A quiet but intense debate has been going on among the dwindling group of Russian experts in the United States and Europe, who are increasingly disturbed by the hyperbolic rhetoric about Russian leader Vladimir Putin during and since the American presidential campaign, in the media, and from public intellectuals. Putin has been described as Hitler, Stalin, without a soul, and even crazy. Hillary Clinton concluded that as a former KGB agent he had no soul. Angela Merkel famously said that Vladimir Putin lives in a different world. It certainly looks that way from where I was sitting in St. Petersburg, Russia. But not the way the German chancellor meant.
From the Russian side the words and images are equally Manichaean. Almost every problem from the expansion of NATO, global electronic surveillance, the threats of cyber warfare, and the crisis in Ukraine to the price of cheese is blamed primarily on the United States and its perceived global ambitions to render Russia weak and isolated. The discourse on talk shows is so inflated that many ordinary Russians are turned off, even as public statements escalate the fear of war. The palpable material hardship caused by economic sanctions and Russia’s failure to diversify and build infrastructure in the flush years when oil and gas prices were high has combined with fatigue at the lack of effective reform and the meaningless spectacle of elections without a real choice to produce a rumbling discontent. Even the nationalist fall-back position – “Well, at least Crimea is ours!” — has begun to sound hollow. Anxiety is growing both in Russia and in the West, and notably among Russian experts, that the war of words can lead to other kinds of war –cyber, Cold, or worse.
The alternative, of course, is to re-open channels of conversation, deliberation, and negotiation, which requires a clearer understanding of the views, perceptions, and interests of the other side than is currently presented in much of the West. First, Putin is neither Hitler nor Stalin, neither a fascist, as has been claimed on the op-ed page of the New York Times, nor a communist. He does not aim at recreating the Soviet Union or destroying the European Union. He has stated publicly that he is not interested in making Russia a Great Power again, a statement that should be taken with a large grain of salt, but he is certainly interested in making Russia “Great Again.”
More sober observers, including Henry Kissinger, have concluded that Vladimir Putin is a realist playing a relatively weak economic and military hand vis-à-vis the United States, NATO, and the European Union. Putin and the most savvy of policymakers in Russia want not only to be respected and consulted but to be members in good standing in the global capitalist economy and the security structure of the post-Cold War world. They resent the overweening power of the United States and oppose the unipolar system that replaced the bipolar Cold War system. The West squandered the greatest opportunity the world had to reshape the international security order in the early 1990s, instead taking advantage of Russia’s weakness to move its zone of military influence closer to the borders of Russia (and in the case of the Baltic states, within the boundaries of the former Soviet Union). After violating acceptable international behavior with the ill-advised annexation of Crimea, Russia only increased its pariah status. Its calls for a multipolar international system fall on deaf ears in the West, which interprets the expansion into Ukraine as an imperial drive to destabilize European security.
Vulnerability more than a desire for territorial expansion better explains his ill-considered and precipitous gamble in annexing Crimea. In the panic that followed the replacement of a more pro-Russian government in Kiev with a pro-Western one, Putin’s earlier, more pragmatic policy either to win over Ukraine or render it neutral suddenly, with that one rash move to “return” Crimea to Russia, perhaps to appease Russian nationalists at home, turned Ukraine for generations to come into a more nationalist anti-Russian state. Fearing a NATO takeover of its naval bases on the peninsula, Russia self-destructively propelled itself into an untenable position. Politically Crimea cannot be returned to its earlier status within Ukraine without the Kremlin bosses losing the favor of most Russians. Moscow is stuck with Crimea, an example of imperial overreach that defies easy digestion and serves to confirm the West’s worst suspicions about Putin’s intentions.
Russia spends less than ten percent of what the West spends on defense, and the Russian economy is eight times smaller than that of the United States or the European Union. California’s gross domestic product is almost twice the size of Russia’s, which ranks twelfth among nations. Instead of being able to confront the West directly, Russia resorts to muscle flexing, including both pinprick annoyances like overflights in the Baltic region, more serious threats like placing Iskander-M missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave and deploying what military and diplomatic leverage it has in Syria or Iran to make itself indispensable to the international community. The Kremlin annoys and provokes with its cyber intrusions, the latest weapon of a relatively weak state.
Russians overwhelmingly share Putin’s views that their country has been mistreated by the West, humiliated repeatedly, their interests not taken seriously in Washington and Brussels. While Americans and Europeans, particularly in Eastern Europe, believe American power to be indispensable and NATO expansion a positive contribution to strategic stability, Russians genuinely feel threatened. A young woman in Moscow approached by BBC reacted to the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by reminding the journalist how Russians feel vulnerable and humiliated. The memories of Poles, Czechs, Estonians, and others of Soviet domination of their countries are mirrored by Russian memories of the colossal destruction they suffered from European invasions in the twentieth century’s two world wars.
Russians overwhelmingly share Putin’s views that their country has been mistreated by the West
It is urgent to move beyond the current impasse, and that requires new thinking and less name-calling. Ironically, the president-elect, who has far less foreign policy experience than the defeated former Secretary of State, has potential advantages in dealing with the Kremlin. Both he and President Putin have indicated that they admire each other and have refrained from the hyperbolic rhetoric of more establishment foreign policy experts in the United States and pundits in Russia. Fresh starts are possible, though they require readjustments on both sides. Most importantly, Washington and Moscow have to consider the interests and insecurities of the other side.
The real story is that at the moment the United States and Russia are both indispensable nations, each in its own way. Both are required to stabilize the international order and solve global problems like the flow of refugees, climate change, and terrorism. A shift from dominance by a single power to a more multilateral and consultative international order is not only an essential first step but is probably inevitable in the near future as the power relations between the most economically prosperous states change. To cool the current overheated tensions between Russia and the West, the stronger player has to make the first move. Washington, convinced that the United States has interests in all parts of the globe, must take seriously Russia’s more immediate and regional perception of its interests.
President Obama once dismissed Russia as a “regional power,” but from such condescension he was forced to recognize Russia as an “important” power. A global hegemon should be able, however uneasily, to inhabit the same world as a relatively weak regional hegemon. Coexistence as unequal rivals and wary partners requires more carefully formulated understanding of the other than the current rancor allows. Differences need not necessarily lead to conflicts, and conflicts need not inevitably lead to violent confrontations. Words matter, however, and shifts in language, and a willingness to listen to your adversary, can ease the way to cautious cooperation.
Featured image credit: Top of the Kremlin. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.