Staunton, April 23 – Neither Putin nor Trump wants a war, but both are engaging in actions and bluffs that put them on a course toward conflict even though their countries are not fundamentally at odds and the outlines of a deal between them are clear because neither leader knows how to reach an accord and save face, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
In many ways, the London-based Russian historian says, this is a more dangerous situation than any in the cold war because “both the victor and the vanquished in [that conflict] are facing a challenge which they cannot respond to in an accustomed manner” and thus may enaging in bluffing that will lead to a slide to a war they don’t want (republic.ru/posts/90569).
“Between Russia and the West in general and Russia and the US in particular, there do not exist objective antagonistic contradictions,” Pastukhov says. There are conflicts, “but there are in practically none that are not resolvable and that might require a war. More than that, Russia and the US in fact have many points where their interests intersect.”
“Russia for a long time already has not been a competitor of the West” in the critical high technology area. Instead, it has cast itself as a raw materials supplier to the West, something that in principle at least should make the two complementary rather than competition, the Russian historian argues.
The West has no need to “’seize Siberia;’” for it, access to the natural wealth there is sufficient. And Russia only needs reliable and regular customers for those resources. All that should preclude any military conflict; but despite that compelling logic, both Putin and Trump are increasingly staking out militarist positions.
To explain why each has chosen “the tactic of balancing on the edge of war,” Pastukhov says, one must examine some deeper underlying trends in world politics, trends that mean the world today is more like the world of the beginning of the 20th century than at its middle, when the fundamental conflicts were over whether one leader respected another.
Overe the last quarter century, the historian continues, the world has experienced what one might call “’geopolitical contraction,’ the twigger for which was the collapse of the Soviet empire. And as a result, an enormous black whole formed in the system of international relations.”
Russia in a remarkably brief time “lost the status of a superpower” in objective terms. “But psychologically, neither the leadership of Rusisa nor even more its population was prepared to adequately accept the new realities and re-thinkits role in world culture, economics and politics.”
At the same time, Pastukhov continues, the US leadership acted as if Russia had accepted its new status, as “an ordinary state of the third world” that would have no choice but to follow Washington’s lead. “But Russia both in good times and bad,” Pastukhov suggests, “destroys any stereotypes.”
There are “two serious problems” connected with Russia and its destabilizing actions in Europe and the world as a whole: On the one hand, there is “a lack of correspondence between the current level of the development of Russia … and the level of its historicallyevolved political ambitions and claims.”
And on the other, there is “the domination of the military potential of Russia, left to it as a heritage from the USSR over the general level of its economic and technological possibilities. All this provokes Russia to an adventurist policy,” one in which it hopes to use “hard” power to compensate for its loss of “soft” power.
It is striking, Pastukhov argues, that “the US turned out to be in a similar position although at another stage of the political food chain.” It has far greater resources than Russia does but at the same time it has far greater aspirations. If Russia wants to dominate the former Soviet space, the US wants to dominate the world.
Thus, these two gaps between capacity and aspiration first in Russia and then in the US have “created similar problems,” and it is this that is leading the world into the situation it finds itself today.
“The disintegration of the USSR played a bad joke on America,” Pastukhov says. During the cold war, its “natural borders were marked out by the possibilities of its opponent.” But when its opponent disappeared, the zone of Russia’s responsibilities contracted while that of the US “increased many times over.”
And even the United States, the historian says, “does not have the financial and economic resources to fill all the holes on the planet … America in reality is every more loaded down in its isolation. It has not sincere friends and many hidden enemies. It does not have the forces needed to solve all problems at once,” and trying to solve them in turn doesn’t work.
“In this situation,” he continues, “Trump’s America, just like Putin’s Russia, is trying to close the gap that has been formed by an over use of military power and thus actively shifting from the language of diplomacy to the language of guns.” And they are doing so to try to find a new balance of forces in what has become “a post-Potsdam” world.
Pastukhov says that “the two former super-powers and both are in fact former want to find some new balance point which on the one hand corresponds to the new realities but on the other does not destroy their old illusions.” Moscow “unrealistically” wants one approximately like that of 50 years ago; Washington, one, also unrealistically, as it will be 50 years from now.”
This problem has emerged since the Balkans crisis, but it grew to its current dimensions when Russia – “and it was Russia and not the US,” Pastukhov says – “pursued a harsh sharpening” of the situaiton and thereby continued to “redouble the geopolitical stakes” involved.
“Having fallen under the toxic influence of the post-Crimean hypnosis, Russian elites simply still did not recognize completely in what a deep historical trap they now find themselves in.” And so they took ever more risks and acted in ever more challenging ways, forcing a response by the other side.
According to Pastukhov, “there are theoretically two ways out of this situation: a beautiful war and an awful peace.” Objectively, Russia would lose the war except that its possession of nuclear weapons means that it could take those who are stronger down along with it.
The Kremlin would like to use this situaiton to get the West to agree to a big deal, something many in the West are reluctant to agree to given what Moscow has been doing. But “the priority in any case must be to prevent war, and the struggle for democracy in Russia is all the same a task which the Russian elites must resolve on their own, albeit with the moral support of Western society.”
“One can assert with a high degree of certainty that everything will end well, that the instinct for self-preservation will work, and that Trump and Putin” will make a deal. “The parameters of this ‘big deal’ have been set by the entire course of previous events, Pastukhov says.
“Ukraine will suffer most of all,” likely being forced to tolerate a situation in which Crimea wil remain under Russian control for a long time to come. “But in exchange Russia will have to “give up” the Donbass and agee to a division of Syria with the ensuring sacrifice of Asad. This will be called a suitable occasion for beginning the gradual elimination of sanctions.”
“But if the parameters of a deal are obvioius,” Pastukhov says, “the very possibility of its conclusioin seems improbable since neither of the sides understands how to solve the problem of keeping face” as each would have to give up something that it has said it will never do, creating both domestic and foreign policy problems for those who do so.
What those who oppose such a deal need to remember is this, Pastukhov says. “The Kremlin cannot win this game in any case” over the long haul. It is simply trying to play for time. “And however strange this may sound,” the London-based Russian historian says, “I wish it success because I very much want to live …”