THE RUSSIAN DILEMMA: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin

This study examines the origins and development of a specific strand in Russia’s political and strategic cultures — Russia’s ‘national security culture’ and ‘security vigilance norm’ – doing so in the context of Russian-Western relations.

It is also a methodologically informed interpretation of Russian-Western relations’ impact on Russian history. Using aspects of identity, cultural, discourse, and constructivist theory as a foundation and framework, the work traces the formation of Russia’s security culture or vigilance norm within the context of Russia’s semi-European national identity and culture and its selection of Europe and the West as its ‘constituent Other.’ Its central hypothesis is that over the centuries Russia has become entangled in a vexing dilemma. On the one hand, Russia has aspired to be part of its Western ‘Other’ as a consequence of the latter’s growing influence on her own culture and identity. On the other hand, Russia learned to have profound trepidations for her security guided by a history of Western military and political intrusions into the homeland. The trepidation hypothesis proposes Russia’s security culture and its vigilance norms are both spontaneously developed and instrumentally constructed in response Western military invasions, interventions, political interference as well as to challenges to her domestic consensus, cohesion and stability. The Russian response to these threats and challenges led over the course of some four centuries to the development of three interrelated norms in Russia’s political and strategic security culture: vigilance against military threats, especially from the West; fear of internal division, dissent, and instability; and great trepidation regarding collusion between domestic and foreign, particularly Western actors.

The interaction between Western policies and behavior towards Russia and Russia’s consequent security culture and vigilance norm regarding potential Western-derived threats and challenges to the Russian traditions of consensus (versus competition), authoritarianism, and Orthodoxy tends to conflict with and confound Russia’s Western aspirations. This historical Russian dilemma with the West helps to explain both the intermittent ‘zigs and zags’ in Russian history and the vicissitudes in Russian-Western relations over the centuries defining four ‘relational cycles’ beginning from the 15th century. Each relational cycle includes the growth and decline of Russian-Western tensions, Western military invasion and/or political intervention in Russia’s domestic affairs, and the vigilance norm’s rise to dominance strain and declines into recessiveness in Russia’s political and strategic culture of security in relations to potential internal and external threats to Russian national security emanating from the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reign marks the beginning of a fifth relational cycle, in which the first phase, as has been the historical pattern, features post-conflict (Georgia and Ukraine) residual tensions with the West, the return to dominant position in the culture of the security norm of vigilance against Western threats, and a revival of traditionalism and authoritarianism.