By Kadri Liik, ECFR
On that cold and snowless February evening, Unter den Linden was deserted. A pale moon hung low over the Brandenburg Gate. Opposite, behind the brightly lit windows of the Koerber Foundation, a group of young Russian foreign policy professionals had come to meet their German counterparts. The atmosphere was polite and both sides were curious. But a meeting of minds it was not: the young Germans found it hard to understand, accept, or agree with many of the things that the Russians said. And vice versa.
One remark sparked keen interest on all sides, however. “I think that we are the last offended generation,” said a 35-year-old Russian guest. “We remember the 1990s, the expectations we had, and how these turned sour,” he continued. “Those who come after us will not be affected by that disappointment, and they can build up a new relationship with the West already without that legacy.”
In Russia, the younger generations are slowly entering the corridors of power and assuming positions of responsibility and influence. Partly, this is the Kremlin’s conscious policy: 44 thirty- and forty-somethings have recently been made governors in a move that may be part of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to seed a future power-holding elite, or even bring on his direct successor. But the process is wider too. Today, half of Russia’s civil servants are aged 39 or below – meaning that they will have only childhood memories of the Soviet Union, at most.
This matters, because generations matter – not least in countries with dramatic histories, such as Russia. People who lived under Stalinism are different from those who did not. People who grew up during Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw” became the driving force of perestroika in the late 1980s. By contrast, the generation that was born in the 1950s and entered adulthood in the 1970s became the “most Soviet” generation of all: according to Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulman, “they were educated by the Soviet system, they invested in it, adapted to its cynicism, and then saw it collapse.” Members of this generation were of prime working age in the 1990s, and they still operate at the highest levels in the Putin era. This makes them tone-setters of sorts – which can lead observers to conclude that society at large must share their values. But, in reality, younger Russians will not necessarily have the same worldview.
These most fascinating of conversations chimed with the claim of the young Russian on that cold Berlin night: the younger the interviewee, the less he or she is affected by a sense of disappointment in the West, and the more their attitudes appear to be governed by a form of realpolitik in which the West is just another power in a cold and complex world. Both of these sentiments have developed during Putin’s rule, but they are not caused by Putin alone, and they will likely outlast him. The West should not hold out hope that the optimism of the 1990s will return once he eventually departs.
That said, these young professionals are also not unquestioning Putin loyalists. They have their reservations, principles, and coping strategies; their opinions of their leaders are nuanced and, sometimes, contradictory. The annexation of Crimea is illustrative here: those who approve of the action nevertheless do so with evident discomfort. And those who disapprove have their own take on the events of 2014, one that does not coincide with that of the West.
Future Russian foreign policy will not be defined solely by a battle between ‘bad’ Putinists and a ‘good’ opposition, but also by professionals whose views have a complex texture and origins. It is these views, and the historical forces that shaped these views, that Western foreign policymakers will have to grapple with in the future interaction between Russia and the West.