This month, Vladimir Putin made headlines by comparing his landgrabs to those of Peter the Great. “Peter the Great (—) was not taking away anything,” he said, referring to the areas of St Petersburg and Narva. “He was returning. (—) He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing. Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.”
These words immediately prompted questions about whether Putin is looking to seize further places, including NATO territory. This is hard to know, but one can say for certain that in a number of ways Putin’s deeds serve an agenda that is a direct opposite to that of Peter. Peter, after all, was Russia’s great moderniser, and the person who, it is often said, ‘opened a window into Europe.’ Putin’s landgrabs, in contrast, are closing the window to the West, and they have the effect of actively demodernising Russia. This applies not just to the technological development of the country, though the longer-term effect of sanctions on that is beyond dispute. But Putin is also actively demodernising Russia’s society and its foreign policy approach.
Furthermore, while Peter stands accused of violently imposing some Western habits upon Russia – including, for example, banning beards as he sought to transform his court and Russia’s external orientation – Putin’s war is now squeezing out the views, values, and ways of life that could have become the basis for a modern, yet largely homegrown, way of governing Russia.
The Russia that was emerging
Western thinking about Russia tends to be characterised by a certain dichotomy: there is the good, Western-friendly Russia of the 1990s; and there is Putin’s Russia, which is its antithesis. When Putin falls, the assumption goes, Russia needs to set the clock back to the 1990s, start all over again, and try to get it right at the second attempt.
But in conversations with Russians in the years before the invasion, one could detect a ‘third Russia’ slowly emerging – one that was critical of both Putin and the West. Its proponents were seeking a way of thinking and acting that was independent of ideological pressures from the Kremlin or the priorities of West.
An article by the Kommersant journalist Elena Chernenko may be the best succinct manifesto of this worldview. In response to words by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that sought to pit “liberals” against “patriots”, in 2021 she wrote:
it is possible to speak out in support of freedom of expression, conscience, gatherings, human rights, supremacy of law, an independent court system, development of private business and so on, while being critical of many actions of the US government inside their own country as well as internationally. Including, of course, their steps vis-à-vis Russia that often indeed lack logic.
This Russia was gathering in strength right up until 24 February. It was suspicious of the West, mindful of its own interests, and realistic, if occasionally ruthless in its means. This Russia would not have been a superpower, but still a strong player beyond its own region. It would not have been part of the Western community, nor a firm ally of China – but it would have cultivated relationships in many corners of the world, using them to advance its own interests and to hedge against a bipolar world of United States-China rivalry.
Domestically, this Russia would surely not have been a fully-fledged democracy – but it would have had some institutional checks and balances, some accountability, and high degrees of professionalism in many fields. It would not have been an easy partner for the West; its goals would often have been at odds with those of the West. But this Russia would have been capable of occasionally cooperating with the West, while at other times benefitting the West by forcing it to take a more clear-eyed view of its own ends, means, and abilities.
The agents of change
Years ago – probably during the dying days of the Medvedev presidency – Russian scholar Dmitry Trenin suggested that any return of democracy in Russia would be driven by needs, rather than ideals. It would be promoted not by liberal intellectuals wanting to embrace the West and its values, as in the 1990s, but rather by small and medium-sized business owners, who needed the rule of law to work in their own self-interest.
This would result in a cruder form of democracy than that seen in the West, but it would still give the Russian system some checks, balances, and accountability – and it would have the virtue of being a homegrown system, rather than something imported.
At the time, that prediction seemed far-fetched, but more recent work on Russia’s professional class and civil society reveals people driven by exactly such an agenda. There are many in Russia who – fairly or otherwise – hold a critical view of the West, but in domestic matters effectively act as agents of democracy, by demanding the rule of law, independent courts, and media freedom. These people are driven not so much by ideas and ideals as by professional needs and concerns. To work as a journalist or academic, one needs some freedom of expression. To be a good civil servant, one needs a system that rewards skills, rather than just patronage. To have a fulfilling career even in a state-owned company, fidelity to a leader is not enough.
These ‘agents of democracy’ mostly come from the professional class. As is often the case with people over-exposed to propaganda, they tend to have an aversion to ideology of any kind, be it Putinism or Western liberalism. But they adhere to standards of professionalism and they follow their own conscience, even in situations where this can get them into difficulties. The result could be police officers refusing to arrest peaceful protesters, journalists judiciously sticking to facts, and officials following the rule of law. There is evidence of such cases from Russia over the years.
Domestically, this group played a somewhat paradoxical role. On the one hand, their professionalism undoubtedly added resilience to the Putinist system. On the other hand, their existence created conditions for change, for Russia to find an evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, way out of the Putinist dead end.
It is true that, for now, these cases have amounted to just that – isolated examples of independent-minded individuals with high professional standards and civic awareness. But the tendency existed, and it could have evolved into something more systemic – especially if combined with a scenario of a post-Putin transition in which political power, currently concentrated in a single pair of hands, were to fragment and move back to institutions.
A revised foreign policy agenda
One could also see signs of that emerging Russia in its foreign policy debate. For decades, the West had been a focal point for Russia’s (and the Soviet Union’s) foreign policy – regardless of whether Moscow sought to emulate or beat it. In recent years, though, one would increasingly hear voices suggesting it would be better to ‘abandon the old disappointments’ and consider the world afresh. They sought to define Russia’s interests without necessarily asking if these confronted or aligned with those of the West. These voices came from different ideological places and proposed different things: some advocated isolationism, some wanted to hedge against US-China bipolarity, some called for enlightened realism in relations with Europe, others suggested a case-by case approach to the post-Soviet space, while yet others saw climate change as an agenda for detente with the West. None advocated a massive colonial war with Ukraine. And, while they lacked a common view of the future, there was a common denominator: they all tried to overcome the old Russia-West dichotomy and move on to a more modern and sophisticated foreign policy agenda, more fit for twenty-first century Russia.
In some areas this seemed already to be happening, including under Putin. Russia’s presence in Syria, for instance, may have started out as an attempt to ‘teach the West a lesson’. But then it became much more about the other perks of enjoying a regional presence – not least being taken seriously by Saudi Arabia when it comes to setting oil production quotas.
The same goes for Russia’s presence in Africa. Again, this may have begun as a way to annoy the Western powers present there, but many in Russia viewed Africa as an important end in itself. Foreign policy thinkers saw it as increasingly important for trade, and a place where Russia could enjoy access and a positive reputation by virtue of not being a former colonial power like the countries of the West, or a suspected future colonial power like China.
Thus, over recent years Russia appeared to be finding its feet and focus no longer as a superpower. It was remarkably successful at matching its ends and means – even if the West did not necessarily like either the ends or means. This lesser-power Russia also had some highly professional cadres to rely on – from diplomats to technocrats to technicians. And its political system, while being destructively personalist and de-institutionalised, still had the potential to evolve into something much more accountable without having to go through major upheavals to get there.
The pivot to the nineteenth century
On 24 February, everything changed. Putin’s war in Ukraine imposes an agenda on Russia that is deeply archaic. It is archaic even for the president himself – Putin, shaped by the Soviet experience, had always been more a proponent of a ‘Yalta system’, a world organised around great-power deals. But now he has launched an attack motivated by colonialism, history, and religion. He has engaged in a crusade-style war to essentially liberate the cradle of “Russian statehood”, in the course of which he has jettisoned most of the international leverage Russia previously had. It seems inevitable that Putin’s war has condemned Russia to a new, deep, and lasting stand-off with the West, and left it both politically and economically at the mercy of China in ways that cannot be in harmony with Russian interests.
His war has also done away with any modern political debate in Russia. Overnight, the independent-minded professional class became all but outlawed in Russia. It is now useless and even dangerous to suggest new ideas – in a black-and-white world, the Kremlin demands unconditional support. Expressions of autonomous thought are rare, risky, and – maybe most depressingly – result in very little. Whole modern industries have become obsolete. “Ten days ago I started a new job on green finance. Now the whole concept has become a joke,” a young technocrat said, privately, at the end of the first week of the war. It is now hard to see an evolutionary way out of this cul-de-sac. Willingly or otherwise, the country is now stuck with an archaic domestic political system, an archaic economy, an archaic foreign policy agenda, and an archaic debate. The mature and independent, if not Western-friendly, Russia that existed just months ago has been killed, or at least left paralysed.
And what now?
It is hard to see how the modern agenda of the suppressed ‘third Russia’ could ever be integrated with Putin’s archaic agenda. But, when Putin goes – and one day this will happen – it may revive. Historically, Russia has reacted to leaders’ excesses by embracing more collective forms of leadership: think of the role of the Politburo in the decades after Stalin’s death in 1953. In any such set-up, should it come to pass, these modern voices would surely be part of the debate.
It would therefore be good for the West to give up its dichotomy when thinking of Russia, and acknowledge that, even when Putin departs, Russia might not set the clock back to 1991 and start again. The country will not take the central European path of democratisation, which emulated the West – if Russia democratises, it will be in its own way and in pursuit of its own needs. Europeans should be content with this. They should give Russia the right to be Russia, but no right to invade neighbouring countries. ‘Keep your worldview, but ditch the aggression,’ should be the realistic expectation. However, this might be easier said than done. Putin may still succeed in saddling that future Russia with his own archaic agenda. In fact, this could even be among his reasons for invading. In November, one Moscow insider suggested to the present author that: “Putin sees Ukraine as his mission because he senses that the next generation will care less.” And it is true that, if the war ends with Russia controlling large chunks of Ukraine’s territory, then giving these back would be problematic, if not suicidal, for any new Russian leadership. Russia’s relationship with Ukraine would thus remain a source of sharp conflict for years to come. For Putin’s successors, disowning this legacy, even if they operate in the form of a collective leadership, will be a lot easier if there is no territory to give up, and the war ends in a humiliating draw. This also means that the contours of Europe’s future relations with Russia – including the question of whether these can become a moderately cooperative relationship – will be drawn on today’s battlefields
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.