Why negotiate with Putin?

Ricardo Israel.

He is not an example of democracy, enough to observe the treatment of dissidents. In The Economist´s 2021 Democracy Index Russia appears in the category of “authoritarian” regime, at number 124 among 167 countries, bad or very bad under Scandinavian standards, but it is also true that, despite everything, today there are more freedoms than in many other periods of its millenary history, in addition to that, despite its authoritarianism, its variant of nationalism has popular support.

The key question is how to understand him, since Putin has been successful in his bets, perhaps because many times his adversaries have been wrong to interpret his motivations. In that sense, although he described the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe, he is a convinced anti-communist, and there is no evidence that he wants to recreate the deceased superpower.

If one looks at his internal alliance and his style of command, it is inevitable to conclude that he is closer to the tsars than to Brezhnev. And the best example is not only the ceremonial pomp in the Kremlin, but the close relationship it has established with the Orthodox Church, including the transfer of property from the Catholic Church, an unresolved issue that has so far prevented a papal visit to Moscow.

Putin’s is a conservative revolution, not only in the Christian identity imprinted on the country, the defense of traditional values, his opposition to gender ideology and above all, his combative departure from the so-called New World Order and a world Agenda over national sovereigns. Although it has followers on both the right and the left in other countries, it has not attempted to transform it into a support coalition.

What then explains its maneuvers and its concentration of troops in more than one hundred thirty thousand and in three points bordering Ukraine? The argument has been repeated many times by Putin. Put by him, what he is looking for is a negotiation, one that he feels has been pending for many years (and there the “geopolitical catastrophe” acquires meaning), since the fall of the former USSR, since he argues that it was so fast that it was not possible to negotiate a new security status for Russia, as a successor. He almost always adds that, although it has spread to the east, historically Russia has been invaded from the west, and not only by Napoleon and Hitler.

Putin usually points out that the commitment that NATO would not try to incorporate former communist was breached. Gorbachev has expressed similar views, adding that ideas were discussed that today would seem science fiction, such as integration into Europe or NATO itself, despite Putin’s insistence that this military alliance should have disappeared along with the Warsaw Pact.

There is no doubt that Putin has arguments difficult to accept from the point of view of the sovereignty of other countries. For instance, the current situation in Ukraine acquired a new dimension when Kiev received an invitation that has not yet materialized, that of joining that military alliance in 2014, and since then, with the support of the Kremlin, there is a virtual civil war in the Ukrainian region of Donbas, in the east of the country, where there has historically been a strong Russian presence. It was this invitation that received much criticism from George F. Kennan, consular figure of American diplomacy, who was the person who defined in 1946 the policy of “containment” towards the Soviet Union, a red line never crossed, and until the end of the cold war the borders delimited in the territorial division of the world by the Yalta Conference were accepted as such by both sides. Kennan argued that a type of leadership like Putin’s does not respond to economic sanctions, but to geopolitical stimulus.

According to Russian sources of the meeting with Macron, the only negotiation that interests Putin is with the US, where he has exchanged harsh statements with Biden, for reasons of internal politics, since both are facing moments of decline in the public support they receive.

As in any negotiation, we must not pay attention to everything that the interlocutor wants, and we must analyze their requests as the starting point, but not necessarily the point of arrival. Moreover, because of its economic precariousness, Russia is simply not able to endure a long conflict on that border, just as NATO is not a convincing military partner, since as has been demonstrated in the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan its members have different positions, and hardly soldiers will be sent to fight on the borders of Ukraine. On the other hand, Europe’s dependence on Russian gas leads to differences with the US.

Even a single bullet would be enough to start a conflict, but if diplomacy prevails, the question remains why it would be in the interest of the United States to accept a negotiation and what it should ask for in return.

Let us remember that negotiations took place with the former Soviet Union reaching agreements as complex as the missile crisis or the policy of détente. They were also able to find solutions to such special situations of neutrality, such as those of Finland and Austria.

Unlike the cold war, today ´s reality is not black and white, but with nuances, and in the current situation, in addition to the commitment to Ukraine, I think there are three elements where there could be national interest on the part of Washington. The first and most important is China. Today Russia is only a reduced power to what it was under the tsars, namely Europe and Asia, but not the whole world. The great conflict that will mark the current twenty-first century, is one between China and the United States, and it is in the interest of the United States and the West, that Russia and China do not continue to approach, where we must not forget that Moscow is still the most important military alternative, so the policy of the United States, it should be as much neutrality as possible, which was otherwise what Kissinger and Nixon sought in reverse in their historic rapprochement with China in the twentieth century, that is, that Pekin should not have any close alliance with the Soviet Union.

The second reason is that probably in Moscow it could find an ally for another conflict, that of the US with militant jihadism, since outside the United Kingdom it is not easy to find another country that is willing to fight it with soldiers, as Russia has shown in Chechnya and Syria.

The third element is the arms issue, where for the new realities posed by China with its global deployment and in the China Sea, the arms agreements that came with the then USSR were designed for the reality of Europe and are today a problem that limits US military credibility in areas such as short- and medium-range missiles (important in the new Asian war theater), hypersonic weapons, space weapons, others. Without going any further, contrary to what is assumed, there was not much progress under Trump in this regard, because of his refusal to make the concessions that Russia expected, including economic ones.

Easy is not going to be. Since the 2016 presidential election, Russia became an issue of internal politics, and has been part of the polarization of the country, which has harmed the leadership of the United States, and its foreign policy is lacking an essential unity of objectives, in a confrontation where Beijing seems to have absolute clarity.

As there are such different views and interests, a question remains whether the US can or should negotiate with Putin and a useful example can be found in the Middle East. The evidence is in Syria, where despite being on opposite sides, Russia and Israel were able to reach agreements of mutual convenience, which is somewhat reminiscent of what happened in the Cold War, where they clashed many times through others, but even though everything separated them, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to avoid a direct confrontation.

In the case of Syria, Netanyahu and Putin were able to understand each other’s strategic needs and reach mutually advantageous agreements. It is not the same situation for a country the size of the western power, but it can explore every possible scenario for what comes with China, where it is still number one, but the strength of Beijing is such that it is clear to all of us that the distances are shortening.

And perhaps a by-product for Latin America, where Washington has regressed on many issues, not only with China, but there has also been a Russian offensive, and if there are at least talks, the issue of its support for dictatorships in the region should be raised, and everything indicates, that, unlike the cold war, there is nothing of vital importance for Russia, except perhaps negotiating the payment of debts.

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