What does Russia want?

The nature of the 'Russia challenge' – and how to address it.

That Russia is a “challenge” to the West has become conventional wisdom. Hardly a single political speech is given in the West without this phrase, or something like it. But what is missing is clarity about the nature of the challenge. What does Russia want? Does it, for example, want to restore the Soviet Union? Start a socially conservative revolution in the West? Unify the Russian-speaking lands? Conclude a geopolitical deal with Donald Trump? Conquer the world? These questions 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 can lead to misguided responses, and then whether we “win” or not will come down to blind luck. 

This article makes the case that the West and Russia are indeed locked in a disagreement of a fundamental paradigmatic nature. But that standoff is not centred around a competition between domestic political or economic models, although these do play a role. Nor is it primarily focused on control over territory, although territory too plays its part. Russia’s true challenge, the issue on which it really is revisionist, has to do with the questions of the post-Cold War international order: the rules and taboos of international relations. 

These days, the West is vulnerable and on the defensive. Europe fears Russia’s “meddling” in its internal affairs; it is concerned about the United States’ commitment to NATO and about the contours of Russia’s potential “deal” with Donald Trump – an idea that keeps coming back into Trump’s statements. The US, in turn, is mired in an emotive discussion about Russia’s possible influence on its own elections. In this context, it makes sense to examine the various challenges presented by Russia, to enquire about their meaning, to ask whether Trump can grant Russia what it wishes, and to consider where all of this leaves Europe. 

A socially conservative world revolution? 

To start with Russia’s perceived challenge to Europe’s domestic order: Moscow is often accused of promoting social conservatism both at home and abroad (in the form of the assistance that Moscow gives to Western nationalist politicians). But this social conservatism is in essence 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. But nor is he a liberal: 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. A certain conservative consensus does exist in Russia at the moment, but it is largely for domestic consumption, hardly exportable, probably temporary, and to a great extent rooted in craving for a great-power status and offence that the West has not granted it to Russia – in other words, in issues that have to do with Russia’s place in the world, as opposed to conservative thinking as such.

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 real 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 marginalising and stigmatising 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.

Still, it would not be true to say that Russia is now making an all-out effort to domestically destabilise the West. Some in Moscow do believe that destabilising the West can bring Russia closer to its real aims (and on those, see below). But others think that a confused and paranoid West would make the world more dangerous, and thus cause problems for Russia, too. So Russia’s “meddling” in European domestic politics is probably not a well-coordinated, conscious design to bring down the European Union or change its key governments. Rather, it is an improvised collection of activities by different actors, linked together by an ideological background in which the West is considered an adversary. In Moscow, experts often characterise “meddling” in European elections as just trying one’s luck: “You walk into a casino, play at one table, lose, walk to the next one and try again…”

Still, the fact that Russia’s social conservative agenda is accidental and opportunistic does not make it any less serious a problem for 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.

But it should change our ideas about the real nature and origin of the problem: 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 shortcomings, 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.  

Territory or order?

The challenge from Russia is also often viewed in territorial terms: Russia is seen as having an aspiration to restore the Soviet Union, to unify the Russian-speaking lands, or simply to establish a sphere of control in its neighbourhood. While territory does play a role in Russia’s agenda, it is important to understand the extent and nature of the part it plays.

Russia does not intend to restore the Soviet Union – it knows full well that this is simply not possible. Nor does it seek to unify the Russian-speaking lands. In the speech where he announced the takeover of Crimea, Putin did refer to the Russian nation as “one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” thus indeed signalling an ethnocentric approach to foreign affairs. But this has remained a one-off case – he has never returned to this line of reasoning. 

What Russia truly wants in terms of territory is a sphere of control in its neighbourhood – mainly, the six countries that lie between the EU and Russia and comprise what the EU calls its Eastern neighbourhood: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Moscow expects these countries to be sensitive to Moscow’s wishes; it wants to have the ability to manage, arbitrate, and veto their relations with the West, and to prevent the expansion of Western organisations into that part of the world, based on the assumption that any Western actions there should have Russia’s approval. What Moscow wants to avoid is the emergence of direct links and true closeness between the region’s countries and the West: that is why it bent over backwards in 2013 to prevent the association agreements with the EU from being signed.

And this is where the clash between Russia and Europe becomes fundamental and paradigmatic: it is impossible for the West to grant Russia such a sphere of control. The countries either have the right to choose their own arrangements and alliances, or they do not – there is no space in between, and this is not a question that can be managed with a wise compromise.

However, it is rarely understood that this paradigmatic disagreement extends far beyond this territory. What Russia really wants is a new international order, and new global – or at least European – 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 possibility of regime changes and humanitarian interventions. This is not only a geopolitical Yalta-style bargain, but something much more systemic. A limited “Yalta-light”, a slice of “finlandised” neighbourhood would form part of it, but just a minor part. The actual challenge is global in its reach and normative in its nature.

The way Russia prioritises order over territory was illustrated by exchanges in late 2014 and early 2015, when some Western countries, shocked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, started looking into the possibility of a new security arrangement that could somehow transcend the differences. These talks never began, in part because the two sides had different views on what mattered more. As one Russian foreign policy insider described it: “The West says that Russia needs to leave Ukraine, and after that we can discuss a new European order. But Moscow says that no-no – order needs to be settled first, and the fate of Ukraine will be decided along the lines of that settlement.”

Russia’s view of the new world order that it desires is admittedly neither very developed nor sophisticated. But in essence, Moscow wants the West to give up on its vision of liberal international order and to return to conducting international affairs based on realpolitik. And because of this, 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.


The roots of Russia’s realpolitik

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. Western rules soon collided with domestic political expediencies and the rulers’ wish to keep power, so Russia became a rule-faker – an imitation democracy. 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.

The way the Western values and global power became blended in the “end-of-history” world of the early 1990s left Russia trapped for nearly two decades. Wanting a role in a “unipolar” Western-led world, and believing in its own Western/European destiny, Moscow signed up to a long list of Western norms. But its inability to adhere to them meant that Russia never quite became a full-fledged member of the Western system with an equal say in decision-making. This being so, it was only logical that Russia would ultimately distance itself from the Western domestic model and Western-led order.

Importantly, though, this was not just a case of “sour grapes”. Russia’s change of direction also has external roots. In the twenty-first century, Western liberal foreign policy has had few success stories and lots of failures or near-failures: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, 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 if anything weakened the US. For this reason, Russia now is not only distancing itself from the Western-led order, but disputing the viability of the order itself. In his famous Munich speech in 2007, President Putin spelled it out very clearly: “The unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.… The model is flawed,” because “this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.” 

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.

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 potential “deal” between the US and Russia.  A frequent question in discussions about “a deal” is what Russia could offer the US – and the list does not seem to be very long. But Russia sees it differently: Moscow 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 organised 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 deprioritise 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 what would happen if Trump got rid not only of the Western liberal order, but almost of any order whatsoever. That 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 civilisations, the contours of which are occasionally detectable in Trump’s tweets. 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.

When Trump was elected, the expectation was that Washington and Moscow would collude. In April, after US missile strikes on Syria, they were expected to collide. By late May, collusion is being discussed again. The reality, however, 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 either collude or collide precisely because of their similarity. 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.

But Trump’s modus operandi does have some telling 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 is a good destroyer of a system, but less good at building an alternative. He deprioritises the global order built by his own country. He acts on a whim, he personalises 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.

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.


How the West can win

Ultimately, Yeltsin is best understood as a transitional figure. He did away with the Soviet Communist system and laid some seeds for the personalist, Putinist system that followed, but the latter only crystallised under and thanks to Putin. When Yeltsin resigned, many different futures were still available. Trump is likely to be a similarly transitional figure – a storm that shakes up a system without yet moulding it into a new form. 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, will start taking shape.

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 have no choice but to try – because for the EU, a return to a realpolitik state-centric 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, certainly since Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, 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 to get better at translating our principles into policy (as opposed to keeping them simply for the satisfaction of taking the moral high ground) to try 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 recognises realities, even if with a delay, and he accepts them, even if grudgingly. Right now, Russia has no incentives to accept a world order that it considers unrealistic, proposed by countries whose domestic models it views as delegitimised and dying. If Russia sees that the European order is not a utopia, but has a future, its outlook will change.

Many in the West console themselves with a simplistic comparison, 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. Globalisation 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. Russia may question the West and rebel against it, but the West remains an important focal point for Russia’s own self-positioning in the world. Without it, Russia would lose direction.

More thoughtful Russians know that well. During a recent conversation in Moscow, one well-known and influential person first lectured his European visitor on how Europe is irrelevant and Eurasia is the new game, but then, hesitantly, asked: “and how is life, there… in the Western periphery of great Eurasia?” He then listened with deep attention, before admitting, quietly  – “of course you have to overcome your problems. Otherwise, it will be very hard for us to overcome ours.” 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. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.