The causes of Russo-Western antagonism

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The causes of Russo-Western antagonism
Published 5-09-2015, 19:40

Gregory Slysz

Dr. Gregory Slysz lectures in history in London UK, specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs. He is a PhD of the University of Kent in England. His PhD thesis was titled ‘Soviet nationality policy and the politics of self-determination, 1963-1991’.


"The direct consequences of a war with Russia,” wrote the British weekly The Economist, "we look upon with no apprehension, at least under existing circumstances. It may be costly; it may be troublesome; if Russia be obstinate when defeated it may be longer than we expect; but we cannot pretend to entertain the smallest doubt of the triumphant success of the allied arms both on sea and land.” [1]

The belligerence of The Economist is unmistaken. A little more surprising, however, to anyone who considers events in 1945 or 1917 as harbouring the roots of Russo-Western antagonism is that this editorial was written on 25 March, 1854, in the middle of the Crimean War. 161 years on, and the tone and language from the same publication has changed little. Writing on the current Ukrainian conflict, it noted that "Mr Putin sets himself up as a patriot, but he is a threat—to international norms, to his neighbours and to the Russians themselves, who are intoxicated by his hysterical brand of anti-Western propaganda. The world needs to face the danger Mr. Putin poses. If it does not stand up to him today, worse will follow.” [2]

"The intention here is not to present a digest of Western scary stories that seek to brand Russia and its leader as a threat to world peace. Rather, it is to challenge the common perception of the causes and nature of Russo-West relations that are stoked by incessant propaganda campaigns waged by Western governments in collaboration with ‘embedded’ media sources. For evidence of this one needs to look no further than to the revelation in 2014 by Udo Ulfkotte, a former editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in his best-selling book, Gekaufte Journalisten (Bought journalism), that stories in the German press are essentially planted at the request of the CIA. [3] A year later Tom Harper of the British Sunday Times admitted in an CNN interview in June 2015 [4] that his front page investigation published in the paper a few days earlier on the effects on British spies in Russia and China of the Snowden revelations, [5] contained nothing but ‘the position of the British government at the moment’. His confession merely confirmed a trend of collaboration between the media and respective governments that appears to be on the rise."

For all their pronouncements on the ‘Russian threat’, Western commentators have generally approached the current crisis without recourse to history and certainly not to any before 1945. In truth, the ‘new Cold War’ has its roots far beyond the ‘old Cold War’, which in itself contained little that was fundamentally novel in Russo-Western relations. Consequently, to understand the determinants of current relations, it is crucial not to look to recent history but to a much deeper past. In so doing, what will be revealed is a fundamental clash of both values and geo-political agenda that over centuries have sought control of the vast Eurasian landmass which Halford Mackinder termed in 1904 as ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’. [6]

Understanding Russia

Western geopolitical analyses have generally tended to view Russia’s actions as menacing, rooted in the contrariness of its leaders who are out of touch with reality and who refuse to abandon the memories and tactics of the Soviet past [7] which in some way they seek to recreate. In this way, such analysis views the world purely in terms of Western hegemonic power, deviation from which is considered to be errant.

Commenting on the current Ukrainian crisis, the neo-conservative strategist John Bolton, America’s representative to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, recycled an old quote from Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Russian Parliament in April 2005 to try to explain Russia’s annexation of Crimea. "I think Putin … gave us notice of his strategy seven or eight years ago when he said, ‘The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century’.”’ [9] It is a narrative that Putin was to reiterate on many occasions.

For Putin, certainly, the West’s current policy of ‘containment’ of Russia is not novel but forms part of a continuum that "has been carried out against our country for many years … if not centuries”, as he noted in his State of the Nation Address in December 2014. "In short,” he continued, "whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into place.” [13]

Putin was to call time on the "uni-polar world” following NATO’s action in Libya in 2011, which Russia did not veto at the UN, expecting, in return, a relationship based on equal terms. When none was forthcoming, Russia’s patience expired. Two years later, Western plans in Syria to remove from office President Bashar al-Assad, a repeat offender against Western interests in the region, were blocked by a Russian (and Chinese) veto of UN Security Council resolutions authorising a Libya-like NATO bombing campaign. Realising Russia’s new determination to oppose the West’s hegemony, Western leaders, in collusion with their respective media outlets, went into overdrive with an unprecedented anti-Russian propaganda campaign that had no parallel even at the height of the so-called Cold War. The Ukrainian crisis which commenced in 2013 with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 by Western backed popular forces, many of which such as the Right Sector avowing openly Nazis sympathies, [14] created a climate of mutual sanctions and recriminations that represented the most serious episode of Russo-Western antagonism since the end of detente in the late 1970s.

An international relations continuum

Relations between Russia and the West over at least the past century and a half have indeed followed a consistent pattern. The general cordial Russo-U.S. relations during the century or so after the American War of Independence that were based on realist considerations to keep a balance the power vis-à-vis European and Pacific empires [16]

Although the process of converging and diverging interests was more pronounced in the eventful arena of European politics, as states would find themselves in alliances one day and in opposition the next–evidenced, for instance, in 1914 by the virtual reversal of the anti-Russian Crimean alliance–a fundamental undercurrent of mutual mistrust between Western European powers and Russia was ever-present. This would continue into the post Second World War period, whose determining forces were much more complex than the popular image of the so-called ‘Cold War’ of a conflict between two opposing ideologies – communism and capitalism – that commenced in 1945. The term ‘Cold War’ itself was journalistic and sought to simplify what was a highly complex set of relations which involved not only the two superpowers and their satellites but also a variety of so-called ‘non-aligned’ nations and in which ideology was often sacrificed for geo-political gain, as demonstrated, for instance, by the Soviet Union’s courting of India and its shunning of China and America’s betrayal of Britain during the Suez Crisis. Notwithstanding the set of post-(Second World) War circumstances, the Cold War had deep historical roots, harbouring much continuity linking post and pre-war periods in terms of the strategic, military and economic ambitions of both Russia/USSR and the U.S. as well as other protagonists like Britain and France. Apart from the presence of the nuclear deterrent, there is little to distinguish this period from any other.

Cultural determinism

Even wider causes can be identified that defined the conflict in terms of a ‘we –they’ divide that was rooted to centuries’ old cultural, psychological and religious differences with collectively nurtured mutual suspicions and fears. So dominated are histories of international relations from both left and light perspectives with materialistic analyses that cultural determinants are almost ignored.

In the West, Russia characteristically has been viewed as barbaric and alien. In the 17thcentury, the English physician Samuel Collins was struck by the way Russian nobles ate "peas and carrots like swine, shells and all” and whose visual arts were "flat and ugly … no better than gilded gingerbread”. [20] These were opinions that were prevalent amongst many Europhile, liberal-minded Russians like the 19th century philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, for whom Russia’s Western outlook was purely superficial, largely devoid of its moral values and ideas. So incendiary were his views that they could not be published in Russia amidst a Slavophile reaction that was taking root there, championed by the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, who took upon themselves a messianic Christian mission to save what they regarded as the decadent and corrupt West. The West’s rejection of Russia as an equal ensured that this trend would triumph, forming the basis of a new Russian nationalism. A warped, atheistic version survived during Soviet times only to remerge in modified form in the post-Soviet era.

For all the superficial similarities between Russia and the West, a deep cultural chasm exists between an increasingly conservative and Christian Russia and an increasingly liberal and atheist West that fuels mutual antagonism and suspicion, most vividly highlighted by the reaction in many Western quarters to Russia’s anti-abortion stance [22]

Control of the ‘heartland’

Notwithstanding memorable headlines and captivating periodisation, what has determined Russo-West encounters over the centuries has not been ‘cold wars’, old or new, but conventional power politics. Here, Mackinder’s ‘heartland’ theory of ‘”he great geographical pivot of history” remains as applicable today as it is to the Hunnic invasions of the 5th century or Germany’s invasion of the 20th. It was clear to all ambitious conquerors that whichever power controlled the vast resource-rich Eurasian landmass, it possessed an unassailable geopolitical position. [23] As such, it has been incumbent on those powers threatened by the hegemon of the east to contain and ultimately defeat it.

For at least the past two centuries, Russia has attempted, not always successfully, to assert itself on the international stage as an equal to the Western powers. However, other than at times of mutual convenience, this, as has been noted, has not been welcomed by Western powers which have sought either to contain Russia and exclude it from European affairs as during the Crimean War of the 1850s and during the post Second World War period or simply to destroy it as with the German invasion of 1941. Seen in this context, the current march to the east by Western powers which commenced with Western, mainly U.S. intervention in the Soviet-Mujahidin [Afghanistan] war of the 1980s follows a well-trodden path. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Pentagon was quick to re-formulate its strategy, noting in 1992 in a document that "Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a rival that poses a threat on the territory of the former Soviet Union [and] to endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.” [25] In the EU, which was determined to spread its "democratic values” and whose energy supplies were also vulnerable, the U.S. acquired an ally in containing Russia’s influence in Eurasia. And so proceeded NATO’s encirclement of Russia along its western and southern borders and the engineering of the so-called colour revolutions in former Soviet republics, most recently in Ukraine, that replaced incumbent corrupt leaders with equally corrupt West-leaning place men.

Russia’s response first to Western provocations in Georgia in 2008 and secondly in Crimea in 2014–in both episodes reacting to the West’s attempts to draw former Soviet republics into NATO—was, in turn, taken by Western powers as justification for further NATO expansion. It has been this crude self-fulfilling prophecy that has largely governed Russo-Western relations over the past two decades and provided the fuel for the current Ukrainian crisis.


Although Russo-Western relations have played out on many levels, they have harboured a centuries-old continuum. Citing ideologies and events as determinants of relations may aid its understanding but it serves little purpose without proper historical and cultural contextualisation. Without this, the big picture is lost and all that remains are headlines. The current state of relations harbours little novelty. As such, talk of new ‘cold wars’ obscures understanding of the broader picture in the same way as reference to old ‘cold wars’ does. The West’s zero-sum strategy not only has failed to deliver the desired killer blow against Russia but has also strengthened Russia’s resolve to reassert its hegemonic role in Eurasia as well as compelling it both to reform internally and reinforce its alliances, particularly with China. In failing to respect Russia’s legitimate security needs, the Western powers have succeeded in creating deadlock. And so the cyclical process of Eurasian geopolitics continues.

Dr. GREGORY SLYSZ lectures in history in London UK, specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs. He is a PhD of the University of Kent in England. His PhD thesis was titled ‘Soviet nationality policy and the politics of self-determination, 1963-1991’.

Quarterly Review was founded in 1809. It was revived in 2007 under the aegis of former Conservative MP Sir Richard Body, who is Chairman of the Editorial Board. It appeared as a print journal between Spring 2007 and Autumn 2011. Like many other journals, it has migrated to the internet.


[1] ‘The Crimean War, the real dangers of war’, The Economist, March 25th 1854
[2] ‘A web of lies Vladimir Putin’s epic deceits have grave consequences for his people and the outside world’, The Economist, Jul 26th 2014
[3] Udo Ulfkotte, Gekaufte Journalisten: Wie Politiker, Geheimdienste und Hochfinanz Deutschlands Massenmedien lenken (Bought journalism), Kopp Verlag 2014
[4] ‘Tom Harper Defends Snowden Story on CNN’,
[5] Tom Harper, Richard Kerbaj and Tim Shipman, The Sunday Times – ‘British spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese’, 14 June 2015
[6] H. J. Mackinder, The Geographical Pivot of History’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 23, No. 4 (Apr., 1904), pp. 421-437
[7] Paul Roderick Gregory, ‘Putin Hasn’t Lost Touch With "His” Reality. Welcome To KGB Russia’, Forbes,
[8]Bolton, ‘Because of the failures of Obama admin there is very little we can do now to stop Putin in Ukraine’, The Right Scoop on Mar 3, 2014,
[9] President Vladimir Putin, Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, April 25, 2005
[10] President Vladimir Putin: Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Events 4 December, 2014,
[11] Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, 10 February, 2007
[12] Ibid.
[13] Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club. Transcript of the Final Plenary Session,
[14] Michael Hughes, ‘The Neo-Nazi Question in Ukraine’, The Huffington Post,; Profile: Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Right Sector, BBC,
[15] See for instance John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (America & the World Series) McGraw-Hill Inc.,US; 2nd Revised edition, 1990;
[16] Vladimir Putin, ‘A Plea for Caution From Russia: What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria, New York Times in November, 2013′,
[17] Cited in Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: a cultural history of Russia, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London, New York, New Dehli, Aukland, Johannesburg, 2002, pp. 11, 16
[18] Cited in Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: a history from Rus to the Russian Federation, Allen Lane, Penguin Press, London, New York, New Dehli, Aukland, Johannesburg, 2001. p.183
[19] Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, Vintage , London, 1991 (first published 1924), p.314
[20] Edward Skidelsky, ‘A nation enslaved by its past. Russians have always valued freedom as an ideal. But, argues Edward Skidelsky, it is an inward, spiritual freedom which has never been translated into civic liberty’. Review of Martin Malia’s, Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum,
[21] ‘Russia: Church and State Sign Agreement to Prevent Abortion’, National Right to Life, July 1, 2015.
[22] Grim to be gay: The plight of gays prompts calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, The Economist,
[23] H.J. Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 23,No.4 (Apr.,11904), pp.421-437
[24] Barton Gellman, Keeping the U.S. First; Pentagon Would Preclude a Rival Superpower, The Washington Post, March 11, 1992
[25] Cited in Lutz C. Kleveman (2003), ‘The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia’, Atlantic Monthly Press. New York, p. 4

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