Beware the snake oil known as foreign policy “realism” or “pragmatism,” at least when it comes to Russia. Every time I read something from a “realist” or “pragmatist” it always starts out more or less fine, but then soon degenerates into blaming all Putin’s bad behavior entirely on the West, and suggesting a “compromise” that basically amounts to giving the Kremlin whatever it wants, whatever the case. Usually these people portray themselves as moderates, objective observers standing in no-man’s land between rabid neocons in the West and Kremlin-supported neo-imperialists in Russia. Yet one cannot help but notice how quickly their arguments degenerate into a collection of tried and true Kremlin talking points, and their “solutions” require the West or its allies to make all the concessions while Russia isn’t bound to reciprocate.
If you feel like reading a long takedown of these folks and some of their arguments, there’s a nice piece on the topic by Lilia Shevtsova. Brian Whitmore of The Daily Vertical also has a recent piece which helps toward explaining why the “realist” approach is at best, extremely misguided. But if you’re dead set on reading a response to the “realist” school of foreign policy punditry that contains dick jokes- well, you’d best set here for a spell and read on.
First of all let’s tackle the whole objectivity thing. As I stated in my FAQ when I began this blog, my objectivity stems from not having a stake in the game between the Kremlin or “the West.” I’m not saying this is the only way a person can be objective. I respect striving towards objectivity so long as one is not engaging in balance for the sake of balance and making false equivalencies. I also can’t respect it when someone claims to be objective and then clearly takes one side 100%. Declare for a camp or try to remain a moderate, objective observer, but please don’t claim to be the latter or fly a false flag as you represent the other camp.
Having dealt with the question of objectivity and moderation, let’s get on to the topic of negotiation and compromise, which “realists” seem to misunderstand, occasionally on purpose. Compromise entails a quid pro quo. You do this, we’ll do that. To date I’ve yet to see a single “realist” say what Putin should do for the West in exchange for the long list of concessions they think the Kremlin deserves:
Scrap Minsk and unilaterally pull out of the Donbas, taking their weapons and proxies with them? Oh no! Russia will always feel a deep-rooted connection to those Russian speakers of East Ukraine! This is their backyard after all! They’ll want assurances that Ukraine won’t join NATO! Hell, even Chomsky claimed that Russia had “a case” for invading and carving up Ukraine. And give back the Crimea? Don’t even waste your breath. Deep historical connection, national humiliation, etc. If we just let them have the Crimea, they’ll be more inclined to quit Eastern Ukraine! But if they don’t, well, see the previous explanation.
What about Syria? Well a peace deal would be great, so long as there are new elections and Assad leaves. But you know, we shouldn’t press him to leave. In fact, we don’t really need those elections at all. Let’s just team up with Russia against ISIS and let them do whatever they want in the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East is so important, and Russia is so essential to the efforts against ISIS, that we can’t afford to be worrying about little Ukraine and its problems. Russia was justifiably upset at Western support for Maidan and the new Ukrainian government. Surely if we just recognize the Crimean annexation and put pressure on Kyiv to do everything Moscow demands, the latter will fulfill all its obligations and we can all concentrate on pounding ISIS into dust!
You get the gist. These articles never seem to explain what Putin will give in return for all of this, and by coincidence, neither does the Russian foreign ministry. Hell, what can they give, some kind of guarantee in the form of a treaty? Whatever treaty they might sign guaranteeing no further intervention in Ukraine, for example, wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. This would be especially true if the price of such an agreement amounted to recognizing the Crimean annexation and allowing Russia to continue exercising influence in the Donbas. Since I’ve never seen any “realist” even suggest Putin actually giving any concessions from his side, it seems like the only possible obligation from Moscow’s side in a “realistic” compromise would be a worthless agreement.
Another misunderstanding common among “realists” and “pragmatists” is their understanding of Western responsibility for Putin’s Russia. They way they put it, the West is responsible for all of Putin’s bad behavior. In fact, this often goes towards justifying said behavior by making it seem like a logical response to Western rudeness, neglect, meddling, or outright aggression. There are legitimate critiques of the West in relation to Russia, and there are not so legitimate ones. Guess which category the “realist”arguments tend to fall into?
One of these illegitimate arguments, for example, are the claims that Putin is driven by a perceived threat of NATO expansion. The NATO expansion line looks pretty solid until you actually bother to study what forces existed in Europe and where they were located. As Kremlin hysteria over NATO expansion grew, troop numbers, especially for the US, steadily dropped. No permanent bases were built in the new member states, including those which bordered the Russian Federation. Even today very little has been done to reverse this trend, the only catalyst for doing so being Putin’s recent sabre-rattling and invasion of Ukraine. And should anyone dispute that last point, feel free to provide some evidence about a buildup of NATO forces on the Russian border, as well as an explanation as to why a country that couldn’t manage a war in Iraq and Afghanistan would decide it could pull off an invasion of the largest country on Earth, which also happens to be heavily armed with nukes.
Still not convinced? Just a few years ago Russia was allowing NATO members, including the US, to use an airport in Ulyanovsk as a military transit hub for the sake of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Just a logistical base, you say? Well take a look at how many US military installations in Europe are basically the same thing. And what about espionage? Why is the Russian government so afraid of NGOs and bloggers yet it was willing to actually allow NATO military personnel to use its airspace and infrastructure? The answer is that they’re full of shit, that’s why. They’re not afraid of a NATO invasion and they never were. In fact, their campaign in Ukraine proved how useless and non-threatening NATO really is. If something scared Putin, it was the Orange Revolution, and Maidan doubly so. The thing he fears most is being held accountable for his actions by his own people, which is why he’d rather have NATO military personnel on Russian soil than civil society groups and opposition parties.
Here is where we get to the crux of “realism” when it comes to Putin’s Russia. The fact is that it isn’t realistic at all; it is either out of touch with reality or in the worst cases, totally delusional. It is for this reason that I wish to present to the “realists” a bit of actual realism, so as to shake you out of these fantasies. Naturally this will be lost on the die-hard Kremlin supporters, particularly those with careers courtesy of the Russian state media or other lucrative business in Russia. This is for those naive types who are really struggling to meet Moscow half way and silently wonder what can we do to make Putin respect the Western position. It’s for those who think this is all just some big misunderstanding and if we could only find common ground Putin would be more than happy to cooperate toward a more prosperous, peaceful world, one in which Western businessmen can keep on making massive profits in Russia. If you’re one of those folks (e.g. John Kerry), brace yourself- this will not be gentle.
Give up. Putin and his elite don’t care about your genuine remorse for how the West has treated Russia, whether the slights are imaginary or real notwithstanding. Whatever concessions you give the Kremlin will be accepted with a smile, but nothing of significance will be given in return. As they smile and shake your hand, their media will be regaling the populace with tales of how Putin and his pals have once again outfoxed the degenerate, ever-weakening West, but also how everyone must still remain vigilant because that same collapsing hegemonic power is still a grave threat to Russia. To use the vernacular of a good friend of mine, they’ll be talking out their neck while you’re patting yourself on the back, thinking you finally got them to see your point of view.
Putin literally can’t pull back or offer any concessions. If Merkel, Obama, and literally every other Western leader came to Putin, asked him what he wanted, and then just granted his every wish, the rhetoric wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t give a televised speech praising the West for coming to its senses, being realistic, and finally burying the hatchet between them and Russia. How do I know? Well for all those years America was getting its military out of Europe, Kremlin propaganda has made it sound as though NATO is gearing up for Operation Barbarossa II. For all those years that American and other foreign companies were pouring millions of dollars into the Russian economy and providing Russian citizens with a wealth of consumer goods their parents and grandparents could only dream of, the same propagandists were screaming about how the West wanted to undermine and dismantle Russia, leaving it destitute. If this is what the Kremlin narrative was during the best of times, what will it be during the worst of times, even with concessions. Indeed, we can see a microcosm of this reality in recent times. While the West leaves Ukraine in tatters and lectures it on the need to fulfill the ridiculously pro-Russian Minsk protocol, the propaganda machine is still droning on about NATO legions with American and Turkish mercenaries. So what will more concessions do?
Once you accept the reality that Putin will not reciprocate for any concessions, there’s the fundamental question of why this is the case. Put simply, Putin is not worried about NATO or the West. Putin and the elite he serves are scared to death of their own people. Back when oil prices were high and times were good, they didn’t have to worry so much. Russians were enjoying their new commodities, hobbies, and foreign travel. Then they got too uppity and demanding and had to be put in their place. The need to do so became even more dire after the Ukrainian people showed they wouldn’t put up with corruption and economic ruin for the sake of non-existent “stability.” Obviously one course of action for the Kremlin to remain secure against popular revolution is to crack down on dissent, which has been the case since 2012. Of course this is a lot easier to do with some kind of justification, therefore we have the sharp increase in anti-Western rhetoric. Yes, Russian citizens will have to tolerate more corruption and declining living standards, but there simply is no choice- we’re at war!
The specific nature of that rhetoric is such that any attempt to deescalate the conflict and promote peace and understanding is seen as weakness and submission. This is especially true as the government has mobilized vatnost, a certain mentality that obsesses over dominance and humiliation. To get an idea of why this is so dangerous, imagine that tomorrow the Kremlin and Washington totally make up and be friends on whatever terms. Obama goes on TV and informs America that Russia and the USA are definitely friends now, and that “New Cold War” is definitely off for good. Apart from some politicians looking to score tough-guy points, the vast majority of Americans won’t care. When I say they won’t care, I mean at all. Assuming they even pay attention to the news, they’ll probably just blink and wonder what that whole two-year Cold War 2.0 was all about before popping some Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits into the microwave. You’re not going to find significant numbers of Americans lamenting the fact that they never got to trounce Putin’s Russia in a military engagement, or that economic trade will resume and there’ll be no repeat of 1991. I was rather young that year, but I don’t remember any celebrations about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was more like shock and the exhilaration that comes from witnessing a historical event of massive significance.
However, as I have stated above, in the same scenario Putin could never make the same announcement, no matter how many concessions America makes. He can never say: “Well it looks like our Western partners listened to their realists and not only recognized our claim to Crimea, but they also agreed to create a buffer zone of neutral, non-aligned states so as to ensure we cannot possibly be threatened by NATO. Therefore, let us stop this animosity toward America and the West and embrace each other in a spirit of brotherhood!” No, Putin could not say this because to the base he now relies on, this still sounds like capitulation. Thanks to the narrative the Kremlin has been disseminating through its media, the only acceptable ending entails America in ruins like the USSR in 1991, and because that’s not going to happen, Putin has to keep up the self-destructive dick measuring contest* they call the “New Cold War.”
To admit that the West is not a threat to Russia is to undermine the legitimacy of his rule and the measures that have been implemented to cement it. Without the NATO bogeyman, there is nothing with which to distract Russian citizens from the real conflict that has been going on this whole time- between the Russian ruling class and the majority. In other words, Putin and his elite will feel just as threatened no matter how conciliatory the West acts. As long as these countries represent an alternative to his corrupt system, and in particular so long as they maintain considerably higher living standards compared to Russia, they will represent a threat to the Kremlin that is far more frightening than any NATO tank division the US might deploy in Europe.
You wanted realism? That’s reality. Deal with it.
*Thought I wouldn’t deliver on the dick joke? You thought wrong, my friend.