Any cliche about Putin The Terrible not written here can be attributed to the exigencies of moving forward in Mr. Stephens’ attempt to promulgate a ‘New Pragmatism’, in regards to Putin. Look at it as a means to an end, first Stephens must establish with The Financial Times reader his fealty to the current Political Orthodoxy, as his in order to. Also notice the mechanistic framing of the idea of ‘reset’. There is much to choose from in this regard, my choice is this excerpt, from his essay is this fragment of a Putin armchair psychological profile :
‘Mr Putin craves respect. Russia, Mr Obama said, was no more than a “regional power” whose revanchist military intervention in Ukraine was evidence of weakness rather than a demonstration of prowess. Russian actions were “a problem”, but not the biggest threat to America’s national security. You could hear the screams of anguish in the Kremlin.
The assessment was at once right and wrong. By almost every metric — economic, demographic, social or technological — Russia faces inexorable decline. The US president, though, underestimated Moscow’s willingness to use its still formidable military. Mr Putin is a leader ready to take risks at a time when the west prizes caution above all else. Mr Obama missed, too, the link between adventurism and hurt national pride. If Mr Putin wants anything on the global stage, it is to be treated as the leader of a power that can sit down as an equal with the US and China.’
In sum, Mr. Putin suffers from an ‘inferiority complex’ enacted on the World Stage, in this maladroit exercise in analysis at long distance. For readers with memories that reach back to the short-lived era of the Psycho-Biography will note the similarity of this iteration, in miniature, sans the cumbersome Freudian lexicon.
Mr. Stephens reaches almost firmer ground with this recitation of the political crimes of Putin:
True, the Russian president still has admirers in the west. They extend beyond Mr Trump. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour party, has spent a political lifetime marching against wars fought by the west. He cannot bring himself to condemn the Russian slaughter of civilians in Aleppo. He is in the company of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, and pro-Moscow fascist parties in Hungary and Greece. Far left thus meets far right.
It is evident to just about everyone else, however, that the interventions in Ukraine and Syria are expressions of a broader Kremlin strategy. Regime survival and hostility towards the west are two sides of the same coin. Support for populist parties of left and right in Europe, the subversion of democracy in formerly communist states and the cyber attacks on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign are all of the same piece. Mr Putin’s target is the liberal international order. He wants a great power carve-up that restores Russian suzerainty over its near-abroad and flatters its relevance in global affairs.
Yet, what Mr. Stephens leaves out of his made to measure narrative is that America and its European arm NATO, and its EU partners use of the same strategies that he accuses Putin of using e.g. The Ukrainian Coup aided by the The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as a vital political actor in the fomentation of that Coup, and the utterly notorious American use of the Stuxnet virus against the Iranians . And not to forget Putin’s allies, call them his collaborationist, in the ‘West’ like Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Liberal International Order’ is not in decline but is suffering from the exhaustion of its legitimacy.
Mr. Stephens offers these four strategies in regards to Putin
Resolve, Consistency, Engagement, Respect
This sounds like something that George F. Kennan offered, during the latter part of his career, after some time had passed, and events led him to reconsider his ‘Long Telegram’. Yet, Mr. Stephens cannot emancipate himself from the habit of mind of the New Cold Warrior, and the all important job of currying favor with The Financial Times reader.
To say that Russia is weak in most of the dimensions of power is to state the obvious. That does not mean it is wise for a US president publicly to confront a thin-skinned Russian president with the uncomfortable reality. Dissembling has a place in diplomacy. The sadness is that if Mr Putin continues to pretend Russia is a great power it will eventually cease to be a great nation.