The Poutine Collective and the Western Collective

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Coincidentally or not, the authoritative Russian newspaper, Russia in world affairs, chose the month of the liquidation of the prestigious historical and educational association of Russia, Memorial, to repost the August 2021 essay by former President Mikhail Gorbachev on ‘Perestroyka ‘ and “New Thought”.1 Need reminders be needed, the foundation of Memorial, as the rehabilitation of its co-founder, Andrey Sakharov, was one of the highlights of perestroyka. Reading the essay is like visiting a museum. Despite the passage of time, Gorbachev reiterates the articles of his faith without amendment. “The experience and lessons of perestroyka are relevant for today, and not just for Russia ”. “And most importantly, we have brought the process of change to the point where its reversal has become impossible.”

Whatever one says about Vladimir Putin, when it comes to the credo of Gorbachev’s policy, one cannot blame him for ignorance. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Russia on the liquidation of Memorial is just the latest sign that it is now considered safe to reject this creed. Of course, this is not the first. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny in August 2020, the crushing of the protests that followed and the subsequent arrest, trial and incarceration of Navalny made it clear to all but the most gullible that Vladimir Putin is determined to eradicate civil society with which perestroyka is intimately associated. The attribution of a Sakharov Prize to Navalny is a reminder of this association. Yet another notation of Gorbachev’s essay is relevant: “an absolute majority [in the country] believed that “continuing to live this way is impossible.” Putin has concluded that it is entirely possible, and it has yet to be proven wrong. (According to a Levada poll in December 2020, only 15% of those polled believed Navalny had been poisoned by order of the state).2

Yet perhaps the most relevant statement in Gorbachev’s essay is: “Besides his internal reasons, perestroyka was based on international factors ”. No less than Gorbachev, Putin subscribes to Lenin’s axiom: “there is no idea more mistaken or more harmful than the separation of foreign and domestic policy”. Those looking for a doctrinal justification for this premise need look no further than Russia’s military doctrine of 2014 and its national security strategy of 2021. The former quotes as “principal military danger’:

subversive information activities against the population, especially young citizens, aimed at undermining historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions linked to the defense of the homeland. [author’s emphasis]

And as “the main external military danger”:

the establishment of regimes whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation in states contiguous to the Russian Federation, including the overthrow of legitimate administrative organs of the state.

Join the dots

NATO enlargement, US policies in Ukraine and the activities of Memorial bound? Yes, for the rulers of the Russian state they are. Why, asked the prosecutor, Memorial promote a false image of the USSR as a “terrorist state” and defame its record in the Great Patriotic War? ‘Because someone pay’ [author’s emphasis].3

If the architects of Western policy and his “wards” in Ukraine have become, in Putin’s jargon, “anti-Russians,” then Putin has become anti-Gorbachev. It readjusts the link between domestic and foreign policy in a way that has implications not only for the development of Russia, but also for the security of its immediate neighbors and of Europe as a whole.

This process did not start with the issuance of Russia’s “demands” on December 15th. It also didn’t start with Putin’s chilling speech at Club Valdai in 2014 (“new rules or a game without rules”) or his intemperate speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. As early as 2004, Putin linked the terrorist attack on the Beslan school to those who want to “tear away a large part of our country …[who] believes that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers in the world, is still a threat, and this threat must be eliminated ”. Even earlier, in November 1999, he mockingly accused the West of offering “credits to buy lollipops, while they annex our territory.” This is not Putin’s personal syndrome. This is the syndrome of the Putin collective, and it was born on the day of the death of the Soviet Union. Today, the Putin collective is stronger than at any time since Boris Yeltsin’s resignation. But if he wasn’t threatened, and if he didn’t create threats, he wouldn’t be strong. Harvesting and generating threats is not just a syndrome, but a state interest.

To read Russia’s demands and its draft treaties is to understand its indignation at the impertinence of the West and also that of its Ukrainian “wards”. President Volodymyr Zelensky, initially considered an emollient figure, if not a clown in Moscow, has been agile, provocative and daring. (None of his predecessors had the temerity to weaken Putin’s prefect, Viktor Medvedchuk). Europe, which the Kremlin calls a “shopping superpower” has not “stood up” to Russia, but it has not allowed “Ukrainian fatigue” and its eternal divisions to change its policies either. . Therefore, the Kremlin decided that it was not only “foolish” (in the words of former President Dmitry Medvedev) to talk to Ukraine, but what to involve Europe, in the words of the vice-president. –Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov, “would simply tie [negotiations] in speech and verbiage ”. What matters is the negotiation with the “sovereign” himself, the United States.

The raw truth

Stripped of the underlying psychological currents, the “collective West” is now confronted with a truth that is both prosaic and harsh. If accepted, Russia’s “demands” would dismantle European security as we know it. The equally blunt truth, far from being new but now inescapable, is that Russia’s objectives are not limited to Ukraine but encompass the entire normative and security system put in place since the conclusion of the Charter of Paris and the end of the cold war. Its demands are not a “menu” to contemplate or, as Washington prefers to describe them, a set of proposals, but an ultimatum whatever the definition of the term. “Negotiation” has no other function than to imagine a set of mechanisms to access it, and “without delay”. Otherwise, the West will be faced, in Putin’s words, with a “military-technical alternative”, and “in places where [it] is not expected ”and“ extremely different ”from these expectations.

Where could the parameters be? The last thing Russia will do is lock itself into the West’s stock alternatives: bluff or war? In the Russian matrix, war (kinetic conflict) is not an alternative to coercive intimidation but one of its instruments. The Russian military term for “coercive intimidation”,ustrachenia, also means ‘terror’. When Putin talks about diplomatiya i ustrashenie, it does not mean “first one, then the other”. He speaks of unity.

The war the West dreads most – a total invasion of Ukraine – is unlikely. It is not that the battalion’s tactical groups on the borders of Ukraine are insufficient for an invasion. They will be good there, but not for what will come after. Russian military leaders are better informed than Western commentators who believe the Ukrainian military will disintegrate within hours and be left dead. But whether they know it or not, they will open the door to People’s War. It will be led by reconstituted forces, veterans of the Donbass conflict, voluntary insurgents, saboteurs as well as special forces who know, at least as well as their Russian counterparts, how to wage war in places and by means that they can. opponent does not anticipate.

But the last thing we can expect is the kind of “ramp off” and “face-saving retreat” that Washington hopes to prepare. Things have gone too far for that. It is time for Western democracies to understand that in Russia authority does not depend on institutions, but on respect. As Putin said at his recent press conference: “Russia has nowhere to retreat further.” Putin either.

Focus minds

Rather than these unlikely scenarios, we need to focus on two more, which are likely to merge. The first, as I wrote in March, would be an occupation in force of what Russia already occupies, to know, the pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The second scenario or simultaneous scenario, also mentioned by the author, was detailed by Frederick Kagan and other experts at the Institute of War: to know. the deployment of “airborne and / or mechanized units at certain locations in Belarus”.

These deployments would have three merits. First, in all likelihood they would be unopposed. Second, they would create a new military-political reality for Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states and, of course, a substantial increase in the threat. Third, they might be sufficiently justifiable in legal terms and sufficiently ambiguous in political terms to delay or dilute Western countermeasures and also undermine Alliance cohesion.

The only effective deterrent is that which persuades Moscow that the West will erect tomorrow the very threats that we are accused of posing today. It is late to do so. But it is not too late to communicate the resolution. To this end, two messages must be delivered. First, Russia must not doubt that our main objective is not to avoid war, but to preserve Western security. Second, our response to the aggression will be disproportionate to any gain Russia hopes to achieve. If instead of these points the United States continues the mirage of the exit ramps and Russia concludes that it is being offered “lollipops” instead of the substance, then the threat to Western interests will increase, as will the risk of war.


The opinions expressed in ICDS publications are those of the authors.

1 Mikhail Gorbachev, “Understanding perestroyka, defend a new thought ‘, [Ponyat’ perestroyku, otstoyat’ novoe myshlenie] (Excerpts translated by the author). Russia in world affairs, August 2, 2021, reposted January 1, 2022.

2 30 percent believed the poisoning was staged and nineteen percent believed it had been committed by Western special services. www.levada.ru/en/2021/02/01/navalny-s-poisoning/

3 “The Supreme Court of Russia has liquidated the” Memorial “association” [Verkhovniy sud Rossii likvidiroval obshchestvo “Memorial”], BBC Russian Service, December 27, 2021


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