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30 October 2015

The Pendulum effect

What is the advantage of Putin's policy? 

With each coming month and with each new demarche undertaken by the Kremlin, Western politicians grow more and more convinced that Vladimir Putin’s latest course of action is dangerous, unconstructive and harmful to Russia, to the world and to Russia’s relations with the world. And although there is no doubt that today, and in the short term, this is precisely the case, let me draw your attention to one important fact which is often overlooked.

This fact seems obvious at first glance: various processes in a society, including those political, are not so much linear but rather wave-like or pendulum-like in nature. Classical democracy is based squarely on the fact that political parties first attract more sympathy before subsequently starting to irritate voters, causing their support to wane. As a result, the constant replacement of the political elite occurs. If one assumes that, by measuring precisely the moods of the masses, a given power elite does not make mistakes at all, it transpires that such a society will lose out in terms of dynamism since it will ultimately be overwhelmed by civic apathy. A similar phenomenon can be observed in foreign policy, too: as a result of its utter predictability, citizens focus their full attention on domestic problems, which eliminates the possible impact of global developments on society. 

President Putin’s foreign policy used to be quite spontaneous (from restoring ties with the remaining Soviet satellites in 2000-2001 to friendship with the USA post 9/11; from anti-American rapprochement with France and Germany in 2003-2004 to the bet on the alliance with China and subsequently, total self-isolation). At the same time, it had little effect on the domestic political agenda. However, today, it becomes an exceptionally important factor which determines not only relations between Russia and the Western world, but the world-view of the majority of Russians themselves, too. The President ups the ante, his moves become less predictable and increasingly desperate: in less than two years he has drawn Russia into a second armed conflict and he does so while mass indoctrination is conducted in terms of public opinion in the country. All polls show that the number of Russians exhibiting a negative attitude towards the West peaked over the last decade and the prospect of a large-scale war seems quite plausible. Unable to fulfill many of its economic promises, the Russian political elite has made an initially cautious, but later significant step towards focusing on the foreign policy agenda since August 2008. 

And here one cannot help but recall the proverbial cyclical nature of things which can be described as ‘the pendulum effect’. When its swings are measured and small, they have a calming effect if they fail to put one to sleep. However, if a pendulum bob is displaced from its equilibrium position for a long time, there is a risk (or, in more general terms, a possibility) of an abrupt swing in the opposite direction. 

There are numerous examples of the above even in recent Russian history. Not to mention the long-forgotten foreign policy zigzags when former enemies became friends the next morning, armies were deployed and maps were redrawn. 1761 and 1801 are by no means relevant now and so let me recall two relatively ‘recent’ cycles: In 1962, the adventurist policy of Nikita Khrushchev (the man who initiated the first ‘detente’ in relations with the West in the latter half of the 1950’s) pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The effect of this showdown was so great that within a year-and-a-half of the height of confrontations between the USSR and the USA, a number of important agreements were reached (including the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty). In addition, areas of cooperation, which led to rather more indifferent attitudes between the superpowers until the mid-1970’s, had been developed. A little later, at the turn of the 1980’s, the Soviet leaders reverted to heavy-handed tactics again: the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, intervention in the internal affairs of Poland in 1981, the next legs of the arms race between 1978-1982 and, finally, the shooting down of the Korean Airlines ‘Boeing’ passenger airliner of 1983 – and the reaction of Ronald Reagan who dubbed the USSR ‘the evil empire’ – marked the start of an era which saw a new climax in terms of rivalry and hostility. However, back in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced ‘new political thinking’ and the cold war, which had been going on for 40 years, was over in 1989.

In terms of its degree of impulsiveness, the policy of today’s Russian leadership is extremely reminiscent of the approach of the Soviet leaders of the late 1970’s. In both cases, the intoxication by oil and gas ‘vapors’ is so strong that it does not allow an opportunity to adequately assess the potential of the national economy; striving towards the establishment of the ‘superpower’ prompts hasty decisions in the sphere of foreign policy and the ideologically-tinted juxtaposition of the Russian leadership with the outside world becomes more and more obtrusive. With the lapse of time, it will bring about the same effects which manifested themselves in the late Soviet days. On the one hand, part of the elite will begin to understand that the ‘game’ is becoming more and more dangerous and fraught with unpredictable, critical consequences. On the other hand, the population will start to consider whether it is worthwhile sacrificing economic well-being and even the lives of loved ones - not to mention the remaining freedoms - in order to ‘rebuff’ the West either in the Donbas or in Syria or else in more distant and insignificant places – in addition, under conditions whereby there has never been, and there still remains, no verifiable evidence of Western aggression.

‘Pendulum’ swings constantly occur in foreign policy, the only question is to the degree of their extremities (if insufficiently large, significant effects will not be observed). Of course, the ‘pro-Western’ policy of the Russian MFA in the 1990’s prompted a quite flaunty, but senseless turnaround over the Atlantic in 1999 carried out by Yevgeny Primakov. But by the early 2000’s, a new rapprochement with the USA had started, among others. Tensions with America in 2003-2004 and later with NATO in 2004-2005 were also a ‘belch’ prompted in the 1990’s although this also did not affect the world-view of the majority of Russians in the least. Currently, the ‘pendulum’ very significantly deviates from the point of equilibrium– it is ‘pulled’ with all the force of the state machine which spares no effort (in a figurative sense) nor resources (literally). A respective reverse swing can be expected, since the scale of image-related and economic losses from such an approach has already offset all the achievements of the 2000’s. If the approach prevails for several more years, the results will be truly catastrophic.

Hence, I would like to warn my colleagues from the liberal camp who consistently criticize Putin’s foreign policy for the ‘catastrophic’ effect it has on relations between Russia and the West. It seems to me that this catastrophic state of affairs rather relates to the status quo in Russia as such and not to what is going on abroad. It seems that the West, having faced up to what is happening, is not inclined to dramatize the new reality since it understands that Putin is not ready for direct military confrontation. And the West is quite right here: Unlike in the early 1980’s, Russia is playing a game not against a ‘potential enemy’ but rather against itself since its policy prompts no significant reactions from its opponents. Therefore, now, the most appropriate strategy would be to allow the Kremlin to become bogged down in the maximum number of senseless foreign-policy ‘morasses’ and sit back and observe until Russia reverts from ‘anger’ to ‘mercy’ in terms of its attitude towards the West. A definite positive feature of today’s policy is that with every new ‘whorl’, Russians themselves become aware of its senselessness and danger. And perhaps the moment that the pendulum swings back is not so far off – it is now positioned far too extremely from the ‘point of equilibrium’.

And here, a few words should be said about contemporary Russia’s partners (counterparties or opponents – as you wish). To a large extent, they are also responsible for the fact that the ‘pendulum’ of Russian foreign policy which was getting closer to the West several times – swung back unhindered. Russia – and this has to actually be admitted both by Europe and the United States alike – is not an ‘ordinary’ (‘normal’) country; this is a state with a rather complicated past and great potential (both constructive and destructive). Therefore, in case (or when – to be more precise) Russia swings back towards the West, Europeans and Americans should already have a plan for the avoidance of similar future cyclical anomalies. One should not forget that - historically and culturally - Russia is an integral part of Western civilization. And since it is in such a strong ‘discordance’ with its ‘relatives’, it means: both parties are at fault as far as the current problems are concerned. And when the ‘prodigal son’ returns home, he should be warmly welcomed to the European ‘common house’ and not left out in the cold yet again… 

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