Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
With tensions between Russia and the West growing by the day, the relationship between them is taking center stage in world politics.
On the one hand, U.S. and European governments are justifiably frustrated with Russia’s reckless political course, open aggression, and disregard for the norms of international law. But the West should accept at least part of the blame for helping transform the Russia of 2000 into the authoritarian and unpredictable state of 2014. The West’s unreasonably high expectations for Russia’s swift return to normalcy, coupled with its unwillingness to incorporate the country into the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions that continued expanding eastward, ultimately helped spur President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Westernism.
On the other hand, Russia is angry at the United States and Europe for what it saw as overt encouragement of anti-Moscow protests that engulfed Ukraine in late 2013. Moscow has since fueled the counter-protest that had emerged as a backlash, using confrontational rhetoric to electrify supporters at home and abroad. This explains why the Kremlin is constantly looking for differences, no matter how small, between Russia and the West, exacerbating the already poor relations.
If the current trends continue, we may witness a full-scale repetition of the Cold War, with all its regional conflicts, proxy battles, and arms races. Today, however, there will be an added element: a full-scale economic confrontation of a kind that was practically absent half a century ago. And at any rate, it is clear that there will be no return to normalcy on Russia’s part. As the Kremlin plays on the baser emotions of an increasingly indoctrinated population, it is pulling the country into a new conflict with the rest of the world.
Russia and the West do not need this conflict. The United States and the European countries seem to understand that and, to avoid the costs of a major clash, have tried to prevent further escalation. Russia, on the other hand, does not appear to have this understanding. Rather than tread carefully after the invasion of Crimea, it has upped the ante by sending its loyalists into eastern Ukraine, destabilizing the situation there, and depicting the local pro-Russia militants as freedom fighters. To forestall the escalation of the conflict and fend off a Balkans-like scenario for Ukraine, it is now up to the West to make Russia an offer that it can’t refuse. To help secure long-term stability, such a proposal would need to go beyond the immediate political and regional agendas; indeed, it would have to be a new grand bargain for the twenty-first century.
The challenge would be to find common ground, since the old points of convergence won’t work. The belief that Russia shares the West’s core values, for example, has proved mistaken. Today, the mere mention of the term sends shudders down the Russian public’s spine. The Kremlin has positioned the country as a bastion of alternative, more conservative, values, and the Russian people seem to approve. Likewise, an offer of a new dialogue with Washington and European governments or promises to integrate Russia into Western institutions seem unlikely to sway Moscow. Putin has made it clear that he sees no value to dialogue or integration, which he said would only curtail Russia’s sovereignty.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing the West can offer. The first and most radical option would be to dissolve NATO -- a possibility that is overdue for serious consideration -- and replace it with a new security bloc. The new group, which might be called the Global Northern Alliance, would bring together all current NATO states, Russia and the members of its Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Japan and South Korea. The bloc would be led by today’s three major military powers: the United States, Russia, and the European Union. Its main task would be to preserve and reinforce peace on the European continent and in the northern hemisphere more broadly. But its greater objective would be to interrupt Russia’s drift toward the rising powers of the developing world, a club that it increasingly aspires to join despite its historical ties to Europe.
For the West to agree to such a reorganization, Russia would have to return Crimea to Ukraine, cease confrontational rhetoric, and abandon its policy of fueling and then exploiting controlled instability near its borders. This decision would be a difficult one for Putin to take, but his desire to include Russia in a group of leading world powers may be too strong to resist. Of course, some portion of Russia’s much vaunted sovereignty may be lost as a result, but the benefits -- cementing its position among the major global players -- may be worth the costs. And, of course, its oligarchs will welcome Russia's membership in a club that represents the global financial elite, which has remained one of their key aspirations all along.
A second, and no less audacious, initiative would be the launch of a new Marshall Plan for countries of the former USSR. The assistance would go not just to Ukraine -- the post-Soviet state most on Western policymakers’ minds -- but also to other countries in the region. The United States and Europe would have to turn their attention to the poor and largely undeveloped nations of Central Asia, where the West tends to underestimate the potential for destabilization; to the Caucasus region, which is being roiled by social and political tensions; and even to Russia itself, whose eastern districts suffer from grave economic challenges. Intensified economic cooperation with, and assistance to, post-Soviet states would boost their growth and strengthen their allegiance to the West, even if it takes time to counteract the authoritarian practices in these countries. These kinds of policies could also forge linkages between the eastern parts of Russia and the United States and Japan, thereby helping curb China's rising influence in the region. Russia has good reason to be interested in the deal: it strongly believes itself to be a continental power, with equal sway over the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but thus far it's been unable to transform its east into a prosperous regional hub. An opportunity to finally become a major Pacific player may outweigh its hostility toward economic alliances with the West.
Third, if Russia begins to abandon its aggressive policies, the West could start to improve relations with the most critical players of all: Russian citizens and companies. This could include reducing the existing visa barriers between Russia and the EU and, in the longer term, lessening the restrictions on working abroad. The United States and Europe should also initiate talks on liberalizing trade with Russia and post-Soviet countries and banning discrimination against investors from the region. By becoming a more fully integrated member of the Western system, Russia would be less able to threaten the West through energy disturbances and expansionist behavior. This basic truth seemed evident a quarter-century ago, during Gorbachev’s perestroika, but has now become forgotten -- and quite unfairly so.
Fourth, taking into account the many dangerous fault lines in Europe, the West could radically shift the focus of its cooperation with Russia to the Pacific. Russia is already making an effort to rethink its strategy toward Siberia and the Far East. As the government attempts to develop this extremely resource-rich but underpopulated and mismanaged part of the country, the West could play a leading role in integrating it into the global economy, stymieing China’s aspirations to take the spoils for itself. Full-scale cooperation between Russia, Canada, Japan, and the United States (for example, the creation of jointly owned resource and industrial clusters supported by improved regional infrastructure) would temper the current hostilities and lessen the emphasis that Russia places on Crimea. This kind of joint and constructive work, both economic and political, could become a model for cooperation between Russia and the West throughout the world.
PAST THE BOTTLENECK
Restructuring the relationship between Russia and the West along these lines could remove the critical policymaking bottlenecks that currently prevent the two from resolving their conflict. Putin has tried to act on the world stage as a leader of great influence, failing to recognize that he does not have the pull of even a big regional player. And too many Western policymakers appear reluctant to allow Russia to join the Western world, assuming erroneously that this would somehow weaken the power of their own countries. A grand bargain described above would solve both of these problems. For Putin, it would be the culmination of his political career, fulfilling the mission that he has set out to accomplish at the turn of the millennium: wiping out the legacy of Cold War defeat and reclaiming Russia’s place as an equal among the world's major players. And for the Western leaders, the result would be decades of peace as well as the reaffirmation of the West’s dominant position in the international system.
These proposals, of course, are long shots. They are unlikely to be considered, much less implemented. But European integration was a long shot too. And even the debate around bold ideas creates hopes for a new and peaceful future in Europe.
This article has been translated from Russian by Hannah Thoburn.