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TOPSHOT - Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin meets with his confidants ahead of the upcoming presidential election in Moscow on January 31, 2024. The election will be held over a three-day period from March 15 to 17. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

The Collective West What is Putin really talking about when he rails against the West?

Source: Meduza
TOPSHOT - Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin meets with his confidants ahead of the upcoming presidential election in Moscow on January 31, 2024. The election will be held over a three-day period from March 15 to 17. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
TOPSHOT - Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin meets with his confidants ahead of the upcoming presidential election in Moscow on January 31, 2024. The election will be held over a three-day period from March 15 to 17. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

When President of Russia Vladimir Putin spoke earlier this month to American political commentator Tucker Carlson, he did so only because Carlson, according to Putin, isn’t like “traditional Anglo-Saxon media.” Putin has otherwise refused to cooperate with Western journalists since launching Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Russian authorities have also jailed two Russian-American journalists, Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva in 2023, not to mention outlawing Russia’s largest independent media outlets (ahem). The attacks on Western and Western-facing journalism are one part of the Kremlin’s escalating anti-Western rhetoric, which alternately blames the U.S., U.K., and E.U. countries for problems within Russia, and holds Russia up as a bulwark against what Putin has called the Western world’s “totalitarian liberalism.” More recently, in the months leading up to Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin and his circle began referring to the “collective West” and “Anglo-Saxons,” terms whose origins and precise meanings are unclear, but which the Russian authorities use to designate Russia’s number one enemy. Meduza explains what on Earth Putin is doing when he rails against the “collective West.” Spoiler: It’s a way to unite a populace around a common enemy and to distract from domestic problems.

Over the past several years, the Russian authorities have accused the “collective West” of such varied infractions as organizing a “political Witches’ Sabbath to demonize Russia;” waging war on Ukraine; and prolonging the fighting by supplying weapons to Ukraine’s army. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is convinced that the collective West has declared “total hybrid war” on Russia, while former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev believes that Ukraine is no longer an independent state, but has, instead, come under the full control of the collective West.

In the Kremlin’s official rhetoric, the phrase “the collective West” has come, alongside “Anglo-Saxons,” to signify Russia’s number one enemy. But what does it actually mean?

“The West” and the “the East” originated as concepts in reference to a split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. They later took on outsized meaning as European empires colonized much of the world. Today, the division between East and West may signify differences in religion (usually between the Christian and Islamic worlds); culture (particularly in the dialectical sense that Edward Said famously discussed in the landmark 1978 study Orientalism); or politics (between liberal and authoritarian states). Russia has an uneasy relationship with the West in all three categories, and Putin embraces some elements of Western culture (Christendom and certain aspects of imperialism) while rejecting others (liberalism), as it suits his purposes at any given moment. 

It’s not entirely clear why Putin insists that the West is a collective. The “collective West” seems to be a new entity entirely, only loosely related to, for example, Said’s idea of the West. When Putin discusses the West, he’s not referring to a community of countries as such, but to a protected elite circle which, he insists, governs those countries from behind the scenes.

Russia’s top brass adopted the phrase “the collective West” only very recently, within the past several years, though it has appeared in various media since the mid-2000s. 

Putin first used the phrase during his 2021 annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. At that point, he was indignant that the “collective West” paid no attention to an alleged attempt on the life of President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (who also frequently employs the phrase). Before that speech, the only “collective” things Putin referenced were security, disease immunity, and social responsibility.

When he announced mobilization in September 2022, Putin employed the phrase again, saying that “Russia opposes the collective West,” which “seeks to break up the country into parts.” The Kremlin appears to believe that this sounds convincing. 

Now, for Putin and his associates, including Lukashenko, the collective West is something with its own will and its own mind, an entity that, in Putin’s words, “is accustomed to measuring everyone and everything against itself, and [that] believes everything is for sale.” Furthermore, says Putin, the West “follows a model of global liberalism.” The Russian president has asserted that “they [in the collective West] simply don’t need a strong, sovereign Russia. They can’t forgive our independent path, nor the fact that we have acted in our national interest.”

Sometimes, Putin uses the phrase as a synonym for the U.S. and its allies. According to the Russian president, the collective West is expanding NATO and “assembling more and more new military alliances,” including AUKUS, a security partnership between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S, which is widely seen as a response to China’s growing global influence. Putin suggests that these countries don’t make active decisions to join such alliances, but rather submit to a mysterious external will. Moreover, he’s careful to distinguish between the collective West and residents of western countries. Regular citizens, he says, suffer from the collective West’s policies more than anyone.

“It’s obvious,” said Putin in August 2023, “that western global elites use sanctions to divert their own citizens’ attention away from acute socio-economic problems… [and] to transfer their own failures to Russia and China.”

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has written that Europe itself suffers from the sanctions it has imposed on Russia at the behest of the U.S. European countries will have to replace the weapons they send to Ukraine with new arms purchased from the U.S., and to buy expensive U.S. gas rather than the cheap Russian alternative. “The foreign policies of the collective West,” Lavrov says “are a one man show.” He means the American weapons and energy industries.

Putin, Lavrov, and numerous other creators of Russian propaganda insist that the collective West seeks to control the world through “totalitarian liberalism.” But, they say, this plan is no longer working: the world is becoming multipolar, a process which the collective West lacks the power to halt. Therefore, their theory goes, the collective West lashes out.

Thus, they paint a picture of a Russia attacked by bullies, beset by a mob that wants to “break” it and take its resources. The real ringleader supposedly hides behind the countries and organizations that make up this mob, inciting violence and stirring up Russophobia. Putin and his supporters say that Russia will have to throw some punches in order to calm the crowd and make it realize that it has been manipulated into attacking the wrong target. The collective West is, ultimately, a useful way for Putin and his circle to justify Russian aggression on the global stage: Russia, they say, is merely reacting.

Siege mentality

During the 2022 speech in which he announced mobilization, Putin repeated another favorite thesis — that Russia is “surrounded by enemies.” He had used those words before, during a speech in the summer of 2022 at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an event which the Kremlin has historically used to court Western countries and to demonstrate Russia’s openness to the West. He also used the phrase at a meeting with the heads of the State Duma’s various political blocs, and while proffering congratulations at the hundred-year anniversary of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. The only person who likes to talk about enemies more than Putin is his henchman, Dmitry Medvedev.

“Geopolitical confrontation” is a popular idea in Russia. It holds that geographic location is a primary factor in international relations, that objective “national interests” govern countries’ actions, and that countries exist in a constant struggle for spheres of influence.

This is a highly simplified view of the world, prone to lapses into conspiratorial thinking. It closely resembles the “siege mentality,” a concept developed by Israeli scholar Daniel Bar-Tal in the late 1980s to explain the mindset of Israeli Jews who perceive the rest of the world to harbor ill will toward them.

Real collective historical experiences of persecution can lead a population to develop a siege mentality. It’s equally true, though, that a government can manufacture a siege mentality in hopes of unifying its citizens around an easily grasped concept.

The rhetoric of the “besieged fortress” is familiar to most Russians. From the early days of the Soviet Union, state propaganda continually emphasized the rest of the world’s enmity toward the USSR. This official rhetoric used the Soviet Union’s ideological confrontation with capitalist countries to rally its citizens and to fight political opponents. 

Today, the Russian authorities frequently employ similar methods. Official rhetoric has presented the “collective West” as an existential opponent, fundamentally inimical to Russia, since 2007. 

Over time, this rhetoric has lost any space for nuance, compromise, or mutually beneficial exchange. The Russian Federation, according to such rhetoric, has become part of the “multipolar world,” a country of “traditional values,” “conservatism,” and an “exceptional path.” Meanwhile liberal “Anglo-Saxons” and “Gayrope” allegedly destroyed the USSR, lie constantly, “rewrite history,” and employ “double standards.”

Putin addresses the audience at a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the victory in the Battle of Kursk, a major World War II battle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Kursk, Russia, August 23, 2023.
Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Until Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this rhetoric seemed to have little bearing on the material reality of Russian international relations. In 2021, trade between Russia and Ukraine grew by 38 percent — this, despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea, ongoing paramilitary conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and years of Russian propaganda claims about “Kyiv Nazis.” The “unfriendly” E.U. countries were, until quite recently, Russia’s main trading partner, and even in 2022 remained the biggest consumer of Russian energy exports.

The West really doesn’t like Russia…at the moment

Russia’s reputation on the global stage was fairly controversial even before February 24, 2022.

A global survey by the Danish non-profit Alliance of Democracies showed, in May 2022, that negative attitudes toward Russia are typical of Western countries and liberal democracies. In non-Western and Global South countries, especially China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, attitudes toward Russia remained positive even in the face of mounting evidence of the Russian army’s war crimes in Ukraine.

Residents of some developed countries truly dislike Russia. A Pew Research Center poll showed that after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an absolute majority of respondents (85 percent) across 18 countries held negative attitudes toward Russia. Among those countries were the U.S., Canada, nine E.U. countries, the U.K., Israel, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the armed conflict in the Donbas, 43 percent of residents of the same countries held negative views of Russia. A year earlier, when the Russian Federation passed an outrageously repressive ban on “gay propaganda,” the total was only 38 percent. Views of Russia are significantly worse today in countries across the world.

In the summer of 2022, at a summit in Madrid, NATO member states adopted a new Strategic Concept, which condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, going so far as to call Russia “the most significant and direct threat to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” 

It wasn’t always this way. In 1997, Russia and NATO signed the Founding Act, whose key provision states that the two countries “do not consider each other adversaries.” The NATO strategy in effect before 2022 dates from 2010, at which point the organization hoped to establish a “genuine strategic partnership” with Russia aimed at a joint guarantee of European security.

Then-president Dmitry Medvedev attended the Lisbon summit where that act was ratified. Two years earlier, in 2008, Medvedev had started a war with Georgia, which many now consider to be the test case for Russia’s current war of aggression against Ukraine. Neither the invasion of Georgia, nor the annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, (both of which posed real threats to European security), caused NATO to reconsider the Founding Act or abandon its declaration of partnership with Russia.

In 2012, the Russian authorities even agreed to open a NATO base in Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River to the east of Moscow. The local airport was supposed to serve as a transfer point for personnel and supplies headed to Afghanistan. At the time, officials were evidently not worried about the presence of NATO soldiers, and propagandists pretended not to notice the local anti-American protests that sprang up in response to the base. 

Plans for the base were never realized, and the whole project was shut down by Russian government decree after Western countries sanctioned Russia following its annexation of Crimea. The great irony is that Putin justified the annexation by claiming, among other things, that Ukraine planned to open a NATO base in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea. At the moment of the annexation, no plans for any such base existed.

Original texts by Artem Efimov, Vitaly Vasilchenko, and Ilya Lyapin

Translated and edited by Emily Laskin

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