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30 May, 2021  ▪  Philippe de Lara

Lack of will

Why Europeans don’t find how to cope with Russia?

Since he is in charge, Putin waged several military aggressions against Europe: Moldavia, Ukraine, and a skirmish cyberwar, not to mention the overt support to Russia’s political proxies, notably in Germany, Italy and France. From far-left to far-right, every enemy of EU is Putin’s friend. Yet, EU and the major member States do not have a consistent strategy against this threat, hesitating between sanctions and “strategic dialog”. Efforts toward a common attitude are systematically undermined by divergent agendas. EU’s indecisiveness has been often — and rightly — criticized. Ukrainians and friends of Ukraine are often disappointed by the half-hearted support of the Europeans to a cause deserving full support, for your freedom and ours. This half measure has had various grounds in various moments. Macron and Merkel vacillate between complacency (“strategic dialogue”) and hardline, often within short periods, Italy has been outrageously pro-Russian under Berlusconi and his populist likes, etc. Beside these political contingencies, there is another factor: the cognitive difficulty to grasp Putin’s regime. By this I don’t mean what Putin wants, but what he is. What he wants is variable and notoriously twisted. We all know that unpredictability is Putin’s most effective WMD, it takes a heavy toll on Ukraine’s nerves. But beyond this political and strategic puzzle, and beyond their weaknesses, Europeans are crippled by their inability to name the Russian regime. Whom are we coping with? It must be recognized that the issue is really complex. I do not claim to have a full answer. But it is possible to rule out some mistakes and to establish some benchmarks. There are indeed good reasons to see Russia as USSR 2.0, that is an imperialist irrational power driven by force and ideology, which calls for military containment and highest caution in transactions, but there are equally good reasons to consider Russia as a “normal” authoritarian regime, which can be dealt with like Saudi Arabia, Gabon or Egypt: strategic cooperation, trade, plus a pinch of pressure on human rights, such a package being implemented in the long run, based on mutual interest. Now the “normal” face of Russia exists, it buys and sells, its economy is embedded in globalization, it is not integrally run by KGB oligarchs, its higher education system matches international standards, etc. So that it seems unreasonable to consider Putin merely like a younger Brejnev. We must “understand” his security concerns as those of any touchy poor nation, not as imperial madness. The tricky thing is that he is both mad and rational, soviet and post-soviet. Late USSR was already a blend of totalitarian party-state, and of kleptocracy, a huge parallel economy run by mafias and KGB, paying tribute to the lords of the nomenklatura. Much has changed since 1991 for sure, but not that much. It is this ambivalence that Western leaders won’t manage because it is too complex and scarry. Yet this ambivalence is Putin’s weak point. 

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Comparing Russia with similar regimes may be helpful. Indeed, Putin’s Russia is not unique, despite its neo-soviet trademark, it follows patterns similar to those of China and Turkey for instance. After 1991, authoritarian and totalitarian powers have not moved towards normalization through integration into global trade and cooperation, as many believed.  They developed instead a new kind of rogue state, the “globalized” rogue state or, to use Karl Pooper’s concepts, a close society which is yet opened. Cold War was trench warfare. Now, the West faces new players, fully engaged in the game, but playing dirty. Wise guys say, “don’t pay attention to their declared ideology, they are pragmatic”. Such a wisdom is ambiguous (does “pragmatic” means rational or cynical?) and above all mistaken. For sure, ideologies are no more what they used to be. Ping’s socialism, Putin’s eurasism, Erdogan’s Islamism are mitigated with outright nationalism. Unexpectedly, the failure of Gorbatchev in Russia and the success of Deng in China gave birth in the end to similar monsters, half totalitarian, half “pragmatic”. Of course, China is a booming superpower while Russia is struggling against demographic and economic decay, but they act and think likewise. First, force is for both the only drive of power and wealth in the global game, trust and mutual benefit are good only for the weak and the deceived. China is a smarter player, using the soft power of its Belt and Road initiative, while Russia has only the brute’s tools of poisoning, threatening and bombing, but don’t be mistaken, one is as ruthless as the other when it comes to the interests of their “partners”. Both have undertaken to destroy slowly and steadily the institutions of multilateralism, to create a world ruled through unit-by-unit bargaining between strong leaders, in which alliances and treaties are just temporary and liable to reversal. Second, both are still ideological regime. Putin isKGB, Xi isCCP (Chinese Communist Party), despite there is not a drop anymore of “socialism” in their mind. They belong to the apparatus they seized; they depend on the men these old “organs” breed. That is why, for all their hard-boiled realism, they cannot help to indulge their megalomania, to intoxicate themselves and their people with self-defeating dreams, Third Rome here, global hegemony of the Middle Empire there. 

Why is this double feature, realistic and fanatical (say, Lavrov plus Dugin), makes these regimes disconcerting but weak? Because, like their totalitarian ancestors, they are compelled to outbid without rest, to go too far and stumble on little pebbles. The strategic point for Democrats is neither to overestimate, nor to deny the irrationality of this kind of powers, their propension to switch from rational adequacy of means to end to ideological indifference to the success of their actions.

The “strong leader” pattern has been later adopted by Erdogan as did in his own way Donald Trump. All experienced winning moves and setbacks. This scheme leads to quick but fragile benefits. For instance, Russia has been militarily successful in Syria, in complex collusion with Turkey and Iran, but is unable to capitalize on the shattered land of ruins and death left by its intervention, because it cannot rely on its accomplices and has not enough capital to stabilize and rebuild the country.  The challenge for normal countries is that the behavior of the “strong leaders” does not fit in the usual concepts of international affairs: the codes of diplomacy, war and peace, reliability of treaties. And yet we are on the same boat, the same planet. Europeans have to deal with Russia on energy or protection of the Arctic, which implies acknowledging Russia’s legitimate interests, and at the same, firmly denying any right to Russia on its so-called “near abroad”, from Tallin to Sebastopol. Unfortunately, Europeans are not prepared to this rough diplomacy of bluff and bargain. Yet we live in moment favorable to democracy and decency in international affairs. The Trump years have been a plague because the leader of the free world adopted the vision and method of the autocrats, putting democracies in disarray. In this respect, the Biden presidency may be of great momentum in opposing to this game of “strong leaders” instead of playing it. But world issues are too hot and interrelated to turn spontaneously into a peaceful multilateralism. European states seem already boosted by the fresh air coming from Washington. France and Germany talk of “red lines” with Russia, several countries, fed up by Russian disinformation and destabilization, are no more afraid to deport spies and diplomats. European parliament calls to the exclusion of Russia from SWIFT in case of escalation in Ukraine. This looks like a door of opportunity to contain for good Putin’s imperial projects. Provided only Europeans are united and provided Ukraine’s government sends the right message and stop moving erratically, one step forward, one step back.

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