What is the myth?
This myth can be encapsulated as follows:
The foreign policy of Russia is open to criticism, even to censure. But Russia behaves as great powers behave. The West has been no more observant than Russia of international law, and has flouted its own professed normative standards. Since the disappearance of the USSR, the US has viewed a unipolar world as an entitlement. Not only does the US violate international law, it regards itself as above it. NATO’s military intervention in Yugoslavia was no different in nature from that of Russia in Ukraine. A US still guided by the Monroe Doctrine – which defined the intervention of outside powers in the Americas as a threat to the US – has no business lecturing Russia about a sphere of influence in the former USSR. The EU is an empire in all but name.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
In the titular ‘West’ (members of NATO and the EU), the case for equivalence has been put from two countervailing perspectives. The ‘realist’ case, advanced most epigrammatically by John Mearsheimer, postulates that ‘power maximization’ motivates all states. Towards Ukraine, Russia has acted as any great power would in response to a rival ‘moving into [its] backyard and threatening its core strategic interests’. The prolific conservative commentator, Peter Hitchens, scornful of the role of values in Western policy, not only shares this view of Russian policy, but views the EU as a presumptive hegemon, ‘a continuation of Germany in all but name’ and an aggressive liberal-internationalist force. This view is shared by many staunch proponents of Brexit, by Eurosceptic constituencies in the EU, and by those Europhiles who resent perceived German dominance.
In contrast, others more mindful of legitimacy and international norms have condemned the cultural ignorance, the ‘crusader mentality’ and the double standards that inform Western policy, or at least the Anglo-American wing of it. Both Richard Sakwa and Anatol Lieven argue that domestic factors have at least as great an influence on the US’s Russia policy as Russia’s actions do. In Sakwa’s view, the ‘effective convergence of Clintonite liberal internationalists and neo-con global interventionists’ fuelled ‘prejudice’ and ‘paranoia’ towards Russia. Lieven draws attention to the interaction of two traditions in US policy: the ‘messianic’ (‘go out and turn the world into America’) and the chauvinistic. Both come together in the neo-conservative belief in ‘unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority’. He also assails the hypocrisy of those who ignore the fact that ‘America does after all have its own sphere of influence in Central America and the Caribbean’. The distinguished historian, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, goes further and describes the US as an imperial project in essence. From its incorporation of Louisiana, Texas and the southwest, it became a ‘territorial empire’ that eventually expanded overseas. In the 20th century it enlarged its writ through the international institutions it created.
The Russian state leadership indirectly reinforces the myth – not by emphasizing the equivalence outlined above but by underlining, instead, the West’s transgressions of international norms. The official basis of Russian foreign policy is the UN Charter (which, of course, affords it a Security Council veto), international law and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. In its view, the West pursues a policy based on ‘US diktat’, democracy promotion, military intervention and regime change. Without any hint of contradiction, Russia also claims a right to a ‘sphere of privileged interests’ and the ‘right to defend compatriots wherever they live’. From Moscow’s perspective, Russia’s policies and the West’s policies are divergent; they are not equivalent. So while it is not explicitly cultivating the ‘bad as each other’ myth, Russia in effect enables it to flourish by claiming that the West acts unacceptably.
Why is it wrong?
Many of these critiques contain important truths. The West is not an embodiment of virtue. The US-led war in Iraq (opposed, it must be said, by several Western governments) did not have the endorsement of the UN Security Council (UNSC), thereby leading many to argue that it was a violation of international law. Some have gone further and laid its more negative humanitarian and geopolitical consequences at the door of the US. Yet neither the UNSC nor the UN General Assembly ever condemned Operation Iraqi Freedom. Moreover, it is highly debatable that most of its consequences have been negative. Although Russia’s support of Syria’s recognized government does not violate international law in itself, the UN has accused Russia of war crimes, and the humanitarian consequences of this ongoing conflict surpass those in Iraq. ‘Who is worse’ is a matter of judgment. In that limited sense, there is no myth to deconstruct here.
If the EU is an empire, it is one by invitation. NATO enlargement has been no less demand-driven. It is outsiders who seek inclusion; insiders who impose ‘conditionality’. In contrast, Russia’s integration projects are schemes for imposing ‘firm good neighbourliness’ on other states.
But this misses the broader picture. In fact, a comparison of Europe and the US to Russia highlights key differences. First, if the EU is an empire, it is one by invitation. NATO enlargement also has been no less demand-driven. It is outsiders who seek inclusion; insiders who impose ‘conditionality’. In contrast, Russia’s integration projects are schemes for imposing ‘firm good neighbourliness’ on other states, many of which have incurred serious costs (and in Ukraine’s case, war) by opposing these initiatives. Some countries that have freely chosen integration with Russia (e.g. Belarus and Armenia) have subsequently come under brutal pressure to cede more sovereignty than they intended. When, in 2010, Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned integration with NATO in deference to Russia, Russia immediately focused its ire on the proposed EU Association Agreement, which President Yanukovych finally abandoned in 2013 under extreme duress.
Second, not all great power is alike. It can arouse dread or provide comfort. Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would like to see more US military power in east-central Europe, not less. The principal worry, even among France’s Gaullists, is not that the US is overbearing, but that it will not be there when needed. They might ridicule the principle of consensus inside NATO, but they have made better use of it than anyone. If NATO were run by US diktat, France and Germany would not have been able to block Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, and the war in Iraq would have been a NATO operation, rather than one prosecuted by a US-led coalition.
The case for describing the EU as a ‘German empire’ is no more credible. Germany accounts for 25 per cent of the EU’s GDP, even after the UK’s departure. (In contrast, Russia’s share of the Eurasian Economic Union’s GDP is 87 per cent.) Having had its very survival as a nation tested by a pitiless, genocidal German empire, why was Poland so keen to join the EU? Why doesn’t it follow the UK’s example and leave? Why don’t other countries with equally proud histories
(e.g. Sweden, Finland and Greece) do so as well?
Third, historical analogies are more easily made than substantiated. It would be difficult to find a more misplaced analogy than that drawn between Russia’s presumptive sphere of influence in the former USSR and the alleged US sphere of influence in Latin America. The Americas never were a single jurisdiction, and the US never sought to create one. In contrast, the USSR was a jurisdiction unlike any other. Although the Russian Federation disavows responsibility for the bloodier features of the Soviet and imperial legacies, it upholds the ‘common history’ of the peoples who comprised it, defends the legality of Soviet annexations and treats criticisms of the USSR as anti-Russian.
It would be difficult to find a more misplaced analogy than that drawn between Russia’s presumptive sphere of influence in the former USSR and the alleged US sphere of influence in Latin America. The Americas never were a single jurisdiction, and the US never sought to create one.
Finally, not all transgressions of international law are equally egregious. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, compares Russia’s annexation of Crimea to NATO’s 1999 intervention in Yugoslavia, which took place in apparent contravention of articles 42 and 53 of the UN Charter. Yet intensive diplomatic efforts preceded Operation Allied Force, and Russia played a central role in them. The 1999 intervention also followed three UNSC resolutions strongly critical of Belgrade, as well as the displacement of over 230,000 people. In these respects, there is no comparison to Russia’s Crimea operation. For 17 years, from the signing of the Russia–Ukraine State Treaty of May 1997 to Yanukovych’s fall from power in February 2014, Russia lodged no official complaint against Ukraine with respect to the latter’s treatment of Russian ‘compatriots’, despite presenting this ostensible justification for war. There was no diplomatic process preceding the annexation of Crimea. It was occupied swiftly and surreptitiously. In the months following the annexation, Russia repudiated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Russia–Ukraine Interstate Treaty, as well as the 1997 Black Sea Fleet agreements. It also overturned the Kharkiv agreements, concluded between Ukraine’s President Yanukovych and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, and it has effectively abrogated the 2003 Treaty of Cooperation on the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. Only five UN member states recognized the legality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, whereas 97 recognized Kosovo’s statehood.
What is its impact on policy?
On the surface, very little. EU and NATO governments are not inclined to indict themselves for double standards, hypocrisy and transgressions of international law. Disunity over sanctions or ‘engagement’ with Russia arises for other reasons – e.g. economic interest, the conviction that compromise must be found, the need to address ‘bigger’ priorities, ‘Ukraine fatigue’ and guilt over Russia’s ‘humiliation’ in the 1990s. These are reflections of other myths, not this one.
But in parts of academia, think-tanks, the media, the arts and national parliaments, ‘moral equivalence’ is almost an orthodoxy. It is also prevalent among the avowedly liberal circles whose members might run Russia one day: people who condemn Vladimir Putin’s regime for its cynicism, but who will not accept that US or EU foreign policy is fundamentally different. Taking these factors in the round, the myth is more influential than appearances suggest.
What would good policy look like?
The myth of equivalence will persist for as long as a case can be made that the West does not adhere to the standards it demands of others. Over the years, EU and NATO governments have assumed that others accept their good intentions at face value. They do not. To address this challenge, the West will have to put as much effort into explaining policy as in making it. Russia has invested considerable effort in creating policy narratives. Western governments should be unsparing in disputing these narratives when they are distorted or mendacious. At the same time, they should be clear in presenting their own objectives, as well as the trade-offs and dilemmas they face. As Germany’s then foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, famously said to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, ‘in a democracy, you have to make the case’.
Finally, the West should not apologize for the fact that it is a community defined by rules and values. It has a responsibility to behave like one.