Friday, December 4, 2020

Kremlin has Confused Temporary with Permanent in the International System, Shevtsova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Vladimir Putin and his team have made the classical mistake of believing their own propaganda, accepting what are in fact temporary blips in the development of the international system that benefit Russia as something permanent that Moscow will be able to count on well into the future, Liliya Shevtsova says.

            In fact, what has been happening internationally is both temporary and already moving in directions that will leave Russia at an increasing disadvantage, something all the bravado in the world won’t obscure from those who utter it or many who listen to it, the Russian political commentator argues (

            Initially, it appeared that the pandemic would paralyze the West and give Putin new running room and that the populist wave that brought Donald Trump to power in the United States was something Moscow could count on to keep Russia’s opponents off balance and even make them more willing to accept what the Kremlin does.

            Instead, there have been five major moves in exactly the opposite direction. First, “not in a single leading Western country have national populists taken power,” and Trump’s defeat in the US is a signal that the national populist wave is anything but unstoppable.

            Second, the pandemic has awakened the European Union from its lethargy and made it more willing to act collectively against those who don’t play by the rules like Putin. Third, the incoming Biden administration is clearly going to push for a return to rules of the game. It may not seek expansion, but it will by so doing “strengthen its vitality.”

            Fourth, having been shaken by Trump’s isolationism, Europe has come to recognize that it cannot count on the US alone for its security and must take steps to be a power in its own right. That is what is happening. And fifth, the rise of China has refocused and reenergized the West. Recognizing that it is being challenged and by someone other than Russia, it is taking measures.

            (Shevtsova doesn’t mention in this regard one of the most profound insights ever offered on the nature of the US in particular and the West in general. At the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to Washington, his chief Americanist, Georgy Arbatov observed that Gorbachev was going to do something more serious to the US than any of his predecessors.

            Namely, the Soviet leader was going to take away its enemy; and without an enemy, Arbatov continued, it was not clear whether the US or the West more generally could function.) Now, the US and the West again have an enemy; and it isn’t Russia, something that leaves Moscow in an unprecedentedly difficult position.

            “A new reality is being formed,” Shevtsova says. “In this reality, there is no place for the models of behavior Russia has been accustomed to – balance of forces, spheres of influence, multi-polarity and bi-polarity all are losing their meaning.”

            What this means is this, she argues. “The most favorable period of world politics for Russia is coming to an end.” Other countries view it with suspicion or hostility, but more than that, they don’t see it as the primary challenge any more. That is China, and Russia has no idea how to function in an environment where it has been demoted in this way.

            Of course, Moscow retains the ability to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries so as to destabilize them. But the more it does so, the more it energizes the leaders of Western democracies to come together to oppose it, something Putin and his team had thought was no longer a possibility.

            And that means this: “foreign policy is ceasing to be a resource of power for Russia.” Given that, what role is left for Putin who clearly is uninterested in domestic affairs except to make money and wants to be a power player in the international system?  Not much at least not now.

            “Within the country, the Kremlin has been able to exploit the pandemic to solidify its positions,” but the coronavirus has left Moscow in a far sadder position abroad.  Russia is no longer trusted to be a partner, and it is no longer even the main enemy. It is being pushed to the margins, somewhere Putin had never planned for it to be.


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