Are dissociation from shared international institutions and the escalation of inter-state conflicts between involved states causally interrelated? Processes of dissociation – defined as the intentional distancing from the core rules and norms of international institutions – occur rather often and might even become a dominant feature of world politics as de-globalisation proceeds. In particular, it remains unclear whether the management of such developments can eventually lead to partial reconciliation or if tensions between the involved states are destined to increase. To answer this question, the following blog entry, summarising the results of one of the case studies of Drifting apart project, analyses the process of Ruxit i.e., the development of relations between Russia and the West after the end of the Cold War.
The reasons behind Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war on 24 February 2022 are not (yet) fully understood. Russia’s aggressiveness is frequently reduced to developments within Russia, including its expanding state capacities, Putin’s authoritarian turn and the need to divert attention away from internal structural weaknesses. Some put the blame on Western shoulders, arguing that the US, EU and NATO in particular ignored Russia’s concerns because of their narrow vision of post-Cold War European development or the way the Western leaders ignored basic realist principles of power politics. Yet, the interactionist aspect of the relationship is oftentimes being left out. In the attempt to narrow down this gap, I use the interactionist dissociation model, developed in the comparative research project, to analyse the conflict between Russia and the West after the end of the Cold War and better understand its tragic development.
Below I present some of the results of the three-year-long study which set out to prove that Russia’s failed association with a pan-European order and its subsequent dissociation, that I refer to as Ruxit, contributed to the intensification of tensions between Russia and the West. In particular, I find that the foregrounding of ideational as opposed to material factors disproportionately aggravated tensions between Russia and the West in which it prevented both parties from the effective management of the post-2014 conflicts.
High Expectations, Bitter Disillusionment
The end of the Cold War brought an end to the bipolar order and opened a window of opportunity for Russia’s return to Europe. Picking up the momentum created during Gorbachev’s Perestroika, Moscow embarked on this path described with catchwords like “Common European Home” and “Europe, whole and free”. Both sides agreed on the fundamental principles of the new order, but interpreted and weighted social norms and rules underpinning it differently. While the Western states emphasised the importance of democratic self-determination (both domestic and international), the rule of law and human rights, Russia put premium on equal security and social differentiation within this order on the basis of different size and (military) might of individual states. Despite the different interpretations, however, an increasingly close network of newly created or expanded Western institutions developed on the basis of these common ideas of goals. Apart from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the institutionalisation of which Russia championed in 1995, Moscow willingly joined the Council of Europe (CoE), became a member of the enlarged G-7/8, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and developed close relations with NATO, the European Union (EU) and even the OECD. Yet, Russia’s place within this order remained largely liminal, as its status within the most important pan-European organisations NATO and EU was restricted to that of a quasi-associate member.
In short, while the West based the logic of cooperation with Russia on the premise that “Russia remains on a trajectory of becoming a democratic European country”, Russia underlined the primacy of the principle of indivisible security and the end of military blocs and alliances on the continent. As contradictions between these two principles soon manifested themselves, particularly in the debates on the future of NATO and the role of the OSCE in the new European architecture, Russia slowly but steadily started to distance, or dissociate, itself from this social order.
Around mid-2000s the destiny of what some scholars call “countries in-between” became the main axis in the struggle between Russia and the West. Whereas Russia underlined the right for a “privileged” zone of interests in its neighbourhood (which was unofficially proposed in the 2009 Medvedev European Security Treaty), the West maintained that every country has the right to decide on its own which treaty or institution to belong to. Moreover, the West got increasingly disillusioned with the state of democracy in Russia, which necessitated in its view the defence of once shared norms against an increasingly authoritarian Russia.
When the unexpected happened and one of the numerous popular revolutions in the post-Soviet space brought a new government in 2013 in Kyiv (triggered by then Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s last minute decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU), the confrontational and destructive logic of action between Russia and the West kicked in. The Ukrainian Maidan Revolution and its fallout revealed the prior ideational roots of the Russian-Western conflict and marked a sudden escalation of tensions (i.e., Russia’s annexation of Crimea and outbreak of war in Donbas) which was accompanied by the massive erosion of institutionalised ties (suspension of Russia-EU Summits, Russia-NATO Council as well as Russia’s rights in Council of Europe). Both sides increasingly foregrounded ideational issues, putting forward diametrically opposed versions of the same story to justify their policies. Yet, one thing united them. The conflict, was presented as being not so much about material interests and Ukraine’s membership of one free trade zone or another. Instead, it revolved around the validity of competing norms, identities and assignment of blame for the breakdown of the European order. The non-compliance with norms perceived as essential by the other side — liberal norms vs. common security — was regarded as an act of betrayal and provoked constant accusations and mutual recriminations.
(Mis)management of the Dissociation Fallout and Rise of Tensions
Reducing institutional engagement and thus, mutual expectations, was seen by some as the chance to rebuild relations on the bases of changed norms and ground rules. Such a political strategy consisting of three elements has been proposed and actually tried during the first years after the 2014 shock. Initially, Western response to the events of 2014 entailed the possibility that both sides could (a) “isolate“ the Crimean issue, (b) strike a compromise for the future status of the “LPR” and “DPR” that would also include lifting the majority of sanctions to (c) avoid a further polarisation of the overall conflict. This strategy, however, tremendously backfired, as the ideational issues overlaid the material issues.
Despite remaining parallel interests, arrangements elaborated to sustain complex bi- and multilateral relationship in the absence of institutional ties proved to be rather contradictory and tensions-intensifying, as it required a high level of trust that was destroyed by Russia’s dissociation. As a result, Russia and the West plunged into an unprecedented cycle of mutual accusations, sanctions, reprisals and military provocations. In this contest, the West relied mainly on ever harsher restrictive measures which were increasingly perceived in Russia as an attempt to bring about “regime change” in the Kremlin. Russia, in its turn, intensified its covert activities in the West, including interference in elections, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, ostensibly aimed at undermining internal stability in Western states.
In short, dissociation did not reduce, but rather intensified tensions between the “leavers” and remainers, leading to more unpredictability and the loss of any residual trust. Both sides failed to elaborate a common strategy of how to organise this process, despite remaining mutual material interests. As a result, both Russia and the West could not take the prevailing problems at face value, as ideational grievances (a) prevented the constructive management of the territorial conflict in Eastern Ukraine; (b) resulted in negative spill-over effects and a polarisation of the relationship and (c) accelerated the authoritarian turn in Russia preventing any meaningful attempts to repair bi- and multilateral relationships. So, despite culminating almost a decade ago, Ruxit has left such deep scars in the relations between Russia and the West that it continues to reverberate with ever-greater magnitude causing new outbursts of tensions.
This article was first published on October 18, 2022, on GESIS blog. Find an elaborated version of this article in the current issue of Historical Social Research.