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Vladimir Putin's Backwards Diplomacy

Vladimir Putin's Backwards Diplomacy
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The celebrations of the 8th of May in France were discreet. To put it mildly, there were few people on the Champs-Elysées. Or, to put it in Tristan Bernard's words, as written on the back of the tickets for one of his hardly successful plays: "Come armed, the place is deserted". All the while, on May 9 in Moscow, Putin's Russia celebrated with great pomp and ceremony the 74th anniversary of its victory over Nazism. The celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 is more complex in France than in Russia. Is this our victory or, above all, that of our allies?

Excessive glorification

On the Russian side, however, the victory over Nazi Germany is the great moment of Russia's "historical redemption" in the 20th century. It cannot be celebrated with enough pomp and circumstance. But this excessive glorification of the past can be an obstacle to understanding current and future issues.

There is indeed an excessive contrast between Russia's perception of its own role in the world and its actual geopolitical cards.

It does not allow for an accurate evaluation of the real forces available to a country at a given time. There is indeed an excessive contrast between Russia's perception of its own role in the world and its actual geopolitical cards. No matter if Vladimir Putin's undeniable qualities as a tactician can create an illusion and give the Russians the flattering, but dangerous, impression that they are "more" than they really are. There are objective limits to autosuggestion and self-promotion.

In fact, Russia is everywhere. It is not, as Barack Obama needlessly and humiliatingly asserted, a mere regional power. It makes its "different" voice heard, from Venezuela where it supports Nicolás Maduro’s regime, to Syria where it successfully defended the regime of Bashar Al Assad, not to mention Iran, where it denounces the excessive pressure of the United States against the Mullahs.

A worrying interventionism

Yet, it is in Europe that Russian "interventionism" is most worrying, if not most visible. What does Moscow want? Recovering its international status through the fear that Russia inspires? "You fear me, so I exist again. " Is its ambition as ideological as it is strategic? In an otherwise ironic, but mostly disturbing turnaround, is it following China's footsteps and intending to demonstrate, along with Beijing, the superiority of centralized authoritarian models over the Western democratic illusions?

If this is the case, Russia not only favours the nature of its regime, but also chooses its geography, thus confirming the thesis of the German-born historian Karl Wittfogel (1896-1988), who spoke of "Eastern despotism" to describe the nature of Russian power.

Nevertheless, in a geopolitical world characterised by the rise of China and the partial withdrawal of America, Europe and Russia should naturally move closer together. For Russia, the threat comes from the East.Its major ambition should not be to destabilize Western democracies but to balance Chinese power. The concept of "alliance of authoritarian regimes" does not stand up to scrutiny any more than that of "alliances of democracies" launched by the United States at the beginning of the 21st century and that has shown its limits in the Middle East. To compete against China, Russia needs Europe and the United States. It directly faces one of the longest international borders in the world with China. By seeking to weaken and divide Europe - by encouraging the rise of populism - Russia is mistaken. It is playing Beijing’s game, not its own. It makes no sense to divide and conquer if the main beneficiary of that strategy represents the greatest threat in the long run.

To have its cake and eat it too

A rapprochement between Europe and Russia is therefore legitimate, even necessary, as long as it takes place according to a clear mode of action and is guided by simple principles. It is not a question of Europe betraying its values.

A reversal of alliances such as those that could occur in the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime simply makes no sense. One cannot trade America for Russia, as France could do with Prussia for Austria in 1756. Russia must understand that it cannot "have it both ways". The European Union is not going to shake hands with a duplicitous partner.

A rapprochement between Europe and Russia is therefore legitimate, even necessary.

Attempts to open up to Moscow have already been made several times since the end of the Cold War. Did France not suggest, in the mid-2000s, the project of a double protection offered in Kiev, that of the West on the one hand, and that of Russia on the other, which amounted to a de facto "neutralization" of Ukraine? On many topics, including on Eastern Europe and the Middle East, dialogue with Moscow can and must resume. Yet, this implies a code of good conduct between "Europeans", including Russians. Will Putin understand where his long-term interests lie? The ball is in his court.

With the permission of Les Echos (published le 13/05/19)


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