Foreign policy
Russia - EU

What would Kennan say about Putin’s Russia?

The Famous Long Telegram as seen from 2015

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On February 22, 1946, George Kennan, the American chargé d’affaires ad interim in Moscow, dragged himself out of bed after several days of suffering from the flu, and sent telegram No. 511. The State Department called for an in-depth analysis of Stalin’s speech delivered in the Bolshoi Theatre on the eve of “elections” for the exclusively symbolic Supreme Soviet. Stalin used this opportunity to thank the party, the army, the people, and of course himself for the victory in the Great Patriotic War. He mentioned in passing that it has been achieved in alliance with the United States and Great Britain, and announced that the Soviet Union would begin preparations for a new war, because of capitalism’s tendency so cause wars, as it had in 1914 and 1939 and would do again.

US press reports about the Stalin’s speech had already managed to cause  quite a stir in public opinion, “to a degree not hitherto felt”. Kennan, however, noticed nothing worthy of special attention in the Soviet leader’s speech. From mid-1944 Kennan had been sounding the alarm  to the State Department about the dangerous change taking place in Stalin’s approach to relations with the United States and about co-operating with other members of the Grand Coalition. His warnings went unnoticed. US policy invariably followed the same course, leading directly to a collision with an iceberg.

Kennan was growing increasingly frustrated. At the turn of 1945 and 1946 he asked the State Department several times to dismiss him from Moscow. He intended to leave American diplomacy. And suddenly, the atmosphere in Washington changed. President Truman began to “share suspicions – long held by several of his other advisers and congressional critics – that [his State’s Secretary] Byrnes’s pride in his negotiating skills was really an addiction to appeasement.” The State Department began to rush Kennan. This is how the longest telegram in the history of American diplomacy was written, which, together with Winston Churchill’s famous speech on the “Iron Curtain”, delivered in March 1946 in Fulton, became a symbol of the beginning of the “cold war”. Every graduate in international affairs and history of the twentieth century knows it. And today it is offered to students as an outstanding example of an analyst’s note for the political decision-maker, calculated to facilitate the decision-making process.

What would Kennan write about Putin’s Russia were he alive today? What would he write about Putin’s most recent speech at the Valdai Club 2015? Putin’s Valdai speech is relevant in understanding today’s Russia and may be seen as comparable to Stalin’s speech of February 9, 1946.

Paraphrasing Kennan’s introduction from his famous “long telegram”, I answer this question in three parts:

  1. Basic features of Putin’s Russia outlook
  2. Background of Putin’s Russia
  3. Practical deductions from the standpoint of US policy

1. Basic features of Putin’s Russia outlook

  1. Russia lives in a world of permanent conflict in, which in the long run, there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence. As Putin stated in the 2007 Munich Security Conference: “Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible”. It leads to, as Putin stated in this year’s Valdai conference, “A growing number of regional conflicts, especially in ‘border’ areas, where the interests of major nations or blocs meet. This can also lead to the probable downfall of the system of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (which I also consider to be very dangerous), which, in turn, would result in a new spiral of the arms race”
  2. Russia is at war with the West. Putin explores negative sentiments Russians  feel as a result of the sense of defeat in the Cold War to present himself as the only Russian leader gifted enough to push the West – particularly the US – back. In order to drive a wedge between the Russian public and liberal democracy, Putin portrays the West as the self-declared winner of the Cold War, willing to impose on the defeated Russians its own values and norms of behavior and “instead of establishing a new balance of power, essential for maintaining order and stability, they took steps that threw the system into sharp and deep imbalance… Maybe the United States’ exceptional position and the way they are carrying out their leadership really is a blessing for us all, and their meddling in events all around the world is bringing peace, prosperity, progress, growth and democracy, and we should maybe just relax and enjoy it all? Let me say that this is not the case, absolutely not the case.” So, not only will Russia not accept this new world order shaped by the victorious West, but it will not rest until a new balance of power is established and the West’s “meddling in events all around the world”, stopped. To achieve this, the West should be defeated, disintegrated and its self-confidence in liberal values should be cracked by  an anti-Western coalition under Putin’s lead.
  3. The West cannot be trusted. In his famous Crimea speech in March 2014 Putin said: “They [the West] have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact… They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line”. Pointing its finger at the West’s hypocrisy, Putin declares that he would not hesitate to lie for the sake of Russia and/or his own interests.
  4. Military power is, and will remain, an instrument of international politics. And Russia is ready to use it with the purpose of seeking a new balance of power. Russia has to explore the West’s weakness and indecisions in order to introduce a new balance of forces with the West as it “happened in the 17th century in the times of the so-called Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the Thirty Years’ War. Then in the 19th century, in the time of the Vienna Congress; and again 70 years ago in Yalta, when the victors over Nazism made the decision to set up the United Nations Organisation and lay down the principles of relations between states” (Valdai 2015).
  5. A new world order should be built on three principles 1) Non-interference into the sphere of influence of the system founders; 2) Russia’s exclusive title to the post-Soviet space must be recognized; and 3) The delegitimization of the change of the power by the revolt of the people, at least in the post-Soviet area – a key new norm Putin wants introduced. So Russia’s war with the West will not end as long as these new principles are not introduced by “internationally binding commitment”. Putin made this point very clearly:  “Russia’s position is not that we oppose the Ukrainian people’s choice. We are ready to accept any choice. Ukraine genuinely is a brotherly country in our eyes, a brotherly people. I don’t make any distinction between Russians and Ukrainians. But we oppose this method of changing the government. It is not a good method anywhere in the world, but it is completely unacceptable in the post-Soviet region” (Valdai 2015)

Part 2: The Background of Putin’s Russia

The widespread self-perception of Russians is that all historical misfortunes Russia has experienced were caused by foreign, particularly the West’s, conspiracy. On a number of occasions, Putin claimed that victories in World War II and even in World War I had been simply “stolen” from Russia. So there is a traditional sentiment among the Russian public to look for the leader-protector able to keep the country in order with a “strong hand” and withstand the West’s global dominance. Emotions among the public reflect the views of the leader and vice versa. Putin may well enjoy democratic legitimacy in Russia, because the authoritarianism and the “strong-hand” approach itself have significant backing in Russian society.

For years, the notion of liberal democracy has been seen in post-Soviet Russia at least with visible distaste. The experiences of Ukraine 2004 and 2014, where masses aspiring to embrace the European-like political culture went out the streets demanding change to the political system, elevated the Kremlin’s fears to the level of the existential threat. It is neither NATO or the EU enlargements nor even – seen as very abstract in Russia – European values, which Putin finds most threatening to him, but rather the specter of revolting masses tearing down Putin’s preferable system of government, based on interconnections between politics, business and crime.

The notion of modernization lost its appeal for Russian power elite when it realized that embracing the Western standards would inevitably limit its power and potentially dismantle the entire system of power in Russia – a system based on uneven distribution of influence and benefits. Putin opted for an alternative. The idea of modernization was replaced by competition and antagonism, gaining their institutional manifestation above all in the Euro-Asian Union. In axiological terms, the institution was meant as the Russian alternative to European integration, but its actual purpose is to safeguard Russia’s dominance over the whole post-Soviet space and the corrupted model of development.

As Putin is unable to bridge the development gap between Russia and the most advanced countries in the world, his aim is to bring the West down to the level where Russia – at least theoretically – would have more chances to compete on equal footing. He would explore the incoherence of the West, its difficulties in reaching an agreement on strategic and tactical matters, and drive a wedge into the West’s decision making process using corruption, espionage, subversion, and if necessary, all other means at his disposal.

Russia’s power elite believes the West is in decline. It not only lost his moral compass but more importantly does not truly sticks to its own principles. They consider all Western politicians as bribable. In their views everyone and everything is for sale, the only open question is the price and whether they need and are willing to pay it.

Americans are perceived by the Kremlin’s elite as a trading nation, ready to trade everything. So relations with the US are seen by them as a constant struggle for a better negotiation position, in which Putin, who concentrated all power in Russia in his own hand, feels he possesses an upper-hand due to an unrestrained ability to restore to unilateral use of force, blackmail and corruption.

It is neither geopolitical aspirations that drive Putin’s Russia foreign policy today, nor his revisionist ambitions. It is, above all, his domestic political weakness. Before the annexation of Crimea Putin was perfectly aware that after 15 years his staying in power, the Russian public may have harbored some sympathy for change in the Kremlin. And if we bear in mind that for the Kremlin’s inner circles there is no much difference between the Russians and the Ukrainians – as Putin himself claimed publicly there are one nation – we can better understand that the fear of a Ukraine-like political turbulence infecting the Russian public might be very real. It was concern that the mood of political change would spread to Russia which triggered the annexation of Crimea and the use of force against Ukraine. On September 27, 2014 Foreign Minister Lavrov suggested that the UN should in the future adopt a declaration committing to non-recognition of coupes d’état. It was a reflection of the existential fear of Russia’s power elite that the Maidan might one day approach Moscow as well.

The benefits of the use of force against Ukraine for the Putin regime were confirmed by the overwhelming public support for its military actions. At the same time, a dangerous virus was injected into Russian political culture: that use of force abroad may lead to political gains at home. This lesson may prevail in Russia even if – one day – Putin disappears from Russian political landscape.

For the Russian ruling elite, the end of the Cold War meant something very different than it did for the West. The lesson they took away from the fall of the Iron Curtain was that once Communist ideology proved to be wrong, there was no moral or ideological compass to follow and no rules for them to obey at all. In Russia, the “end of history moment” led into the triumph of nihilism.

3. Practical deductions from the standpoint of US policy

How should Russia today be dealt with? I dare to advance, as my conclusion, the following comments:

  1. Let me quote Kennan here as his words still matter today: “Our first step must be to apprehend, and recognize for what it is, the nature of the movement with which we are dealing. We must study it with the same courage, detachment, objectivity, and determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which a doctor studies an unruly and unreasonable individual.” Yes, indeed we need to study Russia more, and not ignore it, even if we think it is a peripheral actor in the world scene. We should not forget the peripheries proved not once, not twice, to be quick sands for world peace. This is particularly so if they are armed with nuclear weapons and have tendency to overestimate its own potential and miscalculate risks.
  2. The idea of the Concert of Powers is undemocratic by its very nature. So there is no conceivable common ground for the West and Russia in founding a new world order on the principles of new balance of power and sphere of influences as it would not only undermine the democratic community of nations, but would also be interpreted by Putin as the silent consent of the West for further authoritarianism in Russia. It should be stated very clearly that the future of international relations with Russia should be seen in its democratization, and not in models from the deep and dark history of empires.
  3.  In Russia, what should be seen as opium for masses is not religion, but geopolitics and the perspective on international relations it offers. It is no coincidence that in Russia, geopolitics is treated as an independent branch of sciences, as it focuses on the might and power play between Great Powers. This perspective makes Russia, with its vast territories and resources, one of the most significant actors in international relations, while other theoretical approaches to foreign affairs provide much a less attractive alternative. The West should avoid engaging itself in a dialogue with Russia on the ground of geopolitics as it strengthens undemocratic tendencies in Russia, introduces relations between Russia and the West in the vicious circle of rivalry, and plays well with Putin’s attempt to drive a wedge between Russian society and democratic principles. At the same time, in its analyses of Russia’s motivations in foreign policy, more attention should be paid on real intentions of the decision makers, and internal domestic factors which may usually be understood and interpreted as the logic of political survival of the regime.
  4. The West should lead the worldwide anticorruption campaign.  This campaign should not focus only on developing countries, but would also be carried out among and within the members states of the democratic community of the West. Corruption in not only a cancer of the immunity system of democracy, but it also exposes the West’s Achilles heel for Putin’s covert activities and subversion in the camp of the West.
  5. We must understand that deterrence is the best and cheapest contribution to peace. Enhancing the defense potential of democratic countries neighboring Russia limits many possible risks which could arise from Putin’s strategic miscalculation of the outcomes of the use of force in the region.
  6. The unity of the West in reacting on Russia’s wrongdoings is another powerful instrument of moderation of Putin’s action undermining peace in Europe. Sanctions introduced in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine should be seen not only through the prism of their impact on Putin’s behavior, but first and foremost as a positive contribution to the shaping of the West’s unified policy towards Russia. And therefore sanctions should stay until Russia withdraws from Ukraine.

Originally published at Intersection

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