Détente Plus?: How Should the West Deal with Russia?

Russia was a great power until 1989 and Vladimir Putin wants to make it a great power again. Should America help him? Veteran commentator Leslie Gelb speaks for much of the US foreign policy establishment when he says that we should, as he did in a recent cover story for the National Interest: “It is totally unrealistic . . . to think that the West can gain desired Russian restraint and cooperation without dealing with Moscow as a great power that possesses real and legitimate interests, especially in its border areas.” 

Gelb, an acknowledged authority on military affairs, is an American. His optimism about a diplomatic trade-off for “restraint and cooperation” in return for acknowledgement of great power status may reflect a loose consensus among “realists” in US policy circles, but it is important to understand how an influential Russian of equal or greater standing than Gelb sees the issue. Take Nikolai Patrushev, for instance. For many years Putin’s successor as the head of FSB, the Russian foreign intelligence service, and since then head of the Russian National Security Council, Patrushev has talked about America’s Russian policy in two detailed interviews with Russian media—with Rossiyskaya Gazeta in October 2014 and Kommersant in June 2015. Both would be worth the close attention of Gelb and those who share his views.

In the 2014 interview, Patrushev said that the crisis over the Ukraine was entirely expected—just another episode in continuous aggressive behavior by the US and its close allies over a quarter of a century. According to him, if it had not been Ukraine, America would have found another cause. In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US “behaved particularly shamelessly.” American ruling circles did everything possible to take complete control over raw materials, transport lines, etc. as part of a plan to dismember the USSR. It was only owing to the firm and principled leadership of President Putin that these attempts were stopped. There was a slight weakening of American aggressiveness after 9/11, but it soon became clear that America was not inclined toward real cooperation and positive dialogue as US policy became reminiscent of the Cold War.

Related Essay

‘Tragic’ Flaw: Russia and MH17

When applied to Russian aggression and obfuscation of international justice, the word “tragedy” lends an air of inevitability that seems to absolve wrongdoers of responsibility.

In the 2015 interview, Patrushev went considerably further in anatomizing American ill will. The United States, he maintained, wanted Russia to cease to exist as a country; neither Siberia nor the Russian Far East should belong to it. (He cited Madeleine Albright, a former US secretary of state, as the source of this statement, but Western researchers have not yet managed to locate it.) After the comments, the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented editorially: “Americanophobias have now acquired the status of an official picture of the world” in the Putin era. “For those [in Russia] who support normal relations with the West Patrushev’s words are a warning bell. They indicate that anti-Westernism and especially anti-Americanism are not a maneuver but a strategic choice and that Russia’s conflict with the outside world has reached a point of no return.”

Patrushev may not be well known in the West, but he certainly belongs to Putin’s inner circle. In fact, he is one of the three or four figures thought most likely to succeed Putin even though he is slightly older than his present master. When Putin disappeared from public view for more than a week earlier this year, rumors immediately had it that Patrushev had overthrown him. 

Patrushev has accompanied Putin on various diplomatic missions and handed President Obama personal letters from the Russian president. He went to Tehran to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, which he called an “inalienable right.” Among his many other functions, Patrushev served as chief coordinator of Russian counterterrorism; he made it known in 2015 that more than a thousand Russian nationals had left their homeland and joined one of the radical Islamic terrorist groups.

All this tends to show that the statements he made in these two interviews were not those of an outsider but rather reflect the views of a mainline silovik well placed in the hierarchy. Other such figures have said the same thing in recent months and years, reflecting anti-American emotions in the Kremlin even more intense than those of the Reagan era. There can be no doubt that the policy people around Putin believe that Russia has been constantly humiliated by the West and especially the United States; that hatred of Russia is not just part of the American ideology but “rooted in their genes” (as one commentator has put it); that day in, day out, it is American strategy to harm and humiliate Russia in
every possible way. 


According to one school of thought, Putin believed in close collaboration with the West when he came to power. However, after a few years (some say in mid-2003) he came to believe that the West was not interested in close collaboration and as a result changed his mind and adopted a confrontational strategy, as outlined in his speech at the Munich security conference of 2007 (called by the Western press his “return to the Cold War speech”), where he accused the United States of undermining global security eight years before the events in the Crimea and Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s attitudes toward the outside world and especially America have been marked by strange and sometime inexplicable contradictions. On one hand there is a striking increase in anti-Americanism and xenophobia in general along with a new nationalism; on the other an equally striking rise in emigration. The impulse for a new “Russian idea” (as Putinist state ideology is called) came almost entirely from the extreme right. But while “Zionists” are now accused of having been the gravediggers of the great Russian revolution, the “anti-Zionists” also believe that Lenin and the other revolutionaries were Jewish masons (Zhidomasonstvo) and that the defeat of the White armies in the civil war had been a disaster. In the new dispensation, logic and coherence of ideas are missing in action. 

Some European observers of the Russian scene are adopting the views of the Putinist clique in putting the blame for the country’s inchoate bitterness toward the West squarely on their own governments. Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, the author of the current German bestseller Understanding Russia, asserts that it was because of Western mishandling of the situation in 2005–06 that forces gained influence in Moscow who had claimed all along that it had been a mistake “to open the windows to the West.” The subtitle she uses—“The Battle for the Ukraine and the Arrogance of the West”—indicates her point of view. She believes that the post–Cold War European Union should have helped Russia as much as possible. 

Krone-Schmalz’s failure is to ignore the fact that such help would probably not have resulted in greater Russian gratitude toward the West. What many Russians wanted—or could be made to want by a figure such as Putin—was respect, rather than economic development. Having been accustomed to being treated as a superpower and a major player in all international events, they felt ignored after 1989. Even degenerate Europe (as Russians were accustomed to think of it during the Soviet era) had lost its past fear of their country. 

Should Europe have assisted Russia to achieve its deepest post–Cold War desire—the restoration of the old empire or at least large parts of it? Whether such a “selfless” Western policy, unprecedented in world history, would have led in the long term to a more friendly attitude toward the West and a more democratic order inside Russia (as commentators such as Krone-Schmalz apparently believe) cannot be taken for granted. It might perhaps have borne diplomatic fruit if accompanied by more enthusiasm by the Europeans for other major Russian foreign policy aims—a loosening of ties with the United States and NATO and the acceptance of Russia as the senior partner in an “Eurasian alliance.” But while there was a growing dependence on Russian oil and gas, few Europeans wanted a substantial increase in the Kremlin’s political influence.

“Understanding Putin” became a duty for some Europeans who thought policy toward Russia was hard-hearted. Jörg Baberowski, a leading Berlin academic specializing in modern Russian history, declared in a widely noted TV interview that “no one in the West was understanding Putin” except apparently Baberowski himself and Krone-Schmalz, whose book he praised.

For years a television journalist stationed in Moscow, Krone-Schmalz later became a leading member of the “Petersburg Dialogue,” a German-Russian big-business lobby interested in expanding economic ties. But the popularity of the “Understanding Putin” faction was not restricted to business interests. Understanding Putin was followed on the bestseller lists by several other likeminded books, such as Wir sind die Guten (We are the Good Ones), which proclaimed that the fate of Ukraine was none of Germany’s business, that the German public had been manipulated into hostility toward Russia’s ruling elite by the “lying media,” and that America was occupying Europe. 

There had, of course, always been a “Russian party” in Germany. Bismarck had been a leading (but not uncritical) exponent of Russia, which may explain his current popularity in Moscow. After 1917, such support had come mainly from the left, but more recently right-wingers have been at least equally enthusiastic. The current foreign policy leader of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, has also called for closer relations with Russia (and with political Islam). She is a former Communist and former Italian foreign minister.

A similar debate developed in Britain in 2015, triggered by a longish report from the prominent London think tank Chatham House. Written by a group of experts including two former ambassadors to Moscow, the report concluded that Russia, now acting from a position of strength, felt secure in flaunting international rules. Its recommendations included expansion of NATO and the imposition of harsher sanctions. The report was enthusiastically attacked by a number of other experts who argued that it was wrong to regard present Kremlin policy as a continuation of the Cold War and that doing so in fact was war by literary means. One of the critics, Andrew Monaghan, titled his critique “A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia.” The fatal flaw with such works is that they ignored the harsh statements of Nikolai Patrushev and other leading Putinists that show it was Russia doing the misunderstanding, and in a flamboyantly paranoid way that threw facts and logic out the window.

The inclination of Russian policy experts in the West to consider Putin’s role in decisionmaking as decisive seem to be correct. Present evidence does not show the existence of a collective leadership. But Putin is still subject to influences and pressures, and there are indications of differences of opinion not only between the siloviki and the more moderate advisers—such as, for instance, Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who has expressed deep concern about the economic consequences of Moscow’s present foreign policy—but also among the more belligerent siloviki advisers themselves.

Among the more aggressive figures who have been on the record are contributors to the Moscow weekly Zavtra, such as Aleksei Anpilogov, or military adventurer types such as Igor Strelkov, who was among the central military commanders in Ukraine. They believe that Putin’s besieged fortress strategy, accompanied by occasional Kremlin threats (Russia being the only country able to destroy America), cannot win a war. Only a full-scale attack can achieve this. Russian strategy has therefore to be changed accordingly.

Whether they have in mind a conventional military attack or a nuclear war is not certain. Advocates of this strategy, also known as “the war party,” are thought to include present and former heads of the intelligence services such as Alexei Kudrin and Mikhail Fradkin, as well as establishment figures such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Dmitri Rogozin, who in the past represented Russia at NATO, and others. Their influence seems to have greatly increased in recent years. 


Leslie Gelb maintains that the policy he advocates—call it détente plus—does not imply that America should cease its criticism of Russian misbehavior. Carping about violations of human rights causes considerable irritation in Moscow even though both sides know it has no practical consequences. Russia should be honored and respected as it is, namely as a great power and not as some Westerners wish it should be. In other words, a good measure of self-censorship is needed to create the climate needed for an improvement in relations.

But the problem with this “realist” analysis is that it is filled with wishful thinking and contradictions that ignore reality. Its adherents claim that the sanctions on Russia have no effect at all, and in fact help the Russian economy—but they also say that the sanctions drive Russia to ruin and to despair. They argue that Russia is weak and that this weakness could drive it into frenetic action. But they also maintain that Russia is strong and that the West should be greatly afraid of it. They report that Putin is a pragmatist and surrounded by likeminded advisers but also say that the wild people in his entourage now have the upper hand (or will get it) unless the West exhibits greater “understanding.” 

The quest for a détente is vital. But it will go nowhere unless the present mood of Russia is taken into account: 

Let us imagine a person healthy in body and strong, talented and not unkind—for such is quite justly the general view of the Russian people. We know that this person or people is now in a very sorry state. If we want to help him, we have first to understand what is wrong with him. Thus we learn that he is not really mad, his mind is only afflicted to a considerable extent by false ideas approaching folie de grandeur and a hostility towards everyone and everything. Indifferent to his real advantage, indifferent to damage likely to be caused, he imagines dangers that do not exist, and builds upon them the most absurd propositions. It seems to him that all his neighbors offend him, that they insufficiently bow to his grandness, and in every way want to harm him. He accuses everyone in his family of damaging and deserting him . . .

These lines were written not by a contemporary Russophobe but by the 19th-century theologian and philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, one of the greatest Russian thinkers. His words, unfortunately, still seem to be largely true today. 

Walter Laqueur is the author, most recently, of Putinism.


OG Image: