Read the original text at radiosvoboda.org.
War or peace? Russia and the West have been thinking over this issue for all the outgoing year and have not reached the final decisions on it. Meanwhile, relations with the West for the Russian system have become an existential issue: the overlap of the financial and technological resource that liberal democracy supplies to Russia have placed the Kremlin autocracy on the brink of survival. Moreover, the marginalization of Russia after the "liberation of Crimea" breaks the sovereign status, which is the backbone of national autocracy. In order to remain a super state, Russia should return to a dialogue with its Western partners.
In turn, for the first time, Russia became a factor of domestic policy for Western states, mainly for the United States. Now the attitude of different political forces towards Russia influences the outcome of the power struggle in Washington, and this will be appropriately projected onto the foreign policy of the Western world. Of course, the West does not want neither a cold, nor a "hot war" with Russia, the West does not dare to isolate Moscow, for fear of increasing its aggressiveness. But how can one restrain the frenzied player and simultaneously negotiate with him? A recently published article by the former US Vice President Joseph Biden and a speech by one of the leaders of German Social Democracy Sigmar Gabriel demonstrated two Western approaches to Russia. Biden calls for retribution for the Russian "attack against American democracy." His proposal to set up a commission in Washington to investigate Russian interference in the US internal affairs (in the likeness of the commission that investigated the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001) threatens to turn Russia into America’s enemy. Gabriel, on the contrary, calls on Germany to turn to a "pragmatic-realistic foreign policy," he proposes to abandon "legal idealism." This means, as Ralf Fuecks, co-founder of the German Center for Liberal Modernity, explains, that "the criterion of German foreign policy should not be the democracy and human rights," but the preservation of "good relations with China, Russia, and Iran. Fuecks believes that Gabriel's statement means "the desire to curtail sanctions against Russia and return to a partnership with the Kremlin." In the event of the formation of a ruling coalition of German Christian Democrats and the SPD under such sentiments among the Social Democrats, it will be difficult for Chancellor Merkel to keep the European Union's sanction unity with regard to Russia.
In what direction goes the interpretation of the relations between Russia and the West within the Russian establishment? Putin refused to build up tension and for several years now he is trying to correct the consequences of his "Crimean campaign", which undermined the mechanism of existence of Russia at the expense of the West. Russian president today calls for "turning the page" in relations with the West. Sergei Lavrov, in his turn, says: "We do not seek confrontation with the US, the European Union, and NATO, on the contrary, Russia is open to the widest possible interaction with Western partners.", Lavrov explains, "Our task is modernization while using European achievements," but without a "radical breakdown of traditions." In short, the Kremlin is trying to return to a cooperation with liberal democracy, but without losing face. The anti-Western hysteria is oriented toward the internal audience. But the Kremlin offers a new deal with liberal democracy for export.
The point is that any deal is an exchange of concessions. It is clear what Moscow expects from the West: the lifting of sanctions and the return to the exchange of resources - we give you gas and the opportunity to serve our economic interests, you give us credits, technology and guarantee the smooth integration of our elite into your society.
Today, Putin's "Syria gambit" gives him the appearance of victory (a kind of ersatz of victory, if there are no other grounds for celebration), which is necessary as proof of the strength of the exhausted Russian power. The Syrian "victory" is Kremlin’s prepayment for a return to dialogue with the West. This dialogue should allow untying the "Ukrainian knot", which is the main stumbling block for restoring the blood supply to the Russian system at the expense of the West.
However, we might see that the government of Russia is not sure about the balance of the "fist" (ie, the demonstration of power) and "hugs" in relations with the West. This balance depends on how Russia understands the state of the West. Apparently, some believe that Russia is again "on a roll", and the West has been "losing in a strategic competition." That is what Sergey Karaganov thinks: "Russia has saddled a wave of history that came to the finish of the five-hundred-year-old rule of the West, and ran ahead." Hmm... What are Western sanctions against Russia? Proof of losing the West? What a funny logic! Vyacheslav Nikonov draws a grandiose picture of Russia's return to the first echelon, proposing to start building a "concert" of great powers and dreaming of a "trusting partnership" with the United States. Europe is confused, and someone among Europeans can be tempted by the opportunity to support the idea of a "concert." But the US is consolidating on the idea that "Russia is toxic," so what will make Washington return to "trust" in relations with Moscow?
If the Kremlin listens to the victorious trombones, and even believes in Western readiness for connivance, then the things are bad. In this case, the Russian ruling team may again be tempted to test the muscles of the West. Moreover, the Kremlin had a problem with the new idea of legitimization. Putin has already tried himself in several roles: the Stabilizer, the Modernizer, the Military Leader. Now he is trying to master the role of the Peacemaker, offering the world a way out of the new cold war. But he does not need a Western retreat for this role!
If the West is not ready to give the Kremlin an opportunity to feel the victory, one can try to force Western leaders to do this. The Russian tactic of compulsion to love has been quite successful. The Kremlin "toolbox" still has coercive means: a promise to transfer the Russian economy to "military rails"; the threat to withdraw from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). This is enough to make the western elite to live in fear. If the matter goes in this direction, then Russia will again turn into a besieged camp - even against the will of the elite, which would prefer to settle in another, hostile camp. The previous camp confrontation ended with the collapse of the USSR.
If the West smooths things over, it means that the world will return to the "big deal" of the last twenty years: the West will give Russia resources, and Russia would give gas and corruption to the West. This would not be a collapse scenario, but rather a slow decay.
And yeah! We forgot about the presidential elections. However, today the elections is not that kind of intrigue, which will determine the trajectory of Russia. The intrigue is whether the West will want to remain a resource of Russian autocracy. And it does not matter who will personify the Kremlin’s autocracy.