The West Needs to Abandon Its Old Orientalist Image of Russia

The withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria allows Putin to confirm that old narrative of Russian 'peacemaking.'

Dmitry Shumsky
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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Interior Ministry Board meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 15, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Interior Ministry Board meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 15, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Dmitry Shumsky

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention last month to withdraw most of Russia’s forces from Syria, Western and Israeli commentators haven’t stopped trying to figure out his motives. But truth be told, this continued amazement in the West following Putin’s announcement evokes even greater wonder than his latest move on the Syrian front. After all, the motives behind Putin’s decision to substantially reduce Russian military involvement in the Syrian civil war are apparent, and some of them have even been mentioned by those same dumbfounded Western analysts when it comes to cautious conjecture regarding this Russian diplomatic “conundrum.”

First of all, the Russian military operation had in fact accomplished its major goal. The immediate threat to the existence of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has passed. His army has recovered and chalked up an impressive victory against ISIS in recapturing the city of Palmyra. The United States has apparently given up its demand that the dictatorial president be removed from power as a condition to a final settlement of the conflict, and Russia has without a doubt proven itself to be a major player to be taken into account of among the major powers.

Secondly, when it comes to Putin’s propaganda for domestic Russian consumption, there is particular importance in the fact that the announced withdrawal of Russian forces came shortly after a cease-fire between the Syrian government and rebel forces was achieved.

One of the main and most effective components in the nationalist brainwashing system in Russia, which was also a feature of the former Soviet system, is presenting the Russian state through history as a country attempting to further peace around the world. This image, on which generations of Soviet and Russian citizens have been (and are being) raised, is at the foundation of a false ethical-national ethos, although it is convincing to a large number of Russians. It holds that all of the czarist, Soviet and post-Soviet aggressive and imperialist expansion has been the product of an effort to attentively address the existential distress of small and powerless peoples and countries – following their calls for help directed to a great and compassionate Russia, in the face of the powers of evil.

While the cease-fire in Syria has proven itself more-or-less reasonably stable, the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria in the present timing allows Putin to confirm that old narrative of Russian “peacemaking,” representing Russia as the party that once again has fittingly achieved its historic role.

Third, and again in the context of the Russian president’s tireless and effective efforts targeting public opinion in his country, it is highly important to Putin to see to it that Russia’s military operations well beyond its borders be as short and to-the-point as possible. That’s not only as a result of the traumatic memory of the country’s imbroglio in Afghanistan in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Even more so, it is to create a Russian antithesis to the endless U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, which has come in for ridicule in the Russian media and blogosphere in recent years.

In the face of the solid and clear diplomatic logic underpinning the Russian decision to distance the country from Syria for a defined period of time, one might ask why Western observers repeatedly raise eyebrows over the Russian “enigma” purportedly behind Putin’s policy. The answer seems to lie in the old Orientalist image relating to the secrets of the mysterious, Asiatic “Russian soul.” In the past, that guided those legions of Sovietologist advisers in the West as they attempted to crack the behavioral code of the Soviet leadership. This image continues to be at the center of Western discourse about Russia and Russian society and culture.

Somewhat paradoxically, the discourse also corresponds with the Russian anti-Western national self-perception regarding Russia’s special path in history, or as one of the great Russian national poets, Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873), famously put it succinctly: “Russia cannot be understood by the mind alone.”

In light of the apparent disparity between the Western image of an irrational Russia and the clearly rational conduct of Putin’s Russia in the current concrete diplomatic reality, the West has to adopt a rational line of thinking and finally put aside an image that is devoid of any basis. Anyone wanting to pursue an effective and sophisticated policy in the face of the return of the Russian empire to the forefront of geopolitical events would do well to start understanding Russia using the mind.