Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Putin question

To what extent should Western leaders cooperate with Russian President Vladimir Putin

The Russia of President Vladimir Putin is a huge challenge for Western capitals, especially the US and Germany. It has exploited former US president Barack Obama’s self-restraint in order to expand and score points in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Now it seems to be eyeing Libya.

Putin scorned Obama. He thought the former US president let others interfere on his own playing field, lacked guts, and had the wrong ideas about international affairs. He tried to maximise his advantages during the two Obama terms in office. He might have overreached himself, landing both himself and Russia in a quagmire, however. This was Obama’s view, and it is a plausible one, though it might also be wrong.
To the dismay of many Western specialists, new US President Donald Trump seems to be giving Putin the benefit of doubt, to say the least. He does not see why Washington has considered him to be a foe, and he thinks that both countries might benefit from greater cooperation, for instance against terrorism.

But the pundits suspect Trump, and Putin’s admirers, of being fond of Putin for the wrong reasons: That he is a strong man and a reliable one, scorns international rules, liberal norms and Washington’s whims, is keen on supporting his country’s interests, and has guts and the right instincts. He is a man with a lot of experience, his supporters say, a leading figure on the international scene, and the man who has made Russia “great again”. For traditionalist Catholics and Orthodox Christians, he is also a man who has not been indifferent to the Arab Christians’ plight in the Middle East (this is especially important in France, for instance). 

While not groundless, this analysis is partial at best. Heated debates on threats also need to be taken into account. Which country is the most dangerous for the US or for Europe’s future? The hierarchy of threats depends on interests, ideology and intention and capability. If capability is the main criterion, nuclear-armed Russia comes top of the list.

The main threat could be Russia, or China, or Iran, or North Korea, or the Islamic State (IS) group, or Al-Qaeda. If it is decided that China and/or jihadism are the main threats, then collaborating with Russia makes sense. It is a more or less “European” country, is directly threatened by Islamist extremism, is a relatively weak country that is declining, and it has a relatively powerful military that could be useful.

I don’t know what Trump thinks, but many Western European leaders buy into this line of thinking. Many would add that the West (most notably the US under former president Bill Clinton) did not pay enough attention to Russian concerns, did not keep its word and expanded NATO beyond acceptable boundaries for Russia, did not really accept Russia in the European concert of nations, and acted to humiliate it. Now the West is reaping what it sowed.

It had been thought that the Russian bear had died, but this was wrong. Now it is owed respect and consideration, and, for many, friendship.

Not all of those opposing Washington’s policies are bad; they more often have legitimate interests. In any case, punishing Russia with sanctions does not work; it only radicalises Moscow and strengthens Putin’s popularity.

However, the majority of Western analysts and statesmen do not buy this narrative. For former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, for example, Russia, a country that does not have easy access to the sea, has a perpetual lust to expand. Unchecked, it moves forward.

Contained, it stops, while at the same time feeling it has been a victim and nursing a lot of grievances. In other words, for such analysts Russia is by nature a dangerous country, with geopolitics dictating its aggressive attitudes.

I will spare you the other discourses that say that nothing good can come out of Russia, not only for geopolitical reasons, but also for cultural ones. The most elaborate version of this line has been produced by the French historian Alain Besançon in his book Sainte Russie (Holy Russia). Suffice it to say that Besançon and others do not believe that Russia is a European country. It is either an Asiatic one wearing Western make-up, or it is simply a strange beast. It is only good at propaganda, spying and secrecy.

For those who are hostile to Russia, or today’s Russia, Putin is not a strongman but a thug with a paranoid worldview and one ready to use brutal tactics. Since he is an autocrat who is not afraid to use force, he is unpredictable. The only thing that looks pretty certain is that he will relentlessly exploit any weakness. Obama was weak, and Trump is wrong if he thinks he can accommodate or placate the Russian leader. He should not cooperate with him unless it is absolutely necessary.

Such people do not accept the accusation of Western misbehaviour in the 1990s: The Eastern European countries were terribly afraid of Russia, which kept on making the wrong noises. These countries wanted NATO protection, and Russia’s later behaviour proved their fears were not groundless. Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria all felt the Russian heat.

Moreover, say these analysts, while China’s future can only be guessed at – it could be great or bleak, depending on whether or not the country’s divisions flare up – saying that Russia is on irreversible path of decline is a safe bet. This was obvious even before its recent adventures, and the intervention in Syria will not improve things. The main problem is that a wounded giant can do a lot of harm before it dies. Containing it, yes; cooperating on some issues, maybe; investing in its future, definitely not.

This debate is not a new one. Ever since the reign of the Russian tsar Peter the Great, Russophilia and Russophobia have been competing in Western capitals. Russia has been a perpetual source of fascination for many. But this presentation omits the deep Western concerns at Russia’s recent behaviour, most notably the asymmetrical attacks against Western computer networks, the multiplication of hacking operations, and the heavy-handed attempts at manipulating elections in the Western world. I understand that most countries are now actively preparing themselves for cyberwar.

To sum up, the main objection against Western cooperation with Russia is that Putin, unbounded by the rule of law, will sooner or later come up with a nasty surprise. It is better to be cautious. The main argument for cooperation is the sheer complexity of the new challenges the world faces and the economic advantages of Russian gas.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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