Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Carol Saba on Demonizing Russia

French original here.

On the Dangers of Demonizing or Idealizing Russia

"There must not be a cold war, at any price," declared Nicholas Sarkozy while visiting Moscow on October 29. The former French head of state, who met at length with President Putin, also gave a lecture on political science to the students of MGIMO, the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

In the Russian capital, Sarkozy managed to make his transformation. Sarkozy "the American" became in Moscow Sarkozy "the Russian" and did not hesitate to employ a rather Gaullist vocabulary to demonstrate his closeness to Russia. This is a major indication that the world, which was dominated at the time of his accession to power in 2007 by the unilateralist vision of the American neoconservatives who were then his inspiration, has since changed its geopolitical paradigm. The world of the "hyperpower" (the term originates with former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine) has effectively given way to the apolar or multi-polar world of today, a world beset with a myriad of dangers of an entirely new nature which are developing in a chaotic, dynamic and globalized manner. Obviously, this world is structurally in need of "governance" and better control over dangerous trends.

In Moscow, the former French head of state was able to give a lucid speech inspired by the fundamentals of the logic of geopolitics in today's world. His reading, contrary to a certain Western policy that would like to "isolate" Putin's Russia by constantly pointing fingers at it, right or wrongly, simply warns against the dangers of ceaselessly demonizing Putin's Russia. Russia has managed to once more emerge onto the world stage. It has not lacked for causing fears and anxieties, attractions and repulsions. The most contradictory ambivalences are expressed about it, as well as the most extreme criticisms and the more servile accolades. For my own part, I do not idealize Putin's Russia, but neither do I demonize it. There are many who do it today, rightly or wrongly. From the point of view of those who demonize it, there is no lack of topics. Yesterday Crimea, then Ukraine and today Syria. But dispassionately and objectively, the act of demonizing Russia does a lot more harm than good in this apolar, complicated and broken world of ours.

A political tool as old as the world, demonizing consists of inventing enemies and to force the features of their failure in order to create, justify and perpetuate certain policies of confrontation. It is a dangerous and risky game in today's world which is in search of leadership and governance, a world that is more in need of regulations than confrontations that feed confrontations, fears and wars. It is clear that a distance is widening with the incomprehension and misunderstandings that are developing day in and day out between Moscow and the Western camp.

It is a process of estrangement that could lead in the end to a new cold war. In Moscow, Sarkozy sought instead to build a bridge and reach out in order to avoid this drift toward "a new cold war" which, according to him, "would be devastating." Expressing himself-- and not without emotion-- before students at the "Sciences Po" of Moscow, Sarkozy praised Russia's leading role, stressing its centrality in today's global world. Before speaking about conflicts on the world stage, he highlighted the interdependence of the destinies of Europe and Russia.

"Europe needs Russia and Russia needs Europe," he said, in a variant of the well-known Eurasian Gaullist expression. "Yes, it's Europe," declared General de Gaulle in Strasbourg in November 1959, "from the Atlantic to the Urals, it's Europe that will decide the world's fate!" Sarkozy was also right to say in Moscow that "Russia  is essential to resolving the Syrian conflict..." before vehemently pronouncing sentences mixing politics and feeling: "I believe in Russia... You are a great world power... Russia is indispensable to the world... Without Russia, we cannot meet the challenges and crises..."

Our strategic error is wanting to apply Western norms to Russia! Those who believe that Russia should resemble the West and that it should conform to the West's paradigm are wrong. Since Ivan the Terrible and even earlier, Russia has had its own paradigm. Its destiny is that of a great ambivalence between East and West, between Europe and Asia, between rationality and irrationality, between unity and fragmentation. Did not General De Gaulle refuse to see in the USSR anything other than "a temporary avatar of eternal Russia" and in its government "a modernized form of a fatal autocracy"?

The Soviet period significantly affected Russia. It still needs time to make its transformation and exorcise all the old demons. Still weighing on Russia is its resulting weakening during the years of the collapse of the Soviet system and the troubled years that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990. This was resented in a country that is so proud and so nostalgic of past grandeur. There are many in Russia who resent what they see as a systematic looting of Russia's economic and financial wealth through the many privatization programs led by the West in the 1990s.

Since then, Russia has been trying-- not without difficulty and at times with many relapses-- to return to the circle of nations and and to effect "its own" democratic transition in an immense country that traditionally has a strong autocratic tradition. Additionally, for many Russians the West has not stopped wanting to surround it and prevent this former great imperial power from reconstituting its forces and capabilities. The phenomenon of Putin and his great popularity can only be understood and deciphered through this lens, that of the Russian historical subconscious that desires "Russia's return." It is obvious that everything isn't black or white in Russia's evolution since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But whatever you say, whether you like it or not, it has proven its capacity to not only to return to the international stage but to restore its offensive and deterrent capabilities and to revive a dynamic diplomacy of influence. Of course, it still has a long way to go in terms of a democratic transition.

But it is not through demonizing Russia nor in demonizing its Orthodox Church-- which is reconstituting itself from its ashes-- that we we can help Russia along this path. Whether monarchist or communist, it pursues a neo-imperial geopolitical model (and is not the only one to do so...), a model based on power that is exported and projected from the center. Rather than isolating or demonizing it, we should understand Russia in all the strata of its historical depth and extend a hand to it as a partner, not as an adversary, reminding it by way of substantive dialogue of truths and fundamentals. I will go even further: let the first power that is without sin and can claim to have guarded its moral virginity intact cast the first stone! The state of desolation in the Middle East, the inability of the powers to resolve conflicts and their capacity for pursuing them with cynicism and interest has sufficiently inoculated us so that we can understand the game of nations, keep a cool head and stay rational! The railway that Sarkozy tried to lay on the Moscow line, to say that demonizing Russia is not game free of risks for the evolution of Russia and the world, is a step in the right direction. Neither demonizing nor idealizing Russia, but a necessary and useful work of convergence with it, for the sake of peace and security in the world and in order to put an end to all attacks on the freedom and dignity of persons and peoples!

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