes the global order built by his own country.2 He acts on a whim, he personalizes relationships, he is influenced by the people he meets. But, because he lacks systemic leadership and administrative skills, he is also vulnerable to the so-called “deep state”: resistance from the system that – for good or ill – could prevent him from achieving many of his policy goals.3

To extend the analogy somewhat arbitrarily, Trump’s relationship with Russia may well end similarly to Yeltsin’s relationship with the US. Although he was well disposed towards the US and had pro-Western sympathies, Yeltsin in the end failed to deliver the sort of Russia that the West wanted to see, or to build relations with the West in ways that the latter expected. Likewise, now, in a world that is rapidly and deeply changing, Trump, being the person he is, could not help Russia to create a global order to its taste even if he wanted to.

Moscow is slowly trying to adapt to the new reality. They can live with an American Yeltsin, if they must, even though that is not what they hoped for. But what they fear is that instead they have an American Khrushchev on their hands: someone who enjoys brinkmanship, but who does not know where the brink is, and so might very well step over it.

Bringing back the West

Ultimately, the Yeltsin comparison may prove the most predictive. Yeltsin is best understood as a transitional figure – a path from something to something – and Trump is likely to be the same. And it will probably be in that post-Trump era that the outline of a new world order, including a new relationship between Russia and the West, begins to become clear.

The period before that will be dangerous, and probably especially hard for Europe. In many ways, Europe is more invested in the liberal American-led order than is America itself, and defending that order while America’s mind is elsewhere will be an uphill struggle, particularly given Europe’s own internal upheavals. But Europe will try – because for the European Union, a return to a realpolitik state-centric world of “spheres of influence” would amount to a negation of its whole history, experience and identity.

For the European Union, a return to a realpolitik statecentric world of “spheres of influence” would amount to a negation of its whole history, experience and identity.

It will also be a time of messy and dangerous great power relationships. Russia’s calculated unpredictability may, for now, be overshadowed by America’s genuine unpredictability, but in the context of major global change, mutual misunderstanding, flawed worldviews, and conflicting approaches can easily lead to disaster.

Russia will continue to be a challenge. Russia has been pursuing the goal of establishing new international rules for more than a decade, and it will not give up on this aim. Russia knows what it wants, and it is prepared to suffer setbacks and frustrations along the way. To advance its goals, it will use its capacity for outreach into the West as and when needed. So, Russia-watching will remain important, and so will catching Russia’s spies and hackers.

In the end, however, the outcome will not be defined by the success or failure of efforts to stand up to Russia. Russia matters, but the West itself is the decisive factor. If we want Russia to accept and accommodate our version of the world order, then we first need to restore the credibility of our own democratic capitalist model, and rejuvenate it where necessary. We also need a more effective foreign policy and an ability to translate our principles into policy (as opposed to simply a tool for taking the moral high ground). And we have to present solutions to the world’s problems – solutions that can work.

If we manage that, then we can have another conversation with Russia about world order, and have it on our terms. President Putin does not bow to pressure, but he recognizes realities, and he accepts them, even if grudgingly. His successors will likely do the same. Right now, Russia has no incentives to accept a world order that it considers unrealistic, proposed by countries whose domestic models it views as delegitimized and dying. If Russia sees that the European order is not a utopia, but has a future, its outlook will change.

In the end, the outcome will not be defined by the success or failure of efforts to stand up to Russia. Russia matters, but the West itself is the decisive factor.

Many in the West console themselves by saying that “the West is still better than Russia, and therefore Russia cannot win”. This is probably true – but it is beside the point. The West is not measured against what Russia is, but against what the West ought to be. And it is of small consolation that “Russia cannot win” – the West can still lose.

In reality, the West is facing off not with Russia, but with another phase of life and development. Globalization and democracy were probably bound to clash; this confrontation was naturally most likely to be felt first in democratic countries, and it is now up to these countries to find a way of reconciling the two. The West is struggling with a bump on the road of democracy, while Russia’s problems – if a comparison is even useful – come from its suppression of democracy. Russia is in a different phase of the journey, but it is still part of the same connected ecosystem. Therefore, Russia has a better chance of addressing its problems if the West has first addressed its own. And then we can win against Russia – or win it over.

This article was published in the Lennart Meri Conference special edition May 2017 of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

  1. Dmitri Trenin, “Those who feared US-Russian collusion will now have to fear their collision.” Twitter, 7 April 2017, 11.01 a.m.,
  2. Dmitri Trenin, “Непредсказуемые Штаты”, Ведомости, 19 January 2017,
  3. Leonid Bershidsky, “President Trump’s Boris Yeltsin Moment”, Bloomberg, 15 February 2017,

Related articles