Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the 13th and final essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part 12.
Civilizations in a state of decay have to improvise to stay alive, but these improvisations often have dramatic implications for the rest of the world and can even accelerate demise rather than postponing it.
Russia today is exhibiting a funnel logic of a kind one could cite as an example of suicidal statecraft. First, the Kremlin creates a problem and then, in trying to deal with it, provokes even more serious problems. The Crimea annexation in March 2014 was the point of departure for a ruinous, seemingly predestined path for Russia; under the current political regime it hardly seems possible that Russia can change course. The annexation was followed by Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine, which distracted the world’s attention from Crimea but yielded grave (domestic and international) consequences for Russia. The Kremlin began to look for exit from the Ukrainian crisis and so dragged Russia into the Syrian quagmire.
The Syria “project” was intended to return Russia to the global Mega League.1 A marginalized state can’t be a super power, which for Russia constitutes one of the key pillars of the personalized power system. Time is a critical factor: A Europe consumed with its own challenges and a lame duck U.S. President gave the Kremlin what it viewed as a window of opportunity. The Kremlin policy of “coercive dating”— that is, ramping up pressure in order to force the object of desire into a dialogue or cooperation—had to persuade the Western leaders to agree to a new bargain in order to stave off another round of Russian bulldozing.
U.S.-Russia cooperation on Iran created an impression that the same would be continued on Syria. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote,
One might have thought…that the next phase in coping with the Syrian problem might involve a renewed effort to resolve it…. Instead, Moscow has chosen to intervene military, but without political or tactical cooperation with the US…. At best it was a display of Russian military incompetence; at worst, evidence of a dangerous desire to highlight American political impotence.
I would add that there was one more reason for Moscow’s Syrian foray: Obama’s rejection of the Kremlin’s “Grand Anti-Terrorist Coalition” idea, which forced Moscow to turn to “coercive dating.”
The Kremlin war in Syria not only added to the destabilization of the Middle East but also increased the terrorist threat in Russia and for Russia. After Russia got itself involved in Syria, its confrontation with Turkey, which has its own powerful interests in the region, was unavoidable (though unexpected for the Kremlin nonetheless).
In March 2016 Moscow announced the pullout of “its main forces” from Syria, an announcement that once again baffled the world. The Russian military campaign did not achieve the Kremlin’s proclaimed goals: strengthening the Syrian state and preventing Islamic radicalism from spreading. But the Kremlin has succeeded, at least partially, with its real agenda: It has broken its international isolation and forced the West to accept it as an actor that can’t be ignored, and it has pushed the Ukrainian crisis to the periphery of the international scene. Moreover, Moscow has returned to using military leverage as an instrument of international relations. The end of the Cold War proved, however, how disastrous military escalation can be for a system in an advanced state of decay. It could be even more devastating for Russia, which is even more dependent on the West than the Soviet Union.
Hence, the outcome of the Kremlin’s survival escapades is uncertain. On the one hand, its foreign policy has been successful in building new domestic legitimacy at a time when its internal resources have been crumbling. On the other hand, it has become evident that the nexus between domestic and foreign policies is too costly and could set off a time bomb. The Kremlin today has to deal with an undeclared war with Ukraine, an ongoing war in Syria, and a confrontation with Turkey. In case of ending these conflicts, the Kremlin has to look for a new justification for its “nation at war” survival model. Meanwhile, Russians, who have turned into consumerists, are not going to sacrifice their living standards indefinitely for wars and a search for enemies that have no apparent connection to their interests. The military-patriotic drug has started to wear off.
Trying to find a balance between confrontation and cooperation with the West, the Kremlin offers conflicting messages. From time to time it appears to have decided to switch to the role of Peacemaker. “We are not interested in confrontation between Russia and the West” is one of Lavrov’s favorite slogans. “Despite the unfriendly steps of our Western partners we continue to fight against moving down to the primitive confrontational model,” the Russian Foreign Minister has repeated again and again, doing his best to convince the few who still believe this rhetoric.
One has to listen to the whole Russian symphony, of course. This friendly accompaniment can’t overpower another much louder and more central melody: “Russia is not going to step back.” Russia refuses to live “in a state of semi-occupation,” Putin has warned, starting with his famous February 2007 speech in Munich. Lavrov explains why Russia has been dissatisfied,
Our Western colleagues [have set on a course of] preserving their domination in world affairs by all possible means, on seizing the geopolitical space in Europe…. At each stage of the crisis’s development, our American colleagues, and under their influence, also the European Union, have been taking steps leading to escalation.
Chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin echoes this: “The U.S. is interested in instability that gives them the possibility to continue old and new mischief.” Peaceful statements, aren’t they? Russia’s war in Syria and its confrontation with Turkey demonstrate that Moscow could put on the war helmet anywhere, at any time. But confrontation is not the Kremlin’s goal—not at all! The Russian ruling team is not kamikaze, even if it sometimes looks this way. Confrontation, or rather the threat of confrontation, is the means to create a favorable international environment for the Russian System, to force the West to accept the Kremlin’s game and to justify the anti-Western insulation of Russian society.
Here is how Putin explains his policy: America is guilty of all evils happening to the world, but we are ready to offer a dialogue and give them a chance to behave. This is the usual Putin statement: “Attempts [by Washington, of course] to promote a model of unilateral domination…have led to an imbalance in the system of international law and global regulation, which means there is a threat, and political, economic or military competition may get out of control….” But the Russian President gives hope to the world: “For all the drama of its current situation, Syria can become a model for partnership in the name of common interests, resolving problems that affect everyone, and developing an effective risk management system.” In his State of the Union message Putin said, “We need to stop all our arguments and overcome differences, and build powerful fist, a united anti-terrorist front.”
The new National Security Strategy of Russia, signed by the President on December 31, 2015, shows the very nature of the Kremlin’s political thinking. The priority for the Russian authorities is not the quality of life of Russian citizens, but the defense of Russia. But defense against whom? Who are the enemies that force the state to spend its shrinking resources on defense and deterrence but not on social problems? It looks like the key threat is “unsustainability of the global and regional architecture, based, especially in the Euro-Atlantic region, only on the North Atlantic Alliance.” This is in the Kremlin’s view the key threat to Russia. Who would doubt it! But the Kremlin is not going to start an arms race or a new Cold war with the West. As the National Security Strategy says, Russia “is supporting strengthening of the engagement with the EU” and “is ready for development of relations with the North Atlantic treaty,” and Russia’s goal is the “building of strategic partnership with the US on the basis of equality and common interests.” But what kind of “partnership” is possible between Russia and the West, whose expansion “eastward” to the Russian border allegedly has brought about the current confrontation?
Some could call this approach political schizophrenia. Others may see it as demonstration of the cognitive dissonance. I would refrain from the medical terminology and argue that a soup of incompatible ingredients is the best way to portray the Kremlin’s Triad paradigm: “To be with the West; to be inside the West; and to be against the West.” This Triad, with an emphasis on the first two elements, helped the Kremlin to play the West—and quite successfully—during the previous 25 years. Annexing Crimea, the Kremlin had to believe that the West would be angry but in the end would be able to stomach the new geographical landscape. It could have gone this way, if not for the aggression against Ukraine; Western patience proved limited.
The World of Ambiguity
The Kremlin’s updated international agenda soon revealed itself. As Putin said, the “Ukraine crisis” is not really about Ukraine at all: “It has emerged in response to the attempts of the USA and its Western allies who considered themselves ‘winners’ of the Cold War to impose their will everywhere.” In Munich in 2015, Lavrov acknowledged that Ukraine is the instrument that should force the West to “negotiate a new security system on the basis of re-confirming the Helsinki principles.” (Indeed, there is an element of hypocrisy in these statements: Ukraine has for the Kremlin an independent value as an element of Russia’s galaxy.)
In December 2015, in the interview for the movie Global Order, Putin made clear his position on the war in Syria, stating that “ISIS is not a crucial factor” in the Kremlin’s international agenda. The key challenge for the Kremlin, Putin declared, is “the geopolitical struggle” and the need to establish “common rules” based on “international law.” (One could, of course, explore his or her sense of irony by contemplating calls to observe international law from the Russian leader.) Hence, one could conclude that the Russian authorities think that it is the right moment to force the West to start discussing the new world order. To debate the epic dilemma—War or Peace, or how to deal with Global Disorder—is a well-known Soviet trick. It could take decades before the Western partners discover that they have been engaged with someone selling air. But then again perhaps some of them could find this process profitable too.
As the German socialist Edward Bernstein in the 19th century said, “The process is everything and the goal is nothing!” Lenin later liked to paraphrase Napoleon (“On s’engage et puit on voit”): “Let’s get fighting and see what happens!” We know what the outcome of Lenin’s principle was for Russia and the world in the 20th century. Today this recipe is the tactic of choice for a political regime that is not ready to lose but has nothing to offer.
So many times the Russian political elite and its pundits complained that the current order is unjust, humiliating for Russia, and provoking a “neo-Versailles syndrome.” Today the Kremlin demands a readjustment to the global rules so as to give Russia a more dignified role on the international scene. This is it! The “pivot” to China and all the fairy tales about the BRICS becoming an alternative pole have just been instruments to persuade the Western capitals to renew their engagement with Moscow. “Otherwise we’ll do it with Beijing!” they warn, but without much conviction recently. The intervention in Syria and conflict with Turkey have to give additional persuasiveness to the Kremlin offer. Of course, the new dialogue has to be built on the Kremlin’s terms. The Kremlin’s idea of dialogue is based on the belief that the West has historically exhausted itself, and the moment has come when Russia can suggest what Lavrov recently described as “movement toward partnership of civilizations.” True, he does not explain how this partnership can be achieved if the Russian leadership continues its anti-Western crusade. But if the West is not ready for “partnership”, new attempts to persuade it will follow.
But what is the blueprint of the “new world order” suggested by the Kremlin? It is intentionally vague. Putin has been constantly returning to idea of the Yalta settlement, which legitimized areas of global influence. But does he really believe in possibility of redrawing the borders and returning Eastern Europe, together with the post-Soviet space, into Moscow’s pocket? Or does he believe that the West, together with Iran and the Sunni states, will agree to divide the Middle East with Russia? Hardly.
Rhetoric means nothing. The Kremlin is pursuing an exemplary post-postmodern policy comprised of incompatible elements and blurred lines between principles and norms, war and peace, right and wrong, reality and imitation, ally and enemy, law and lawlessness, and internal and external conflict. The state-intruder could easily start the struggle for peace. The topic of 2015 Valdai conference was “Societies Between War and Peace: Overcoming the Logic of Conflict in Tomorrow’s World.” The Kremlin, after having initiated military conflict, has decided to offer its vision of how to establish a lasting peace. Very Putinesque! (And the Western punditry readily took part in this Kremlin exercise.)
The Russian Syrian withdrawal is one more example of the Kremlin’s “post-postmodern technique.” It was unexpected, and it created uncertainty as to whether it was a total pullout, a partial one, or even not a pullout at all!2 Here you are: the Kremlin is enforcing its version of the Hobbesian world order; it has to be based not on international treaties and trust, but on the ambiguity, uncertainty as to the intentions of the actors, and their readiness for surprise breakthroughs. This order has nothing in common with Yalta or the European Concert! In those times, the architects of those orders followed their agreements, or at least they did not want to be blamed for not following them.3 Now the Kremlin wants to have the right to interpret the rules. The Russian ruling corporation also wants to have the possibility of influencing the West from inside of the Western community and using all benefits of globalization and engagement. Global Order a la Russe! Machiavelli looks like a schoolboy compared to the Kremlin’s technologists.
The world order the Kremlin offers today is even more ambivalent than the post-communist world, but this is a different type of ambivalence that relies on the readiness of the illiberal actor for coercive pressure. The fact that Merkel and Hollande tacitly accepted Russia as both an intruder and a moderator in the conflict over Ukraine gave the Kremlin the impression that the West would sooner or later endorse the approach it has been seeking.
Moscow’s Syrian adventure merely reinforces this pattern, which is based on an assumption (or belief) that the West—especially Europe—will be forced in the end to play the Kremlin’s game. As Sergei Lavrov stressed at the Munich Security conference in February 2016, the Western partners are moving “toward our understanding,” and this is “very encouraging.”4 Welcome to the World of Fuzziness!
Can this chimera live? As Andrew Wood wrote, any new security architecture “would require some common understanding of the underlying facts”. But “that is now absent between Russia and the West”. Besides, Wood adds, such construction “would also require some degree of confidence between the leaders of counties trying to build such a system, and that too is now absent.”
But what about the pragmatists’ refrain, the one that they have been singing even louder since Russia’s Syria foray, about “common interests”? Bobo Lo, associate fellow at Chatham House, responds to those who “delude themselves” that they share “common interests” with the Kremlin: “The divergence is much more fundamental and deep rooted. Not only is there disagreement over Russia’s role in the world: There is a widening chasm on global governance, international law, and even on what constitutes state behavior.” Even the Western pragmatists, recently staunch supporters of joint “strategic vision,” admit, “We interpret differently key principles such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination: we differ over what constitutes the legitimate use of force; we disagree about legitimacy of sphere of influence…. Tough competition was and remains inevitable.” It has been apparent for some time, hasn’t it?
The Kremlin’s tool kit has many instruments to pursue its agenda. One has to be prepared for the Kremlin to say one thing and mean another, or to mean nothing at all. Old symbols and patterns are interpreted by Moscow according to its current goals, as with its references to the “Yalta arrangement.”
Moreover, the Kremlin is ready to break china. This is how the German historian Karl Schlogel interpreted Putin’s behavior, “‘I don’t want to accept your old rules of the game’—and he hits you in the face.” It’s enough to provoke consternation and shock among Western partners accustomed to politeness, correctness, and diplomatic routine oriented toward compromise and mutual concessions.
Does Putin believe in feasibility of his new “Grand Project,” or is he playing in the global casino? It does not matter what he believes anymore; the popular exercises, “What does Purtin think” and “Who is Mister Putin,” are a waste of time because both its rhetoric and its actions are designed to imitate, to manipulate, and to hide disorientation and helplessness. I’ll bet the Kremlin technologists would love us to continue our endless “Putiniana” trying to guess the motivations of the Kremlin boss instead of deliberating on the logic of the System and the consequences of its Triad survival tactics.
There are a lot of variables that remain unclear: the degree to which the Kremlin understands reality and the implications of its actions; its readiness for self-restraint; the West’s ability to understand the Kremlin’s intentions and put up a united front; and finally, the gravity of Russia’s economic and social crisis and its domestic impact. Too many tipping points or either Moscow’s or the West’s inability to deal with ambiguity could bring another confrontation any moment even if the two sides involved do not want it.
Post-postmodern fuzziness would be a comfortable order for many in the West, too—for those who loathe normative dogmatism, or who have grown accustomed to the seductive (and profitable!) pragmatism of the past few decades. This ambiguous order is the best environment for Russia’s rentier class to maintain its links with “Londongrads” in various Western states while also insulating Russian society from Western norms; it would also allow the Russian regime to base its domestic legitimacy on anti-Westernism while keeping its seat at the table in the West’s institutions of international governance. This ambiguous world would allow the Russian System to contain the West without worrying about the threat of containment and subvert the West from within. What a great invention: low costs and high rewards! The Cold War, by contrast, was a foolish strategy. Much better to blackmail your foe into participating in your survival project.
True, there are two traps into which Russia and the West could fall while following this strategy. The first is that the requirements of maintaining Fortress Russia may prevent the Kremlin from achieving a Grand Bargain with the West. The second trap is, from the West’s point of view, a Catch-22: Any bargain that would allow the Kremlin to interpret the global rules of the game as it chooses would undermine the coherence and unity of Western principles. But rejecting the bargain could incite the Kremlin bull to wreck the Western China shop. The liberal democracies hardly are ready for a clash with a nuclear foe.
This is a deadlock, and there appear to be no way out —at least as long as the West continues to defend a post-Cold War status quo that no longer exists.
Are We Ready to Rethink Outmoded Ideas?
In these essays I have tried to present a snapshot of the state of expert opinion in studies of contemporary Russia and its relationship with the West, showing how they relate to reality. I regret to say that 25 years ago the experts struggled without much success to grasp the new reality; the same is true today.
The pragmatists have so far failed to predict and understand the turn that Russia made in 2013-14 and its implications for the country, for international relations, for European security, and even for the trajectory of liberal civilization. We, the normativists, have failed to alert the world of what was coming. “We’ve been surprised at every turn…. We were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ). I would add: the world was equally baffled when the Kremlin announced the pullout from Syria. Surprise has been the dominant collective reaction to Russia so far. Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution: “Putin’s Russia presents a unique challenge to the Western-backed world order”; but right now “the West does not know how to respond.”
We all (the Russian and the Western experts) still have a vague understanding of what the decline of Russia—the nuclear petrostate, a half-frozen empire, and one of the architects of global order—might bring. It remains unclear whether Russian revisionism will trigger the creation of a global Illiberal International (there are some signs that we already are dealing with elements of a global authoritarian offensive).5 If it does, what will the Western response be? We are as yet unprepared for the crises of other post-Soviet systems and the ways they will affect the security and balance of forces in Eurasia. It is also unclear how unified and capable the Western world will be when it comes to responding to this civilizational and geopolitical challenge.
Many observers seem to understand that old narratives have been exhausted.6 Unfortunately, quite a few among us are trying to reinvent themselves merely by recycling old rhetoric. We, the normativists, have been unable as of yet to fuse the moral dimension and principles with the political instruments applicable to decision-making—that, or we have been too timid in our debates with opponents.
For their part, the pragmatists who still dominate Russian and Eurasian studies continue to believe that the main actors—Russia and the West—can operate within the same logical framework and can interpret the balance of interests and view conflict resolution and crisis management in the same way. But the operators of the Russian System have an entirely different understanding of reality, and have different priorities and means to achieve them. As a result, the pragmatists find themselves defending either defunct or outdated models, and their analysis and advice often yield the opposite of what they’re supposed to.
As a matter of fact, the pragmatists now find themselves in a more vulnerable position than that of the realists during the Cold War period. At that time, the West was prepared to contain the Soviets and promote its principles abroad, while the USSR, at least in its final stage, was ready to abide by agreements. Today, however, the pragmatists, who have borrowed the concept of balance of powers and other realist axioms while rejecting the normative dimension, are being disarmed by a Russian System that is asserting itself by breaking agreements and denying that it has done so, and by imitating principles. Realism today in the pragmatists’ hands sounds like it comes straight from the Kremlin’s playbook. In fact, key pragmatist arguments—including their dogmas on “common interests,” the need to respond to Russia’s “grievances” and the Kremlin’s demands for “equality”, their pivot to geopolitics, their calls to “accommodate” the Kremlin “to some degree” (to what degree exactly?) and understand its right to have “areas of interests”—not only have been helping to build a favorable environment for the Russian System of personalized power; they have also been disorienting the Kremlin and provoking its recklessness domestically and internationally, often ending in disasters (for Russia as well). Indeed, the pragmatists bear at least partial responsibility for the Kremlin’s latest actions, which are based on the belief that the West would be ready to accommodate—just as the pragmatists promised!
Until recently the pragmatists have been building their diagnosis and advice on the basis of Russian polls that show skyrocketing approval ratings for Putin and strong support for his anti-Western policy. These polls are supposed to justify the pragmatist conclusion: “You have to take Russia ‘as it is.’” This means that Russians are hopeless and they can’t accept the Western norms; that is why the West has to acquiesce. But how would the pragmatists explain Russia today, when Russians are growing restless and their support for the authorities has begun to wane? One out of every four Russians admits to being afraid to voice his (or her) true feelings about the situation in Russia. This could mean that we should take the leader’s high approval ratings with a grain of salt. The percentage of Russians who think that the country is headed in the right direction fell from 64 percent in June 2015 to 45 percent in January 2016, and the number of Russians who think that Russia is on the wrong track rose from 22 to 34 percent. And this is only the beginning of the trend. Will the pragmatists continue to call for accommodating a regime that is losing support?
The pragmatists struggle to explain the paradoxes, or rather traps, the Kremlin has been building (often unexpectedly for itself). They insist that Russia’s actions are ultimately grounded in a rational basis. But how, then, does one explain the Kremlin’s politics, which brings Russia’s isolation and deepens its internal crisis? Pragmatists constantly emphasize “the objectivity” of their approach. But how can one claim to explain Russia’s behavior if one dismisses the impact of norms, history, traditions, domestic developments, and evolution of thought? How useful is this “objectivity,” which boils down to a descriptive approach and clumsy attempts to hide one’s own position? And how can one’s claim to provide accurate assessments when such assessments are based on data cherry-picked from pro-Kremlin sources and from the pro-Kremlin pundit community?
Indeed, the pragmatists have to understand that their toolkit has outlived its usefulness and is no longer persuasive. But they try hard to reinvent shopworn axioms, even borrowing from other seemingly alien ideological and philosophical arsenals, creating an unusual mix. The latest example is the voodoo that Kissinger demonstrated during his last visit to Moscow, when he had his ritual meeting with Putin and delivered a lecture that was warmly received by the pro-Kremlin gathering.7
The Realpolitik guru presented totally false explanation of the roots of the present confrontation, which allegedly was caused by “the memory of the first post-Soviet decade, when Russia suffered a staggering socio-economic and political crisis, and the U.S. enjoyed its longest period of uninterrupted economic expansion.” This “memory” of crisis during the American success according to Kissinger “caused all other policy differences.” If this logic is correct, then soon we should anticipate a confrontation between Europe, which is experiencing the worst crisis in its history, and America, which is doing pretty well! But the jewel of Kissingeriana is another idea. Kissinger argues that the key goal today is to find a compromise between the American (Western) perception of the world, which relies on laws and rules, and the Russian perception, which he calls “geopolitical,” avoiding any mention that this perception rejects the rule of law. “The challenge of our period is to merge the two perspectives—the legal and the geopolitical—in a coherent concept,” argues the guru. This means merging rule of law principles with subjugation principles. Does the author of a new “philosophical problem” believe in the feasibility of his solution? He may have forgotten how the attempts of Western and Soviet intellectuals to find grounds for their dream of “convergence” of capitalism and socialism in the 1960s ended.
Today the idea of new “convergence” could bring certain dividends to the sides imitating the “merger.” But what would its strategic consequences be? It would definitely help the illiberal system to limp along using the resources of the West, and it would also undermine the West’s sustainability and resilience. That is why the pro-Kremlin audience applauded Kissinger’s lecture in Moscow. That is why the Kremlin will continue its “coercive dating,” hoping that the West will accept the “merger.” Will it really? I would remind you that the previous attempts of the Western elites to acquiesce to the Russian System have not prevented the current confrontation because the West failed to understand one truth: In the illiberal mindset, every concession means backtracking, creating a desire to press the demands even further. Do the pragmatists understand that their tactics of acquiescence erase the “red lines” for illiberal regimes, provoking reckless behavior that otherwise they would not risk?
The West’s pundit class has to rethink quite a few other myths that it persists in clinging to. One of them is the belief that the Western expansion of trade and economic relations with illiberal states will bring about their democratic change (the policy Germany has been pursuing for decades). As Hannes Adomeit, a Bosch Public Policy Fellow with the Transatlantic Academy, points out, this trade and economic expansion “can serve to solidify an authoritarian system rather than act as driver for democratization and liberalization.”
Exchange and dialogue with the West and slogans about “engagement” also help illiberal actors, who are more astute about using them for their own purposes. Maybe the pragmatists should try to think about why this happens before they start chanting their favorite song: We need to broaden the exchange! This time the exchange agenda is different: instead of building a common “strategic vision,” pragmatists suggest “managing the Russia-Western conflict” by means of “trusted individuals on both sides” capable of engaging in confidential dialogues on contentious topics. Isn’t it hilarious? Those who have failed to predict and understand today want to “manage” the results of their failures.
Finally, when have the pragmatists asked themselves why their assessments have missed the mark? Have any among them admitted being wrong? This “coming out” would be very helpful for restoring the reputation of the expert community.
The inability of the political and expert community to respond to new challenges often creates an urge to move the “unsolvable” problem to the back burner, or to come up with an imitation solution. This is what is happening today with the crisis over Ukraine. This crisis, despite its present de-escalation, will continue to have a tremendous impact on European security, the geopolitical landscape, and the civilizational clash between the West and the Illiberal International. Both the Ukrainians and the West have been forced to reconcile themselves to a illusory solution (so as not to irritate Moscow) that disorients the world, undermines legal frameworks, and demoralizes Western and global institutions. It also creates the possibility that the same process of building a mechanism for pretending will be played out elsewhere (some pragmatists have suggested that we should use the Minsk-2 formula to solve the Syria crisis), since the global system has shown that it is not prepared to react to geopolitical ambiguity and imitation.
Due to its civilizational, normative dimension, the clash between Russia and the West in Ukraine is bound to influence the approaches that both sides take to future problems. Let’s not deceive ourselves that we are dealing with a phenomenon that will go away as soon Putin comes to his senses or leaves office, or when Moscow and the West begin to cooperate somewhere else. Let me reiterate: We are dealing with the logic of a particular civilization—one whose survival resources are dwindling and whose political class is powerless to transform the system—that will continue to reenergize itself through the enemy search (even as it cooperates with this enemy).
Let’s give the Kremlin some credit: Today, by demonstrating its assertiveness and achieving tactical gains, the Russian rulers have shown us that the West needs to focus more on its own outmoded mechanisms and lack of strategic vector. The Kremlin has shown the West that it needs to renew the liberal democratic principles that have been discredited by ideological fuzziness and accommodation.
Given the failures of the expert community, can the normativists and the pragmatists get together for a discussion aimed at clarifying their respective positions—if for no other reason, then at least for the sake of saving the reputation of the expert community? Is this a realistic goal? I don’t have an answer to this question right now.
In any case, the West needs to understand that the Russian System is willing to fight for its survival, and that this fight will take various forms. The most effective form could be to take advantage of the globalization and integration of the Russian rentier class into the Western community, as well as Western political, intellectual, and expert weaknesses. It’s time for the West to wake itself from its dreams of “engagement.” Pulling old Cold War recipes out of the box won’t help either; we live in a different reality today. By drudging up obsolete models, the “mythologists” could temporarily win the day, but only at the cost of being shocked by developments it did not predict.
One thing is clear: arriving at a realistic (not accommodationist) understanding of Russia’s trajectory—perhaps the main challenge of the 21st century—is impossible without some serious self-reflection on the part of the Russia expert community.
1The Russian pro-Kremlin observer Vladimir Frolov admits that Putin’s “Syrian Gambit” was aimed at transforming the relationship with the West and helping to “regain Russia’s rightful place as a global power.” But even a pro-Kremlin observer has to acknowledge that a “new Entente Cordiale between Russia and the West is unlikely.”
2After Putin announced the partial withdrawal, the commander of the Russian forces in Syria, General Alexander Dvornikov, admitted that the Russian “spetznaz” has been operating in Syria and will continue to operate.
3Ulrich Speck says that the international system the Kremlin is trying to enforce “ recalls the 1930s, when Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were trying to replace the existing international order with a new system based on the idea that only might makes right—a Darwinist system deprived of every traditional ethical or legal constraint.”
4The Russian participation in the Aleppo siege, which brought collapse of the Geneva peace process, was enforcement of the Kremlin’s “peace plan” for Syria.
5See discussion of the “Authoritarian Resurgence” in the Journal of Democracy (January 2015).
6Some Russian pragmatists have started to express concerns regarding the Kremlin’s policy. Fiodor Lukianov, praising Russian diplomacy, says, “[E]ven good diplomats can’t mask lack of purpose in the foreign policy.”
7AEI’s Gary J. Schmitt commented on Kissinger’s approach in his lecture in Moscow, “Kissinger’s ‘realist’ approach is neither realistic in its description of the problems in the relationship nor in the path to address them.” Alex Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, was even tougher, saying that Kissinger’s recently articulated vision for U.S.-Russia relations “consists of large swaths of boilerplate language and several disingenuous arguments demonstrating that the architect of détente has no idea how to fix what Putin has broken.”