Dealing with Putin

For all of Donald Trump’s across-the-board awfulness, there were a few things in his administration’s record that do him credit. A prime one is the fact that American foreign policy was generally pacific; there were no new wars, some existing conflicts were de-escalated and there was some reaching out to old enemies, with North Korea the leading example.

I think this peacemaking mostly came from a bad place: Trump had a natural affinity for dictators and a natural dislike of the ostensible (although often not the real) aims of previous American policy to promote trade, democracy and human rights. Even so, while his policies carried a cost, there were real benefits. Many worried that with the Democrats back in power the Washington foreign policy establishment, with its greater bellicosity, would have more sway.

The key test is Russia. Of the many tyrants that Trump befriended, none seemed to captivate him so much as Vladimir Putin. It’s not clear that Putin reaped much in the way of tangible benefits from the relationship, but it certainly added to his prestige and gave him reason to worry less about US interference with his plans. And while those plans were mostly harmful for his region and the world, it doesn’t follow that confrontation would have been any use. Trying to reduce Russian paranoia was probably not a bad thing.

As I remarked when Trump took office, referring to Tom Switzer’s “realist” view of the situation:

Russian priorities are mainly defensive, and there is considerable potential for finding common ground if the West is willing to make the effort. Trump’s motives for moving that way are discreditable, but as Switzer says, “that does not necessarily undermine the soundness of an argument”.

The problem is that despite Trump’s efforts Putin appears to be as paranoid as ever, whether due to his own personal demons or to the fact that Russia’s geopolitical position continues to deteriorate regardless of what Washington does. Hence such moves as his military buildup on the Ukrainian border and his continued crackdown on domestic opposition, represented above all by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Moves like this call for an American response, but it’s not an easy thing to calibrate. A president who would (as Trump might have) just roll over and say everything’s fine, and agree with Putin that Navalny and the Ukrainians are just troublemakers, would not be helping to make the world a safer place. But the dangers of going too far the other way are equally serious: Putin is not in fact the most dangerous autocrat around, and a policy that drives him further into the arms of Xi Jinping, who poses a greater threat to world peace, should be avoided if possible.

So far, it seems to me that Joe Biden is getting the balance about right. Last week he was accused of having “blinked first” when he acted to defuse the Ukraine crisis by speaking directly to Putin and suggesting a summit meeting in the coming months. But it’s precisely the politicians who are dominated by the fear of appearing weak who go on to make stupid decisions.

Détente in Ukraine is a win-win proposition. While the Ukrainian government would like to get the Donbas back, it knows it doesn’t have the military strength for armed reconquest; its main concern is to keep the region quiet. Putin would probably like to keep the Donbas for Russia, with which it is gradually being integrated, but he would happily give it back if it would help him bring Ukraine into his sphere of influence. What he doesn’t want is another war.

So it’s entirely plausible that Russia’s manoeuvres were designed mostly for deterrence, in which case Biden’s move to de-escalate is the right one. And since Biden had started his term by referring to Putin (quite accurately) as “a killer”, and last week went ahead with expelling a set of Russian diplomats over election interference, it seems likely that it comes from a genuine desire for peace rather than from falling under Putin’s spell.

But then along comes another crisis, with heightened concern this week in Europe and America that Navalny’s life is in danger. He has apparently been on hunger strike since the end of March in protest against being denied access to his preferred medical team – or, as the Russian ambassador to Britain put it, he “behaves like a hooligan absolutely in trying to violate every rule that has been established.”

It’s characteristic of their different approaches that the Europeans seem more concerned about Navalny, while the Americans are more concerned about Putin’s foreign policy. For the moment, however, they are more or less on the same page; partly, no doubt, because the Europeans are so pleased to be rid of Trump that they are willing to cut Washington a fair bit of slack.

Navalny has now been moved to a prison hospital, alleviating some of the concerns. While he is certainly a thorn in his side, it would probably not be in Putin’s interests for him to die in prison – at least not at a time when when he has so much other trouble to deal with.

I have great respect for Putin as a tactician, but I don’t think he is the far-seeing mastermind that some analysts seem to believe. His moves over the last decade seem more like a series of short-term expedients than the unfolding of a grand plan. His ambitions are consistent, to restore Russian greatness and to consolidate his own power, but the means for achieving them vary according to whatever happens to be at hand to deal with the crisis of the moment.

In other words, he is the sort of leader with whom it should be possible to bargain. A deal with Putin is never going to produce everything the west would like, but it may be an improvement on open-ended confrontation. What I said in 2017 remains true:

It’s one thing to say, as I and other idealists would, that the best security for international peace and co-operation would be a genuinely free and democratic Russia. The problem is that there is no obvious way for Western policy to achieve that goal; in an imperfect world, we sometimes need to work towards second-best solutions.

We’ll see if Biden is up for the challenge.

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