An interesting thing happened this past week. The Western accommodationist school, which has been calling on the West to “understand” the Kremlin and stop irritating it, even as it tries (and often succeeds) to preserve its reputation as an alternative voice, suffered a humiliating setback. The Western supporters of the “let’s accommodate the Kremlin” mantra will now have to follow the example set by their counterparts in the Russian accommodationist school, who were already given to understand that they had to forget about their reputation if they wanted to remain in the profession. The Kremlin has rejected ambiguity, forcing the intellectual and political community to choose sides in the black and white landscape: “Those who are not with us totally and unequivocally, are against us!” Nearly all Russian foreign policy experts (with few exceptions) have made their choice, preferring to remain in the approved mainstream and in line with the Kremlin.
Now it’s the Western accommodators’ turn to choose, much to their consternation. Quite a few of them apparently had hoped their model of relations with Russia would work, and that they could continue to discuss with their Russian counterparts solutions for the Ukrainian problem and for easing tensions between Moscow and the West without becoming Kremlin mouthpieces. Not any more. Last week the Kremlin issued an ultimatum: if you want to be our counterparts, you have to accept our truth!
The bitter irony is that Moscow chose the shrewdest among the accommodators to be the whipping-boy: the managing director of Kissinger Associates, former White House Russia hand Thomas Graham, a person with strong knowledge of Russia and powerful connections in the country. The choice of Graham, I think, was deliberately made to convince the rest that times have changed and there is no more room for ambiguity.
Graham has spent a great deal of time and energy over the years trying to persuade the West to understand the Kremlin’s arguments. One might even say that the Kremlin owes Graham and those like him a debt of gratitude for their efforts to portray the Kremlin’s arguments in a less threatening light. Sometimes Graham and his colleagues undertook initiatives that were puzzling. For example, according to former FSB General Leonid Reshetnikov, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (until 2009 a Russian foreign intelligence institution), which allegedly offered justification of the Crimea annexation and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Graham and a Carnegie team approached them with a plan for peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis. “We spent long hours with them”, said General Reshetnikov.
And the reward for all these efforts? The Chairman of the Russian Duma Sergei Naryshkin, responded to an essay written by Graham in the Financial Times with guns blazing, accusing him of harboring a condescending attitude toward the Russian people. “As if diverting accusation from the Russian president of all sins, Graham accused all Russian people. It appears that we are hegemons, barbarians and imperialists at the same time,” rages Naryshkin. As if on cue, other pro-Kremlin media chimed in with accusations that Graham is a Russophobe! One should not be so naive as to think that Chairman Naryshkin has nothing better to do than to dash off a response to every FT op-ed he disagrees with. Nor is it that he felt particularly stung by Graham. Rather Naryshkin is sending a clear message to the Western community on behalf of the Kremlin, laying out the narrative boundaries Western experts and politicians ought not to cross if they wish to remain in the Kremlin’s good graces.
I agree with Naryshkin, however, that Graham’s piece is condescending. Indeed, Graham presents a caricature of Russia. He argues that the West doesn’t have a Vladimir Putin problem but “a Russia problem”—specifically the problem of Russia’s tradition of personalized power and subjugation. “The Russian president stands within a long tradition of Russian thinking. His departure would fix nothing,” says Graham. Isn’t there at least a tinge of racism to this idea—that Russians are destined to an autocratic rule?
The accommodationists have used this argument before to help explain the need to deal with “Russia as it is” and not get hung up on criticism of Russia’s leadership. This argument is the basis of the realist-pragmatist approach. Until now it has never really bothered the Russian leadership. It’s quite an irony, therefore, that Graham’s argument seems to have united in outrage both the Russian opposition and the powers-that-be.
At the root of the problem is the accommodationists’ failure to realize that we have turned to a new page in the Russian story. If they wish to maintain their access to the Russian mainstream, they will have to change their political vocabulary. Mentioning the Russian tradition probably would not annoy the Kremlin too much, but the rest of Graham’s lexicon has to be retired permanently. Among his offending words are his description of Russia as “the declining state,” his characterization of Ukraine as “a barrier to Russia’s assault on European norms and unity,” and the very idea of containment. All of these concepts are unacceptable, Naryshkin warns.
If the accommodationists have any question about what their new talking points should be, Chairman Naryshkin helpfully points to the French, who have developed “constructive ties with Russia.”
Have the accommodationists received the Kremlin’s message? If so, which way will they swim? It’s hard to say, of course, but one thing is clear: Swimming with sharks is always a risky business.