Christian Caryl

Realists, Beware of Russians Making Deals

Vladimir Putin just wants to make a deal with the West on Syria. What could be the harm in that?

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Congratulations are due to Vladimir Putin for his shrewd speech at the United Nations General Assembly. The Russian president deftly positioned his country as a key arbiter in the Syrian civil war, doubling down on support for the “legitimate government” of President Bashar al-Assad. (Never mind that neither Assad nor his father ever had to face a real election, so I’m not sure what constitutes “legitimacy” here.) And he did his best to depict Moscow as a loyal adherent to United Nations principles while castigating Washington as a mischief-maker always sowing chaos by dodging the rules of the international community.

We could spend a lot of time unpacking Putin’s presentation. One could easily forget that the Putin who took to the stage in New York is the very same man who personally oversaw last year’s annexation of Crimea — the first time since the end of World War II that a European power has seized land from a neighbor by military force. So much for those hallowed U.N. principles of peaceful conflict resolution and respect for territorial integrity. And the image of the sober statesman at the General Assembly doesn’t square with the less savory picture of a leader who doses dissenters with radioactive poison and raises thugs like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to key government positions.

Putin’s speech will undoubtedly meet with rave reviews from his usual fan club — that odd collection of Orthodox homophobes, Hollywood has-beens, and grumpy populists (both left and right). So be it.

But this time around the Russian president was really aiming for bigger fish. As befits his grandiose surroundings, he was clearly wooing serious policymakers. He made his plea for an anti-Islamic State coalition by invoking the anti-Hitler alliance of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt — reminding his audience that defeating big enemies sometimes requires unlikely bedfellows. “On the basis of international law,” he said, “we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism.”

“Putin is right,” immediately declared British commentator Simon Jenkins, who wrote that the “only way forward in Syria” is through Assad and his allies. “That is the realpolitik. That is what pragmatism dictates.” Just for good measure, Jenkins cited Henry Kissinger, who thinks that the West should see Russia (in Jenkins’s words) “as an ally … against Muslim fundamentalism.”

Kissinger, of course, is the patron saint of that school of foreign relations known as “realism,” which argues that we can understand and formulate sound policy based only on a cool appraisal of the competing interests of major powers. For realists, stability and order should take precedence in foreign policy over promoting democracy or advancing human rights.

Putin and the realists often speak a common language. Just like the Russian president, realists tend to bemoan NATO’s eastward expansion as an offense against Russia’s national dignity. A few days ago, ex-New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer described the end of the Cold War as if the Americans had swarmed into post-Soviet Russia like a new Tatar horde: “Many in Washington believed that the United States had permanently broken Russian power. In their jubilation, they imagined that we would be able to keep our foot on Russia’s neck forever.” Dismissing talk of Russian “aggression” in Ukraine (the quotation marks are his), Kinzer urged his readers to follow Moscow’s example in its efforts to maintain the international peace: “We would benefit from a bit of their realism.”

Yet, in the end, how realistic are the realists? At a certain point, the seemingly hardheaded pleas for common cause with Russia tend to veer off into the indeterminate. Sure, let’s sign up for a Moscow-led alliance uniting Assad’s Syrian Alawites, Iranian Shiites, and Lebanese Hezbollah members in order to beat “terrorism” in Syria and Iraq. That sounds like the perfect way to salve the resentment of the millions of Sunni Muslims in the region who back — or at least don’t violently object to — the Islamic State. What could possibly go wrong? (Take a look at some of those members of Putin’s Middle East coalition, by the way, and go on telling me that Moscow is really the sworn enemy of “Muslim fundamentalism.” As Kadyrov’s career so vividly demonstrates, the Kremlin is perfectly happy to tolerate Islamists as long as they’re on its payroll.)

And what about Ukraine? Kinzer, like so many of his colleagues in the realist camp, doesn’t actually say what policy the West should pursue (perhaps because that would involve too many thorny specifics). He merely cites the example of Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian statesman who insisted that post-Napoleonic France should be treated like a great power despite its past transgressions: “He persuaded other leaders that in the interest of future stability, they must invite the miscreant back into the family.” Sounds harmless enough. Kissinger, of course, also celebrated Metternich’s statecraft in a famous book.

There’s a lot that Kinzer glosses over in this account. Yes, the Concert of Europe kept the peace for a generation. But it did so by dividing Europe into spheres of influence that were tightly policed by each of the monarchic great powers, which stomped down hard on even the slightest stirrings of democratic dissent — and thus retarded the continent’s political development for almost a century (ultimately, one might argue, with catastrophic consequences).

The European Union exists today because democratically elected governments wanted it to exist, and it expanded its membership because the new democracies that emerged from the rubble of the old Soviet empire wanted to join. The same applies to NATO. Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill once tried dividing up Europe on a napkin in a smoke-filled room, but those days — I’m happy to say — are gone. Anyone who wants to claim that Europe can go back to the 1940s in this respect is profoundly ahistorical and deeply unrealistic.

It’s striking how coy the self-described realists become when it comes to mapping out the specifics of what they think should happen with Ukraine today. Are we really going to draw a line on a map and declare that all the peoples living to the east of it will henceforth be subject to Putin’s whim? This, in fact, is what the whole notion of “taking Moscow’s interests into account” boils down to.

If we’re really objective about it, I’m not sure that Putin is the cool customer whom the realists seem to take him for. Putin could have adopted very different policies toward those Ukrainian protesters back in 2013 and 2014, offering economic inducements and perhaps a promise of fresh elections in return for, say, a pledge from a new government in Kiev to refrain from seeking NATO membership — something that most Ukrainians, at the time, would have been happy to sign up for. Such a policy would have done far more to serve Russian national interests than all the chaos that has since ensued.

Instead, thanks to his Crimean smash-and-grab and his active support for separatists in the Donbass, most Ukrainians are seeking closer ties with the West than anyone would have thought possible a few years ago. As the direct result of Moscow’s actions, Ukraine is now heading either toward unprecedented integration with Western Europe — or toward complete economic and political collapse. Is either of these scenarios really good for Russia? Probably not. But Putin’s hard line on Ukraine certainly served the aim of boosting his popularity among ordinary Russians, and that’s ultimately what he cared about most.

As a matter of fact, it’s entirely possible to make the argument that Putin’s recent policies, far from advancing Russian interests, have drastically weakened the country’s international position. Crimea-related sanctions, coupled with the fall in oil prices, have taken an enormous toll on the economy. Sweden and Finland, neither particularly bellicose toward Russia in recent years, are now increasingly keen to seek NATO protection. And let’s face it — when it comes to allies, no one seems particularly eager to join up with Moscow outside of the Shiite Crescent. Putin may be popular at home, but Russia’s public image around the world has tanked.

A genuine realist in the Kremlin would have long since seized the opportunity, for example, to forge a new relationship with Japan, a development that would have not only given a huge boost to Russia’s economic bottom line but also undermined Washington’s relationship with one of its most important allies in a key part of the world. Putin, however, just hasn’t been able pull it off — presumably because the territorial concessions involved (over the southernmost Kuril Islands) would dent his reputation as a macho Russian nationalist, thus undermining his hold over the national psyche.

And this, ultimately, is the key to understanding all of Putin’s actions. The Russian president’s policies are shaped primarily by his determination to preserve his personal power. Sometimes this goal overlaps with the aim of safeguarding Russian national interests, but the two are far from identical. And as realists presumably know better than anyone else, personal agendas are far more volatile and hard to predict than national ones. Anyone who aims to make a deal with the Russian president would be well advised to keep this in mind.

In the photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Corrections, Sept. 30, 2015: Simon Jenkins wrote that Henry Kissinger believes that the West should see Russia “as an ally … against Muslim fundamentalism.” An earlier version of this article mistakenly quoted Kissinger as saying the words “as an ally against Muslim fundamentalism.” Also, the article by Stephen Kinzer that was cited in this article was published a few days ago. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the article was published a few weeks ago.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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