quinta-feira, 19 de fevereiro de 2015
The short telegram about Vladimir Putin’s Russia
War or ceasefire, Russian aggression in Ukraine is overturning at last the west’s complacency. Washington has realised that this is more than a discrete regional conflict. Europeans — many of them, anyway — now understand that Vladimir Putin is challenging the rules-based order that has kept the continent’s peace. What is needed next is a broadly based strategy to counter the Russian president’s ambitions.
This demands an assessment of the Kremlin’s thinking, motives and intentions — the sort of analysis once found in the diplomatic dispatches sent home from embassies overseas. Where do military opportunism in Ukraine, Russian gas supplies, Moscow-directed subversion and corruption, and nuclear sword-waving fit in Mr Putin’s worldview? Whatever happens in the Donbass, the west will be grappling with Russian revanchism for some time yet.
A good point of departure is the Kremlin’s obsession with “encirclement”. There is nothing new — or, given the record of history, surprising — about Russia feeling threatened. This mindset was one of the binding threads of the Soviet Union. At the heart of the neurosis lies an intuitive insecurity reaching back deep into Russian history. Conveniently, the ever-present danger provides a patriotic buttress for the ruling elite. Faced with an “evil, hostile and menacing” world, the security of the nation and regime become interchangeable.
There are nuances. Even as he rails against their efforts to humiliate Russia, Mr Putin regards western societies as decadent, weak and divided. And Russia still has friends in the west. Mr Putin is lauded by far-right populists. He is assured of a welcome in Vienna. Only this week he was in Budapest to meet Viktor Orbán, the acolyte who serves as Hungary’s prime minister. Moscow’s goal is to deepen and exploit conflicts between the western powers.
Russia should not be treated as monolithic. The fears, real or imagined, of the political and military elites do not represent the outlook of all Russians. Many of them are well disposed towards the west and eager to share in its material wealth and culture. As one diplomat has put it, Russians are “by and large friendly to the outside world” and, in their private thoughts, remarkably resistant to xenophobic propaganda.
For their part, those at the top often seem to believe their own rhetoric. In the Kremlin’s world — and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has discovered this at some cost — there is no such thing as objective truth. Reality is whatever Moscow finds comforting and convenient. There is no one ready to challenge the myths and distortions by speaking truth to Mr Putin’s power.
The regime operates on two planes. The first is the public attempt to expand Russian power and influence, whether by seeking to forge an alliance with Beijing or indulging pliant friends such as Mr Orbán. The second comprises the deniable interventions — from sending “little green men” into Crimea, to interrupting gas supplies, to kidnappings and cyber attacks in the Baltics — that are calculated to unnerve adversaries. To quote the aforementioned diplomat, these two sets of actions “dovetail into each other in purpose, timing and effect”. In the process, “everything possible will be done to set major western powers against each other”. The big prize has always been to wrench Germany out of the transatlantic alliance.
The organising message here is that a permanent modus vivendi with the west is impossible. Russia must forever be its own master in a world of competing great powers, each with its own sphere of influence. Yet there are limits on Moscow’s pursuit of its ambitions. It avoids needless risks and is sensitive to the logic of force. If an adversary has sufficient force and makes plain a readiness to deploy it, the Kremlin will step back. Measured against the west, Russia is far and away the weaker power.
By now, readers may have detected something familiar in all this. I have taken these thoughts and quotations, with only minor stylistic adjustment, from the famous “long telegram” sent to the US state department by George Kennan in February 1946. Kennan, the ranking US diplomat in Moscow, produced an analysis of Soviet motives and intentions that would set America’s posture for the rest of the cold war.
We are not witnessing a re-run of that particular confrontation. Mr Putin does not have a global ideology to sell. The Kremlin’s latest aggression throws an opportunist cloak over secular decline, though this makes Mr Putin no less dangerous in the short to medium term.
Kennan, whose approach was popularised as “containment”, was not interested in war. He cautioned against “prestige-engaging showdowns”. He saw containment as above all political and economic. Late in life he opposed the admission to Nato of former communist states. Yet he understood that the future of the west rested on its “cohesion, firmness and vigour”. Moscow’s allies in 1946 were western fatalism and indifference. Plus ça change.
Ms Merkel and US President Barack Obama talk about strategic patience. Sometimes it has seemed the patience is a substitute for the strategy. It is truism to say the west must find a way to coexist with Mr Putin’s Russia. What matters are the terms of coexistence. Kennan produced a blueprint for standing up to the Soviet Union without starting a war. That is what is needed now. It starts with strategic resolve.