Archive for September 2015
My instinct always tells me to avoid meeting mean people. But journalism is about meeting exactly them, and so is diplomacy. They might give you insights that you won’t get otherwise or they might ally with you against meaner and more dangerous people. It’s always good to talk, which is why I am glad that Obama is talking to Putin.
That said, the Russian president is unlikely to offer a feasible solution for Syria or concessions on Ukraine. It is highly probable that his only goal is to get the handshake footage, which he can show to Russian TV viewers lest they are starting to realize that Russia has turned into a bit of a pariah state. As I said before, Russian foreign policy is serving just one goal – keeping popularity ratings at the current mind-bogglingly high level.
But Putin is interesting, and he is not someone you can summon at a whim. He might have ideas on the future of Assad or crucial intelligence on ISIL obtained from Chechens and Tajiks fighting on its side. He might hint at a possible change of tack on Ukraine.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s fascinating to watch his body language and his slips of tongue. Is he scared? Is he feeling cornered? Is he losing his grip? How will he try to dupe and manipulate the Americans this time? Obama should really approach this meeting as an interviewer rather than mentor or policeman talking to repeated offender.
It will also help if the US president comes late by an hour or two – just to watch the reaction and spoil the rosy TV picture Putin is hoping to bring home.
One important thing to understand about Russia’s foreign policy is that Russia has no foreign policy and no long-term goal to achieve internationally. But given its size and capabilities, its domestic politics will continue to make a strong, if random impact on international affairs. All of its actions, including the war in Ukraine and the recent foray into Syria, are dictated by the need to mobilize Putin’s support base in order to keep the status quo whereby the oligarchy can tap into natural resources and state coffers, unhindered by media and opposition.
If the pendulum of public opinion swings towards pacifism, as it did in the late 1980s and during the first Chechen war, the regime (non-democratic, but obsessed with feedback) will swing that way, too. But for now it feels it needs another ‘victory’ to prop up its high popularity ratings, playing on the Russians’ deep inferiority complex caused by the trauma they endured in the 20th century. It needs another Crimea of sorts.
Since there will be no more victories in Ukraine, Syria comes as a natural alternative. Crucially for Putin’s regime, Syria is where the West has failed miserably, which allows him to once again present himself as the only real can-do man among the world leaders. His unique experience of putting down an extremely brutal and insane Islamist insurgency in Chechnya gives him a lot of confidence when it comes to fighting the Islamic State, which sure as hell has been massively infiltrated by Russian agents of Northern Caucasus and Central Asian background. Another concern is that the warlord and mercenary class that Putin has bred in Chechnya and Donbass needs to be permanently fed with war, lest it turns arms against the regime.
But ultimately, there is no end game for Putin in Syria – all he needs is a TV picture of Russians doing something that passes for saving the world, no matter what the end result might be. The imitation of efficiency, bold actions and strong views is the essence of the current Russian regime.
Putin’s only real war is against the domestic opposition and its leader Alexey Navalny, but his entourage is imaginative enough to avoid waging this war in the streets of Moscow. The whole point of meddling in Ukraine and Syria is to create the right TV picture and commentary for domestic consumption. What passes for Kremlin’s foreign policy is run by media-savvy ‘Wag the Dog’ types, but their level of cynicism is only comparable to the Bolshevik’s or Islamic State’s ability to unleash unrestrained and unprecedented terror.
What the West mistakes for a message to itself, is not addressed to it all. The Kremlin is only talking to the imaginary West of its own TV broadcasts and it doesn’t care a bit that the real West might take it personally.