02/22/2016

The 'Evil Empire' Strikes Back? Why Russia is Not the Soviet Union 2.0

 

The Matthew B. Ridgway Center welcomes Dr. Rudra Sil at 12:00 p.m., Monday, February 22.  Dr. Sil is a Professor of Political Science and the director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Matthew B. Ridgway Center welcomes Dr. Rudra Sil at 12:00 p.m., Monday, February 22.  Dr. Sil is a Professor of Political Science and the director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

As attitudes toward Russia have become increasingly negative, some are using the label Soviet Union 2.0 to characterize the regime and its aspirations. Its leader, Vladimir Putin, is oft portrayed as a "KGB thug," oppressing unwilling subjects and bullying weaker neighbors. Such images, if not entirely wrong, are overly simplistic and show a lack of historical imagination. They derive from a glossy vision of Yeltsin's Russia in the 1990s as a "normal" transitional country evolving into a liberal capitalist democracy and pursuing wholesale integration into the West. This vision belies the extreme uncertainty felt by most Russians during the 1990s, when huge policy changes were initiated with minimal internal deliberations and wreaked havoc on the economy and society (most tragically evident in the steep drop in life expectancy).

Russia was also too weak to pursue an assertive foreign policy, even in relation to core regional interests. In fact, it is Putin's Russia that is a more "normal" version of the country – not in the sense of converging with the West, but in the sense of being an ambitious non‐western power charting its own course and competing for greater influence in the global arena. Such a power may challenge the US and EU more often, but that does not signal a program to resurrect the USSR.

Russia's political system is not a liberal democracy, but it is a hybrid regime with more democratic elements than in the past (or in China and other one‐party dictatorships). Russia's foreign policy is neither status‐quo, nor revisionist; rather, it is a proactive response to regional tensions left over from the break‐up of the USSR and to a "unipolar" post‐Cold War order dominated by the US and NATO. Even after Putin leaves the stage, we would do well to view Russia as neither a new partner nor an "evil empire," but simply a "normal" non‐Western state with its own history, self‐image, aspirations, and strategic interests.