Russia: Now No Longer European As Well?

Russia: Now No Longer European As Well?

This is the first entry in a new feature, Revisiting Orbis, by editor Nikolas K. Gvosdev, to go back into the archives of Orbis and to take a second look at articles, their predictions and their analysis, to see how they have held up over time, and to reconnect the past issues of the journal with present-day developments.

Original Orbis piece: Nikolas K. Gvosdev’s “Russia: ‘European But Not Western?’” vol. 51, no. 1 (Winter 2007)

Implications of the argument: Under Vladimir Putin, Russia was moving away from its earlier embrace of Atlanticisim, seeing Russia as part of the Western world, and aspiring to emulate the West’s values and standards of governance, but still considered Russia part of an overarching European civilization—a representative of its eastern half. In geopolitical terms, this was a way to distance Russia from the United States, both by excluding itself from the overall definition of the “West”—but also to exclude the United States from a European space in which Russia, but not the United States, should play a leading role.

In June 2008, incoming Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a new European security architecture, arguing that “Europe’s problems won’t be solved until its unity is established, an organic wholeness of all its integral parts, including Russia.” Medvedev identified the United States, the European Union, and Russia as the “three branches of European civilization.”

Revisiting the argument: Efforts to embed Russia within a new post-Cold War security arrangement have not borne fruit. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of separatism in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 aggravated relations between the members of the European Union and Russia, while Ukraine’s own efforts to integrate with the West and further decouple its ties with Russia have contributed to a sense that Russia’s future lies more with its southern and eastern vectors, away from Europe.

At the end of the Cold War, the assumption guiding U.S. and Western policy was that subsequent post-Soviet generations would be friendlier towards the West and inclined to support convergence between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic world.

New 2020 polling data assembled by the Levada Center and the Fredrich Ebert Foundation, however, suggests that younger Russians in the 14 to 29 category—having grown up with no memory of the Cold War—are more suspicious of the United States and less likely to view themselves as European. In assessing the polling data, Thomas Schaffner and Angelina Flood concluded, “A majority of young Russians distrust NATO more than any other organization and disagree that Russia is a European country.” 58 percent disagreed with the declaration that Russia is a “European country” and 64 percent believed that Russia was in conflict with the West. Moreover, a significant minority—42 percent—agreed with the statement that relations between Russia and the West “will always be marked by mistrust.”

What this suggests is that, as we move into the middle of the 21st century, and as generational transition occurs in the Russian leadership, Russians may be less inclined to seek membership within the West and to chart out an independent course in world affairs.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.