The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea seems to have ushered in a new era in East-West relations. Putin’s monumental speech explaining and justifying Russia’s move was awash with Cold War rhetoric and old grievances with the West. It also hinted at turning to other parts of the globe for support and alliances, most notably to China and India. Western media were quick to follow suit, stressing Russia’s many deviations from the mainstream of Western democracy and universal values.
While a lot of these notions are true, many are not. The very offence taken by Putin at the West’s actions and inaction indicates that Russia feels scorned by the family it considers itself a part of. Russians do not keep their money in Yuan or Yen. They do not dream of sending their offspring to study at Kolkata and Beijing – their sights are on Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. They buy real estate in London, not in Hong Kong. They read their children tales by Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, Astrid Lindgren and Charles Perrault. They watch Hollywood movies and British TV series; they idolize Sherlock Holmes and listen to Lady Gaga.
Every success by Russian musicians, artists or actors in the West is heralded in the media, often out of proportion. Those who cite Russia’s Byzantine heritage as impeding its movement towards Europe overlook the fact that other countries with an equally heavy Byzantine past, like Bulgaria and even Serbia, have made this transition – not without difficulties, of course, but what historical change ever goes smoothly?
What can the West do? While certain measures to contain Russia’s bullying seem necessary and natural, especially those that would prop up Ukraine’s steps towards prosperity and transparency, it would be counterproductive to curtail co-operation with Russia in other areas: business, free trade, nuclear security, science, education, art and culture; even military partnership outside the post-Soviet sphere should not be summarily scrapped.
Isolating Russia on the world scene would exact the most pain on those few liberal-minded people still in Russia who are looking forward and beyond the current sad state of affairs, strengthening the regime’s grip on the scant remaining freedoms all the while. Leaving a lifeline of communication with the West, even for Putin, with a view to what might succeed the system he has built, is about the only thing that could keep Russia from turning into a self-contained gulag, all the more dangerous for itself and the world.