Do Western Countries Really Have an Anti-Russia Policy?

Jens Siegert heads the project “Public Diplomacy: EU and Russia” and is director at the Moscow office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

To answer this question, let’s first consider what “anti-Russia policy” really means. For me, it means a profound dislike of all things connected to Russia.

If we take me as an example, then I don’t support the annexation of Crimea, the war in Western Ukraine, the arrest of Alexei Navalny, or mass arrests of peaceful protestors. But none of this means I’m anti-Russia. I live in Moscow and my wife is Russian. I wrote a book in German called 111 Reasons to Love Russia. So the government and the country are not the same thing.

Likewise, I don’t believe that most European leaders pursue an anti-Russia policy. Above all, they pursue a policy that is in the best interests of their own countries, as both they themselves and their voters understand those interests. The leadership in Russia has its own interests which, as we know, may differ from the interests of average Russian citizens. It sometimes happens that the interests of the Russian leadership do not align with those of European leaders. In recent years, this has more often than not been the case.

Having worked the past several years with various institutions of the EU, I’ve met few people, both in Germany and in other countries, that didn’t want to have good relations with Russia. Politicians in Europe are likely bothered by the apparent hopelessness of the situation in which it’s become harder and harder to maintain relations. Ultimately, mutual confrontation is a headache that European leaders don’t need.

Among European leaders, the most critical of Russia are those in the Baltics and Poland. Things are quite clear in the former’s case – for about 40 years they lived under Soviet occupation, and neighboring Russia has historically been a serious threat to them. Whereas Poland’s leadership has strained relations not just with Russia, but with Germany as well, again, for historical reasons. 

All governments view the world through the historical experience of their own country. This is exactly what we see happening in Russia when calls are made to defend the country against the West. Thoughts of German or Napoleonic invasions sit in the back of peoples’ minds. But we should move away from this kind of thinking and focus on the reality of today. If we look at Germany, then we see that the country has long been divided between those who oppose sanctions and those who think that at least some kind of symbolic point needs to be made against Russia. However, both sides support continued dialogue with Russia. No one wants to sever relations completely. Everyone understands that nothing good would come from it.

No one in the EU is under the illusion that Russia will return Crimea to Ukraine, or that some other major political changes will result from sanctions. This policy is more of a public demonstration, saying, “We don’t support or recognize the annexation of Crimea, and we understand that right now nothing will change, but in the future, it might.” We only need to remember that for more than 40 years western nations didn’t recognize the Soviet annexation of the Baltics, yet now we have three independent Baltic states.

In some cases, the consolidated efforts of western countries do in fact exert some influence over Moscow. I believe that the joint response of the EU and United States against Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine prevented the war from worsening even further.

God help those who would wish for revolution in a massive nuclear superpower

Sanctions are a message to those against whom they’re placed: “We don’t support your actions, if you continue along this path, then your decisions will have a cost.” The Russian government has always had the opportunity to assess whether it’s ready to pay that price or reconsider its actions. This is one of the many tools of international policy. It’s by no means all-powerful, but neither is it completely useless.

One popular opinion within Russia is that western countries are allegedly interested in revolution breaking out in the country. God help those who would wish for revolution in a massive nuclear superpower. Imagine the Syrian crisis, but on the scale of Russia, a country bordering with the EU. The very thought is maddening.

OliverElliott, historian and Cold War specialist

In order to answer this question, we should first clarify what we mean by “western nations” and an “anti-Russia policy.” “The West” is a rather broad and abstract concept which suggests a greater unity between member countries than exists in reality.

As far as Russia is concerned, western countries disagree considerably among themselves. Leaders in the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, and Baltics undoubtedly perceive Russia as both a military and geopolitical threat, and traditionally they insist upon adopting tough measures against Russia in response to its government’s actions.

Others western countries, such as France, Germany, and Italy are reluctant to agree upon such measures, and they generally strive to maintain constructive relations with Russia in business and commerce. In recent months, Germany continued to support the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite the fact that the US and Eastern European Countries oppose the project.

However, no single western government positions itself as having an “anti-Russia policy.” SincetheendoftheColdWar, western countries hoped to build partnerships with Russia and normalize its relations with Europe. Unfortunately, starting around the end of the 2000s, the Russian government began to persecute political activists, annexed Crimea, and adopted a general policy that contradicts European norms.

Leaders from a number of European countries are currently unsettled by the fact that Russian authorities can interfere in the democratic processes of other countries, such as elections.

Leaders from a number of European countries are currently unsettled by the fact that Russian authorities can interfere in the democratic processes of other countries, such as elections

However, we still haven’t witnessed a decisive shift in policy toward Russia in response to its actions. Western countries continue to work with Russia. In February, newly-elected US President, Joe Biden, extended the New START treaty with Moscow.

We can look to history in order to understand why Russia and western countries share such complex relations. For a long time, the size and military strength of Russia allowed it to play a critical role in the distribution of power in Europe. Following the 1917 revolution, the communist government represented an ideological threat to the capitalist West. When the Soviet Union established communist governments in Eastern Europe after the conclusion of World War II, many western nations started to perceive Russia as an aggressive, expansionist superpower. Although the Cold War ended peacefully, the negative perception of Russia remained in many countries. Cultural and religious differences on a number of social issues, such as homosexuality, helped preserve this idea that Russia is fundamentally different from the West.

Although the Cold War ended peacefully, the negative perception of Russia remained in many countries

There’s a lot of fear and distrust toward Russia. Western leaders sometimes use Russophobic rhetoric because it’s politically advantageous for them to do so. While people in Russia might hear this rhetoric and conclude that western countries and their leaders are “anti-Russia,” it’s important to remember that for a long time, many in the West thought of Russia as a progressive nation. Given the right conditions, you can imagine that this same view of Russia will return.