The Rejection of Westernization in Russia


This article is from a term paper written by Valida Azamatova. Valida is from Uzbekistan and received her Bachelor's degree in Political Science from South Dakota State University and Master's degree in International Relations from Eastern Illinois University.

Imagine if the United States received its primary source of influence from a different country. Would people question their liberty and freedom or how a civil society works overall? The answer would probably be yes. Most Americans would consider their liberty and freedom as being violated when a government employee crosses their yard, but yet fully support the idea of westernization. The term “Westernize” is so short but has so many meanings. Westernization is the dynamic export of Western values into another social, political and even cultural environment. On one hand, our world is witnessing an extensive process of adapting to Western culture, which has even affected traditional societies like Russia or Saudi Arabia. But on the other hand, a country must respond to these challenges in order to survive and find its direction between the Western values and national values.

Russia had a long history of being anti-western, dating back to the Cold War era. The Soviets used to spread propaganda against capitalist culture and ideology. Mark Twain used to say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but the last six years in Russia show it differently. There have been strong anti-western elements noticed in the Russian press and talk shows shown on TV dedicated to that topic. This leads me to my research question: Why does Russia seem to be in the process of rejecting “western” influence. This paper will attempt to analyze what influences Russian public opinion and attitudes toward the West.

Clarifying the concepts: Westernization and De-westernization

Westernization is the process whereby societies come under or adopt Western culture in areas such as industry, technology, law, economics, philosophy and others. Samuel Huntington points out that values such as “individualism, liberty, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, free markets, separation of church and state, representative bodies, the idea of a universal civilization, the rule of law, and democracy” are all embodied in western culture. Huntington points out that many other countries embrace these similar values, but he argues that the interrelation or emphasis on particular values is different for the West. Some scholars like Francis Fukuyama state (1992) that westernization equals modernization, however there are many countries that choose to modernize but reject the notion of westernization. To an extent, it can be ironic for some countries like Russia to reject the influence of westernization by invoking western values such as national self-determination and cultural pluralism. Huntington states (1996) that “rejection of the Creed and of Western civilization means the end of the United States of America as we have known it… It also means effectively the end of Western civilization.” He further states that without the United States, the West is reduced to Europe and “becomes a minuscule and declining part of the world's population on a small and inconsequential peninsula at the extremity of the Eurasian land mass.” (1996)

De-Westernization can be understood as an ongoing process. According to Waisbord and Mellado (2014), De-Westernization can be interpreted as “an act of cultural defense, an anti-imperialist strategy to nurture academic sovereignty, a call for embracing an analytical perspective that reflects a decentered, dynamic contemporary world”. It challenges the West’s “dominance”. This concept can be understood from both a western perspective and a non-western perspective. Western scholars emphasize cross-cultural inclusiveness, but non-western scholars are against this foreign imposition so that they can understand their local processes better. (Waisbord and Mellado, 2014)

The economic aspect of this is connected with Huntington’s statement about westernization and the economy. He suggested that in order to preserve westernization, the West had to have the ability to influence the economics and politics of other regions. However, when Putin came into power, the average growth of the Russian economy was 7% annually. What was his secret? Putin’s answer was simple, he rejected the notion that western democracy and values are universal. I will look into the developments of the Russian economy and find a connection with the worsening or strengthening of foreign relations between Russia and the United States.

The cultural aspect coincides with the decline of the Western models’ attractiveness and strengthening of nationalism in Russia. I also will evaluate the role and influence of mass media on the Russian people towards the West.

Political Aspect

In this section I will examine the international relationship between Russia and the United States, focusing on how the Ukrainian crisis caused the relationship to worsen.

It is not a secret that certain events in the world play a key feature in any relationship between two countries, especially Russia and the United States. My primary focus is on these two nations because historically they have dominated world politics. In recent history, they are the leading players in the global arms trade and both have a seat at the security council of the United Nations. According to the Pew Research Center (2015), only 15% of Russians have a positive view of the United States. The main reason for this low number is because of the crisis in Ukraine. This crisis was a huge issue that influenced the whole international community and still does to this day. Because of the distinctive regional, cultural and religious diversity of the countries, it was especially challenging to the United States and Russia. Even though the United States did not have any direct relationship with the Ukrainian conflict, the issue significantly changed the direction of the relationship between Russia and the United States.


            This chart presents the favorability ratings toward the United States from various countries. As it can be seen, Russia has a large unfavorable rating towards the United States. Pew Research further states (2015), “The conflict has led to a dramatic increase in anti-American sentiments in Russia. Only 15% of Russians have a positive view of the U.S. today.”

Throughout history and up to this day, Ukraine is of special interest and importance to Russia, mainly because of its unique strategic position. Ukraine is divided between the eastern part that is pro-Russian and the western part which is pro-European. The crisis evolved from a domestic coup to an international event. It has also been one of the most significant topics on the international table. The crisis involves Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has caused multiple sanctions against Russia by the West, which has further worsened the relationship between the two.

It all started with mass street demonstrations by the Ukrainian people against their seemingly incompetent president Victor Yanukovich. As a result, Ukraine's parliament responded in favor of the people by bringing back the constitution of 2004 (which reduced the powers of the president). (2013) Later, Russian troops occupied the Crimean Peninsula with the justification of “protecting the Russian people”. Shortly thereafter, a referendum took place for the Crimean people to decide whether they wanted to join Russia or remain a part of Ukraine. A lot of G-7 countries, members of NATO and even the European Union did not recognize this type of referendum, denouncing it as illegal. Despite numerous diplomatic efforts, the crisis remains unresolved and becomes progressively worse on a daily basis.

The option that the EU and the United States decided to use in response was imposing sanctions. The EU imposed sanctions (2015) based on the fact that it violated the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine.  These sanctions mostly targeted individuals and institutions in Russia by freezing their assets and restricting their travels to the EU. These sanctions targeted financial institutions which prevented Russian companies from accessing various technology services and production benefits. Russia has responded by imposing similar sanctions on certain European individuals and banned the import of agricultural products from countries that imposed those sanctions. As a result, these sanctions have created a lot of tension in the relationship between Russia and the West.

Even though most countries knew the causes of the conflict, there was and still is a high level of disagreement over the causes of the conflict between Russia and the United States. According to the Pew Research Center (2015), “A median of 39% across the eight NATO countries surveyed say that Russia is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine, more than blame the pro-Russian separatists (median of 18%), the Ukrainian government (9%) or Western countries (7%). Ukrainians agree, with 45% blaming Russia for the violence in eastern Ukraine. However, half  of Russians blame Western countries, such as those in Europe and the U.S., for the Ukraine crisis.”

It is interesting to note that while this situation has been happening, the majority of Russians believed that their president has handled the situation in the correct way. However, some Russians state that Putin’s actions have worsened the image of Russia in the international arena. (2015)

Despite the fact that Western sanctions and falling oil prices are harming the country’s economy, overall the majority of Russians approve of Putin’s handling of international affairs and the Ukrainian crisis. Those who support Putin's actions in the Ukrainian crisis were more likely to blame Western sanctions that are hurting their economy while the few who disapproved Putin blamed the government for the economic decline.


Economic Aspect

In this section I will talk about the economic developments in Russia and try to compare its evolution over the years. How it has turned away from the US and slowly moved towards countries like China.

            It has been mentioned earlier in that the sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States have negatively impacted the Russian economy. Specifically, the Russian currency (Rouble) has lost much of its value (Christie, 2015). It is true that the sanctions have played a part in this. but if we look carefully at the numbers, oil prices (a critical part of the Russian economy) have dropped from $115 per barrel to $46 per barrel in a very short period (Reuters, 2015). Russia’s own economic policies have been stagnate for a time, and the level of corruption has remained roughly the same. Modernization and the introduction of new trade partners in the economy has been poor as well. Adding more sanctions onto these issues has made the situation even worse.  It can be said that the collapse of oil prices is considered the main reason for Russia’s economic decline.

Vladimir Putin was reelected president in March 2012. As it can be seen from the graph, the GDP annual growth rate increased a little bit. But as the Ukrainian crisis started to unfold in the beginning of early 2014, the growth rate had gone down significantly. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, so with the sanctions imposed and the low price of oil, public finances have been strained. In 2012, Russia also joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), but cooperation has been postponed because of recent actions in Ukraine.

It seems that Russia has been focusing more on geopolitics rather than the economy of the country. The tit-for-tat approach that has played a huge role after the Ukrainian crisis has put a substantial burden on the Russian economy and lead to great economic instability.  One might ask why such an approach would be used in Russian policymaking. Appel and Gellman (2015) state that the “siloviki” behind Putin’s administration may have played a role. They envision the Russian economy as a zero-sum game, where one gains at another’s loss. The world divides into two sides.  The Russian economic model is driven by foreign policy aims. There are winners and losers and the more victories Russia has, the more it is legitimizing its approach. Within the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian military and defense has largely benefited by receiving funding. However, because of that there was a huge burden imposed on the economy after the increased funding.

The World Bank (2015) predicted a growth for 2016 “at -0.6 percent, an improvement from an earlier forecast of -1.2 percent. And as oil and gas prices are projected to continue recovering to US$55.2/bbl in 2017 and US$59.9/bbl in 2018 and positively affect domestic demand, we forecast the economy to start inching towards growth of 1.5 percent in 2017 and 1.7 percent in 2018.” This increase could be the result of the close relationship between Russia and China. Economically, Russia and China have been working on strengthening the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS (New Development Bank). In addition, they have been working on projects such as the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “Eurasian Economic Union”. (National Interest, 2016) The economic cooperation between Russia and China has been growing rapidly, especially in terms of trade. According to Sidorenko (2013), “in 2009 China became the top trade partner of Russia.” Russia is trying to diversify exports to China, while further developing tourism and technology. China is becoming an important key player in the global arms trade as well. Because of Russia’s slow economic recovery, the relationship in terms of the arms trade could turn from cooperation to rivalry. However, some analysts suggested the close relationship between the two countries is because of their mutual mistrust of the West. The two countries do share the strategy of securing their national interest by challenging regional security. Both countries demonstrated that through the Ukrainian crisis and the South China Sea dispute. They also use their veto power in the United Nations Security Council. Both have used their votes to challenge Western’s leadership and interference in Syria. (National Interest, 2016)

Overall, there are some challenges that China and Russia will have to overcome in order to form an alliance against the West. Russia is still concerned with its territorial integrity and has to track Chinese migration since borders are close. As for China, Bobo Lo (2010) points out that it is difficult for China to be business partners with Russia, because of the mix of commercial ties with geopolitics.

Cultural Aspect

When it comes to the clash of the West and Russia, the cultural aspect plays a very important role and should not be ignored. First and foremost, the political cultures of these two countries are drastically different. Western decision makers tend to use liberal approaches like finding win-win solutions to issues. The Russian side is known for responding with zero-sum approaches, which are justified by the political culture embraced by the Russian elite. This type of approach is appealing to Russia because traditionally, Russian culture embodies and cherishes values such as toughness and masculinity. As a result, when Russia makes decisions, it is thinking about its image, leadership and how it gets perceived by the other international actors. An interesting observation can also be the difference in preferences for the norms and values in international relations. One of the most obvious one is Russia’s strong principle of state sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The West often debates and encourages the international community to react when a government isn’t protecting its people. These actions are often known as the humanitarian intervention. But not all government approve of such actions, specifically Russia. President Putin considers sovereignty as the top priority of Russia. (Menkiszak, 2016) In 2015, Putin mentioned the term “color revolutions” which he called a threat. Russian Authorities have raised their concerns about such revolutions which are, “toppling governments by mass protests – for at least a decade, accompanied by talk of preventing them abroad as well as at home. (Bouchet, 2016, p.1.)

In order to preserve the sovereignty of a country, a strong sense of nationalism should occur. Pew Research (2015) showed that despite problems with the economy and worsening of foreign relations with other countries, the people still show high approvals of President Vladimir Putin. The people specifically supported him on “his dealings with China, the U.S., Ukraine and the European Union.” (2015)

Some of the techniques such as media manipulation can contribute greatly to the growth of nationalism. The landscape of media in Russia has been changing rapidly. This change has been specifically influenced by the developments in Russian policies both internally and globally. The Russian media is a mixture of state ownership and actors from different sectors. According to Dunn (2014), the Russian media has also been characterized as a system “where some outlets, notably national TV, are very tightly controlled, while others, including the Internet, are allowed a substantial degree of freedom” (p. 1425). Toepfl (2014) described the Russian media model as semi-authoritarian or authoritarian. (p. 69) It relies heavily on the role of TV. Television has been the main tool for catching up with news and receiving information. (Vartanova, 2015, p. 139) Despite some interventions, the Internet is still open in Russia. However, Oates states that the government can apply its power using online resources. (Oates, 2013, p.8)

Global communications have been one of the most important forms of showing western power. Huntington points out (1996) that this “Western hegemony encourages populist politicians in non-Western societies to denounce Western cultural imperialism and to rally their public to preserve the survival and integrity of their indigenous culture.” As a result of this domination, other non-Western countries can feel hostility or resentment towards the West.

It seems that the media has also added some fuel to the fire between Russia and the West. The European Union has adopted a non-legislative resolution against the Russian Media. It claims that the Russian media has been promoting “anti-EU” propaganda. The resolution points out “its strong criticism of Russian efforts to disrupt the EU integration process and deplores, in this respect, Russian backing of anti-EU forces in the EU with regard, in particular, to extreme-right parties, populist forces and movements that deny the basic values of liberal democracies.” (European Parliament, 2016) The resolution further states that the propaganda is stronger in eastern European countries where the national media of these countries is often weaker.

There was a recent paper published by Chatham House called “Russia’s New Tools for Confronting the West”. The paper points out that Russia is taking part in a hybrid warfare. One of the paragraphs mentioned that (Giles, 2016): “Russia continues to present itself as being under approaching threat from the West, and is mobilizing to address that threat. Russia’s security initiatives, even if it views or presents them as defensive measures, are likely to have severe consequences for its neighbors.” The word threat has been used quite frequently and that’s exactly how Russia has been depicting the United States, as a threat to the people. That can be seen in news channels and political talk shows. For example, the largest TV channel, Perviy kanal (first channel), has a fifty million strong audience each month (Beard et al., 2014) It has a show which is called “Vremya pokajet” (Time will show) that discusses political issues not only on the domestic level but also international topics which include Europe and the United States. Most of these shows depict the West as a “villain” that is always against Russia and Putin.

As a result of all these events the Chatham paper further suggests that (Giles, 2016), “For Western governments and leaders, an essential first step towards more successful management of the relationship with Moscow would be to recognize that the West’s values and strategic interests and those of Russia are fundamentally incompatible.”

The political effects on social media might increase in the future. Social media in Russia serves as a platform for various political debates and as the number one source to influence and guide people in certain directions.


              In conclusion, the Ukrainian crisis has been one of the most endangering events that has caused this confrontation between two great powers. Both Russia and the West have been cautious throughout the event and limited some of their actions towards each other. The international system has been changing and so has the relationship between countries. The United States has been careful in its foreign policy decisions and Russia has become a more unpredictable actor in the global arena. Russia has been changing its liberal norms and doesn’t want any values to be imposed by the United States. That does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the relationship will not improve over time. The main issue is that both sides need to agree to disagree. If the United States wants to advance it’s policy goals, it will have to take into account the interests of Russia. An improvement in the trade and investment area could lay a solid foundation for both of the countries. On issues such as Syria or the Ukrainian crisis, Washington should consult closely with Moscow in order to manage the different views on these regions. The United States is also known for promoting “democracy” and fighting for human rights issues in the world. When it comes to the Russia, the U.S. government can continue to voice the concerns, but it should realize that they will have a limited ability to affect the internal situation in Russia.


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