Pity the poor modern historian, who has to explain the seemingly illogical logic of Russia’s trajectory, which stands in defiance of all settled knowledge about the rise and fall of states. Russia presents us with the bizarre, albeit fascinating, case of a state that has found a way to survive despite having exhausted its systemic resources and lost its historical perspective. Just consider: The Russian system, despite having rejected all the key principles of modernity, not only continues to limp ahead with its personalized power construct; it has also succeeded in shaking the foundations of global order and creating a permanent sense of suspense, to which powerful actors have no choice but to react. This system in decline manages to unsettle the established order not because it has a unique ability to break china (a capacity which is often exaggerated), but because the West can’t decide how to deal with it and fears what might happen if this system unravels.
Putin the Winner?
Today, having failed to find a workable solution for the post-Crimea situation, and bogged down by its own problems, the West seems poised to drop its “liberal world order” mantras. Ironically, it is the U.S. President Trump who is now playing the Terminator and has delivered the liberal world order a crushing blow. Trump’s recent trip to Europe for the NATO and G-7 summits, where he openly berated the European allies and showed disdain for Transatlantic dogma, looks like something taken straight out of Putin’s script for undermining Western unity. Chancellor Merkel’s grim conclusion that Europe can’t any longer rely on others and has to take its fate into its own hands sounds like the realization of a dream that even the Kremlin’s inhabitants hardly thought was possible.
For those who like a simplified black and white canvas, what we are now witnessing is without doubt a portrait of “Vlad the Victorious”—especially when one watches how Russia has become a powerful factor in American political life, threatening to delegitimize the U.S. presidency. Who would doubt today Russia’s ability for global mischief? And who would doubt that Russians have to be proud of their prowess? Even the usually shrewd David Ignatius has been confounded; after talking to Russian officials and analysts he concluded that they “are flattered that their country is seen as a powerful threat.”
It depends who you are talking to and on the ability of the Western observer to decipher the Russian narrative and to confront it with reality. Meanwhile, even mainstream Russian analysts watching the American political scene have been forced to admit, “Russia can’t get anything good in this situation” (Fiodor Lukianov). As for the cheerful moods of the Russian audience at the recent Russian Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, the Russian Davos, where Putin’s every joke was applauded, this behavior was not a reflection of self-assuredness and pride in their victory over the West but the usual game of pretending amidst growing uncertainty and consternation.
Indeed, if the Kremlin feels it commands the show, why then did President Putin allow the newly elected Emmanuel Macron to use him to project his own power at Putin’s expense—and even to humiliate him to his face, shocking the Russian public at home? This is definitely not Putin’s aggressive style. And why has the Kremlin switched off the anti-American rhetoric, offering instead an olive branch and inviting Washington to discuss the two sides’ points of contention? Isn’t it unusual for a winner to refuse to use his advantage to press for further expansion and geopolitical gains? Anyway, there are signs that the Kremlin, despite all its litanies to the contrary, is perplexed by the unravelling of the U.S.-led global order, which was in retrospect so comfortable for Russia.
To be sure, the Trump presidency has undermined certain policy mechanisms the Kremlin has successfully deployed up to now. No longer can Putin relish his role as the “Tsar of Unpredictability,” which limits the number of tools in the Kremlin’s kit. The Kremlin can be unpredictable only when it’s sure it knows the rules of the game and how its Western partners/ competitors will react. Putin has always been trying to determine the precise location of the “red line,” beyond which lie unpleasant consequences for Russia. True, he made a mistake with the Crimea annexation, which he evidently believed the West would accept with the same complacency it had demonstrated during the Russo-Georgian war. This time, however, the West was forced to react, albeit in such a way as not to corner Russia. But Putin’s mistake in this case was inevitable; the Russian leader was trapped by the two conflicting logics of the personalized system’s survival plan: the need to preserve Great Power status and the need to exploit the Western resources.
At first the Kremlin may have been happy with Trump’s affinity for Putin and his longing for partnership with Moscow. But the Russian political elite was unprepared for the anti-Russian consensus that has emerged in Washington and become a source of American domestic infighting. Now, when Trump’s every move toward Russia has the potential to undermine both the U.S.-Russian relationship and his presidency too, the Kremlin is at a loss as to how to deal with this toxicity, which promises far-reaching and still uncertain ramifications.
Putin is hardly happy to see that, instead of angling toward a U.S.-Russian “bi-polarity” (the achievement of which has been the core premise of Kremlin policy for decades, whether such “bi-polarity” is based on cooperation or mutual hostility), Trump is dancing with China. As if to add insult to injury, it is China, not Russia, that is filling the void left by U.S. retrenchment in Europe. The Europeans will have their summit with Beijing, not with Moscow.
An “Ignore Russia” approach on the West’s part would be a most painful blow to the Kremlin’s Great Power strategy, which is based on a model of “being with the West while being against the West.” This calls for a response that forces the world to focus on Russia again. However, the Kremlin is not eager to undertake actions that could bring its isolation. Putin definitely did not enjoy having breakfast alone during the 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. Moscow’s dilemma is how to once again merit front-page headlines, above the fold, but without going so far as to provoke unwanted or excessive confrontation.
The Kremlin, having expected the United States under Trump to live up to the “America First” slogan of retrenchment, has to be even more frustrated. Instead, Trump is promising a policy that Stephen Sestanovich has characterized as “kick-ass confrontation” and a “hopped-up version of foreign policy activism.” This is not the old-fashioned U.S. isolationism Moscow had hoped for.
Let’s add to this list of disappointments for the Kremlin: Trump’s brash demeanor and his understanding of transactional relationships as the guarantee of his gains. This is hardly a guarantee of a friendly personal relationship with Putin.
Today Trumpian America is forcing the Kremlin to revise its survival strategy. No more recklessness or macho brutality to test American patience! Caution and caution again are the orders of the day. Yes, sometimes Russian fighters and bombers will skirt along the NATO coast line—but how else to demonstrate that the Bear is not asleep! Kremlin insiders have taken the psychological measure of President Trump and understand how he differs from President Obama (indeed, one can easily imagine a degree of nostalgia in the Kremlin for the Obama years). The Kremlin’s new problem is now this: If Moscow has to restrain its international bullying, what other means does it have on hand to compensate for its shrinking domestic resources? If it is to try engagement with the West, it must avoid sending the Russian domestic audience any signal that the Kremlin is backtracking because it is afraid of how the loose cannon in the White House might react.
A New Chance for the Kremlin
But just when the Kremlin seemed stumped by this new puzzle, along came fortune to show them a solution. Secretary Tillerson’s May foreign policy speech defining U.S. priorities was surely seen as a balm for the Russian side. “We really have to understand, in each country or region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values, we should,” he said. Remarking upon Tillerson’s statement, Eliot A. Cohen wrote that the Secretary’s idea of foreign policy is that “American interests and American values are two separate things, the first mandatory, the second optional.” One could almost hear the sighs of relief from within the Kremlin. For the United States to play down democracy and human rights issues is a gift for the Russian authorities. With Trump’s abandonment of traditional American democracy rhetoric, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel remains the only Western leader who still continues to preach Western values to Putin. But without American artillery to back it, Merkel’s lecturing is little more than the buzz of a fly, to be brushed away as Putin did during his recent meeting with the German Chancellor in Sochi. The American change in message means Moscow can finally stop bothering about democracy promotion and “regime change.” This opens a new opportunity for the Kremlin to push things in the international arena a step farther, toward consideration of any democracy promotion effort as a threat to global security and economic prosperity.
Thus Trump has created not just hurdles for the Kremlin but new opportunities too. The fact that even those whom the Kremlin has considered “Russophobes,” such as the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, have proposed the idea of a tripartite “concert” of great powers (America, China, and Russia) as the guarantor of global stability is viewed as a promising trend by the Russian political elite. This “Big Troika” will save the world order, sing Russian pundits, who have already begun to talk about how to secure the right “balance” between the three members. Russia needs to be an equal partner and must demand respect for “ideological and political pluralism,” they insist—which means respect for anti-Western principles, of course. Even more encouraging for the Russian elite is Kissinger’s line, “Let’s reconcile our necessities with their objectives.” How sweet this music is to Kremlin ears!
Meanwhile, American pundits have been offering their recipes for getting out of this mess. Let’s look at their intellectual efforts. Are there any new thoughts? One can already begin to hear a familiar song, “The United States needs a new grand strategy for Russia”; “the U.S. needs a new strategic imperative.” To be sure, we hear such calls at the beginning of every new American presidency. Upon close examination, the “new grand strategy” looks very much like the old one but without the usual lip service paid to values: Pure pragmatism without any attempt to even imitate concern for values. We should forget about the ideological dimension and Russia’s domestic developments, and pay attention only to Russia’s external behavior, say the “new pragmatists.” Doesn’t all this sound familiar? I recall that President Obama also pursued a policy of “de-linkage,” but it did not save his reset. On the other hand, a non-sentimental, business-like pragmatism could be better for one reason: It would not distract or confuse us with empty rhetoric.
The American “Russia hands” eager to fit Trumpian moods try to persuade us that the postmodern fuzziness about norms and principles that has emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union is the best international environment we can hope for. They argue that we should stop viewing the world through dichotomous lenses: black or white, democratic or authoritarian, weak or strong, war or peace, partners or enemies. Rather, we should endorse ambiguity, the world of “liquidity” (in Zygmunt Bauman words), with its constantly changing colors and flavors. But what, then, has triggered the current Western confusion about its trajectory if it is not the past few decades of postmodern fuzziness, with its world full of “grays.”
Let’s “manage” global risks without trying to resolve our problems, say the new pragmatists. One could give credit to their courageous admission of their failure to find a response to these new challenges (admission of failure is after all the first step on the road to progress). Managing postmodern liquidity seems like a readiness to swim with the tide—but in what direction? Rejecting a values-based foreign policy means shifting toward non-stop tactical maneuvering; whereas strategy would be about attempting to answer the question, “So what are we going to do tonight?” Indeed this looks very much like an incarnation of the famous German Socialist Edward Bernstein’s motto that movement is everything and the goal nothing. And where will this take the world?
The prescriptions the new pragmatists offer do not seem so bracing or fresh either. They usually fit into two categories. The first category are calls to create (or expand) channels of communication between Russia and the United States. Indeed, it is almost always useful to talk. But then one must ask why the multiplication of communication channels during President Obama’s reset within the framework of the U.S.-Russia bilateral presidential commission failed to prevent rapid cooling of relations? Similarly, suggestions to appoint “influential political officials” from both sides of the aisle, along with respected experts (respected by whom?) to conduct the dialogue, are the usual supplements to this “channels” idea. One can’t avoid impression that proponents of these adventures are interested more in their own roles in them.
The second category of pragmatist prescription is the old formula of “contain/cooperate,” sometimes disguised under some novel way of saying “a mix of competition and cooperation.” True, both Russia and America have to continue to search for more efficient models of mutual containment and dialogue about areas ripe for cooperation. But why has this search failed thus far? We might also raise another question here: Why have all these attempts not just failed to stimulate Russia’s modernization but on the contrary helped the obsolete System to gain resilience? Any thought on that among those who promote the “containment/cooperation” formula would be appreciated. Moreover, “containment/cooperation” policy inevitably turns into an endless bargaining session over the tactical interests of both sides, and the Kremlin (credit where credit is due) has always been more skillful in this process.
Perhaps the most hilarious of U.S. expert proposals is the idea of rejecting both confrontation and appeasement in favor of “charting a middle path,” which means “both seeking ways to cooperate with Moscow and pushing back against it without sleepwalking into a collision.” But how technically could this be done? How to pursue “a middle path” between confrontation and appeasement? Explanations, please!
Moscow’s Bargaining Terms
I must remind the new pragmatists about the preconditions for Moscow’s readiness to engage in their preferred model of bargaining. First, America would have to accept the Kremlin’s preference for “linkage” over “compartmentalization” of problems. This means accepting exchanges like cooperation in Syria for endorsement of the Kremlin’s view of the Minsk agreements; or trading an end to Russian sabre rattling close to NATO borders in exchange for sanctions abrogation; and so forth. In short: Bargaining means an exchange of concessions!
Second, Washington has to agree to Russia’s right to interpret international principles and norms as it sees fit, and to accept the Russian understanding of the international and domestic legal order. This includes the right to impose the Kremlin’s perception of international legal order (remember Carl Schmitt, the famous German political theorist, who justified Nazi Germany’s foreign policy?). Thus this is not another Yalta formula; this is a new formula for survival based not on following rules of the game accepted by all partners (which is what Yalta was about) but on the right to circumvent them.
Let’s see how the bargaining process could affect the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which is the most serious stumbling block for re-engaging Russia. Moscow has certainly wearied of the conflict and wishes to find a way out. No doubt about it. But Moscow can’t do it without major concessions: Western recognition of limits to Ukraine’s sovereignty and of Russia’s right to view that country as falling within its area of “interests” (some pundits define it in a more exquisite form: the U.S. “should seek Russia’s consent to pursue their interests in Eurasia”)—a precedent that, once established, may provoke further chains of events undermining the global status quo. Will America agree to this demand? It looks that the new pragmatists offer a less radical proposition: following an “ambiguity” approach that favors process over result, management of the problem over a solution. This would mean that the Donbass bloodshed will continue indefinitely. But what a chance to experiment with “management”!
I wonder whether Rex Tillerson understands the Kremlin’s formula for bargaining as he prepares his behind-the-scenes Ukrainian initiative. And what will his motivations be for that: to normalize relations with the Kremlin? As Josh Rogin writes, “Ukraine is where Trump’s so far thwarted plan to improve U.S.-Russia relations can be kick-started.” If this is the plan, it would mean throwing Ukraine under the bus because president Putin is not ready to backtrack on his understanding of the Minsk accord that he has demonstrated not once.
The attempt to build a new “grand strategy” often just looks like an effort to use new-sounding terminology to mask a fundamental lack of new ideas. One could also view it as an example of how Western rationality is totally out of sync with the Kremlin’s rationality. Or is it simply a Western failure to understand Russia’s survival logic? Take, for instance, the idea favored by some American experts of turning Russia into a tool to help contain China’s rise. Come on! Do they really believe that the Kremlin is so naive and stupid as to allow itself to be used against China? This is an insult to the Kremlin’s intelligence.
But what about bargaining on Syria? It looks like the Kremlin really wants to find an exit from this imbroglio. But what reward is America prepared to give Moscow for its cooperation? Some have also suggested the Arctic as a zone of possible U.S.-Russia dialogue. But look: Russia has already guaranteed its military and industrial presence there, and Moscow feels it has the right to dominate the agenda. I am not sure Moscow is ready to exploit Arctic commercial opportunities on American terms. Is Washington ready to be a junior partner to Moscow?
The current American shift toward non-sentimental pragmatism and readiness for deal-making has indeed opened up space for re-engaging with Russia, and the Kremlin has to welcome such an opportunity. Today both Merkel and Macron are also talking about normalizing the relationship with Russia. (Macron even spoke about his wish to “strengthen partnership with Russia” in the struggle with terrorism), apparently hoping to pursue it on Europe’s terms. But what are those terms? In any case, Putin is patiently waiting for the process to start, and nobody is a match for the Kremlin in operational tactics and resolve.
Re-engagement allows the Russian ruling team to continue regulate its anti-Americanism and anti-Western propaganda for domestic purposes (switching it on and off as needed) and at the same time allows it to restore one of the most important drivers of the Russian system’s survival: the exploitation of Western resources. However, while this approach will help to preserve the Russian personalized power system, it will not modernize Russia. The supporters of this approach either have not considered these implications or are perfectly aware of them but have chosen to ignore them. Either explanation is a grim commentary on their ability for strategic thinking.