Brexit: Russia’s national interest versus its nationalist interest

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Subject: Brexit: Russia’s national interest versus its nationalist interest
Date: Tue, 21 Jun 2016 13:27:00 -0400
From: Ira Straus (

The argumentative thrust of Putin’s Russia is friendly to Brexit. Indeed, it propagandizes for the most extreme parties of the far Right in Europe, coupled with providing financial sponsorship for them and some organizational support. This creates a resemblance to the Third Period of the Comintern, when the Soviet Union favored the Nazis over the moderates and Social Democrats. It resembles more generally the revolutionary period of 1917 to 1933, when the Soviet Union worked with a nihilistic bent for the overturn of the entire international order, undermining the League of Nations and the Weimar Republic.

Nevertheless much of the Soviet elite learned something from the consequences of that attitude, which issued in World War II and devastating costs to Russia. They also learned from the nuclear danger. It was this learning that was expressed in Gorbachev’s policy: a policy of pivoting from opposing the international order to supporting it, working within it, and working even to reinforce it.

This change included a reversal of line on the European Union (then Community): from determined enmity to it as a union of the core countries of “the imperialist world order” and a part of the preparatory structures for the West to launch World War III against Russia, to support for it as a positive development, “objective” and historically necessary for peace and prosperity in Europe and the world.

The language of Putin’s media, expressed with reckless abandon on RT for all the world to see, has reverted largely to Third Period Comintern type. Putin himself has spoken this way, but has also mixed this in with an opposite language of participation in the world order, sometimes constructively. Much of the Russian elite retains this orientation and continues to speak this language.

The Russia of Putin retains its dual potentiality, friendly and hostile, and every shade in between. It remains responsive to shifts in the policies and opportunities presented by external actors.

Unfortunately, it is unbalanced in its responsiveness in a negative direction, determined by the slant and the paranoia of its ideology. This paranoia in some respects exceeds even that found by Stephen Koktin to have been structurally embedded in the Soviet regime, with its two-camp Marxist ideology and its sectarian Party system of rule, and to have provided an underbelly of support or underlying explanation for Stalin’s paranoia, with all its historic consequences. Today’s ideology no longer depends on an elaborate Communist theory for its expression, but simply draws on the habituated wells of paranoia about sinister economic forces and motivations, expressed in a crude form that Marxists used to denounce as populism, while for its depth it mixes this in with nationalistic resentments and phobias that are more reminiscent of fascism than the Soviet regime ever was.

Much of the Russian elite nevertheless continues the line of prioritizing the shared interest or seeking a balance of interests, and maintaining support for the world order and responsiveness to positive opportunities.

The variance reflects a sharp divergence between Russia’s nationalist interest and its national interest. That is to say, the sharp divergence between:

(1) Russia’s interest when conceived as a separate power, calculating its power interests from a definition of itself as a nation whose interest is against other powers, particularly against other powers in the Western world. It portrays an intransigent mortal enmity of Western powers, leading to an interest of Russia in raising up the Third World against it as the Soviets had done in most of their time (but as the later Soviets had rejected as doing damage to Russia’s fundamental interests in the world, starting with the split from Maoist China and cessation of promoting its nuclear development). Nationalism is taken for granted as the fundamental instinct of all states. The Russian state cultivates it, as a popular reflex for support for its power politics. It also cultivates it somewhat carelessly in other countries as well, for the sake of ideological solidarity and support in resisting what are depicted as dangerous pressures from international systemic interests. It puts mostly out of mind how nationalisms run amok, including its own, have harmed Russia in the past.

(2) Russia’s national interest, as calculated when Russians weigh their shared interests as well as their divergent interests, and base their thinking on an objective primacy of a shared interest generally in an orderly world and particularly — together with the rest of the countries of European heritage — in the existing world order. This comes coupled with acknowledgement of continued power seeking behaviors, in all the spaces where integration has not overcome separateness of policy, some concomitant nationalist instincts, and some risky paranoias and ideological exacerbations of the nationalism; but with a call to resist the exaggerations.

The second, and I think more nuanced view, in which Russia sees a continued interest in a united Europe, may be found nowadays, not perhaps much on RT, but from analysts such as Mr. Andrey Sushentsov of MGIMO ( and Pavel Kanevskiy of MGU ( ). These are the basic institutions of political education and foreign affairs research in Moscow (ones at which, for full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I had taught — on U.S. Fulbright pay, to be sure, not Russian pay — back in the days when Putin was following a more constructive line and was more clearly open to the Western option), not fly by night places. To be sure, there is in these writings a sometimes wishful thinking that Russia’s real policy is what it ought to be; and, at times, a Brezhnev era motif of a united Europe being useful, not for developmental or “objective” purposes, but for the sake of dividing it from America and splitting up the West. A balanced view of Russia’s policy and interests on Brexit may nevertheless be found alongside them at .

For Westernists in Russia (called “Westernizers” in Western parlance), the coherence of the West, as a long-time guidepost of global modernization and development, remains an indispensable pillar of wisdom. It endures through all disappointments with the many short-term missteps that a united West makes, understanding that all things mortal make mistakes and the united West is not a metaphysical devil, rather it has done mostly good amidst its mistakes. Above all, it remembers the far more terrible missteps that a divided West made over the course of modern history, when there really was a demonic element in the nationalist reflexes of several Western states. And it remembers that Russia, while often called eastern when people are comparing who is the most western on the European scale inside of the West, remains nevertheless a part of the West on the global scale, where there are several genuinely non-Western civilization. It is on the larger scale, globally, that a comprehensive comparison is possible, and thereby an objective one, from which can be determined what is Russia’s fundamental interest. It shows that the Westernists are right.