A few years ago, I was captivated by Peter Schweizer’s book Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. That fascinating book detailed how the 40th President of the United States used the economic weaknesses of the USSR to bring it on its knees, notably with the help of the Saudis regarding the oil price and the military build-up with which Moscow could not compete with Washington.
Turns out that, while the USSR crumbled, a young KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin took good note. In a recent interview with a former Soviet official, my interlocutor spoke to me about the Russian President’s love of judo – his favorite sport – and the transposition of its techniques in politics. The master of the Kremlin’s dealings in world affairs is a good illustration of his abilities to take advantage of his opponents’ weight to knock them down.
Nowhere is this ability more evident than in the pages of British journalist Luke Harding’s book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West(Harper). In a real page-turner, the author details how the Russian government and its entities are influencing the West’s political life. For example, using Novichok as a calling card in attempting to neutralize Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who betrayed the GRU (The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). Or shabby dealings using banks allegedly to bail out influential people – allegedly like former US President Donald Trump. Moscow is determined to go to any lengths “[…] to return to a nineteenth-century model of great-power politics and to disrupt the ideals-based international order established after the Second World War […].”
In his last speech as Prime Minister of Israel last Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu evoked his proximity with President Vladimir Putin the following way:
“We developed special relations with Russia, not just with Russia as a state, we also nurtured a direct close line with the president of Russia. And in so doing, we guaranteed the freedom of maneuver of the Israeli Air Force in the skies of Syria in order to prevent Iran entrenchment on our Northern border.”
I have always found the closeness between Putin and Netanyahu to be extremely interesting, not to say simply fascinating. Notably in the context of the increasing presence of Russia in the Middle East.
Upon his arrival at the presidency, any individual disposes of a considerable array of tools to influence foreign policy. The most important national security apparatus in the world is loyally at his disposal.
Since the title of President of the United States has been bestowed upon him, Donald Trump has taken great pains to devalue the work and impact of the men and women who give their best – and sometimes their lives – to protect their country.
In a brilliant and insightful exposé, CNN’s chief national security correspondent and former diplomat Jim Sciutto provides ample munitions to those who, like me, think that the 45th president is a threat for the future of the United States as a world leader. And the title of his book, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s reckless tactics trying to bully his way to end the Vietnam War. As history recalls, his gambit failed.
One doesn’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time following international politics to understand how much Trump is in a league of his own. I was shocked to read the details about how the standard bearer of American values abandoned his Kurdish allies in the space of 2 phones calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – hardly the best ally of the US.
Lots of ink was spent during the current presidential campaign about Ukraine, the dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the intervention of Trump towards the Ukrainians to seek an investigation – a move Richard Nixon probably would have approved when he was in the Oval Office. Doing so, the president tossed aside the duty of reserve any normal statesman would respect and functioned outside the established channels and methods. Jim Sciutto writes that this “[…] shadow foreign policy was so far outside the normal process that it ran contradictory to it—and that appeared to be the intention.”
Donald Trump does not respect his diplomats, his machinery of government, his allies and his counterparts.
And, to the chagrin of any James Bond enthusiast (RIP Sean Connery, who passed away just a few hours ago), Donald Trump hates spies.
Let me quote the author at length:
“In his view, foreign spies do more harm than good, in particular to his personal relationships with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin. […]” He ““believes we shouldn’t be doing that to each other,” one former Trump administration official told me. In private conversations, President Trump has repeatedly expressed opposition to the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources, including overseas spies who provide the US government with crucial information about hostile countries.”
Let’s just say I’m happy Trump was not the leader of the free world during the Cold War. We probably would be living in a much different world, and probably not the best. I think Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would agree with me.
Disliking spies who often helped prevent doomsday scenarios – as it often happened during history, but Trump doesn’t read, so how could he care – and lacking trust in his national security are alarming enough. But Trump goes even further in blindly accepting the rationale of Vladimir Putin (about Russia’s interference in US elections), not holding Kim Jong-un responsible for the death of American citizen Otto Warmbier (after his release from North Korea) or mentioning that Iran’s shooting of a US drone was probably a mistake made by a general. You can’t invent that. I could also mention how Trump capitulated to China in his trade deal with Beijing, highlighting the fact that this man is ill-equipped to occupy the function he does. But I think you get the point.
To his credit, Trump has brought NATO countries to invest more of their budget on defence, which is no small feat given the manifest abhorrence of Western countries to spend more in that domain. I would also be very curious to know what’s the author’s analysis about the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf like the UAE and Bahrain. This major development will have lasting consequences in global geopolitics and the 45th president will have played a determining role at that level. It is still unclear why and how he did it, but I’m sure this would be an excellent sequel book for Jim Sciutto.
I have been devouring books about US presidents since childhood. My understanding is that each of them had a sense of history. That was until Donald Trump came to Washington. He seems consumed with the tyranny of short-term impact, a notion that is reflected in his anti-intellectualism.
Every president who took office at the White House became a consumer of intelligence reports and information. This is a vital aspect of commanding the number 1 power on the surface of the planet. But, once again, Donald Trump defies the norm. His national security can’t get him to even read “[…] the day’s topics into three simple bullet points on a single note card”, therefore generating the need to restrict the information submitted to the man sitting in the Oval Office and making him less aware of vital threats to the country – and there are not a few.
All of this would be entertaining if the consequences were not potentially tragic.
Apart from the troubling rationale documented by Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory is an insightful and fast-paced book that should be mandatory reading for any student of international relations.
Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes On the World, New York, Harper, 2020, 320 pages.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Jonathan Jao and Leslie Cohen of HarperCollins for providing me with a version of this book.
After the publication of my post about his recent and excellent article about the relationship between Russia and the West in the immediate aftermath of Cold War, Professor Sergey Radchenko (University of Cardiff) kindly accepted to answer few questions to examine the matter further. Here is the content of our exchange.
Having met with former Deputy Foreign Minister Georgii Mamedov when he served as Ambassador of the Federation of Russia in Canada, I am wondering if you might have more information about his role during this pivotal period in the relations between Washington and Moscow?
Mamedov is a mystery to me. He seems to have played a crucial role in the relationship, and one that was very constructive. If I were to guess at his political orientation, I would say that comes across as someone who valued Russia’s cooperation with the West and worked to bring Moscow into a closer alignment with the West. On the other hand, unlike other key figures on both sides of Russia-US relations (e.g. Talbott, Albright, Kozyrev, Primakov and others), Mamedov has not been willing to go on record with his version of events. I hope he will change his mind and we’ll get to hear his side of the story.
In your article, you oftentimes refer to the Russian elites and their impact on the policymaking about the relationship with the West. What about the American and Western elites? Did their influence play a role in the attitude towards Moscow?
The article talks a lot about the “elites,” which I guess is the same thing as what is often referred to as the “foreign policy blob” in the American context. There has recently been much discussion in the US about the role of the “blob,” as well as its vested interests (for example, in the question of US global leadership). This discussion is immediately applicable to the Russian context (and vice versa), since foreign policy of a country is really what the elites (or the “blob”) make of it. I am not being critical of the “blob” here; I just argue that there are certain narratives that are shared by the elite. In Russia’s case, it’s the narrative of their country’s international “greatness.” In the US case, it’s a question of America’s global leadership. In both Russia and the US these narratives cut across partisan lines.
The Russians have always tended to overstate the Americans’ willingness to participate in some kind of a condominium with Moscow.
The Clinton administration clearly did not seem keen on engaging Russia in the perspective of offering that country a seat at the table. Your article depicts Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher as being in the opposing camp of such an outcome. But were there senior officials who diverged with that assessment and who might have been more inclined to convey Russia to a greater role?
Mary Sarotte has done much more work than I have on the US side; her research shows that, indeed, there were people in the Pentagon, for instance, who were abhorred by the idea of rapid NATO enlargement. They were worried about Russia’s negative reaction and were more interested in the strategic arms control dialogue with the Russia or in Ukraine’s denuclearization. Whether this means that they were willing to give Russia a seat at the table is another matter. The Russians have always tended to overstate the Americans’ willingness to participate in some kind of a condominium with Moscow.The resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.
On the Western side, you refer to Americans – of course – and to a certain extent to the Germans. I was also very interested in reading your reference to a memorandum from British Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite to Anthony Lake. How would you resume the British attitude in regards with NATO enlargement and potential Russia membership?
I have spoken to Malcolm Rifkind who was the Defense Secretary and the Foreign Secretary in the UK while this debate was going on. His position then (and now) is that Russia could never be a part of NATO, as this would undermine the very purpose of the alliance. This of course suggests that the purpose of the alliance is to keep Russia at bay, and perhaps this is how the British policy-makers viewed the problem at the time. More often, they expressed their opposition with reference to practical concerns, e.g.: how could Russia be integrated in military terms? Would this not make the alliance into another version of the OSCE?
Fundamentally, of course it was not in the immediate British interest to dilute NATO by inviting a country like Russia into the alliance, especially that the Russians claimed at the time that they have a special kind of relationship with the United States (as a key partner). This would just diminish Great Britain’s status as a key player in the West. It is interesting that in the early 1990s, the British were trying to redefine Britain’s post-Cold War role. In one of the seminars that was convened by the Prime Minister to do that, it was proposed to strive towards maintaining Britain’s status as one of the three key European powers (the others being… Germany and France). Russia was not even on the radar.
The resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.
After he arrived at the Kremlin in 2000, President Putin sent signals that he was well-disposed towards the West (notably his relationship with President Bush and a visit to the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport) – a disposition that changed over time. In your opinion, could more have been accomplished at the beginning of the Putin reign to engage further Russia with the West? It seems clear that Putin was inclined to build closer relations with the West early on in his tenure. Like Yeltsin, he expressed interest in joining NATO. I do think that an opportunity was missed to tie Russia institutionally to the West. It does not mean that Putin can evade his share of responsibility for the worsening of the relationship. It just means that, just as the article argues, the resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.
The notion that Russia is part of the West is still a mainstream political view.
Are there still pro-Western advocates in the entourage of President Putin?
Yes, the two narratives that were present in the 1990s are still present, although the narrative of engagement is much less pronounced now. Putin is deeply invested in the adversarial narrative and won’t easily shift back. But were he to step down, the elites can easily shift in the other direction. No one hold deeply ideological views about Europe; if anything, the notion that Russia is part of the West is still a mainstream political view.
What would it take for Russia and the West (NATO) to get back on a more cooperative trajectory? Would it even be beneficial?
It’s tricky now because there are structural impediments (primarily, Crimea). It would be completely unrealistic to imagine that Russia will return Crimea even after Putin is gone. Re-establishing good relations between Russia and the West would thus require the West to find a viable position for itself in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Perhaps this would mean offering incentives to both in the context of eventual membership in both NATO and the EU. This is a far-fetched idea at the moment but the alternative to creative thinking is to simply hunker down and wait until Russia melts down. This is not a policy.
Are you currently working on a book and, if so, would you agree to lees us know what it will be about?
The book is a history of Soviet/Russian foreign policy since 1945 to the present. It’s been years in writing, and I can’t wait to finally present it to the readers! I hope it will appear in print next year.
Many sincere thanks Professor!
« Attendre que la Russie disparaisse n’est pas une option. » – Entrevue exclusive avec le Professeur Sergey Radchenko
Dans la foulée du billet que j’ai publié à propos de votre article très perspicace sur la relation entre la Russie et l’occident immédiatement après la fin de la Guerre froide, le Professeur Sergey Radchenko (Université de Cardiff) a généreusement accepté de répondre à mes questions pour approfondir le sujet.
Ayant rencontré l’ancien sous-ministre des Affaires étrangères Georgii Mamedov lorsqu’il était ambassadeur de la Fédération de Russie au Canada, je me demande si vous pourriez nous en dire plus à propos de son rôle au cours de cette période charnière dans les relations entre Washington et Moscou.
Mamedov est un mystère pour moi. Il semble avoir joué un rôle crucial dans la relation, et un rôle très constructif. Si je devais deviner son orientation politique, je dirais qu’il s’agit d’une personne pour qui la coopération de la Russie et l’Occident était importante et qui a déployé des efforts pour rapprocher Moscou de l’Occident. D’un autre côté et contrairement à d’autres personnalités clés des deux côtés des relations russo-américaines (par exemple Talbott, Albright, Kozyrev, Primakov et autres), Mamedov n’a pas été disposé à donner officiellement sa version des événements. J’espère qu’il changera d’avis et que nous aurons accès à sa version de l’histoire.
Dans votre article, vous faites souvent référence aux élites russes et à leur impact sur l’élaboration des orientations politiques concernant les relations avec l’Occident. Qu’en est-il des élites américaines et occidentales? Leur influence a-t-elle joué un rôle dans l’attitude envers Moscou?
L’article parle beaucoup des « élites », ce qui, je suppose, est la même chose que ce que l’on appelle souvent le « blob » (la communauté washingtonienne d’experts en politique internationale selon Ben Rhodes, ancien conseiller du président Barack Obama) dans le contexte américain. Il y a eu récemment beaucoup de discussions aux États-Unis sur le rôle du « blob », ainsi que sur ses intérêts particuliers (par exemple, dans la question du leadership mondial des États-Unis). Cette discussion est immédiatement applicable au contexte russe (et vice versa), puisque la politique étrangère d’un pays est vraiment ce que les élites (ou le blob) en font. Je ne critique pas ici le « blob »; Je soutiens simplement que certains discours sont partagés par l’élite. Dans le cas de la Russie, c’est celui de la « grandeur » internationale de leur pays. Dans le cas des États-Unis, il s’agit du leadership mondial. En Russie et aux États-Unis, ces discours transcendent les axes partisans.
Les Russes ont toujours eu tendance à exagérer la volonté des Américains de participer à une forme de direction à deux avec Moscou.
L’administration Clinton ne semblait manifestement pas désireuse d’engager la Russie dans la perspective d’offrir à ce pays un siège à la table. Votre article dépeint Anthony Lake et le Secrétaire d’État Warren Christopher comme étant dans le camp opposé à un tel scénario. Mais y avait-il des hauts fonctionnaires qui ont divergé de cette option et qui auraient pu être plus enclins à amener la Russie à jouer un plus grand rôle?
Mary Sarotte a travaillé le côté américain beaucoup plus que moi; ses recherches illustrent que, en effet, il se trouvait des gens au Pentagone, par exemple, qui avaient en horreur l’idée d’un élargissement rapide de l’OTAN. Ils étaient inquiets de la réaction négative de la Russie et étaient plus intéressés par le dialogue sur le contrôle des armements stratégiques avec la Russie ou par la dénucléarisation de l’Ukraine. Est-ce que cela signifie qu’ils étaient disposés à accorder une place à la Russie à la table est une autre question. Les Russes ont toujours eu tendance à exagérer la volonté des Américains de participer à une forme de direction à deux avec Moscou.
Du côté occidental, vous faites référence aux Américains – bien sûr – et, dans une certaine mesure, aux Allemands. J’ai également été très intéressé de lire votre référence à un mémorandum de l’ambassadeur britannique Rodric Braithwaite destiné à Anthony Lake. Comment résumeriez-vous l’attitude britannique en ce qui a trait à l’élargissement de l’OTAN et l’adhésion potentielle de la Russie?
Je me suis entretenu avec Malcolm Rifkind, qui était ministre la Défense et des Affaires étrangères de la Grande-Bretagne pendant que ce débat avait cours. Sa position à l’époque (et maintenant) est à l’effet que la Russie ne pourrait jamais faire partie de l’OTAN, car cela minerait la nature même de l’alliance. Cela suppose naturellement que le but de l’alliance est de tenir la Russie à distance, et c’est peut-être ainsi que les décideurs politiques britanniques percevaient la question à l’époque. Plus souvent, ils ont exprimé leur opposition relativement à des préoccupations pratiques, par exemple: comment la Russie pourrait-elle être intégrée sur le plan militaire? Est-ce que l’effet d’une telle mesure n’aurait pour effet de transformer l’alliance en une autre version de l’OSCE?
Fondamentalement, bien sûr, il n’était pas dans l’intérêt britannique immédiat de diluer l’OTAN en y invitant un pays comme la Russie, et ce, d’autant plus que les Russes affirmaient à l’époque qu’ils entretenaient un type particulier de relation avec les États-Unis (en tant que partenaire-clé). Cela ne ferait que diminuer le statut de la Grande-Bretagne en tant qu’acteur de premier plan en Occident. Il est intéressant de noter qu’au début des années 1990, les Britanniques tentaient de redéfinir le rôle de la Grande-Bretagne après la Guerre froide. Dans l’un des séminaires qui a été organisé par le Premier ministre à cette fin, il a été proposé de s’efforcer de maintenir le statut de la Grande-Bretagne en tant que l’une des trois principales puissances européennes (les autres étant… l’Allemagne et la France). La Russie n’était même pas sur les écrans radar.
La résurgence du discours antagoniste, qui légitime Poutine en tant que protecteur des « intérêts nationaux » de la Russie (définis en termes antagonistes), est un phénomène auquel les deux parties ont contribué.
Après son arrivée au Kremlin en 2000, le président Poutine a envoyé des signaux indiquant qu’il était bien disposé envers l’Occident (notamment sa relation avec le président Bush et une visite à la résidence d’été de la famille Bush à Kennebunkport) – une disposition qui a changé avec le temps. À votre avis, aurait-on pu faire plus au début du règne de Poutine pour renforcer les liens entre la Russie et l’Occident?
Il semble manifeste que Poutine était enclin à établir des relations plus étroites avec l’Occident au début de son mandat. À l’instar de Eltsine, il a manifesté son intérêt à joindre l’OTAN. Je pense qu’une occasion a été manquée de lier institutionnellement la Russie à l’Occident. Cela ne signifie pas que Poutine peut être dédouané de toute responsabilité dans l’aggravation de la relation. Cela signifie simplement que, comme l’indique l’article, la résurgence du discours antagoniste, qui légitime Poutine en tant que protecteur des « intérêts nationaux » de la Russie (définis en termes antagonistes), est un phénomène auquel les deux parties ont contribué.
L’idée selon laquelle la Russie fait partie de l’Occident est toujours une vision politique dominante.
Y a-t-il encore des partisans du discours pro-occidental dans l’entourage du président Poutine?
Oui, les deux discours qui étaient présents dans les années 1990 sont toujours présents, même si celui des tenants du rapprochement est beaucoup moins prononcé maintenant. Poutine est profondément investi dans le discours antagoniste et ne reviendra pas facilement en arrière. Mais s’il devait quitter ses fonctions, les élites peuvent facilement changer de direction. Personne n’a une vision profondément idéologique de l’Europe. Pour tout dire, l’idée selon laquelle la Russie fait partie de l’Occident est toujours une vision politique dominante.
Que faudrait-il pour que la Russie et l’Occident (OTAN) reviennent dans une trajectoire davantage axée sur la coopération? Serait-ce même bénéfique?
C’est délicat, car il y a maintenant des obstacles structurels (principalement la Crimée). Il serait totalement irréaliste d’imaginer que la Russie retournera la Crimée, même après le départ de Poutine. Le rétablissement de bonnes relations entre la Russie et l’Occident exigerait donc que l’Occident trouve une position avec laquelle elle serait à l’aise dans le conflit russo-ukrainien. Cela signifierait peut-être offrir des incitatifs aux deux dans le contexte d’une éventuelle adhésion à l’OTAN et à l’UE. C’est un scénario tiré par les cheveux pour le moment, mais l’alternative à la pensée créative est simplement de se recroqueviller et d’attendre que la Russie s’effondre. Il ne s’agit pas d’une politique viable.
Travaillez-vous actuellement sur un livre et, si oui, seriez-vous disposé à nous dire à quel sujet?
Ce livre sera une histoire de la politique étrangère soviétique / russe depuis 1945 jusqu’à maintenant. J’y travaille depuis des années et je suis impatient de l’offrir aux lecteurs! J’espère qu’il sera disponible l’année prochaine.
Merci beaucoup Professeur!
 Sylvie Kauffmann, « 2021, avec ou sans Donald Trump », Le Monde, jeudi 8 octobre 2020, p. 32.
Russia is fascinating, Russia is dangerous. It is nevertheless important to question ourselves as to the sources of its current pugilistic conduct. Was it predestined by its history, its political DNA or could this reality have been avoided by a more efficient engagement in the past?
The Cardiff University Professor argues that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the “adversarial relationship [between Washington and Moscow] was replaced with the idea of a partnership between Russia and the West but would that partnership carry enough weight to satisfy the Russian elites’ pretensions to global importance? The proof was in the pudding, and the baker was in Washington.”
In a nutshell, Russia wanted to be seated “[…] at the head of the table, right next to America’s” But Washington “[…] did not need Russia’s help in running the world, neither during the Cold War, nor, especially, in its aftermath.” After all, “[…] the world was a jungle, where the mightiest had the power of persuasion and no one listened to the counsel of the weak.”
Fast forward, Vladimir Putin has learnt that lesson and applies it in the implementation of his vision of international relations.
But let’s go back to Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. There were talks about Moscow joining NATO, but no one in the West was much interested in that prospect, even though American officials dangled the possibility as bait. During that period, the embers of war inflamed former Yugoslavia and the world witnessed a vicious and murderous civil war begin in 1991. President Yeltsin “tried to make Bosnia a showcase of Russian-American cooperation.” But Washington was not interested, and Russia was “left on the sidelines”, the pride associated to her self-declared status humiliated. Much the same happened when Moscow sought to collaborate in the negotiations with North Korea’s nuclear program.
In a word, Moscow was not to be seated at the head of the table with Washington.
But by embracing enlargement without finding an appropriate role for Russia, the same [Western] policy makers overlooked the possibility that it might actually contribute to the latter’s nationalistic resurgence or, indeed, externally legitimize it. This is exactly what happened.
Pr. Sergey Radchenko
At that stage, one can sympathize with Russia’s frustration and feeling of abandonment.
Since nature abhors vacuum, “Russia’s own ontological security as a part of the West depended in large part on whether it was being recognized as such. If it wasn’t – that, too, was legitimating, because it helped the Russian political elites find their ground in an uncertain world, if not as friends, then at least as adversaries of the West.”
Professor Radchenko brings some nuances to that point of view, when he writes that “[…] one can of course lament Russia’s exclusion from Europe as a deliberate act of policy but it is hard to deny that such exclusion was partly justifiable in view of Russia’s own policies [like, for example, the war in Chechnya] […].”
Russia sought “legitimation through an adversarial relationship”, while the United States refused to offer “[…] enough leeway for legitimation through a genuine and inclusive partnership.” The seeds of confrontation had been planted by efficient gardeners. “It is hard to blame the White House”, writes the author. “They were the realists. But by being too realistic and not sufficiently idealistic at a time when they could have made a difference, they helped make Russia’s imperialist resurgence a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
As a student of history, I would bet that a discreet apparatchik named Vladimir Putin took careful notes and vowed not to fall into the idealist trap if his time came. And it came.
Russia certainly is not faultless in the current international context. But one can wonder what could have happened if the Clinton administration had adopted a different posture. In the land of “what ifs”, anything is possible, and I am not fond of revisionism. But one can easily assume that humiliating someone is never a good insurance policy for future good relations.
You can’t change the past, but there is always hope for the future. Russia is not immune to good relations with the United States. Vladimir Putin was the first international leader to call and offer assistance to President George W. Bush after the horrendous terrorist attacks on 9/11 and he was among the first ones to wish a speedy recovery to Donald Trump after news broke that the US President had tested positive to Covid-19.
Following the news about Russian political life these days – notably in the aftermath of the poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny – one might think that this quote comes from President Vladimir Putin. But it would be wrong to assume that. These words were pronounced by none other than Catherine the Great.
In his brilliant and insightful book A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Professor Mark Galeotti chronicles the historical continuity – and I could add ingenuity – of power in the land of the double-headed eagle. During his reign (980-1015), Vladimir the Great took “[…] the Rus’ beyond their Viking roots”, made a show of piety that “[…] was actually a piece of ruthless statecraft.” If that sounds familiar with today’s operating mode, that’s “[…] because one can draw a direct and often-bloody line between these times and the present day. The origin story, in which vulnerability is spun as agency, sets the tone, especially as this is not simply a story of weakness, but of embracing conquest and creating something new from it.”
Ever since, Russian leaders have proven pragmatic and ruthless in crafting power. To remain at the top, Russian stateswomen and statesmen had to thwart the power and influence of indocile aristocrats, because a strong state requires subjecting real and potential opposition to undivided authority. Those considering Vladimir Putin to be a scandalous anomaly should consider the fact that Peter the Great “[…] had his eldest son tortured under suspicion of plotting against him, a torment from which he died.” Or that the great Catherine was complicit in the assassination of her husband-tsar to ascend to the throne.
Not that I condone violence, poisoning and assassinations – far from it.
But past leaders who did not abide by the rule that power is acquired and kept at all cost – sometimes at the price of violence – did not last. Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were excellent cases in point. Before them, tsar Nicholas II impotently saw power escape from his hands because of his lack of political skills.
Vladimir Putin, of whom many say that he is a keen student of history, certainly keeps this storyline close to mind. Western governments can draft protests condemnations, launch inquiries and express the most eloquent outrage. Alas for them, they have little to say in who occupies the Kremlin. The day he loses his grip on power and the forced docility of current-day boyars will be the last of his reign. One can and should feel sorry for what happened to Alexey Navalny. Making a political opponent suffer physically – and potentially die – is something I guess I will never be able to understand. At the same time, the trends of Russian history are much larger than the evolution of our current values. Mr. Navalny is not the first nemesis of the throne to be tossed aside in the land of the tsars. And my guess is he won’t be the last either. I imagine that few tsars and successors departed this world with a conscience clean of such lethal political maneuvers.
All in all, those who seek to better understand the nature and demands of power in Russian politics should grab a copy of Mark Galeotti’s latest book and embark on the journey of understanding why Vladimir Putin acts the way he does. “Much is known about Peter [the Great]; much less is truly understood”, writes the author. The same applies to the current defender of the double-headed eagle. You may dislike him and what he does, but that does not diminish the urgent need to better understand the sources of Russian power.
At the stylistic level, Pr. Galeotti has an acknowledged quality offering the reader a simplified version of the intricacies of names and events – where other authors could simply bore the reader. He writes in a way that requires being peeled away from his book in order to attend to other tasks. I will await with great eagerness his next book.
Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Toronto, Hanover Square Press, 2020, 224 pages.
I would like to express all my gratitude to Emer Flounders, from HarperCollins, who provided me with a review copy of this excellent book and who is always more than generous and helpful whenever I need some assistance about a title published by this fantastic publishing house.
There are lots of historic and major diplomatic announcements between Israel and Arab countries (UAE and Bahrain) these days, a development in which the United States are directly associated. In the last couple of years, we have observed the existence of another well-frequented diplomatic channel between Moscow and Jerusalem and I was very glad when acclaimed author Professor Mark Galeotti – author of an excellent biography of Vladimir Putin and more recently of A Short History of Russia – accepted to respond to a few questions about the subject a few weeks ago. Here is the content of our exchange.
Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.
Do you think the election of pro-Russian Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in 2001 played a role in President Putin’s stance about Israel?
I think it certainly helped in that Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.
Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention […].
Judging by the number of meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin (10 visits by Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow since 2013 and 2 visits by Vladimir Putin in Israel since 2012), one could think that there is a notable rapprochement between Moscow and Jerusalem. How important is this relationship for the Russian president?
It’s important for both Putin and Russia. Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention – when the IAF bombs Hezbollah positions in Syria, for example, the Russian air defense system there is not activated and clearly they have been forewarned. Likewise, Russia at times shares intelligence with Israel about Iran.
How important are the Middle East issues in Russian domestic politics? Is there a link between Russian domestic politics and President Putin’s relationship with Israel?
Honestly, it’s not really a factor – neither a plus, nor a minus.
Some observers are of the opinion that Israel is just a pawn on Russia’s chessboard. Could Russia become a key strategic ally of Israel in the near future?
That gives Israel too little credit. Yes, it has good relations with Russia (the first drones the Russians fielded were bought from Israel, for example), but it is not going to be anyone’s pawn.
Putin sends the signal that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.
You mention it briefly in your book (on page 75), when you mention that President Putin demonstrates “[…] no hint of anti-Semitism”, but could you tell us more about where he stands on the issue and what he does to confront this trend?
One can’t say that he has especially actively fought against it, but his evidently good relations with Israel and also the Chief Rabbi of Moscow are certainly powerful symbols to powerful and ambitious Russians that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.
Compared to the trend observable in other East European countries (like Poland for example), what is the current status of anti-Semitism in Russia?
It’s present, of course, but subjectively it feels in decline – in the 1990s one could often see anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls or slurs in the media, but both are much less evident today. In some ways an interesting development is that the extreme nationalists, from whom one might expect some prejudice, actually express respect for Israel in terms of its willingness to stand up for its own interests, with force if need be.
Apart from the President and the Prime Minister, who are the engineers of the relationship between the two countries? Is there any track II diplomacy involved in your opinion?
Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has been a very significant player in this respect – and, of course, there are many oligarchs and minigarchs of Jewish origins and often dual Russian-Israeli citizenship who act as connectors.
Poutine et Israël
On assiste ces jours-ci à plusieurs annonces diplomatiques historiques et majeures entre Israël et des pays arabes (les Émirats arabes unis et le Bahreïn), un développement auquel les États-Unis sont directement associés. Dans les dernières années, nous avons observé l’existence d’un autre canal diplomatique très fréquenté entre Moscou et Jérusalem et j’étais très heureux que le Professeur Mark Galeotti – auteur réputé d’une excellente biographie de Vladimir Poutine et plus récemment du livre A Short History of Russia – accepte de répondre à quelques questions à ce sujet il y a quelques semaines. Voici le contenu de cet échange.
Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.
Pensez-vous que l’élection d’Ariel Sharon, qui était notoirement pro-russe, au poste de Premier ministre en 2001 a joué un rôle dans la position du président Poutine sur Israël?
Je pense que cela a certainement aidé, dans la mesure où Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.
Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables.
À en juger par le nombre de rencontres entre le Premier ministre Netanyahu et le président Poutine (10 visites de Benjamin Netanyahu à Moscou depuis 2013 et 2 visites de Vladimir Poutine en Israël depuis 2012), on pourrait penser qu’il y a un rapprochement notable entre Moscou et Jérusalem. Quelle est l’importance de cette relation pour le président russe?
C’est important pour Poutine et pour la Russie. Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables. Par exemple, lorsque l’IAF (les forces aériennes israéliennes) bombarde les positions du Hezbollah en Syrie, le système de défense aérienne russe n’est pas activé et les Russes ont clairement été prévenus. De même, la Russie partage parfois des renseignements avec Israël au sujet de l’Iran.
Quelle est l’importance des questions moyen-orientales dans la politique intérieure russe? Existe-t-il un lien entre la politique intérieure russe et les relations du président Poutine avec Israël?
Honnêtement, ce n’est pas vraiment un facteur – ce n’est ni un avantage, ni un inconvénient.
Certains observateurs estiment qu’Israël n’est qu’un pion sur l’échiquier russe. La Russie pourrait-elle devenir un allié stratégique clé d’Israël dans un avenir prochain?
Ce serait accorder trop peu de crédit à Israël. Oui, ce pays entretient de bonnes relations avec la Russie (les premiers drones russes qui sont entrés en fonction avaient été achetés en Israël, par exemple), mais Jérusalem ne deviendra le pion de personne.
Vous mentionnez brièvement, à la page 75 de votre livre, que le président Poutine ne manifeste « […] pas une once d’antisémitisme », mais pourriez-vous nous en dire davantage à propos de sa position sur le sujet et ce qu’il fait pour lutter contre ce fléau?
Poutine envoie le message que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.
On ne peut pas dire qu’il l’a particulièrement activement combattu, mais ses relations manifestement bonnes avec Israël et avec le grand rabbin de Moscou sont certainement des symboles puissants pour les Russes influents et ambitieux à l’effet que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.
Par rapport à la tendance observable dans d’autres pays d’Europe de l’Est (comme la Pologne par exemple), quel est l’état actuel de l’antisémitisme en Russie?
Le phénomène est présent, bien sûr, mais subjectivement, il semble en déclin – dans les années 1990, on pouvait souvent voir des graffitis antisémites sur les murs ou des insultes proférées dans les médias, mais les deux manifestations sont beaucoup moins évidentes aujourd’hui. À certains égards, une évolution intéressante est observable à l’effet que les nationalistes extrémistes, de qui on peut s’attendre à des préjugés, expriment en fait leur respect pour Israël, au niveau de sa volonté de défendre ses propres intérêts, avec force si nécessaire.
À part le président et le premier ministre, qui sont les architectes des relations entre les deux pays? À votre avis, y a-t-il une diplomatie parallèle à l’œuvre?
Pinchas Goldschmidt, le grand rabbin de Moscou, a été un acteur très important à cet égard – et, bien sûr, il existe de nombreux oligarques et minigarques d’origine juive et souvent détenteurs de la double nationalité russo-israélienne qui agissent comme entremetteurs.
“Russia has no serious reason to fear the West », writes Dmitri Trenin – Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center – in his insightful book Should We Fear Russia? But President Vladimir Putin is not shy to “punch above his weight” and “always testing and pushing one’s boundaries” to ensure that Russia’s place at the table of great powers is respected.
Then, another quote from Dr. Trenin came to mind: “Forcing his way to the high table, and making others deal with him out of necessity if not of choice, has become Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic trademark in his relations with US leaders.”
There is always a murky zone around special ops and covert operations, which always offer “plausible deniability” for operations like what allegedly happened in Afghanistan. Conventional wisdom would suggest that targeting soldiers for assassination does not appear like a good way to make and keep friends. But Moscow might get away with murder, since “for all its military superiority that it has been using elsewhere quite liberally, the United States lacks serious military options vis-à-vis Russia.” In other words, Vladimir Putin can continue pushing his luck with impunity.
In just a couple hours, the heart of Russia will vibrate to the sound of patriotic military music. People will celebrate Victory Day and the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany – a feat that would have been impossible without Soviet contribution. President Vladimir Putin will be the host of the ceremony that will unfold in Moscow. Since he has been at the helm of Russia for 20 years and because it is realistic to think that he will carry on beyond the end of his current mandate in March 2024, I thought it might be interesting to conduct an interview about the President of the Federation with a leading expert of this country. Dr. Dmitri Trenin, author of many insightful books on the subject (I recently reviewed his captivating book about the history of Russia) and Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has generously accepted to answer my questions. Here is the content of our exchange.
Putin has broken the American monopoly in world affairs.
Entire forests have been used to print analysis and op-eds condemning President Putin and portraying him as a threat to the world’s stability. On the other side, your book about the history of Russia presents him as a leader who wants his country to be respected. What is his worldview and agenda?
What you say depends on where you sit. For those defending the current – post-Cold War – order of unprecedented dominance of the United States and the liberal and democratic norms that the U.S. has established – upholds and polices, Vladimir Putin is a dangerous disruptor. Since his Munich speech of 2007, he has been publicly challenging U.S. global hegemony and since 2008 (pushing back against Georgia’s attempt to recover breakaway South Ossetia) and 2014 (intervening in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) has been pushing back against Western geopolitical expansion. Putin has broken U.S. de facto monopoly on intervening in the Middle East by sending forces into Syria in 2015. The following year, Russia interfered with its information resources in U.S. domestic politics which stunned many Americans who are not used to foreigners seeking to influence them. Russia has also strengthened partnership with China, America’s principal challenger of the day. Moscow has energy assets in Venezuela, whose leadership Washington seeks to topple; it has a relationship with Iran and contacts with North Korea, two minor enemies of the United States. Above all, however, Russia, under Putin, has veered off the West’s political orbit; returned to the global scene as a great power; and rebuilt its military might. Russia, which had been relegated to yesterday’s news, an international has-been, a regional power at best (Obama) and a filling station masquerading as a country (McCain), made a stunning comeback.
Few years ago, I was captivated by Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. I recently approached the former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Clinton administration official to submit him a few questions. He generously accepted to respond. Here is the content of our exchange.
You are the father of the term soft power. Just to make sure all my readers understand well, what would be the best short definition of this concept and why is it so important in international relations?
Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want and it is basic to international relations analysis. You can affect others by coercion, payment, and attraction. Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment.