Three Questions with James Sherr
Editor’s Note: The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted an event in Warsaw, with a discussion on the common U.S.–European strategy toward Russia. James Sherr is an associate fellow and former head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. He joined the event as a speaker, and we asked him about his views on the transatlantic relationship with Russia.
Q: How can the West find the right balance between dialogue and deterrence in its approach toward Russia?
James Sherr: ‘Balance’ is not needed because dialogue and deterrence are not opposed. Without messaging, strategic communication, and diplomatic clarity, deterrence cannot work. We are sometimes guilty of forgetting Harold Nicolson’s definition of diplomacy: “the ordered conduct of relations between one group of human beings and another group alien to themselves.” If we don’t know how our interlocutor thinks, we risk conveying a message different from that intended.
Outside official channels, Track II discussions can be useful, given the participation of interlocutors who speak with knowledge and purpose. They are less likely to bear fruit with “people of the regime” (because their purposes are invariably narrow and their views hardened), than with “people of the system”: those who will remain whoever is running Russia, notably the professionals who make up the foreign policy and defense establishments, along with their advisors. Many inside these fraternities seek and are receptive to informed, concrete discussions about how we see the world and how we understand our interests. This is emphatically true of the younger generation (e.g. students of the Diplomatic Academy, Moscow and St Petersburg Higher/State Economics Universities, Moscow State Institute of International Relations), though access to these domains has become very difficult.
Two unpalatable truths need to be accepted. First, discussions about values are not useful. They arouse confusion, resentment, and contempt. Second, dialogue will neither change the way contemporary Russia defines its security interests nor soften its attitudes to key points of contention: U.S. hegemonism, NATO/EU enlargement, colored revolutions, Russian pre-eminence in its near abroad. Dialogue is a necessary part of the policy mix, but it is not a solution, and its curative qualities should not be overestimated.
Q: Would you agree that many issues between the West and Russia are based on different expectations and interpretations in the sphere of respect? If so, what does this indicate?
James Sherr: Yes. Whereas lack of trust tops the West’s litany of grievances, lack of respect tops Russia’s list. This refers to two unrelated things. First is the habit — which we finally are losing — of lecturing Russia about its internal affairs. Second is the failure to respect Russia’s equality abroad: its right to a sphere of influence (pace Medvedev, “like other great powers”), its right to be at the top table of decision-making over any issue in Europe or the wider world that concerns it. The former right has direct implications for the independence of Russia’s neighbors, whereas the latter right has direct implications for the autonomy of others (e.g. NATO and the EU). The Russian reproach — the West does not take Russia’s view into account — means it acts without our permission. All of these grievances have now congealed in the Russian mind-set.
There is little ground for compromise here. Had we adopted the maxim, “Russia’s internal affairs are Russia’s business, Ukraine’s internal affairs are not Russia’s business,” we might face fewer problems than we do now. But it is late for this, and even had we done it, it would not have altered Russia’s stance toward NATO enlargement, the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the toppling of Qaddafi, and other matters in dispute.
Q: What potential do you see in the generations of Generation Y and Millennials to change thought processes, social opinions, and political trajectory in Russia?
James Sherr: Faith in either of these generations is probably misplaced. For Generation Y, the baseline of comparison is not liberal democracy but Russia of the 1990s. Many of them acquired the ethos of the “young wolves” who made up the “Putin generation”: business-minded, ambitious, nationalistic, coldly utilitarian (‘pragmatic’) about rules, uncowed by the West, and without nostalgia for Communism. It is a morally uncomplicated, quasi-Darwinian ethos, which treats power and wealth as values in themselves. Putin has reinforced this ethos by creating a system in which proximity to power confers reward, and independence entails risk.
In contrast, the millennial cohort is coming of age in a country that already has recovered its self-respect. Its members have little direct experience of the chaos and humiliations they hear about not only on television but from parents and siblings. Even those who maintain a degree of intellectual immunity from Russia’s psychotropic media will have no difficulty believing that Russia recovered by its own efforts rather than by adopting Western models. Even those less forgiving than their elders of their country’s current ills believe that Russia must find its own solutions and not import them. Even among those who travel to the West and enjoy being there, Western values are neither relevant nor held in high esteem. This more educated part of the millennial cohort are, by comparison to the 1990s generation, less ruthless in their pragmatism, more independently-minded, and critical. But they also subscribe to an inverted moral equivalence: “we behave badly, but the West is no better. They just lie better than we do.” For them as for their elders, the United States is a determined hegemon seeking to diminish Russia and encroach upon its space — not because Americans are bad, but because that is what great powers do. Their views are closer to those of Mearsheimer and Huntington than Dugin. They might not venerate Russia’s distinctiveness and importance. But it is something they take for granted.
Nevertheless, one should be prepared to see change within this generation and possibly by it. When combined with elite ossification, economic decline is a recipe for trouble. As economic stringencies bite and the cancer of corruption spreads, so does the bitterness of betrayed expectations. Despite the latest protests (qualitatively different from those of 2011/12), it is too early to judge the impact of these resentments on the embedded pragmatism (i.e. amoral opportunism) of Putin generation Russians.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.