Staunton, December 22 – The upcoming elections in Russia offer little intrigue, but the situation in the Kremlin does, Liliya Shevtsova says. There the question is how to get a new deal from the West without completely losing face with a serious debate going on between those who are prepared to make concessions and those who call for putting Russia on a war footing.
In a new essay, the Russian political expert says, relations with the West have become “an existential question” for the Russian elite. Its members need a restoration of the kind of relations they had before the Crimean Anschluss and thus Russia “if it is to remain a Power must return to dialogue with the Western partners” (voboda.org/a/28911965.html).
But the Kremlin must do so without completely losing face which would cost it its authority among many Russians, and so the Moscow leadership, having “for the first time become a factor in the domestic politics of Western countries, chiefly the United States,” is seeking to affect the outcome of a debate within the West.
“The West doesn’t want a cold or even more ‘a hot war’ with Russia,” Shevtsova continues. But it hasn’t decided how to contain Moscow and at the same time enter into dialogue with it. Some favor a hard line in response to what Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine and inside Western countries.
Others support what they call “a pragmatic and realistic foreign policy,” one that would essentially start over with Russia, ignoring what it has done and seeking to move forward from where the world is now. Obviously, Moscow would prefer the latter especially if it doesn’t have to make any concessions or retreats from what it has done.
Many in Moscow are convinced that “the Syrian ‘victory’ is for the Kremlin a prelude for return to dialogue with the West,” she says, because “any deal involves an exchange of concessions.” Moscow wants the West to lift sanctions and return to the exchange of resources and an end to any threat of more Kerimov-style threats to the Russian elite.
But “for the West, these conditions are already unacceptable.” The West too has to save face and for that it requires Russia to leave Ukraine. Everything else can be discussed but not that. However, in Moscow that is the biggest problem because “the Kremlin can leave Ukraine only as a victor!”
Syria thus represents for Moscow a way out, one that can reopen a dialogue with the West and allow “the Ukrainian knot” to begin to be untied. According to Shevtsova, however, “the Russian powers are not certain” how they can now proceed with some arguing, in mirror-image fashion to the West, that Moscow must get even tougher and others the reverse.
If the Kremlin follows the advice of the first group, the situation for Russia will become even worse; but many there feel that they cannot accept the advice of the second lest they lose face and thus authority at home and abroad. And those who argue that the West must be forced to “give the Kremlin the chance to feel victory” are ready for an even more forceful approach.
To the extent that things more in this direction, Shevtsova argues, “Russia will again be converted into a besieged camp – even in spite of the desire of the elite which would prefer to locate itself into the other hostile camp. And we shouldn’t forget how the previous conflict off this kind ended – with the collapse of the USSR.”
If however the West makes all the concessions Moscow wants, then this will mean that “the world will return to ‘the big deal’ of the last 20 years: the West will offer Russia resources and Russia will offer the West gas and consumption. This will be a scenario not of collapse but of slow rotting: true, together with the West.”
That may be a better option for some who do not think about saving their own societies or about the future; it isn’t for those who are concerned about both.