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A “Grand Bargain”: What would Russia want?

If you take a closer look at the discussion around the “grand bargain”, it is fairly noticeable that it is being mainly conducted in the West. In Russia, this topic is almost irrelevant. The Kremlin’s foreign policy is dictated by the task of preserving the political regime created by Vladimir Putin.

January 28, 2020 - Igor Gretskiy - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2020Magazine

IGOR

A demonstrative confrontation with the West in the form of a “besieged fortress” brings significant advantages for domestic politics. For the political elite, a confrontation with the West in the international arena is a way of legitimising the further tenure at the helm of the country. Nonetheless, this tactic has a limited period of utility.

The fact is that the majority of Russians nostalgic for the Soviet era belong to one of the two largest demographic groups of the population – the older generation, born in the 1950s. Among them, the demand for Soviet-style stability, great power, anti-Americanism and the “special path” is particularly high. It is no coincidence that the face of Russia in the international arena have become professional propagandists and PR specialists: Alexey Pushkov, Pyotr Tolstoy, Maria Zakharova and others. They professionally reproduce the necessary rhetoric; and for the Kremlin, it does not matter whether the West believes the rhetoric. More important is whether the Russian public believes it.

Any compromise with the West that is not accompanied by a significant increase in wages and incomes will be perceived by the older generation as a “betrayal”. This is probably the lesson Putin learned from the experience of Mikhail Gorbachev. Consequently, a “grand bargain” with the West is impossible, by definition. However, such a deal looks impossible for several other reasons, too. The main one is the level of confrontation between Moscow and the West, which is significantly lower than during the Cold War. Today, the Russian elite is much more connected with the West than the Soviet Communists were. Previously, members of the Politburo had more arguments for pressing the “red button”. For example, a nuclear war with the West, on the pretext of continuing the global revolution, could be used by the Kremlin to avoid recognising the failures of the postulates of Marxism-Leninism. The impoverished Soviet state had much less to lose than the developed, wealthy countries of the West.

Today, the situation is radically different. Russia, in the same way as the USSR, exports energy resources, raw materials and weapons, but it has also begun to import significantly more goods due to a notable improvement on commodity markets. The main beneficiaries of increased consumption were a very narrow circle of the Russian elite, as evidenced by the data of the colossal property stratification in Russia. And, moreover, many of the elite’s assets are stored in the West. Therefore, the militant rhetoric of the Kremlin is essentially a bluff. This was clearly visible when Montenegro announced its intention to join NATO and Russian generals hastened to announce the re-targeting of missiles towards it. An hour later this statement was disavowed. It is clear why. Montenegro is one of the most popular countries for real estate investment among Russian officials. The USSR could realistically aim and launch a missile at a European country. Unlike the Soviet secretary generals, however, the Russian kleptocracy has much more to lose in the event of a full-fledged armed conflict. Aiming rockets at your property is absurd. In addition, the children of officials study in Europe and keep their savings there. Therefore, I am sure that if Switzerland joins the EU, or Finland joins NATO, Russia will pass and the matters will not go any further than rhetoric.

Another reason for the impossibility of a “grand bargain” is that the West, today, is not as consolidated with respect to a Russian threat as it was during the Cold War. The Russian economy cannot compete with the American or European in terms of volume, and in the borrowing market, Russia is inferior to Belgium. But the capacity of the Russian market and the high solvency of the Kremlin are important factors for many European companies that have decided to continue co-operation with Russia, despite many cases of international law violation and the Kremlin’s explicit interference in the internal politics of western countries.

For the Russian authorities, this is an inexhaustible resource for exerting pressure on western governments. And while the Russian economy is supported by favourable energy prices, any sort of “grand bargain” seems simply impossible.

Translated by Margarita Novikova

Igor Gretskiy is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at St Petersburg State University.

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