Monday, November 30, 2015

West Needs to End Its Illusions about Putin’s Power, Shevtsova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 30 – Many in the West still view Vladimir Putin as a powerful miracle worker who never loses at home or abroad, a perspective increasingly at odds with the facts and one that only partially conceals their own unwillingness to respond forcefully to his hooligan-like actions, according to Liliya Shevtsova.

            In an interview with Apostrophe’s Artem Dekhtyarenko, the first part of which is online today, the Russian political analyst argues that the notion that Putin is so strong is getting in the way of an adequate understanding of what is going on and preventing an adequate response (

            Despite what many in the West think, Putin’s actions in Syria in fact reflect his weakness not his strength. On the one hand, Shevtsova says, “Putin is seeking a new model of the legitimation of his power because that legitimation which he obtained in the course of the war with Ukraine has already exhausted itself.”

            And on the other, she continues, the Kremlin recognizes that its current situation is unsustainable and that it must find a way to break out of its diplomatic isolation and the sanctions regime the West has imposed on it, at a minimum before the next election cycle in 2016-2018.

            The West was not prepared for Putin’s moves either in Ukraine or Syria and has been attempting “in essence to return to the times of the cold war, to find a new form of the cold war in new conditions.”  But that is a highly problematic effort because of how much the world has changed.

            The Russian elites are far more integrated in the West than the Soviet ones were, they have common ground with many on the right in Western countries, and at the same time, the West has lost its sense of mission and unity. As a result, the West is acting without the self-confidence it had and is far too inclined to see Putin as more powerful than he is.

            In Syria, Shevtsova says, Putin has three goals: First, he hopes to “break out of Russia’s international isolation … by distracting the attention of the world and the West from Ukraine and his defeat there.” Second, he wants to use Western “indecisiveness and disorientation to force the West to accept the Kremlin rules of the game.” And third, Putin wants to raise “to a new level the patriotic-militaristic legitimation of his power and thus preserve and reproduce his regime. 

            But in considering Putin’s approach, the Brookings analyst says, the West needs to end “two illusions and stereotypes,” to stop believing that Putin is somehow all powerful, and to cease thinking that Putin is constantly winning and acting from strength rather than seeking to escape from weakness.  The facts are quite otherwise, she points out.

             These illusions, she says, arise from the fact that after Iraq, the West has “returned to political and diplomatic forms of interaction,” something that has given others the power to ‘break glass’” not because they are strong but because they are frightened of the situation they find themselves in. Putin is a classic case, and he has made many costly mistakes.

            Shevtsova points to eight of them, a far from exhaustive list. Putin has acted in ways that have led to the isolation of Russia. He has created a situation in which other major powers do not take him seriously. He has plunged Russia into a serious economic recession. He has ensured that encircling Russia is a ring of states hostile to his country.

            The Kremlin leader has revived Europe “which has begun to return itself to is normal functioning.” He has done the same thing for NATO “which was until now paralyzed.” He has opened the way for the return of American forces to Europe.  And he has gotten involved in the Sunni-Shiia conflict which can be fatal for Russia itself.

            And these defeats keep mounting even though they are not always recognized as such. Yes, French President Francois Hollande went to Moscow after the Paris terrorist attacks, but he did not agree with Putin on how to deal with Asad, a reality that was a defeat for Putin but that may refused to recognize as such.

                Far more important, Shevtsova says, it is now completely clear that the West has not and will not trade off Ukraine for Syria. Even the Western leaders most inclined to talk to Moscow recognize that to do so would undermine both the West as a set of values and the West’s interests and security.

            They recognize that if they took this step, then Putin would cross other red lines where they would have to act. And consequently, they understand that to defend their interests elsewhere, they cannot trade away Ukraine.

            That has enormous consequences for the Syrian crisis, Shevtsova suggests. Putin is not so tied to Asad personally as he is to the idea that he should not give up any position he has taken without getting something in return, but as of today, the Western coalition in Syria is “not capable of offering Russian dividends and ‘payoffs’ for the surrender of Asad.”

            But at the same time, she argues, the Syrian crisis is limited by the fact that “the Kremlin and Putin are not interested in and do not want, are frightened and trying to exclude a serious confrontation of Russia with the West.”

            “Even Ukraine did not testify to the desire of Moscow to confront the West,” Shevtsova continues. “The annexation of Crimea and the direct aggression on Ukrainian territory was based on the near certainty of the Kremlin that the West would swallow this.”  That didn’t happen, and now Putin hopes to use Syria to “escape from [a full-scale] confrontation.”

            Because he has multiple goals, however, Shevtsova concludes, Putin will continue to play “two pianos.” On one, he will signal his desire for cooperation. On the other, he will be threatening – but these threats will reflect his desire to achieve cooperation and reflect not the strength of his position but his weakness.

            Shevtsova does not say, but one could easily add that the tendency of Western leaders to overrate the power of those who engage in bombastic and aggressive actions is an old one. Throughout much of the Cold War, the West overrated Soviet power – until one Western leader, Ronald Reagan, recognized how weak the USSR really was and acted accordingly.

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