What is motivating president Putin to withdraw Russian troops from Syria? What is his strategy?
Ivan Blot (I.B.): Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the armed forces to Syria was aimed at restoring the balance of power there. The Russian President has been consistently adhering to the strategy of backing the current government. He vigorously opposes the idea of a regime change as the outcome of such policy tends to be disastrous. However, Vladimir Putin does not reject out of hand the idea of political reforms in Syria. President Putin has made an invaluable contribution to the fight against the Islamic State, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria can be interpreted as an indicator of Russia’s readiness to resume negotiations. It is a signal primarily to the USA.
Michel Eltchaninoff (М.Е.): Amid the economic crisis Russian government promotes the implementation the ceasefire agreement as this military campaign came at a cost for battered Russia. By reaching out to its traditional ally and by having defended Russian military bases in the Mediterranean, Moscow has demonstrated the return of “good old days” when it wielded considerable power. But I still see a contradiction between rhetoric at the UN General Assembly podium in September 2015 and the outcome. Vladimir Putin suggested creating a broad Western coalition to counter Daesh, which, as the Russian president emphasized, is comparable with the Nazi. Nevertheless, most Russian air strikes targeted the positions of the anti-Assad forces rather than ISIL. In fact, the campaign was aimed at propping up Assad’s regime to avert the overthrow. It came close to achieving the latter goal while the proclaimed successful completion of the proclaimed mission was nowhere in sight.
I.B.: Both you and I understand perfectly that it is impossible to adequately assess the degree of extremism of various opposition groups who have ties to Al-Nusra Front or Al-Qaeda, on the ground, on the battlefield. It reminds me of some politicians who eagerly encouraged the dialogue with moderate Nazis on the eve of World War II. Against this background, Putin’s foreign policy aims at directly countering militant Islamist groups in cooperation with the United States. Tensions seem to be de-escalating.
Can Vladimir Putin be considered a reliable ally?
I.B.: I suppose you will not be surprised to hear that reliability is a relative notion in international relations. Following the collapse of the USSR, Western powers assured Russia NATO’s eastward expansion would never happen. Back then Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to behave like a starry-eyed idealist. As a result, Russia held a grudge. Take a more recent case. France was legally bound to hand over Mistral-class warships to Russia, but it has failed to deliver. Whatever the geostrategic reasons, France failed to execute the contract it signed. From the Russian point of view, the West failed to establish itself as a reliable partner.
М.Е: Russia’s unpredictability in Syria, as well as its unexpected withdrawal reveal the deep-rooted hostility of Vladimir Putin towards the West. Ever since his re-election in 2012, Putin has but once stressed that Russia has rejected the Cold War paradigm. Unlike the United States, which is allegedly responsible for inciting “color revolutions” and the “Arab Spring” and spreading chaos worldwide. What is more, the Russian ruling class is unanimous in its assessment of Europe as a place stuck in moral, political and anthropological decline. They believe in the need to catalyze Europe’s decline and fall. Thus, Russians regard America as a power to confront and Europe as a place in decline and crisis, where Moscow can press ahead with their plans…
M.E.: …to establish itself as a moral authority by reviving Christian values and substantiating the need to advance the conservative approach to Russia’s development. For the past few years Vladimir Putin has been deriving support from right-wing mainstream and populist parties and radical left parties in his attempt to influence the state of affairs in Europe. Here it is instructive to recall Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s flattering remarks to the Russian president. Vladimir Putin pursues two goals as he is trying to convince Europeans of the need to revive Christian values, as well as seeks to contribute to the EU disintegration.
I.B.: A Christian and patriotic officer, Vladimir Putin is the Russian Charles de Gaulle. Defending national sovereignty, General de Gaulle was forced to confront the United States. And just like de Gaulle, Putin does not show complaisance. After his first meeting with François Hollande, a journalist asked him whether the missile defense system was on the agenda. Vladimir Putin replied that NATO membership deprived France of a chance to see itself as militarily independent. Therefore, it was pointless to bring up the subject. It was worthwhile to discuss it only with the US president. This response was reminiscent to a large extent of Gaulle’s remarks. The Russian political system resembles political institutions of the Fifth Republic. The Russian Constitution is very similar to the 1958 French Constitution. In addition, like General de Gaulle who was deeply skeptical of political parties, Putin created All–Russia People’s Front, a democratic movement, which unites people from different regions of Russia and social strata. The Front’s is tasked with monitoring the work of deputies from the ruling party and state officials of all levels. Vladimir Putin does not trust bureaucrats. Hence, he came up with an idea of democratic control over the activities of state bodies.
M.E: This is a curious comparison. However, we must not turn the blind eye to the differences. De Gaulle was ready to countenance the inevitable decline of the French colonial empire and its future disintegration, while Vladimir Putin’s intentions with regard to the post-Soviet space are still unclear. The collapse of the USSR left a deep scar in the collective memory and led to a range of historical and social problems.
Vladimir Putin has sought to solve these problems, without drawing on the experience of Soviet tsarism, merely by marring the “red” and “white” ideas, that is imperialism and Soviet vision, to create an ideological mix. This blend prevents one from learning from the events in Russia in the 20th century and, more importantly, hampers future growth. Vladimir Putin strives to take a grip on the territory, which he sees as a sphere of Russia’s influence. However, the problem is that the peoples of the former USSR, who survived oppression and suffered under the communist regime, especially the Ukrainians, want to determine their own fate and trajectory. Thus, the comparison with de Gaulle is not entirely accurate. Moreover, the desire to challenge the US should not draw the veil over the intention of Russia to assume control over the territory, which is called “the near abroad” in Russian political discourse.
Can we deliberate about the emergence of new imperialism?
M.E.: Of course, the truth of the matter is not about the resurrection of imperial power. However, it is possible to speak about the policy of imperialism mirroring in Russia’s intention to prevent former Soviet republics from developing closer relations with the West. The military actions towards Georgia and Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea testify to this statement. However, with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus in the fold, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Soviet empire-style formation established more than a year ago, is dysfunctional. As for Kazakhstan, it was appalled by Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. Belarus, in its turn, limited Russia’s access to its airbases. Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialism is encountering resistance.
Is the rapprochement between Europe and Russia feasible?
I.B.: In any case, such a rapprochement would be highly desirable. Businesses are strongly campaigning against sanctions but for reestablishing trade ties. France has already witnessed the start of the bargaining process between the government and commercial interests. Both parties are discussing the issue behind the closed doors and we know that the French president has acceded to make some concessions. Besides, positive dynamics continue prevailing in the religious sphere – in this context, it is appropriate to refer to the 2012 agreement between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ and the Chair of the Polish Episcopate. Although this development went almost unnoticed, the deal itself enabled both Orthodox Christians and Catholics to put aside their differences in the interests of fighting the common enemy, namely Western atheism. Most recently, the joint declaration of Pope Francis and Partriarch Kirill has been signed to further bridge the gap between two Churches in order to counter secularism, relativism and the individualist approach to moral standards.
M.E.: This joint statement is seminal but its consequences are open-ended. Russia really puts forward the idea of unifying confessions, including Islam, against secularism. Russia is home to 20 million Muslims. As a result, the proposed idea consists in the fact that Orthodox Christians are the equal of Muslims or Catholics rather than atheistic Western people who have shut values and cultural patterns out of their life. Currently the primacy of religion gives grounds for a full-scale ideological attack. In Stavropol investigations were immediately launched against a young man who had said “there is no God” during an argument on social media. Russia’s Investigative Committee charged him with offending believers’ feelings criminalized in the country several years ago. Although the Soviet regime strictly prohibited Christianity, nowadays everything, which can potentially represent the decadence of the atheistic West, is subject to tough regulation. It is an unexpected and strange twist of history. The observed “iranization” of Russia cannot but cause concern of admirers of Fyodor Dostoevsky for whom freedom of conscience and religion was of tremendous value.
I.B.: Without any doubt, it is freedom of conscience and religion which Vladimir Putin protects while acting as the sole guardian of Eastern Christians. At the same time, this issue has failed to acquire importance in the West. However, as I see it, Russian society has come to some kind of a conservative agreement and consensus on loose morals. At Novgorod University where I tend to deliver lectures about Western political systems, my fourth-year students incessantly ask the following questions about same-sex marriages – “How can you tolerate it? This is the end of the civilization!”. Vladimir Putin’s decree could not contribute to such sentiments. I have seen Russian young people. In this regard, Russia’s President belongs more to the centrist part of the political spectrum. It was the word “centrist” which he uttered at the meeting which I was able to participate in. Yet in this case, it is not relevant to speak about moderate stances of, let’s say, François Bayrou. Putin is a centrist in the sense that he is central to Russia’s civil society. Many opinion surveys testify to this fact – 80% of Russians support the Head of the State. Surprisingly and even shockingly, I would say that Russia is more democratic than France as the former pursues publicly approved policies. What is more, in France the gap between the government and the governed is huge – only 20% of people endorse François Hollande’s policies.
M.E.: Undoubtedly, homophobia pervades Russian society. Russians call Europe “Gayrope” and the mass media cover this stereotype with disdain. Of course, Russia’s society is much more diverse and smarter, but under such conditions I cannot imagine that Europeans may hope for the rapprochement with Russians. At the official level, the Russian authorities always struggle to strike a balance between the idea of protecting Europe and the necessity to sever the relations with it for the sake of the Eurasian dream.
I.B.: Vladimir Putin said that from the geographical perspective, Russia is a Eurasian power, whereas from the cultural lens – a European country. This is a crucial position. Over the centuries Russia has put a high value on France, and this attitude is still relevant. That is the reason why we should do our best to repair our relations. Their mending is also important from the economic viewpoint. Moreover, as regards the political realm, it means going back to the foundations of the Fifth Republic and the ideas of Charles de Gaulle about national sovereignty and the shift from military and political blocs. This allows counterweighing the United States whose policies have wreaked havoc on the Middle East. There is no point in demonizing Russia – while analyzing its political institutions we can state that the country falls a long way short of dictatorship. Amid the political discrepancies the West is facing – Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the US exemplifies them – Russian democracy is stable.
M.E.: But we should pose a question whether today’s model of government is the right way of development. Given the 16-year rule, three presidential terms and the policies with a focus on ideological factors rather than needed reforms, we can conclude that democratic transformation will be a correct response to the problems. Vladimir Putin has been in charge of Russia over the long haul, which may bring about adverse effects.
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This article was first published by Le Figaro Magazine