In Russia foreign policy has always been the determining factor of domestic policy — the key parameter setting the mood of the Russian leader and his rhetoric. Vladimir Putin currently seems to be on a lucky streak: In the United States, whose policy exerts the greatest influence on Russia, the pragmatist and adventurist Donald Trump won the presidential election; in France very soon the «indifferent» President Francois Hollande could be replaced by a lover of Russia, the conservative liberal Francois Fillon; and Rumen Radev and Igor Dodon, who are friendly toward Moscow, have been elected in Bulgaria and Moldova. What will change in Russia if the bold expectations of a thaw in relations with the West do indeed prove justified?
Principles of Coexistence
Vladimir Putin’s policy has always been reactive. Moscow responds to NATO’s expansion with pro-Russian mobilization in the post-Soviet space and a collection of asymmetrical measures (Iskanders in Kaliningrad, military exercises, new missiles). To the Magnitsky Act [it responds] with Dima Yakovlev’s Law, to the revolution in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas [Donets Basin], to the torn-up agreement with the United States on Syria with secession from the agreement on recycling plutonium. The crisis in relations with the West led to the growth of isolationist trends in Russia: the declaration of noncommercial organizations to be «foreign agents,» import substitution, a dramatic strengthening of the security agencies — the FSB [Federal Security Service], the Defense Ministry, and the Security Council, restrictions for Internet companies, the tightening of control over the media, and the toughening of extremist and antiterrorist legislation. Russia felt attacked, the elite thought in terms of the logic of a «besieged fortress,» and domestic policy was structured along the lines of «attack is the best form of defense.»
The mechanism of coexistence, whereby the West pushes and presses with varying degrees of toughness while Russia defends itself as best it can, was very dynamic but, in general, stable. Its operation was interrupted for a short time only during the brief «thaw» under Dmitriy Medvedev.
Logic might suggest that if the West now relaxes its pressure Russia can also move toward a more reasonable and less conflict-driven policy. If the United States had not seceded from the ABM Treaty there would not have been the crisis in relations in 2007 in connection with Washington’s plans to install missile defense elements in Czechia and Poland. If there had not been the revolution in Ukraine in 2004 it would have been possible to avoid the gas wars, and if the Ukrainian authorities had restrained themselves in February 2014 and managed to fulfill the agreements with the opposition, Crimea would be Ukrainian to this day and peace would prevail in the Donbas. If the United States had not tried to intimidate the whole world with the Russian threat and created the impression among the Russian leadership that Washington is ready to make every effort to bring down the Putin regime, the Levada Center would not have been declared a «foreign agent,» bloggers would not have been jailed, and Irina Yarovaya would have been mentioned in the media as a former Yabloko member and rank-and-file deputy from the party of power.
But is it really true that a slackening of pressure on Russia could lead to a change in Putin’s rhetoric and a thaw in foreign and domestic policy? The renunciation of pressure on Moscow is considered one of the main factors that would lighten the «mood» of the Russian elite. But in the past 16 years new factors have emerged that tend to strengthen the conflict-driven nature of Russian policy irrespective of the foreign policy context.
The Means Become the End
Russian foreign policy has always been constructed around the axis of Russia-US relations. Europe has been perceived only as a trading partner and the post-Soviet states as satellites. But even if Trump «closes down» NATO tomorrow, cancels the missile defense program, and signs every possible treaty with Russia, Ukraine is hardly likely to become our old partner and ally again, as it was, for instance, under Leonid Kuchma. Russia’s problem in the post-Soviet space is the lack of respect for the sovereignty of other states, whose validity the Kremlin is often in no hurry to recognize (unofficially, of course). The present crisis is based not only on the problem of geopolitical rivalry (the Kremlin is trying to prevent Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration) and of relations between Putin and the «pro-Western» Ukrainian leaders. These problems were indeed the starting points: The desire to secure levers of influence on the strategic choice of the post-Soviet states was represented as Moscow’s requirement for guarantees of its own security. But what if, hypothetically, tomorrow NATO is no longer a threat — will Moscow renounce the use of its levers?
The problem is that as political, financial, reputational, and infrastructure resources are invested in the attainment of an end there is a gradual erosion of the distinction between that end and the means of achieving it. Levers of influence acquire their own significance and become to a significant degree an end in themselves as a resource that can be deployed and realized in a possible new crisis situation. The expectation that under Trump the United States will change its policy toward Russia and that Russia will abandon the conflict-driven tactics of «defense» may be erroneous: The fear of «tomorrow» on the part of Putin and his security entourage is shaped not by US pressure and Washington’s tough rhetoric but by a deep sense of their own vulnerability.
This is what it is necessary to understand when analyzing the possible changes in Russian political life. The cornered rat that Putin used to like talking about will not recover its sense of being protected if the aggressor takes a step backward. In recent years the sense of vulnerability among the Russian security elite (and they are the ones who largely determine the president’s mood) has increased dramatically, and their sense of being protected will never return even if «Trumps» are victorious in all the countries of Western and Central Europe. And the stronger this sense of vulnerability, the more guarantees Putin will want for himself and for Russia. And these guarantees will never be enough, because nobody will ever be able to grant them «in perpetuity.»
While Russia has been trying to defend itself against NATO, the American missile defense system, the «color revolutions,» and all the rest of it, new institutions and elites have emerged in the country that literally feed on opposition to somebody or other. «Chekists» [secret police], Orthodox activists, patriot deputies and senators, provocateur journalists, experts in exposes, ideologists: It will be extremely difficult for all of them, both morally and politically, to restructure themselves along peaceful lines. Added to that is the crisis in which money is issued only to those who crack down on threats to national security. No threat means no money, no new powers, no patriotic super-projects. Therefore even a thaw will not stop this internal trend, which was born as a consequence of the Cold War but subsequently began to live its own life with no foreign policy context.
There can be no doubt that Putin will receive tonnes of papers about Russia’s secret enemies in the Trump administration, malicious anti-Russian transnational corporations, conspiracies among American and European elites against «pragmatists,» and a great deal of everything else, including, of course, evidence of a revolution being planned in Russia. It is unlikely that anything can now stop the voluntary-coercive formation of the «Russian nation,» the attempts to shape a state ideology as an instrument of control by the authorities over the public. Regardless of Trump and his policy, nothing will stop the domestic wave of obscurantism and the fight for traditional values, which are counterposed to the «corrupt West» even if it happens to become different tomorrow. And if it does become different, this is of course only temporary: The period of the «thaw,» even if it happens, will be interpreted as a respite that will by no means necessarily be a reason to «build bridges,» but on the contrary, an opportunity to prepare for a new, post-Trump battle.
Even given the most favorable scenario for Putin, a great many factors have accumulated within Russia itself that will hinder a «thaw» and create tall barriers in the path of the lessening of the element of conflict in Russian foreign and domestic policy. And then much will depend on where the new leaders of the Western world set the limits of the acceptable. At the moment those who are described as «friendly» toward Russia are proposing moving from confrontation toward partnership, and Putin likes that. But partnership is always a question of the distribution of rights and duties, and here the objective disagreements are not going to go away. It will be necessary to make deals with Putin on the status of the Donbas, on guarantees for the opposition in Syria (which will still have to be divided into moderate and radical), and on global security issues, where Moscow will ask for no more and no less than a veto on the West’s decisions.
Not to put pressure on Moscow or to make concessions to it? That question will soon have to be addressed both by Trump and by the future president of France, whose friendliness is thus far only the result of fatigue with the previous conflict, and by no means an answer to the question of what strategy to choose with regard to Moscow’s geopolitical demands.