Can Russia Be Considered Part of Europe?
Ghia Nodia | Blog Post | 5 August, 2023
Can Russia still be considered part of Europe? A Ukrainian participant put this question to an American speaker during an international conference I recently attended. The question was meant to be essentially rhetorical: presumably, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion in Ukraine as well as the brutal ways in which it conducts the war sets her at odds with basic values espoused by the Europeans, it should not be mentioned as a European country anymore. The speaker, admitting that Putin’s current actions are indeed profoundly uneuropean, said that we should not finally give up on Russia’s European identity in a broad sense. One may still hope, for instance, that its forthcoming failure in the war will induce the Russians to rethink the core of their country’s policy and, indeed, its identity.
I generally agree with this answer; however, I also think that this truly important issue should not be judged based on normative attitudes only, however important they are; I will try to approach it in a more analytical way.
I will inevitably start with a definition of what makes a country “European”. One may be tempted to equate this concept with “democratic” (implying liberal-democratic), but even a few decades ago this would not work, with some obviously European countries not being democratic at all. For many reasons, geography, race, or a religious tradition like Christianity cannot serve as sufficient criteria either. I would opt for defining a country European if it considers itself one and is recognized as such; this, in turn, is achieved through direct involvement in European affairs and being an integral part of European conversations.
In this sense, positioning Russia as a European country has been central to Russian policies since the reign of Peter the Great in the early 18th century. This included both geopolitical and civilizational aspects. Through consistent efforts, Russia made itself indispensable in European affairs. Having played an essential role in defeating Napoleon, Russia became a crucial player in the European “concert of nations” (a geopolitical precursor of the current European Union) as one of the three pillars of a conservative “Holly Alliance” that also included Prussian and Austrian monarchies. Later, before World War I, it flipped sides becoming an ally of Great Britain and France against its erstwhile partners, which only confirmed its status as a vital player in European power politics.
Moreover, although Russia was less developed and politically more conservative, its cultural and intellectual elites became part and parcel of the broader European society. Catherine the Great, who among other things conquered Crimea for Russia, corresponded with Voltaire; Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky got recognized as great European writers, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev were great European musicians, etc.
Since the early 19th century, there emerged Russian nativists called Slavophiles who, while versed in the European philosophy themselves, resented Europeanization of the Russian culture, claiming that Russia had to be a separate civilization based on religious Orthodoxy and communal and spiritual values contrasting with western rationalism and individualism. This intellectual tradition persisted but remained marginal; whatever Russia’s obvious peculiarities, its state and society continued to primarily define itself in the European context.
The Communist revolution drew a wedge between Russia and the West; however, Russia’s status vis-à-vis Europe remained inherently ambiguous. On the one hand, Russia became the anti-West; the bipolar international order of the Cold War was about Russian Communism opposing Western liberalism. This allowed the Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev to claim that Russian Communism had become a curious recurrence of a medieval messianic idea of Moscow as the Third Rome: it became an alternative to the immoral Western liberalism in the same way as Orthodox Christianity was supposed to counter blasphemous western Catholicism.
On the other hand, however, Marxism was a Western idea imported by Russian intellectuals. To be sure, its Bolshevik interpretation contradicted Marx's original idea that envisioned communist revolutions in the developed West first, but Stalin’s concept of “socialism in a single country” adapted Marxism to Russia’s new geopolitical and ideological needs. It rationalized the status of the Soviet Union as a beacon for the worldwide Communist movement. The Soviet experiment came to have considerable support among progressive European elites. Jean-Paul Sartre was an emblematic European public intellectual as well as a committed though inconsistent Stalinist. Moreover, by making its European clients (Communist parties) vital players within Western anti-fascist coalitions, allying with Western liberal powers for defeating Hitler, and eventually dividing Europe in Yalta, Stalin’s Russia, now in charge of Berlin, Budapest, and Prague, forced itself into the center of the European power politics yet again. The Communist Russian Empire could be perceived as an alternative Europe rather than a non-Europe.
Paradoxically, it was the end of the empire that brought about a truly deep crisis of Russia’s European identity. This was not supposed to be so. On the face of it, Russia was now as close to the West as ever before. Westerners appreciated the fact that the Russians took the lead in dismantling their own autocratic regime and appeared to embrace the Western civil religion of democracy, human rights, and market economy. They mixed with Westerners socially, traveling, getting an education and doing business in the West, and welcoming Westerners in Russia. Discords emerged early on, but certain levels of disagreements were presumed normal within the same European tradition.
The fall-out proved to be much more fateful. The West was happy to accept Russia as a “normal” part of the international order and even recognize its special importance by inviting it to prestigious clubs like G8. However, Russians presumed that their history and size entitled them to a much greater role, something akin to what they had in the 19th-century "concert of nations" (meaning one of the few Great Powers who run the world). They could not accept being treated as a larger but somewhat less developed Poland that happened to have gas, oil, and nukes.
The real problem was not that the West refused to give Russia its due, as some Western Realists like John Mearsheimer suggested, but by objective factors. In the new postindustrial world, a country’s importance was primarily defined by the size and quality of its economy. By this indicator, Russia hardly made it to the world elite: not to speak of the United States, it could barely compete with new rising stars like China and India.
Nevertheless, the Russian elites blamed it all on the West; anti-western resentment became the chief emotion guiding the nation’s policies. The West’s normative power, implying the dominant position of the historically Western liberal ideology that was used to define what is right and what is wrong, became a major irritant. However, Russia could not propose any weighty and attractive alternative idea able to resonate in the West as well, as Communism did. Putin tried to present his country as a champion of conservative values; however, this awkward imitation of the Western "soft power" had only a limited sway. Some Western right-wing populists praised Putin and might even accept assistance from him, but such an ally was hardly vital for them – they could very well do without.
Hence, Russia pushed itself into an impossible position. It could not accept the Western offer of being treated as another large country among others, but it did not have the resources to assert itself as a vital global player either. With the help of ideologues like Alexander Dugin, Putin pursued a dream of Russia as a special civilization rather than another nation; in this vision, the Russian World (russkii mir) far transcended the borders of the new Russian Federation as well as ethnocultural Russia. However, this was just that – a dream. It could only become a reality if Russia could serve as a point of attraction for other nations – primarily, its neighbors and erstwhile imperial subjects. However, the last couple of decades showed that it lacked such power of attraction.
Individuals suffering from a lack of recognition often try to compensate by bullying others. Putin moved this attitude to the level of state policy. By invading Ukraine, he hoped not only to teach a lesson to wayward Slavic brothers but to force the West to give him due respect. As we all see, it did not work.
Following the invasion, the West demonstrated an unprecedented level of unity against Russia’s aggression. If there are still voices that might be interpreted as supportive of Putin, they are feeble and marginal. It remains to be seen whether Western support, in conjunction with the Ukrainians' valor and skill, will be sufficient to deliver a decisive blow to Russia on the battlefield. However, as concerns the question I am trying to answer here, one can confidently say that Russia has never been as isolated from Europe, or the West in general, since the period before Peter the Great. In this sense, Russia is as uneuropean as it has last been in the 17th century.
But if Russia is not Europe, then what it is, or what it can be? What comes to mind first is Russia’s political game in the so-called Global South. Here, it hopes to find a common ground based on the shared anti-western resentment. The notable lack of support for Ukraine’s cause outside the West (with some important exceptions) may be considered an indicator of Russia’s relative success in this regard. It presents its invasion of Ukraine as the anti-colonial war against the West (rather than a colonial war of conquest against Ukraine); however absurd, this narrative finds some audiences outside the West.
But can we believe that having stopped being a periphery of Europe, Russia can find its alternative identity as the northern flank of the Global South? This is very doubtful, first of all, because this will hardly be satisfying for the most nationalist Russians, not to speak of its more liberal crowd. Russia will be doomed to be second fiddle to China and, maybe, overshadowed by other countries as well – this is hardly commensurable to the country’s ambitions. For Russia, rallying the Global South, as the war itself, has been primarily a way to send a message to the West that it should respect Russia’s “legitimate interests,” however defined.
My overall conclusion is that while the politics of anti-western resentment has led Russia into a geopolitical impasse, achieving some bargain with the West will continue to be the centerpiece of the Russian strategy. Reversing centuries of Westernization of Russian society is hardly possible; even Russians espousing deep resentment against the West will not accept true isolation from it. It is more likely that Russia will continue to be an errant offspring of the European civilization. If this is so, it will continue to crave recognition from the West; but it is unlikely to get something it will find satisfactory. The only way to normalcy goes through a dramatic reduction of Russia’s ambitions - something similar to what Germany went through in the wake of its defeat in World War 2. This may or may not happen, and if it does, it’s going to be painful.