If there is a recognition that neither Russia or the West can prevail in the current face-off, then the easing of tensions and a comprehensible conflict management framework is possible.
This article originally appeared at Valdai Club
President Putin’s Direct Line last week did not include any new foreign policy concepts, but it did reveal the mood of the government. The Russian leader repeated his customary arguments, albeit without the passion and intensity that have marked his public statements in recent years. His words did not suggest a desire to escalate tensions or squeeze his opponents. Rather they seemed to suggest a certain fatalism – but a calm fatalism, not desperate. Yes, the situation with sanctions and relations with the West will persist for a long time, but we should look for ways to benefit from it.
An interesting moment occurred when Putin talked about the attempts to equate Stalinism with Nazism. He first offered the standard explanation of why Stalinism cannot be put on the same plane as Nazism, without denying the “monstrosity of Stalin’s regime.” But then he said: “In truth, we or rather our predecessors gave cause for this. Why? Because after World War II, we tried to impose our own development model on many Eastern European countries, and we did so by force. This has to be admitted. There is nothing good about this and we are feeling the consequences now. Incidentally, this is more or less what the Americans are doing today, as they try to impose their model on practically the entire world, and they will fail as well.”
This was an unexpected departure from Russia’s intensive campaign against distortions of the past (which sometimes seems to target any criticism of Soviet actions). The president even compared what the Soviets did to what the Americans are doing now, which he considers completely unacceptable. This is a signal to those who seek to construct Russian society exclusively from the details of the recent past.
The gist of the president’s Direct Line (and its continuation in an interview with VGTRK, the State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company) was turning the page on an emotional and eventful period. The intensity of last year had to subside eventually – neither society, nor the establishment cannot be put through a constant stress test. But there is no going back to the former relationship with the West. It doesn’t matter if the sanctions are lifted or not. The previous foundation for cooperation has been lost because it was rooted in the balance of power of the 1990s.
The status quo that has taken shape following the end, or at least the suspension, of an active war in Ukraine suits Moscow better than any other option. You could even say a “frozen conflict” has begun in relations with the United States and Europe. This doesn’t please anyone, but a frozen conflict is better than a hot one for all sides.
There is a reason President Putin devoted so much time to discussing Russia’s macro-economic indicators. Russia’s leaders seem to be pleasantly surprised that the economic situation is under control and even improving in some places. The forecasts made at the end of last year were too gloomy. The economy has survived the blow and, judging by everything, the current situation may be durable and long-term. Naturally, the Kremlin is not interested in ratcheting up external pressure, though it is unlikely to work hard to reduce the pressure either. This approach is also fatalistic – whatever will be, will be, but the worst is over.
To borrow a term from the past, easing tensions means transitioning to the model of “peaceful coexistence.” It’s not rapprochement but recognition of the fact that neither side can prevail, so it is best to cooperate wherever possible and minimize risks. Reducing tensions in a conflict does not mean stopping the conflict, but rather putting it into some comprehensible framework. This is particularly important given the growing number of incidents in the air and at sea (aircraft with inactive transponders, dangerous approaches, etc.), which shows that the safety practices of the Cold War era have been largely lost and must be rebuilt as soon as possible.
The history of the second half of the 20th century shows that a global “frozen conflict” inevitably has cold and warm spells. “Peaceful coexistence” is bound to be followed by heightened tensions when one or both sides feel strong enough to try and “grab” more. However, during the Cold War, the balance of power guaranteed that neither side could score a complete victory. That balance no longer exists, but there is a big world out there that is busy with its own problems and uninvolved in the Russia-West confrontation. This fact is having some influence on both sides in the war because their interests in this big world may coincide or diverge. This was not the case during the Cold War when global politics was entirely shaped by the USSR-US confrontation.
During the Direct Line, Putin categorically rejected the idea that Russia’s policy in Ukraine has failed – we are not to blame because we did what we were supposed to do. The mood in the West is exactly the same – Russia is to blame for everything, all we wanted was to improve things. Apparently, a new kind of politics will have to wait until the global situation changes so much that it will be pointless to recall the terms and tricks of the Cold War. China, the Islamic State and new technology – each in its own way – are rapidly bringing this time nearer.
Fyodor Lukyanov is editor in chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, Chairman of Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
This article was originally published in Russian on www.rg.ru