By Michael Hartfield
On Monday 5th December the Henry Jackson Society were delighted to host a highly distinguished panel including, Arkady Ostrovsky, Vladimir Pastukhov, Sir Andrew Wood and Robert Service. With a panel of such a high calibre, the event was a highly insightful discussion on the topic of Russia’s past, present and future.
Arkady Ostrovsky began the discussion by mentioning how things have not gone according to plan since 1991. Ostrovsky highlighted that Russia was supposed to be becoming more like the West; but, instead, given the emergence of events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the West is increasingly looking like Russia. For example, Putin has not only prospered for eighteen years through repressive means, but he has also responded to the same demands and concerns that are evident in America. Ostrovsky argued that Russian orthodoxy was far more dangerous than either Marxism or Leninism and that the only thing that could bring Russia and the West together are universal values. Ostrovsky concluded his argument by claiming that 1991 was not the end of history, rather part of the present. He urged the audience to look at 1991 in a different perspective.
Vladimir Pastukhov took a different approach to the discussion and argued that one must raise and answer the ‘five big questions’ with regards to the fall of the Soviet Empire:
- Is modern Russia really different from the USSR?
- How far has Russia went away from the USSR?
- Was it really necessary to demolish the USSR to get it to the point it is now?
- Why did the USSR fall?
- Could Russia repeat the destiny of the USSR?
Pastukhov argued that Russia today is not much different from the USSR as it still continues to be a colonial empire. However, he argued that despite news of many Russian human rights violations, and much aggression, Russia has shifted away from the USSR. Even in current Russia’s worst days, the level of freedoms are much higher than the USSR’s best days. That being said, institutionally, Russia continues to be the same as the USSR. Moreover, Pastukhov also argued that while demolishing the USSR was the most probable scenario at the time, there were still alternatives.
Pastukhov ended his discussion by contending that while Russia may follow a similar destiny to the USSR, it will not necessarily happen tomorrow and would take many generations before we see the end of the 1991 story. He concluded that Russia faces a choice between manageable decentralisation or unmanageable disintegration, and that this would be the key issue for the next two decades.
Like Pastukhov, Robert Service argued that Russia’s history relates to today. Putin is perceived as a successful leader who carries the soviet legacy. In spite of this, Service contended that Putin’s party is not as serious a vanguard party like the Soviet Union. However, it is similar to the KGB in that it fiddles with elections and is authoritarian. Moreover, like other collapsed empires, Russia has imperial syndrome. Consequently, Russia is reasserting itself as a great power in the world and has been accepted as one. Although Putin has been remarkably effective in lasting for the last sixteen years and whilst still scoring approval ratings of 70% and higher, Putin is taking a terrible risk on his own leadership status as the Russian economy lacks diversification.
Sir Andrew Wood ended the discussion by claiming that we are witnessing a tragedy of Russian history as Russia reverts back to its position of the mid-1980s. Sir Andrew argued that our relations are governed by an obsession that Russia is a great power. However, this is a mistake as a great power has no real definition. Like Robert Service, Sir Andrew also believes that Putin can no longer undertake serious economic reform as, to have genuine economic reform, a country must have an independent and effective judiciary and an unrestrained press. Furthermore, Sir Andrew warned of the dangers the West faces today as Russia has failed to come to terms with its past. Sir Andrew concluded by the need to preserve hope that Russia will one day revert back to European orientation.
For a full transcript of this event click here