One Floor Higher

7 june 2014

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: It is already becoming habitual: yet another turn in world politics – and a fondly prepared portfolio of materials has to be shelved, and new ones made in an emergency mode. Witnessing epoch-making events is fascinating, but it takes a lot of nerve…

It is already becoming habitual: yet another turn in world politics – and a fondly prepared portfolio of materials has to be shelved, and new ones made in an emergency mode. Witnessing epoch-making events is fascinating, but it takes a lot of nerve…

The period from February to April 2014 marked the sharpest turn in history since the end of the Cold War. We have witnessed the actual collapse of the Ukrainian statehood which emerged after the abolition of the Soviet Union, Crimea’s entry into the Russian Federation, and an upsurge in confrontation between Moscow and the West. No wonder life made us revise our plans and devote the entire issue of Russia in Global Affairs to the changes which someone has already dubbed “Russian spring.”

This time I will not comment on the contents of this issue – the titles of the articles speak for themselves. The authors analyze the causes and consequences of the Ukrainian crisis from different angles. Yet there is no article about the main character of the whole story. So let me fill in the gap.

The Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed in a televised interview that Vladimir Putin had made the decision on Crimea’s takeover solely by himself. He was also the author of his March 18 speech which even his opponents described as probably the strongest throughout his presidency. The head of state has clearly entered a new stage. And its main distinctive feature is not that after a long strategic retreat Russia has begun to dictate the agenda to countries that are more powerful and stable than itself, but that it marks the end of the period when Russia was recovering from the collapse of 1991 and restoring its potential. Putin is entering the stage of creation, as he sees it.

The year 2013 was successful for Russian foreign policy – in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, and during Russia’s G20 chairmanship. At the same time, many commentators had the impression then that Moscow had objectively reached its ceiling and that it should therefore seek to capitalize on the acquired status. However, Vladimir Putin apparently came to a different conclusion. He views this “ceiling” not as a natural limit but as an annoying obstacle which must be overcome in order to reach the next level. And this obstacle should be resolutely broken through, despite the costs.

Everyone has acknowledged the Russian president’s role – those who approve his policy and those who reject it. The world’s leading publications carry similar headlines – Putin’s World, Putin’s Brain, Putin’s Gambit, etc. The image painted by them is acquiring an almost mystical nature. Why?

Wise Henry Kissinger wrote in The Washington Post: “For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Putin nonplusses Western leaders because he has begun to take over the initiative and fill the form, formerly proposed for Russia, with his own, contrary content. His figure patently shows that the global political model built as a result of the West’s victory in the Cold War has not just stalled but may be used against the victors.

Preventive military actions, humanitarian interventions, direct interference in the affairs of other countries in the name of supporting citizens’ struggle for their rights, the renunciation of the principle of inviolability of borders – these policies have been consistently brought into international practices since the early 1990s. However, it was assumed by default that only a limited number of states could use these tools, namely, those whose are “on the right side of history,” using a popular American expression.

Strong feelings towards Putin – both negative (in the West) and positive (in the rest of the world) – are due to the fact that he has challenged the global hierarchy. Strangely enough, the Russian leader, who is viewed as a “pure democrat” only by Gerhard Schroeder, upholds the principle of promoting democracy in the world. But he sees democracy not as a certain socio-political model in a country, but as a principle of inter-state relations. What is allowed to some cannot be prohibited to others. The world order cannot be based on the interpretation by only one group of countries of how things should and should not be done. Rules work only when they are agreed by all, rather than imposed by someone, even though that someone sincerely believes in their fairness.

Generally speaking, the Russian president has reminded to the world that there is a cause-effect relationship. Action inevitably gives rise to counteraction. And any decision has a consequence which cannot be cancelled only because the stronger party deems it wrong.

Over almost 15 years at the helm of power (in various capacities) Vladimir Putin has brought the country back to the top league of world politics. He himself no doubt has taken a foothold on the global Olympus, having broken through the “ceiling” which everyone believed would stop him. However, now that he is one floor higher, the President is faced with a new challenge. His personal reputation as a leader is higher in the international ranking than the place Russia occupies as a country. Very many people are confident that Russia is climbing higher at the limit of its capabilities and that the Ukrainian campaign may be its swansong before an inevitable decline. Now Putin has to prove that this is not so.

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