The U.S., Russia and the American Political Cycle

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The first month of the New Year brought tumult to the global financial markets, to the extent that the various political crises—Syria, Ukraine, the Middle East and Gulf— received scant attention.  Buried under the at times apocalyptic economic headlines were three interesting, and to an extent intersecting, sets of political statement.  First, there was the collective oratory of the Republican Presidential campaign; second, President Barack Obama’s valedictory State of the Union address to Congress; and third—virtually invisible to American audiences—a wide-ranging interview to the German newspaper Bild by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia.

Again, the three cohere in interesting ways.  On this side of the divide, the GOP candidates, led by the improbable front runner Donald Trump, would have us believe that the country is in some kind of existential crisis—in terms of security, the economy, collective morality. “Bring back America” is the slogan of choice [from what, to what, is left unspecified—but that’s what good catchy campaign slogans are all about.]  By contrast, and one supposes consciously so, the President’s address was an oddity for a State of the Union assessment; it was altogether a “feel good “message, “don’t worry [about what these Republican naysayers bleat], be happy.”  All right, one may say, this is all part of a partisan jousting that is increasingly shrill and shallow.  But more to the point, it is instructive to compare both the tone and the substance of our political leadership fodder with those of the Russian President in his January 5 reflections.

It should be emphasized that this was no cupcake interview, but conducted by a conservative-leaning tabloid journal in Europe’s largest state, which has enthusiastically signed on to the U.S.-led sanctions campaign against Russia.  The four-hour grilling included tough questions on Ukraine, Syria, the Russian economic crisis, and both the perceived weakness and the hegemonic aspirations of Russia as a regional power.

The best way to illustrate the points of comparison I wish to highlight is to quote directly from Mr. Putin on a few key issues raised.

  • On the 25th. anniversary of the end of the Cold War: “We did not overcome Europe’s division: 25 years ago the Berlin wall fell, but Europe’s division was not overcome, invisible walls simply moved to the East.  This created the foundation for mutual reproaches, misunderstanding and crises in the future.” [And, quoting the senior advisor to Chancellor Willi Brandt, Egon Bahr in June 1990] “If while uniting Germany we do not take decisive steps to overcome the division of Europe into hostile blocs, the developments can take such an unfavorable turn that the USSR will be doomed to international isolation.”
  • On U.S. missile defense systems in Europe: “In 2009, current President of the United States Barack Obama said that if Iran’s nuclear threat no longer existed there would be no incentive for establishing the ABM system; this incentive would disappear. However, the agreement with Iran has been signed ….. But the ABM system is being further developed.  Bilateral agreements have been signed with Turkey, Romania, Poland and Spain.”
  • On “mistakes made” in the post-Cold War era: “You have said that I have summed up everything that we see as the mistakes made by the West.  That was far from everything.  I have named but a few most important points.  After the Soviet Union collapsed, equally adverse processes emerged inside Russia itself.  This included a drop in industrial production, the collapse of social system, separatism and the most evident onslaught of international terrorism…..Certainly, we are responsible; there is no one but us to blame.  We have failed to assert our national interests, while we should have done that from the outset.  Then the whole world could have been more balanced.”
  • On prospective measures against global threats: “We are faced with common threats, and we still want all countries, both in Europe and the whole world, to join their efforts to combat those threats and we are still striving for this.  I refer not only to terrorism, but also to crime, trafficking in persons, environmental protection, and many other common challenges.”
  • On President Obama’s characterization of Russia as a “regional power”: “If we say that Russia is a regional power, we should first determine what region we are referring to. Look at the map and ask: “What is it, is it part of Europe? Or is it part of the eastern region, bordering on the United States, if we mean Alaska and China? Or is it part of Asia? Or perhaps the southern region?” Or look at the north. Essentially, in the north we border on Canada across the Arctic Ocean. Or in the south? Where is it? What region are we speaking about? I think that speculations about other countries, an attempt to speak disrespectfully about other countries is an attempt to prove one’s exceptionalism by contrast. In my view, that is a misguided position.
  • On Syria: “Vladimir Putin: “You know, this is a rather subtle issue. I think that President al-Assad has made many mistakes in the course of the Syrian conflict….. In my view, no effort should be spared in strengthening legitimate governments in the region’s countries. That also applies to Syria. Emerging state institutions in Iraq and in Libya must be revived and strengthened. Situations in Somalia and other countries must be stabilized. State authority in Afghanistan must be reinforced. However, it does not mean that everything should be left as is. Indeed, this new stability would underpin political reforms. As far as Syria is concerned, I think that we should work towards a constitutional reform. It is a complicated process. Then, early presidential and parliamentary elections should be held, based on the new Constitution. It is the Syrian people themselves who must decide who and how should run their country. This is the only way to achieve stability and security, to create conditions for economic growth and prosperity, so that people can live in their own homes, in their homeland, rather than flee to Europe.”
  • On democracy: We have learned very well the lesson of one-party rule—that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  Therefore, we made our choice long ago and we will continue developing democratic institutions in our country.  At present, 77 political parties can take part in parliamentary elections in Russia.  We have come back to direct gubernatorial elections.  We are advancing the instruments of direct democracy, meaning various public organizations, and will continue to do so, [but] There can be no identical clichés in democracy—be it American, European, Russian or Indian.”

What, then, are the takeaways from these far-reaching ruminations of Vladimir Putin?  First, there is the continuing Russian neuralgia over NATO expansion to Russia’s borders and the threat to her nuclear capability in the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in neighboring countries; but, perhaps more significantly, there is the almost elegiac note of what might have been accomplished, and was not, for a post-Cold war Europe that might have obviated such causes of current conflict. 

Second, there is a clear-eyed assessment of Russia’s economic and political status—one that is well short of any sense of “superpower” status, but one that seeks recognition of Russia’s ambitions and interests. 

Third, and in spite of the sense of insult and injury that Russia may have felt over the past 25 years, there is the resolve to continue to seek partnership with others—and first and foremost the United States—in combating global terrorism and other cosmic threats.  Finally, with respect to the last bullet point, there is a clear sense of “no turning back” for Russia.  Perhaps the most-documented [and misunderstood] Putin quote was that of the “tragedy” of the disintegration of the Soviet Union; but, as he makes clear in this interview, it was the neglect of “national interests”, the collapse of the very social fabric of Russia in the 1990's. That is for him the tragedy. 

One final point, to return to the matter of the contrast among the three statements from the campaign trail, the Presidential address and the Putin interview:  Putin is, to be sure, no “Scandinavian democrat”, and his motives and practices may on occasion be open to valid criticism, but, juxtaposed with the thin gruel we have digested of late—let alone the hyperbole about “carpet bombing” adversaries and “making the sands run red”, his reflections seem positively statesmanlike.