Western Perceptions of Russia and Russian Perceptions of the West
One of the fundamental parts of the relationships between the West and Russia are not necessarily the realities, but rather the perceptions of each other. This is a common thread throughout the conferences discussed here often related to the ways in which the different perspectives have interpreted history. For example, as was suggested in 2010 in a conference on ‘The EU and Russia's shared neighbourhood’ that there was, what the Director believes, a failed attempt in this conference to find agreement on what had happened in the 1990s. The potential success of which was thought to help “to remove this as a source of continuing suspicion and misunderstanding.” Instead, it was found that the West was perceived as having had “deliberately tried to weaken Russia”, whereas “some participants saw Russia as still operating partly from nostalgia for lost empire and a desire to control erstwhile parts of it.” As the Director argues in their notes, perceptions like these continue “to burden relationships” and “if recent history could not be forgotten, or forgiven by some, it should at least not be manipulated to maintain divisions.” This attitude was best summarised in the call “to get away from the ‘cold war still in our heads’”, which was seemingly not entirely successful in that, according to the Director’s Notes on the ‘European security and the Ukraine crisis’ (2015), “Russian and western narratives about what had happened were in parallel universes” with respect to East Ukraine. At the same time, however, it was recognised that “the channels for dialogue and contact should remain open.” This encouraging interest in open communication between the West and Russia continued and developed in later conferences but were still often hindered by the fact that there was still “too much misunderstanding and too many different interpretations of history”, as suggested in the Director’s Notes for ‘Russia's role in the world, today and tomorrow’ (2017). Moreover, it was posited that Western “plans up until 2011 assumed a Russia gradually becoming more like” them and so the question was raised, with this becoming seemingly less likely, what line of action should be pursued, which again exemplifies the importance of the perceptions of each other to Western-Russian relations.
This was similarly apparent in the Annual Lecture given by Professor Michael Ignatieff on ‘The post-Ukraine world order’ (2014). More specifically, it was suggested that “Russia’s annexation of Crimea has shaken our assumptions about the global order that took shape after 1989”, thus undermining the Western assumption “either that Russia was an impotent spoiler in decline or an aspiring partner.” In this case, not only had the perceptions influenced the actions taken by the West in the lead up to the annexation, but they had been proven wrong by the events described above. As such, this example highlights both the fact that the respective countries’ actions are often predicated on interpretations of each other and that, these are not always reflective of what has or will come to be.
Western Perceptions of Each Other
The relationships between the West and Russia are complicated by the fact that there a wide range of countries that fall within the parameters of the West, each of which have their own interests, motivations and perceptions. Therefore, the perceptions between the different components of the West are of great consequence to their collective relationship with Russia. This is especially evident in Professor Michael Ignatieff’s 2014 Annual Lecture, in which he suggests that, with respect to the situation in Ukraine, the Western countries “are still arguing about how to react accordingly.” Ignatieff explains that “European and American leaders have to decide whether to accept that Ukraine falls within a Russian sphere of influence” before going on to respond to the events in question. In this way, disagreements within the Western nations were shown to have a significant impact on how they then were considered to be responding to Russia more broadly.
Three years after this lecture, the situation seems to be somewhat similar given that, the Director’s Notes for ‘The future of the Transatlantic community and the international order’ (2017), include the statement that “China’s other great achievement had been to split the West, pulling the US away from Europe with two US presidents in a row now fundamentally looking to the Pacific, and with the UK and Europe adopting mercantilist policies in search of exports and investment.” On the one hand, it was suggested that America “had overreached in its response to 9/11 by seeking to impose democracy in the Middle East”, whilst “the European elements in the western alliance had been allowed to wind down defence spending even as Russia re-emerged as an unruly independent actor in Europe and the Middle East.” Therefore, the divisions between the United States and Europe were widening and this had affected the ways in which they then interacted with Russia.
European Relations with Russia
The differences and divisions within the West manifested in Europe and the United States pursuing identifiably separate policies with respect to Russia. The former relationship with Russia thus became the focus of a conference held on ‘The EU and Russia’s shared neighbourhood’ (2010). The question was raised as to “whether the EU and Russia could improve their own patchy and often difficult relationship, and at the same time find common ground in dealing with the aspirations of these countries.” In attempting to find answers to this question, the participants started by considering the relationship between the EU and Russia itself, with it being agreed upon “that it was unsatisfactory, in many ways stalled, and even, in the view of a few participants, in danger of going backwards.” This was in part attributed to what the participants believed was the “relative decline in economic and political terms” that both the EU and Russia were suffering from, because this meant that they became “less attractive and interesting to the other than in the past.” This was then further complicated by the fact that it was considered questionable as to whether the EU had “a common policy towards Russia, as opposed to EU countries pursuing their individual trade or other interests (Germany was most often mentioned in this category) without regard for a collective approach.” On the one hand it was “thought policy was becoming less common, thus allowing Russia to play divide and rule at will”, whilst others “argued that the EU had successfully agreed a comprehensive mandate for the new PCA negotiations, and had an effective framework, including for energy, under which individual countries could pursue their own concerns in a way which did not damage the collective interest.” Therefore, not only were there seemingly divisions within Europe about how to interact with Russia, but there were differences of opinion as to whether these divisions existed, which, as a result, arguably created its own divisions. What emerged as most important, however, was the fact that whilst, “Russia might be part of the problem […] it certainly had to be part of the solution”.
American Relations with Russia
In a similar vein to the European approach to Russia, there were differences across presidencies as to how to engage with Russia in the United States. This was most effectively reflected in the differences in the Director’s Notes between 2015 and 2017, which, of course, cover the significant transition from President Obama to Trump. In a conference on ‘European security and the Ukraine crisis’ (2015), attendees “discussed the hard line shown by the majority in Congress, and the likelihood that whoever succeeded President Obama in 2016, Republican or Democrat, was likely to take a tougher stance towards Russia.” This was believed to be an important part of the respective countries’ perceptions of each other, as exemplified in the Director’s statement that “all sides were bound to be factoring this into their calculations.” Interestingly, however, Obama’s successor was shown to take a very different approach to that which was predicted. As the Director noted with respect to the conference on ‘Russia's role in the world, today and tomorrow’ (2017), “the chance of President Trump being able to do anything on Russia other than implement existing policy was seen as remote, given allegations and investigations that cut down his room for manoeuvre on Russia to close to zero.” Therefore, this example highlights the aforementioned trend of mistaken predictions and so, whilst similarly, educated guesses might be made of President Biden’s approach to Russia in the future, only time will tell how these manifest.
Western Relations with Russia
For all the differences and divisions between Europe and America, it is worth remarking on the ways in which attempts have been made to take collective action, successful or otherwise. One of the most obvious manifestations of this concept is the United Nations. The UN has been a focal point of discussion in several of the conferences, with particular regard being given to the situations in or concerning Russia. The Security Council especially was examined on several occasions, including in 2012, in a conference on ‘Global power shifts.’ The Director suggested that the Council was “deeply divided between the western powers on the one hand, who saw international intervention as occasionally justified to prevent unacceptable behaviour by governments, even where the Council could not agree; and Russia, China and some major developing countries on the other, defending strongly the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries and seeing western interventionism as selective, based on double standards, and clearly illegal without Security Council backing.” Whilst it was felt that this did not mean that “the Council powerless in all situations, and arguably the Council had managed to stay relevant to a surprising extent”, its “position was [nonetheless] far from satisfactory.” By the time that the conference on ‘Intervention in other states’ was held in 2019, “paralysis in the UN Security Council over Syria [had] had devastating consequences.” Questions were also raised about the effectiveness of intervention in the first place, with evidence being offered “to show that, despite the complexity and confusion, interventions since the Cold War had, on balance, contributed to periods of sustained peace in a majority of cases”, and that, “the UN, whilst flawed and often paralysed, was still the best mechanism the world had to mediate breaches of international law; to halt mass atrocities; to respond to natural disaster; or to restore order post-conflict or crisis.” On the other hand, however, “others saw a world in which the source of legitimacy for international action, as derived from a majority of like-minded states, had gone.” A compromise was therefore reached, as evident in the Director’s observation that attendees “mostly agreed that the world’s democracies had a particular responsibility to protect human rights. But there was an acceptance of the need for humility in both defining clear purpose and making sure of capability and commitment to deliver.”
Alongside the UN, other parts of the dynamic between the West and Russia were touched upon, including specific reference to that which was noted above, namely the sense that Europe was not taking their fair share of the responsibility in responding to Russia. In 2011, for example, it was suggested in a conference on ‘Who holds the power in Europe?’, that “the United States’ [had] ever increasing reluctance to take on military and strategic responsibility for the European neighbourhood” and that “the US reaction to the Libya crisis should be a wake-up call for Europe, and could even be seen as an opportunity to shake European governments out of their complacency, faced with multiple threats as we were.” At the same time, however, whilst “the United States’ frustration with Europe in the area of hard power was clear, and the US was focussed in many ways on the emerging power and economies of Asia, it was agreed that generally the EU/US relationship continued to be close and constructive, and needed to remain so.” As such, it was posited that “the US and the EU were cooperating in depth on a daily basis on trade, diplomacy and in other key sectors” and that “common values remained a vital bond and the relationship should not be judged on the basis of disagreement in one area.” Therefore, although recommendations were made for Europe to “urgently pick up the challenge thrown down to it by the US in terms of improving its hard power capability”, there was a positive and encouraging interpretation of the state of the relationship between the two countries.
Unfortunately, as the events discussed in the ‘European security and the Ukraine crisis’ (2015) conference suggest, more obstacles emerged that were arguably of detriment to Western relations with Russia. Scepticism was expressed about how the current circumstances impacted “ideas such as a European Security Council, or the so-called Metzeberg EU-Russia committee proposal to look at the frozen conflicts.” Nevertheless, it was felt to be “important that the Europeans did not allow the US to be excluded from such bodies and dialogues” and that “any new system needed to be Euro-Atlantic and inclusive in nature. Nevertheless, we wanted to see opportunities for dialogue kept alive, e.g. through contact groups of various kinds.” At the same time, however, whilst US policy and their role were relatively underdiscussed in this conference, an awareness was established of how crucial relations with the US were to President Putin, “because of the psychological importance of acceptance of Russia as still a great power which deserved respect and treatment on an equal basis.” Therefore, the Director argued that “the key to a new understanding would ultimately lie in Washington.” In this way, the differences served to arguably separate the West into its European and American positions, which could either divide them further or positively impact on the Western relationship with Russia in acknowledging the differences between the pair. Questions were therefore asked as to whether the West had “a consistent and coherent vision for the post-Soviet space and the in-between countries” or “the political will and willingness to spend scarce resources on these issues, including helping fund Ukraine for the long term, and increasing defence spending.” Whilst the Director suggests that attendees “were not confident about the answers to any of these questions”, it was apparent that the United States and Europe’s continued co-operation was still felt to be valuable, even if it might be difficult to achieve and execute. Therefore, it was believed to be “vital to keep up the western military guard, and understand that deterrence, conventional and nuclear, should once more be at the heart of policy.”
With the above in mind, it is therefore worth turning to some of the specific components of the West-Russia relationships, including arms. Several conferences have been held on this topic throughout the period in question. At the beginning, for instance, ‘The future for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament’ (2010) it was found that “further reductions in numbers of strategic holdings by the main players were seen as still useful, with some hope that over time holdings of so-called tactical nuclear weapons would decline naturally too, without need for a difficult negotiation, as delivery systems became obsolete and cost too much to replace.” As suggested in the Director’s Notes, “these considerations were also likely to affect Russia, by some way the biggest holder of such weapons.” Moreover, there were differences between the different global powers that impacted their position when approaching nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. “The US had openly espoused global zero, and was ready to go further down than 1500. Russia on the other hand seemed in some ways more than ever wedded to its nuclear weapons, for status and deterrence reasons, apparently ready to use them or at least threaten their use in a wide range of circumstances, and possibly unwilling to go lower than 1500.” Therefore, there were complications surrounding the control of arms in the respective countries which would undoubtedly impact their relationships with each other.
Seven years later, this issue was as important as ever, with “discussions on arms control and modern deterrence” being described as being “urgently needed” in the Director’s Notes for a conference on ‘Russia's role in the world, today and tomorrow.’ It was argued that “the Cold War habit of keeping such talks going when all around there is trouble” had been lost and that “The frameworks also need updating to take account of the impact of new technologies and weapons and their potentially dangerous interaction with the system of nuclear deterrence with its roots and technology from the 1970s.” This trend has only increased in subsequent years, with it being remarked by the Director about a ‘Modern deterrence’ conference in 2018 that “China and Russia are modernising their nuclear forces, including by developing new capabilities.” Furthermore, most recently in 2019, it was argued that
“The Cold War legacy of arms control treaties and conventions is either breaking down or shortly about to expire. At the same time, the digitisation of our economies and infrastructure – and many aspects of defence – has turned cyber and information warfare into powerful weapons that could upset our systems and habits of deterrence built up over decades. Russia is investing in new weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, combining strategic great power capabilities with an insurgent (“move fast and break things”) start-up approach to weaponising information warfare and cyber. In the context of persistent worries that Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons could be evolving, the United States is committed to modernising and enhancing its capabilities to meet a new range of threats. The UK and France, as the other western nuclear powers, are presently committed to retaining and modernising their own nuclear deterrents but their defence budgets, doctrines and procurement practices are straining to deliver the new hybrid capabilities now needed by serious middleweight powers, with much of the money tied up in legacy capability.”
Therefore, the role of arms has played an ever developing and changing role in the relationships between the West and Russia, which can only be expected to continue in the future. As suggested above, it is therefore greatly important that meetings between the respective countries continue to be held to ensure that the situation does not continue to worsen.
Alongside arms, sanctions have played a pivotal role in West-Russia relations. The effectiveness of these measures have been debated, as was the case in the ‘European security and the Ukraine crisis’ 2015 conference, for instance. “On the one hand, it was argued that these were deeply resented by the Russian authorities, were likely over time to impact a lot on ordinary Russians who were not part of the Russian policy-making process, seemed unlikely in the short term to move Russian policy in the desired direction, and had provoked reverse sanctions which were damaging a lot of western business and trade interests.” On the other hand, however, some attendees “argued that Russian behaviour towards Crimea and eastern Ukraine could not have been allowed to pass without consequences”, which culminated in the majority believing “that some form of sanctions against Russia had been inevitable, and that they would be maintained and indeed increased if tensions did not ease.” By 2017, the discussion had not evolved much, and it was still suggested that “sanctions were not working and hurting the wrong parts of society and not the system” in a conference on ‘Russia's role in the world, today and tomorrow.’ Rather expectedly, the same arguments were provided on the opposing side, namely “that sanctions had been an inevitable result of Russia’s actions and that doing nothing was hardly an option.” In 2019, again there was still “a lack of consensus over the effectiveness of sanctions” in a conference on ‘Intervention in other states.’ Nevertheless, whichever side of the debate attendees represented, the prevalence of discussions and the implementation of sanctions are reflective of the importance that these have played as instruments used in the West-Russia relationships.
To conclude, this report has sought to provide a narrative of the different discussions had at Ditchley conferences and lectures and how these have changed across time. In doing so, this report has incorporated Professor Michael Ignatieff’s ideas expressed in his annual lecture on ‘The post-Ukraine world order’ in 2014. More specifically, he argues that “foreign policy analysts and policy makers may consider ‘narrative’ the province of language scholars or novelists, but narrative – stories about what history means and what it justifies – are the single most decisive mental construct shaping foreign policy.” It is hoped, therefore, in providing this narrative, that it will be of use to future discussions surrounding West-Russian relations in attending to the recent conferences and lectures on the topic. As such, this report shall finish with some thoughts on potential future trajectories for discussions at Ditchley by drawing on some of the ideas examined or implied above.
Firstly, with continued regard for Professor Michael Ignatieff’s lecture, it is worth quoting some of his concerns for the future. For instance, he argues that
“If authoritarian capitalism is the emerging challenge to liberal order in the 21st century, the needed response is to reform liberal democracy at home. What alarms America’s allies is not weakening credibility of its strategic guarantees. American power remains overwhelmingly credible when used with discrimination and care. The real problem is democratic dysfunction at home: the 20 year impasse between Congress and the executive branch, the reality-fleeing polarization of political argument, the gross failure to control the invidious power of money in politics, weakening domestic infrastructure and public disillusion with democracy itself. These are not discontents unique to America. Other liberal democracies face similar challenges, but they have got money under control in their politics and re-balanced their political systems so that executive and legislative branches function effectively.”
Therefore, for West-Russian relations to improve in the future, it is of great importance that the West in particular attends to that which plagues their countries internally. As it stands, the aforementioned paralysis of the UN Security Council is an explicit example of the detrimental impacts of things continuing as they are.
Similar concerns were expressed at a 2017 conference entitled ‘Which way is West and is West still best.’ It was felt that “Western societies and politics are divided to the point where political and economic systems risk breaking under the strain.” To illustrate this, the example of Britain was provided and its relationship with the EU being discussed in particular. “Elements of the British political class and public have never been reconciled to being part of the European Union but there was always a solid majority for staying in Europe.” Since this time, of course, Britain has voted to leave the EU and is currently in the preliminary stages of doing so. It is therefore of great importance amidst all of the internal strife, that Britain continues to remember its position in the Western alliance and within the West-Russian relationships. There is certainly a risk that this will be lost, not least because of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. However, it nevertheless remains of paramount importance that Britain continues to be part of the Western interactions with Russia, especially within the context of the need for global attempts to solve, or at least mitigate, climate change.
2010 - President Medvedev first visit to the White House
2010 - Russia and US sign agreement to both cut arsenals of deployed nuclear warheads by approximately 30 per cent
2011 - Cyber Security
2012 - Vladimir Putin wins presidential elections
2012 - Russia formally joins World Trade Organization
2012 - Global power shifts
2013 - Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XLIX: After “The decade of war”
2014 - Russian forces take over Crimea
2014 - Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture L: The post-Ukraine world order
2015 - FBI announces investigation into potential hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer system
2016 - Conclusion of British public inquiry that President Putin probably approved murder of former Russian intelligence officer and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko
2016 - Europe and migration
2018 - Vladimir Putin re-elected as president
2018 - Modern deterrence
2019 - Intervention in other states