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Has Putin hit the jackpot?

Vladimir Putin has got what he wanted from Washington – and with a cherry on top. Joe Biden has offered him a summit.

The Russian president is devilishly lucky. On all fronts – internal and external. Inside the country, the Kremlin has created a political Sahara. Its moves trigger far-reaching ripples, seemingly for the fun of drenching others. The stooges sadistically shoot off legislative crackdowns. Externally, the Kremlin’s victory is no less impressive. The West, as a collective entity, is backing down. Calls for tough action against Russia are giving way to a mood of wait-and-see and even goodwill.

The intractable Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus only makes the June summit between Putin and Biden more necessary; an event that so far looks like a tactical victory for the Kremlin. Just yesterday, the European Parliament was sabre-rattling, crying for Russia to be punished. Today, the tempest has subsided. It seems that Russia is a sticking point on which the EU cannot find a common stance. So, instead, it is letting off steam. This was clear at the EU summit on May 24-25, when the “strategic discussion” on Russia again ended in vague statements.

Such phrasing seeks to say everything in general and nothing in particular. Brussels has once more postponed the EU report on Russia until June. But everyone expects the text to keep dodging between the raindrops. “In terms of foreign policy, we’re still in our teenage years,” laments a leading European diplomat. Germany is Europe’s tuning fork. Not long ago its foreign minister, Heiko Maas, announced that sanctions against Russia could include dropping Nord Stream 2 [a pipeline to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany]. “Yes, the Chancellor follows the same line of thinking,” he stressed.

Maas has now changed his tune: “It is not in our interest to join this confrontational hype. We seek dialogue and good neighbourly relations with Russia.” Further sanctions could also play into Russia’s hands, he believes. Chancellor Angela Merkel even reprimanded the Czechs for expelling the Russian diplomats. “Everything should have been worked out beforehand,” she admonished.

The new head of British intelligence, Richard Moore, suggests a combination of thunder and whispering, urging that the Russian Federation must be opposed as strongly as possible while interacting with Moscow and respecting its role in the world. Or, as Pushkin put it, try to “hitch a trembling doe and horse up to a single carriage.” However, it is Washington, not Europe, that calls the shots. Vladimir Putin has got what he wanted from Washington – and with a cherry on top. President Biden has offered him a summit. This looks like a return to the bipolarity so desired by the Kremlin.

The preparations for the summit smack of appeasement of Putin. During their meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tried to outdo each other in their calls to “overcome the unhealthy situation” (Lavrov) and to move towards a “predictable, stable relationship” (Blinken). “The desire for normalisation” was confirmed by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Biden has given Putin a down payment, waiving sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 operator and its chief executive. True, Putin was not the main object of Washington’s urge to be conciliatory. Biden also needed Merkel, who holds the key to European solidarity. He needs this solidarity in order to contain China. Meanwhile, the Kremlin needs one more down payment: a commitment not to spoil Putin’s mood with talk of [Russian opposition leader Alexei] Navalny, Ukraine, repression or mischief against America. So far, Washington has found a way to broach subjects that are unpleasant to the Kremlin without causing it irritation.

De-escalation of relations

So far, the trend is clear. The West is seeking means to de-escalate relations with Russia. All hopes that the Kremlin would be willing to follow clear rules – as the USSR did – have been dashed. A new model for neutralising Russia must be found. Does Western softness mean it is giving in to Moscow? To think so would be to underestimate the ability of the West to advance its own interests.

Outwardly, Western leaders may agree to play the Kremlin’s game. So Putin wants to be part of the concert? Then let there be a concert! Moscow wants a dialogue? Then let there be a dialogue! Cooperation? Let’s hold a talking shop on subjects about which there is nothing to say. A new thaw, if it does come about, will be based not on hopes but on hopelessness. On mutual distrust and cynicism. If Russia cannot be changed, then better not to provoke Moscow – this is what current Western tactics look like. Of course, during the talks, the West will try to resolve issues that are of mutual interest. As it is doing in Vienna, reviving the nuclear deal with Iran. But this does not change the essence of the new dialogue.

Normativists – those who expected Western sanctions and an emphasis on values, and who were relying on Biden – are disappointed. But realists, advocates of the balance of power, also have no cause to rejoice. After everything that has happened between Russia and the West there is no ground for mutual trust. There is no chance that the West, frightened by the Kremlin’s erratic behaviour, will suddenly turn into an altar boys’ choir. There is no hope that warmer relations will bring economic dividends for Russia. There is no hope that the Russian elite will feel comfortable in their Western villas. There is no hope that dialogue will halt the Western response to Russian militarisation. And anyway: how can there be a balance of forces given their imbalance?

What will happen is already clear. A discussion between parties who do not trust each other, under cold rain. Common interests do not wipe away an underlying hostility of principles. They cannot stop the Kremlin from forcing the world to respect it by threatening to knock out its opponents’ teeth if there are no other means of persuasion. And why should the Kremlin start behaving like a lamb, if the April escalation was such a great success! After all, it showed the West that it should think not about how to punish Russia, but how to respect it!

(Translated from Russian by Julia Bassam)

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SWI swissinfo.ch. 

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