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Global Affairs

Vladimir Putin: A Sensible Man in the New Era of Realpolitik?

 6 min read / 

The world seems to be entering a new era of Realpolitik. The changes in the world order, best illustrated by the relative decline of US power in the face of China’s rise, have led to pragmatic considerations of economic nationalism and security taking precedence over the liberal globalisation ideals that have dominated since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A New Era of Realpolitik

And just like previous bouts of Realpolitik, from Otto von Bismarck’s power-plays to achieve Prussian dominance in the late 19th century to Henry Kissinger’s pragmatic use of the Vietnam war and China diplomacy to contain the Soviet Union, the personal characteristics of the current generation of world leaders loom large in the political narrative.

Angela Merkel, cast in the role of “Mutti” (or Mom), juggles to square a cohesive EU ideal with the increasing dominance of Germany while pursuing pragmatism to maintain Europe’s economic interests in a multi-polar world. In China, there are increasing references to Xi Jinping “Thought” as he pursues “Great-Power Diplomacy” to match with China’s economic growth. And in the US, Donald Trump’s volatile mix of economic nationalism and populism, which seems designed to mask its relative decline, harks back to previous periods of angry isolationism.

Putin as the Pantomime Villain

And in this line-up, there is one world leader, Vladimir Putin, who has been cast in an almost cartoon villain role. But in its simplicity, this characterisation may gloss-over his position in world affairs and understate his ability to evolve his policies and influence the power-plays between a more dominant US, China and Europe.

There can be little doubt that Putin, with his KGB background, has all but destroyed civil society in the pursuit of power in Russia’s imperfect democracy. He has done his utmost to destabilise other countries as he tries to revive Russia’s world standing. The annexation of Crimea, and alleged meddling in the US election, has raised the hackles of the global liberal order. But Putin is a man who learnt his trade during the last period of Realpolitik in the 1970s, and as the world faces its most dangerous period in decades with the North Korean nuclear stand-off, this education in pragmatism could prove to be very useful.

Hands in Many Pies

Russia’s alleged meddling in the US election has probably been a failure. If Putin aimed to ensure a more conciliatory US attitude to Russia, then this has backfired. Donald Trump’s hands are tied over Russia, and US Congress is antagonistic, imposing sanctions and now attacking alleged Russian agent-organisations such as Kaspersky Labs. But the fallout from this is limited to economics and Putin probably knows that he can ride this out.

The Russian people have shown many times in their history, for example, the second world war, a phenomenal ability to endure economic hardship for Mother Russia and Putin has been happy to encourage the rise of nationalist sentiment and anti-western propaganda. In any case, while the economy has slowed in recent years, in the medium term at least, the worst seems to have passed as global growth increases demand for Russia’s natural resource exports.

In Europe, Russia’s hybrid-war in Ukraine has been relegated to the back pages. The current Zapad-2017 war games in Belarus raises tensions, but the situation is reminiscent of the Cold War stand-off. Eastern European countries, such as Poland, are rightly nervous but not enough to stop antagonising the EU, and Poland especially has increased military spending. The dominant Russia issue in Europe is gas supplies, with Germany furious with the US over economic sanctions that are hitting the construction of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline between Russia and Europe. And in East-German raised Angela Merkel, Europe has the perfect leader to understand the stand-off and talk with Putin.

Russia’s relationship with China has become pivotal. Chinese commentators have long recognised that Xi Jinping took his initial strong man inspiration from Putin, and Xi will never forget that it was Putin who alerted him of the danger of western influenced Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to his imposition of more control over civil society. But Putin must realise that Russia is very much the junior-partner in any relationship with China, best illustrated by 2014’s $400bn 30-year Gazprom energy supply deal that was very much in China’s favour. While Xi Jinping is boxed in over North Korea, Putin can help him navigate the crisis and in return gains economic benefit from China’s “One Belt, One Road” expansion into Central Asia.

A Time for Sensible Cynicism

The North Korean crisis has become the primary flash-point in global geopolitics. Putin’s recent comment that the Pyongyang regime “would rather eat grass than give up their nuclear programme” caught the eye simply because the analysis that sanctions are useless is probably correct. As North Korea tries to raise the stakes by pulling Japan into the mix in a move that could easily unleash dangerous historical bad blood, Xi Jinping’s hand sitting and Donald Trump’s volatile disjointedness are not tackling the problem.

And this is where Putin could come in. After last week’s imposition of UN sanctions, the US State Department has already started accusing Russia of covert trade with North Korea, whether by smuggling or official means, even though it voted in favour of sanctions at the Security Council meeting. This duplicity should not be a surprise – Putin has used similar tactics in Syria and Ukraine and no one has ever managed to stop him.

But Maybe the US needs a quick refresher course in Realpolitik. Russia has a good understanding of the historical enmities and flashpoints in the Pacific, and due to proximity, a relatively direct stake in the resolution of the North Korean situation. While relations with China have in the past been characterised by mistrust, the Chinese leadership are used to cooperating with Russia over foreign policy and Putin has built a good understanding with Xi Jinping, who certainly could do with some help on North Korea.

Putin also has a working relationship with fellow cold-war graduate Angela Merkel, whose “Mutti” moniker probably belies her substantial diplomatic skills and ability to pacify male politicians. And as for the US, Trump’s generals may have to hold their noses – but that is what Realpolitik is all about.

Dirty Work

Angela Merkel has already proposed a solution based on the P5 + 1 Iran nuclear accord, where the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council negotiated with Iran. Maybe, a cold, cynical but steady-handed Vladimir Putin, who has been schooled in Realpolitik over his entire career, could be the right man to help execute this and bring Pyongyang to the table. While an elevation of Putin’s standing may not chime with the views of those of us who look back to a globalised-liberal order, the world is facing dangerous times, and if Realpolitik is the order of the day, then Putin may have the credentials for the job. It is dirty work, but someone has to do it.

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