Further lessons in Realpolitik: last chance to engage with Russia

We are at an inflection point. Free will is still operative. The main actors still can make a choice where to go next.  However, at any moment, by the action or inaction of any side, the situation may spin out of their control and determinism may set in, putting us on a collision course in a hot crisis with no obvious denouement and large parts of the globe sucked in as proxy players. Read on…




/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:”Обычная таблица”;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;

Further lessons in Realpolitik: last chance to engage with Russia

                     by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Once again events in and around Ukraine are developing with such speed that the projections we commentators make one day from the standpoint of then available information become outdated the next based on what is coming in.  But, embarrassing or not, pursuit of truth requires ‘eating one’s hat’ from time to time.

So it is with my remark in my last posting that we are safely out of the woods and the world can breathe easier now that we have moved on from a hot crisis over Crimea to the daily bilious but inconsequential exchanges of a New Cold War.  No, sadly, the tidings this morning show we are on the cusp of a new spasm of tension, of sanctions and counter-actions that can shake the world economy to its roots.

I say this based on media reports of the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to arrive at any common position on a diplomatic solution to the volatile situation in Ukraine during their 4 hour meeting in Paris yesterday. The summary statements from both sides indicate that the parties are as far apart as ever, notwithstanding their mellow words, smiles and handshakes for press photographers.

Russia is calling for Ukraine to change its constitution to a federal structure with extensive autonomy for the regions, including in the domains of foreign policy and economic models.  In truth, what is being urged is closer to confederalism, a concept that weakly binds together under a common name two nearly independent states. They also demand recognition of Russian as the second state language in Ukraine. And they seek to enshrine neutrality of Ukraine, ensuring there is no future NATO membership for the country.

The Russians see the present regime in Kiev as illegitimate, installed by the U.S. and EU. Hence they seek to negotiate the future of the country with those who have put their candidates in the positions of power, not with the puppets in Kiev.

The U.S. is making a drawback of Russian troops from the border area a precondition for any diplomatic progress and is insisting that the future structure of Ukraine cannot be decided without the agreement of the government in Kiev. Meanwhile that government in Kiev, in the person of its president, has indicated that the Russian conditions are unacceptable.

Given these facts, the prospect of a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian crisis appears to be rather dim.

Western commentators and statesmen have spoken of Russia’s violating the post-Cold War rules of the game by its occupation and annexation of Crimea and now by its claims on Ukraine proper. This intended accusation is a factually correct observation of what President Vladimir Putin has done with full awareness of the import of his actions.  Going back to 2007, he has been denouncing the arrangements which the West built in post-Soviet space, sometimes with advance agreement of Russia, but often without its being consulted or over its objections. As seen from Moscow, the post-Cold War order has progressively compromised Russian security interests to the point where a red line was about to be crossed in Ukraine.

In an essay posted on Foreign Affairs online Friday, inveterate Ukrainian extremist and Russia-baiter, Rutgers University professor Alexander Motyl asked “Is Putin Rational?”  The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’  All of the media reports that Russia is a conundrum, that Putin is a sphinx whose moves cannot be predicted only show the lack of imagination and…lack of general education of the authors.

 The problem is not that we have too few Russian experts, as many professionals in the field, like Angela Stent, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at Georgetown University has maintained.  It is that we have too few truly educated young people coming out of our institutions of higher learning and assuming the government and think tank positions that set out and implement federal policies, including foreign policy.

Our higher education has become so caught up in political correctness that the art of debating has disappeared. Round tables, seminars, call them what you will, are populated by friends of friends and speakers address their audience as assumed fellow thinkers with whom one can speak elliptically, for whom no proofs are required since we all know where we must be headed. No one deigns to listen to Putin or to watch Russian state television.


So what is Putin’s game plan?  I think it is safe to say that while his objectives are clear and have been explicitly stated by Sergei Lavrov, as noted above, the way to achieve them is wide open.  The diplomatic route is now being attempted.  If that continues to yield no progress and if the United States ratchets up its economic pressure on Russia by collusion with Saudi Arabia to sink world oil prices or in other ways without waiting for actual Russian ‘aggression’ in Ukraine, then we may assume that Putin will conclude there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by going for broke and securing Russia’s security interests in and around Ukraine unilaterally.  This might well take the form of the most drastic scenario painted by Pentagon officials:  invading the Russian-speaking regions of the Southeast and the Southwest, joining the Transdnistria to the hinterland of Odessa and depriving Ukraine of access to the sea.

As they used to say on the BBC world radio program teaching English, ‘Mr. Grammar’: there is a rule for everything. Rule number one is you strike when the iron is hot.

For the Russians there is little to be gained by waiting. They have already stated that they will not accept the outcome of the planned 25 May presidential and parliamentary elections because they will be held in an atmosphere of violence with Ukrainian extremists marauding in the Russian speaking regions and attacking all who publicly express a pro-Russian stance.  Moreover, after all of the deceptions practiced on Russia by the U.S. and its allies starting from 1992, Russia does not look to a brilliant cooperation over Ukraine at some time in the future. It wants the issue sorted out now while its leverage is maximal: while Ukraine has no effective government and the country is at the brink of economic collapse.

We are at an inflection point. Free will is still operative. The main actors still can make a choice where to go next.  However, at any moment, by the action or inaction of any side, the situation may spin out of their control and determinism may set in, putting us on a collision course in a hot crisis with no obvious denouement and large parts of the globe sucked in as proxy players. The costs of engaging with Putin and finding a genuine compromise today are vastly less than the alternatives.



©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014




                                                                   * * * * *



G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.