Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

Putin Has Created a Rupture That Will Be Difficult to Repair By Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman

Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?. The war that is currently raging between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014. It started with a clash between Russia and Ukraine over Ukraine’s orientation, so important to Moscow that it risked its working relationship with the West by annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine—and so important to the West that it levied sanctions on Russia and made efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically. In 2022, Russia widened the war. The tremor of conflict in 2014 turned into an earthquake as far as Russia and the West were concerned. The Kremlin now presents itself as at war with the “collective West,” and in support of Ukraine, the West is eager to isolate Russia as much as it can.

Although it is not the only driver of Russia’s dramatic break with Europe and the United States, the war has radically exacerbated this rupture. Russia’s internal transformation under Russian President Vladimir Putin long predates Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and its consequences will be felt long after the war is over. This transformation is Russia’s departure from the West—a shift even more all-encompassing than was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. One half of this story is Russia’s separation from Europe and the United States and its loss of contact with people, governments, institutions, and companies in the West. The other half is the newly anti-Western tenor of Russian life, a trend that is both spontaneous and government-mandated. The speed with which these changes have taken place is unprecedented in Russian history.

In a dramatic intensification of its 2014 drive to stigmatize and isolate Russia, the West made cutting off the country an explicit policy goal. As of 2023, Russia is led by a man the International Criminal Court has designated a war criminal. The country is enmeshed in an escalating war that has horrified and terrified many people in the West. For as long as this Russia is in evidence, Western leaders will distance it from their markets, bar it from gaining access to their technology, and keep the ruling elite and broad swaths of its economy under sanctions. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

The rising wall of separation extends, at times, to Russians per se. In May, PEN America canceled a panel discussion with two Russian writers, both of them strong opponents of the war, at its annual World Voices Festival in New York. The organization had come under pressure from Ukrainians who had been invited to a separate event at the festival and who had threatened to withdraw if Russians also participated, regardless of whether they were supporters of Putin’s war.  The decision was startling given PEN’s mission to protect literary freedom and its charter’s claim that “in all circumstances, and particularly in a time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.” The more such episodes there are—banning Russians from public events simply because of their nationality—the more the Kremlin can gloat about its decision to separate itself from the West. As long as the war continues, there will be no way to undo this profound parting of the ways.

Putin’s zeal for detaching Russia from Europe and the United States is mostly beyond the West’s control. Breaking with the West has become synonymous with his regime, a part of its political and ideological essence. The forces driving this break will be immensely difficult for any Putin successor to reverse, assuming that a leader who is not expressly anti-Western can still come to power in Russia. For decades, the conflict between Russia and the West may be an entrenched aspect of the international order. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?


Against the grain of the present moment, modern Russia was built in dialogue and contact with Europe. Beginning in the seventeenth century under Peter the Great and continuing under Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century, Russia strove to be ever more European. Thanks to their efforts, Russia joined the European state system. In 1812, Russia defeated Napoleon and then joined with Prussia and Austria to guarantee the continent’s stability. In the nineteenth century, Russia became one of Europe’s indispensable nations, a major component of the balance of power after the Congress of Vienna, and an organic part of pre–World War I European diplomacy.

In the nineteenth century, Russia made significant contributions from within European culture, especially with its literature, music, and ballet. Such were the achievements of Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and many others. This efflorescence of Russian culture was stimulated by contact with European ideas and European works of art. And Russia’s ruling house was dynastically linked to several of its Western European counterparts. Nicholas II, Russia’s tsar at the outbreak of World War I, was a first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and King George V of the United Kingdom. The aristocratic, integrated, open-ended Europe these leaders shared would be completely overturned by World War I and the upheavals that followed it. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union was paradoxically European. Although anathema to the postwar governments of Europe and the United States, the Soviets’ reigning ideology—communism—was a Western creation. Inspired by Karl Marx, the Bolsheviks dreamed of a world communist revolution and held special expectations for Germany, Marx’s homeland, and for its proletariat. Soviet leaders measured the Soviet Union’s modernization by Western criteria. American methods of mass industrial production left their mark on the Soviet imagination, and the Bolsheviks had a formidable dedication to highbrow European culture, encompassing Bauhaus and neoclassical architecture, the European canon of literature and philosophy, and elements of European and American modernism. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union was at the forefront of the European avant-garde in the visual arts, film, and theater.

After Joseph Stalin consolidated power around 1928, he reluctantly gave up on the dream of a worldwide proletarian revolution, consigning himself to “socialism in one country,” but he continued to rely on Western engineers and Western technology. Stalin was suspicious of Europe by nature and might have preferred a “fortress Soviet Union.” Yet geopolitics—in the form of Nazi Germany’s designs on Soviet territory—tethered him to Europe. By 1945, a victorious Soviet Union had brokered a deal with the Allies. It kept the countries of Eastern Europe isolated from the rest of the continent while also entrenching the Soviet Union in European politics. After Stalin’s death, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev returned to the idea of Soviet internationalism, an element of which was the partial opening of the Soviet Union to Europe in the 1950s. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 affirmed Europe’s existing borders, leaving Soviet control of the Warsaw Pact nations uncontested. With it, the United States and Western Europe accepted and codified the Soviet Union’s status as a European power. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

Among the unexpected outcomes of Soviet life was the emergence inside the Soviet Union of a grassroots fascination with the West. By the 1970s, the Cold War had lost much of its bite, and the Soviet Union increasingly struggled to compete with the cultural and consumerist élan of the West: its cigarettes, its blue jeans, and its popular music. To a degree, the regime tried to suppress this Westernization of Soviet taste and attitude. Though they threatened the regime’s monopoly on ideology, Western influences were very hard to contain, and the children of communist elites were among the first to embrace them. In the 1980s, an affection for the West amplified Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, paving the way for the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

From 1991 to at least the early 2010s, Russia westernized rapidly. In the 1990s, for the first time since the collapse of the Russian Empire, Western political structures became the general model for Russia’s leaders—contested elections, political parties, a parliament—even though the Kremlin subsequently did a great deal to manage each of these political structures. Russia’s economy became deeply interconnected with European markets, and its popular culture opened itself to Western influence from cuisine to fashion, to entertainment. The Internet made the West easily accessible to Russians, including those without the means to travel to Europe or the United States. Nowhere was Russia’s westernization more vivid than in Moscow and Saint Petersburg—which had been renamed Leningrad in 1924 but had its prior, European name restored in 1991. In the post-Soviet period, both cities had evolved into European megalopolises.


Putin, a native son of Saint Petersburg, Peter the Great’s vaunted “window on Europe,” had argued in 2000 that he could not imagine his country “in isolation from Europe.” Although Russia’s foreign policy grew more aggressive toward the West after 2014, this transition had a limited effect on Russian society, which remained generally open to the West. Even as late as 2021, countless academic and business ties persisted. Tourists went from Europe to Russia and from Russia to Europe. Commodities and ideas continued to be exchanged.

Putin may not have sought an abrupt break with the West at the outset of his invasion of Ukraine. Rather, his strategic purpose was probably to achieve greater independence for Russia or, as he might put it, greater “sovereignty” from the United States and from Europe. Apparently convinced that the campaign would be short and successful, he may have envisioned a relationship with the West that was damaged by the war but not irreparably so. The West had never radically severed ties with Russia—not after Putin’s war against Georgia in 2008, not even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its invasion of the Donbas in 2014, or it’s meddling in the U.S. election in 2016. But the risks that Putin was taking in 2022 were far greater. Even a quick triumph in Ukraine would have had far more serious repercussions with the West than anything he had previously done. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

By the time of the invasion, however, Putin had also been seeking to construct a Russia that was increasingly anti-Western in political form and that could exist apart from the West and in conflict with the West. That project dates back at least to the winter of 2011–12 when Putin was orchestrating his return to the presidency amid large anti-government protests. Newly embattled, Putin strengthened his hold on power by branding protesters (most of them Westernized urbanites) unpatriotic, increasing the level of domestic political repression, promoting greater cultural conservatism, and pursuing an increasingly extreme foreign policy. Genuine Russian euphoria over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 consolidated Putin’s vision for the country, further alienating pro-Western intellectual and political voices.

When the West rebuked Russia for the annexation of Crimea and imposed sanctions on Moscow, Putin could present himself as prophetic. His thesis that the West was out to weaken Russia, which he had articulated years earlier, was now given fresh narrative energy: Russians would have to fend for themselves against a West purportedly intent on keeping their country weak and submissive. If this was a break with the West, though, it was still a relatively mild break. After 2015, Russia’s relations with the West for the most part normalized, especially through energy ties with Europe. Once the war in eastern Ukraine was stalemated, further crises did not seem imminent. The Normandy Format—the diplomatic group composed of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine that was supposed to work toward a settlement of the Donbas conflict—plodded along. Even intense competition in Syria did not significantly complicate Russia’s relations with the West.

During the topsy-turvy Trump administration, much was changing under the surface. Russia acquired an increasingly dark reputation in the United States, and a degree of anti-Russian hysteria found a home in American politics. At the same time, the military relationship between Ukraine and the United States was deepening, and the NATO alliance continued to expand under President Donald Trump, presenting setbacks for Putin. All the while, Russia was becoming more authoritarian. In retrospect, it is clear—even if it was not so at the time—that Putin’s patience with the West was wearing thin.

When the 2022 invasion of Ukraine almost immediately turned sour for the Kremlin, and Western leaders rushed to sever ties with Russia, Putin did not have to improvise in his domestic policy. In his wartime actions at home, he could simply synthesize and intensify existing approaches. He ratcheted up repression to the point of destroying independent media—rendering any public criticism of the government punishable by arrest or the threat of arrest. He militarized the cultural conservatism he had long been nurturing. And he made anti-Westernism a fulcrum of his domestic policy, presenting the West as dangerously decadent and Western governments as ruthlessly aggressive in their will to disempower Russia. According to this narrative, the West was bent on destroying the Russian people through a proxy war or even—so the Kremlin has claimed—by developing biological weapons for use against Russia. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

Nearly sixteen months into the war, ordinary Russians harbor substantial and most likely enduring anger and resentment toward the West. In the later decades of the Soviet Union, the government largely failed to convince Soviet citizens of an implacably hostile West and, in the 1980s, the barriers between the Soviet Union and the West were weakening. But since February 2022, Russian institutions—scientific, educational, cultural, and athletic—have lost the option of partnering with Western counterparts. Contact has been severed on both sides. The Kremlin wants to keep the West at bay, and the West has erected a sanctions regime that makes institutional cooperation with Putin’s Russia impossible; even Western businesses and institutions unaffected by sanctions have chosen not to maintain a presence in the country. In today’s Russia, there is no longer any counterbalancing force to anti-Western hostility. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

Russia’s decoupling from the West is more than a harried response to sanctions. And it is not exactly a turn to autarky. Since the start of the war, Moscow has developed—not diminished—its relations with the outside world. Although it can no longer trade with Europe and the United States or harness Western technology for its own modernization, there are many parts of the world with which Russia can increase trade, including China, India, and even Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance. There are many non-Western paths available to Russia in the prosecution of the war and in the sustenance of its economy. Putin appears to see this reorientation as the foundation for Russia’s long-term strength and autonomy. Once it is accomplished, Russia will be a “unique country-civilization … performing a historically unique mission aimed at … building a multipolar international system,” in the language of the Russian Concept of Foreign Policy, which the Kremlin adopted in 2023. A unique Russia will have freed itself from a West that Putin may sincerely believe is in chronic decline.

The weak link in Putin’s project of uprooting Russia from the West is neither economic nor military. The current sanctions regime notwithstanding, the Kremlin will find ways to continue the war. The more embedded Russia becomes in non-Western economic structures, the more its military will be able to carry on. The weak link for Putin is cultural. For 300 years, Russia’s emulation of and immersion in Western culture has been integral to its own evolution: China and the so-called global South cannot replace Europe as a model for Russia’s culture. A modern Russia that has turned its back on the West is a Russia that has turned its back on itself. Despite Putin’s self-image as Russia’s savior, as the political leader who can win what he terms his country’s “battle for self-determination and for the right to be itself,” his radical anti-Westernism is in fact creating a Russia that has never been. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?


In Europe and the United States, Russia’s flight from the West was not wished for before 2022. The metaphor of an off-ramp for tensions with Moscow—invoked widely in 2014 when disagreements over Ukraine first arose—implied that there was some common destination for Russia and the West. Russia had swerved onto the wrong road and needed to be redirected, or it needed to redirect itself. U.S. President Joe Biden spent his first few months in office trying to mend relations with Russia, giving the green light to Germany with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and meeting with Putin in Geneva in June 2021, after which Russia and the United States established working groups on strategic stability. A functional relationship with Putin seemed possible.

After the war began, however, the West’s posture changed dramatically. In addition to aiming for Russia’s “strategic defeat” in Ukraine, Western leaders and policymakers embraced the unspoken end goal of either eliminating Russia from Europe or making Russia’s presence in Europe as small as possible. The sanctions and travel restrictions they have imposed have made it much harder for Russian businesses to operate in European countries. Their efforts to circumscribe Russian influence in Moldova and in the Balkans acquired new urgency, and outside Austria, the notion that some European states could be neutral was no longer acceptable. Switzerland provided military aid to Ukraine. Finland and Sweden, worried about Putin’s recklessness, applied for NATO membership, while the notion of NATO as the security umbrella for all of Europe, including Ukraine, has been gaining momentum. Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to the 2022 invasion with an appeal to Russians outside the Kremlin. He has since made it clear that Putin’s Russia must be kept as economically and culturally far from Europe as possible: Ukraine’s entry into Europe and Russia’s exit from Europe have become two sides of the same geopolitical coin. The taint of war has also altered the valence of Russian culture in Europe and the United States—for whatever reason, much more so than was the case during the Cold War.

Although the United States refused to send its athletes to Moscow in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Russian writers such as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn continued to be lionized as voices of conscience. It is hard to imagine any contemporary Russian writer or Russian cultural figure being treated in a similar way. In some quarters, a cloud of suspicion has formed over core parts of the Russian classical canon, including such writers as Alexander Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.  Some cultural institutions now approach these figures not as examples of Russia’s contributions to the West but as specimens of Russia’s eternal imperialism or as writers who have lent a patina of sophistication to Putinism. The effect is to make them less European, less Western, and more “foreign.” Will Russia’s Break With the West Be Permanent?


The breakup between Russia and the West has acquired an aura of permanence. For Putin’s Russia to rethink its ties to the West, the West would have to withdraw its military support for Ukraine and agree to a neutral Ukraine or a divided Ukraine in which Russia has dominion over at least half of the country.

This is highly unlikely to happen. For the West to rethink its ties to Russia, Russia would have to end the war, participate in the war crimes trials of Russians, turn Putin over to The Hague, and pay war reparations to Ukraine. This, too, is highly unlikely. No matter how long the war continues, and regardless of how it ends, it will almost certainly leave in place a crucial new reality of twenty-first-century international relations. Russia will be absent from the West and the West absent from Russia, an abyss of hostility between them.

Source: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/putin-will-russia-break-west-be-permanent-kimmage


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