March 14, 2015

Realistic Appraisal of Russia's Policy Isn't Tantamount to a Putin Apologia

Gideon Rachman is perhaps the most perceptive foreign affairs columnist writing today, but he gets it badly wrong in his column (“Vladimir Putin’s survival strategy is lies and violence”, March 2), succumbing to speculation in the wake of Boris Nemtsov’s tragic murder.

Mr. Rachman seeks to tar as Putin “apologist” anyone who believes the Russian President is driven by legitimate national interests. Instead, Putin is solely out to “save his own skin” with this the “red thread” driving all his actions (including Mr. Nemtsov’s murder, it is all but pronounced). As with the Soviet Union, we must now adopt a containment policy with Russia, his argument goes.

This would be a historic tragedy, but one from which we can still step back. To avoid Pavlovian recourse to neo-containment we must cease spilling endless ink castigating a noxious Mr. Putin (as Henry Kissinger has written, “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”). Instead we should adopt a broader purview that elevates policy-making away from serial recrimination, perhaps with some of the below three observations to inform us.

First, realism advises one avoiding protracted cogitations around the potential motivations of statesman. Behind the niceties of myriad communiques & pronouncements, international politics remain rooted in interests defined by power, and in precincts well beyond the walls of The Kremlin. Policy should be guided by this reality, rather than heated speculations around the precise motivations of individual statesman.

Second, we should be reminded that Putin, as a Western-facing Saint Petersburgian, proffered his hand to the West in the past (indeed, even Mr. Nemtsov previously supported Putin). We saw this openness after 9/11 when Putin assisted the U.S. in its anti-terror campaign, notably with respect to Afghanistan. Alas, rather than build on such momentum, Putin was paid back with rounds of NATO expansion, a pull-out from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the overstepping of U.N. authorizations in both Iraq and Libya, and cookie dispensations in Maidan.

Third, a shaky cease-fire will likely ultimately fail—to Ukraine’s grave detriment—unless world powers move from tactical crisis management to more strategic conflict resolution. This must involve Ukraine forsaking NATO membership in return for restoration of its borders (ex-Crimea), as well as provision of bona fide language and minority rights in a decentralized Donbass. Not least given the paramount NATO issue, one suspects the U.S. cannot continue to get away with largely subcontracting its Ukraine policy to Angela Merkel.

Today the rhetoric from Washington and London (thankfully not yet from the White House) resounds with the dogs of war: arming Ukraine, “frontline states” with NATO “command & control centers”, essentially a renewed military trip-wire bestriding Moscow’s (shrunken) frontiers. How do we expect a declining, humiliated power to respond in the circumstances? Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are very high for a reason beyond able propaganda. Deeper historic currents and realities are afoot that we ignore at our own peril.

Posted by Gregory at March 14, 2015 10:50 AM | TrackBack (0)

Dear Mr. Djerejian--

I get the impression from what I see of the news, and from reading history, that there's a fundamental lack of statesmanlike thought in the public expression of politics at least in this country. Or more specifically that there's a kind of frat-boy-level amateurishness in how policy is defined and expressed. I don't recall seeing this when I read about, say, the US in WWII. On the other hand, this level of discourse did seem to be characteristic of the fascists -- the "when I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver" level. I'm certainly not claiming a particular kinship between modern US politicians and the fascists; but how and why did this happen here in particular? A disintegration of class & its concomitant worldview? Rising informality everywhere? The loss of the aristocratic classes as rulers in Europe and Asia?

Posted by: JakeB at March 16, 2015 05:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"President is driven by legitimate national interests". When you say this you apparently mean that Putin is "driven" by his perception of national interest. Which may be different from a perception held by recently murdered opposition leader Nemtsov. Which is closer to the true/objective national interest of Russia? If there is one, it is the one realization of which makes Russia stronger. Have the annexation of Crimea made Russia stronger? Definitely not. Hence, Putin is pursuing not the real Russian national interest but its delusional interpretation.

Posted by: Nick Smith at March 17, 2015 03:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

More About the Author
Email the Author

Recent Entries

The News
The Blogs
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Law & Finance
Think Tanks
The City
Epicurean Corner
Syndicate this site:

Belgravia Dispatch Maintained by:

Powered by