MOSCOW BLOG: 'Putin is not Auric Goldfinger.' Is sentiment towards Russia turning?

By bne IntelliNews June 11, 2015

Ben Aris in Moscow -


Is sentiment on the Ukraine-Russia conflict turning amongst Western politicians and journalists? A series of events in the past month suggests so, and in just the last week a string of articles attempted to inject a note of pragmatic realism into the debate, where shrill warmongering was the previously the norm.

The mood music changed dramatically in May when US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Sochi to meet his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, his first trip to Russia since hostilities broke out in Ukraine more than a year ago. The two foreign ministers discussed a range of problems, mostly in the Middle East, whereas Ukraine did not top the agenda, according to reports. That was followed by a similar trip a day later by US top diplomat Victoria Nuland to Moscow, where her condemnation of Russia's actions in Ukraine was noticeably muted.

This milder tone has since been reflected in a series of opinion pieces in various high profile publications. New York University professor and bne IntelliNews columnist Mark Galeotti contributed two of his reliably level-headed takes on Russia in the last week. The first was an opinion piece in the Moscow Times calling for more Russophiles.

"Current dialogue between Russia and the West scarcely deserves the name. Too often, it is simply a contest of postures and a recitation of grievances," Galeotti wrote. "This is doing no one any good. For all kinds of reasons, the West needs more unsentimental Russophiles."

He then followed up with a piece in the June issue of bne magazine, arguing that Russia is not a dictatorship but has its own kind of political pluralism, except it is a very different and imperfect version of what we are used to in the West.

"Russia is not Mordor. Let me explain. We love to understand and explain by analogy. This can be a powerful tool, but it always carries with it the risk of caricature, oversimplification and downright misdirection," Galeotti wrote, concluding, "In other words, while obviously Russia is no representative democracy, and there are no meaningful constitutional constraints on [President Vladimir] Putin’s authority, that does not mean that this is totalitarianism."

Until now, the debate has been ideological and vitriolic, but the aforementioned note of pragmatic realism is certainly creeping into the discussion. Despite vehement condemnation of Russian actions over the past 16 months, most of it justified, Putin has delivered on his earlier promise of prosperity for the Russian people, and, more recently, restored their sense of national pride, albeit at a cost paid in blood by Ukrainians.

The former KGB officer should have stepped down at the end of his second presidential term in 2008 and would have had a good chance of going down in history as the great statesman who transformed Russia. But he stayed on and will now probably be remembered by many abroad as a bloody-minded thug. But the vast majority of the Russian people continue to want him as leader – and it is their, not our, choice – so the West will just have to deal with that fact.

The shift in tone still hasn’t stopped most Western media lambasting Russia. The escalation in fighting on the weekend of June 7 ahead of the G7 meeting in Berlin led to headlines like "Minsk II is dead: where do we go from here?" However, the OSCE reported the fighting had died down after the G7 summit was over and the Western leaders studiously ignored the obvious breach of the ceasefire terms. No one wants to go to war with Russia, as a poll by Pew showed this week.

Several well-respected commentators have begun to offer a more nuanced take on Putin and Russia's ambitions. One of these was from Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, titled "Putin is No James Bond Villain." Bershidsky is no Putin apologist. A former editor of the liberal Russian daily Vedomosti, he recently emigrated from Russia for Berlin for political reasons, denouncing the country’s Crimea snatch in a forthright column as he left, knowing it was probably a one-way swing of the door while Putin is in power.

"Putin is a rogue dictator and respects nobody's rights but his own. That doesn't, however, mean that he is intent on destroying the world with nuclear weapons unless it bends to his will, or on launching a Hitleresque blitzkrieg in Europe," Bershidsky wrote in his regular column for Bloomberg. "Adventures in the style of Auric Goldfinger, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, would be too risky for the real life Putin."

Another theme gathering momentum is that sanctions on Russia don’t work, won't make one iota's difference to its foreign policy, and have effectively killed the nascent opposition movement thanks to rising nationalism, while doing as much damage to Europe's economy as to Russia's.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Suzanne Nossel wrote a concise analysis of the issues in a piece entitled “It’s Time to Kill the Feel-Good Myth of Sanctions” this week following an obviously tense debate between US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G7 summit regarding the sanctions. In the run-up to the meeting, both the German business lobby and press were especially vocal in calling for an end of the measures, whereas the US wants to maintain sanctions until Russia buckles and in effect abandons any interests in Ukraine.

"In the case of Russia, the United States and its European allies need to recognize that — at least as long as Putin is in power — Russian behavior won’t be shaped by carrots and sticks," Nossel wrote. "Part of the shift will be rhetorical. Rather than promising to isolate Russia entirely, something the United States and its allies cannot achieve without the support of China, Brazil, India, and others, the administration could pledge to keep its distance."

bne IntelliNews has also argued that sanctions as a policy tool to change Russian policy have no effect, but as a negotiating chip they are obviously useful as the sanctions do cost Russia a lot of money and cause great inconvenience.

Why now?

Why are commentators drifting towards a more conciliatory tone now? Several factors are at play, but briefly they include the obvious rallying round Russia by the other BRICS nations. The attempt to isolate Russia has simply catalysed the intertwining of political and economic relations between the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that was symbolised by this year’s guest list at Russia's WWII Victory Day celebrations on May 9. Heads of countries that account for more than half the world's population were on the podium with Putin, while Western leaders unanimously chose to stay away - except Merkel, who showed up in Moscow the next day, a conciliatory gesture in itself.

Another key factor is that Russia's economy, while wounded by the double whammy of sanctions and a collapse of the oil price in December, has proven to be a lot more resilient than anyone was expecting, underscoring the limited effectiveness of the sanctions regime. Some doomsayers were predicting a 10% economic contraction this year, whereas the damaged caused is looking milder and milder as each month passes.

The flip side of this coin is the worse-than-expected collapse of Ukraine's economy and the increasingly large amounts of money the country needs simply to function. Going into the Euromaidan protests at the start of 2014, economists estimated Ukraine needed about $15bn-$25bn to sort itself out. Post-civil war that bill is now $45bn, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but probably closer to the $75bn estimated in a recent comment by bne Intellinews columnist Mark Adomanis – money no one wants to or can afford to lend to Ukraine.

Professor Anders Aslund was just in Kyiv for a week and did the rounds with almost everyone in government. A former advisor to the Yulia Tymoshenko administration, Aslund knows Ukraine from the inside. "My overall assessment is rather pessimistic. I had an eerie feeling of Moscow, May 1992. The whole thing is about to fall apart politically. The problems are just overwhelming. [Ukraine’s President Petro] Poroshenko and [Prime Minister Arseny] Yatsenyuk are good but not fully focused on reforms, too preoccupied with vested interests. The whole law enforcement apparatus is awful. The economic reforms are impressive but not enough. The IMF program is severely underfunded," Aslund wrote in an email to his personal distribution list.

Finally, there is the obvious reluctance on the part of Western Europeans to start a war with Russia to rescue Ukraine, which isn’t a member of the EU or Nato, nor ever likely to be. A recent poll by Pew found that less than half of Europeans would be willing to use force against Russia if it attacked a Nato member, and only 29% of Germans blame Russia for the violence in Ukraine. The lack of domestic political support for a military campaign against Russia means Western leaders would not be able to start a war even if they wanted to. In the world of diplomacy, you cannot make threats if you are not prepared to carry them out.

Where do we go from here? It's impossible to say as there are too many fluid factors in play. According to speculative reports coming out of Ukraine, the Kremlin didn’t sanction the pro-Russian rebel attack at the weekend and refused to supply the rebels with support. Clearly Putin doesn't have full control over the rebels as is widely claimed in the West. At the same time, Poroshenko's government is under growing pressure, with some three-quarters of the people "dissatisfied" with his performance. It is also not clear if Kyiv will sanction elections in the autumn that were agreed in Minsk. In short, despite the improvement in sentiment, Ukraine remains an enormous mess. Too much blood has been spilt and what trust there was between East and West has been too badly damaged for there to be any quick and clean resolution to the conflict. 

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