Should the West re-engage Russia in the event that the Kremlin seeks a detente, given the low world oil price and the bite of sanctions? In one view, another “reset” would be easy, but in Washington these days “reset” means closing your eyes to the obvious. The minimum condition for such engagement/reset would be an end to the war in Ukraine. This is extremely difficult if not impossible for Putin, and not only because war has become Russia’s only means of influence there. And the domestic political consequences would be very risky for Putin, for such a move would unavoidably be interpreted as weakness.

Russia has been a revisionist power for some years now, indeed is now a revanchist one. If Russian history is any guide, an explicit and undeniable military defeat in a foreign war is a prerequisite for domestic liberalization (canonical precedents, inter alia: Crimean War, Russo-Japanese War). This is a fact that many people know (the Russian elite, the Russian intelligentsia, the Ukrainian people, and segments of the Western commentariat among others), that some of them used to mention, and about which they seem now to keep generally silent out of differing motives.

Putin cannot risk even a Brezhnev-style detente in the worsening economic situation because of the current parlous state of intra-elite politics. In 1971 Brezhnev had consolidated his primacy and was entering his period of greatest domestic political strength; in 2015, Putin’s regime is like a frozen lake in the early spring thaw, that looks solid but is becoming honeycombed with fissures hidden by superficial tranquility.

Even the Cuban Missile Crisis (which was not a “shooting war”) follows this pattern. It is often forgotten that there even was a continued liberalization in the USSR after it (that had begun after Stalin’s death even before the 20th Party Congress speech), and which survived Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964. In particular, up until 1971, the Soviet leadership was always informally referred to as the “Brezhnev-Kosygin regime”. Kosygin as Premier (formally, Chairman of the Council of Ministers) wanted to loosen up central economic management and increase the rate of growth of state spending for consumer/agricultural sectors over heavy-industrial/military sectors. But the Prague Spring gave this tendency a bad reputation and Brezhnev made the most of that. (His reforms were also chewed up by the bureaucracy before even being implemented, much like D. Medvedev’s mostly forgotten program from when he was President.)

Separately, the 1960s also saw a strong increase in mostly-democratic Soviet dissident activity and influence, until Andropov’s co-optation into the Politburo in 1973 consecrated the Brezhnev crackdown on it, which used internal and foreign exile as its main tools of repression.

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This argument does not suggest a direct parallel between the structure of sociology of the present-day regime and 19th-century Russia in any modern empirical social-science–i.e. systematic and objective testing or falsification–sense. Following Aristotle, nothing can be “proven” by analogy. The suggestion is a narrative-historical argument, and based on geopolitical continuity and national political culture.

In Brussels, no one seems to think that a rapprochement with Russia could possibly be in the cards in practical terms. (Allowances were made that the situation could be different, if Steinmeier occupied Merkel’s functions, but she is going to run again now.) The Energy Union is already under way, and even if no one totally agrees with anyone else yet about exactly what it means, it does not mean returning to a greater dependence on Russia. So far as the U.S. is concerned, this issue could possibly be hostage to the primary and general election campaigns for president.

Photo: De Visu / Shutterstock

Robert M. Cutler
Robert M. Cutler is Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was for many years a senior researcher at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University.

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