Staunton, January 28 – Vladimir Putin is very much afraid of losing face, and some in the West are trying to figure out how to resolve the situation in Ukraine without his doing so. But what they should be focusing on, Aleksandr Skobov says, is precisely how to “help him lose face and break his neck” at the same time.
In a commentary on Grani.ru today, Skobov says that once again Western leaders are trying to figure out how to respond to Putin’s aggression, and once again, all kinds of expert pragmatists are talking about how “to understand Putin, to find a compromise with him and to help him save face.”
Among Western elites, the Moscow analyst says, the view that economic integration and market reforms “will lead to the affirmation in Russia of the main values of Western (Euro-Atlanticist) civilization” has been an object of faith. And when Moscow doesn’t behave that way, these elites talk about “the difficulties of the transition period” and “call for patience.”
But if these violations of what the West expects continue for very long, Skobov says, then these same people adopt exactly the opposite view and begin to explain everything in terms of what they say is “the incompatibility of Western values and ‘Russian civilization’” and urge that the West accept the fact that “the West will never accept them.”
In fact, what has happened in Russia since 1991 has been more complicated than either of those models suggest. A social-economic system has emerged in which “personal success is determined by status in a hierarchy which is in fact feudal and which gives access to the distribution of resources.”
“This system,” Skobov argues, “is camouflaged by decorative institutions of private property and the market.” Indeed, one can say that “the imitative nature of formally existing social institutions is its distinctive characteristic.” That means that Russian elites feel threatened by “the very existence of much more successful and attractive societies in which all these institutions really work.”
Such a sense of being threatened underlies Putin’s ideology of anti-modern conservatism, and that in turn means that “the current opposition of Russia and the West bears a more fundamental ideological character that the opposition of the West and the USSR,” both of which offered “modernization projects.”
The rulers of Putin’s Russia are “convinced that the entire world is constructed just as those criminal groups were in the 1990s out of which they arose. Therefore, they really believe that democracy and the supremacy of law, including international law are only a deception allowing the strong to mask how they exert their will on the weak.”
They believe that what should still belong to them was taken away by the West in 1991, Skobov says, and they “seriously intend to struggle” for its return. They were able to get away with this domestically as long as oil prices were high enough to buy off the Russian people, but the decline of those prices has forced them to turn to other means.
Those means are government-backed propaganda of “an ideology of aggressive anti-Western and anti-liberal traditionalism,” and that ideology is becoming “the land means of maintaining the loyalty of the majority of society to the existing regime.” And its maintenance requires “if not victory in a struggle with ‘the cursed West,’ then at least a struggle.”
That is why Putin and his regime “simply cannot” end the state of a Cold War with the West and “a policy of balancing on the edge of a hot war,” however dangerous that is. And “no attempts to win Putin over by concessions will force him to give up on his plans to destroy the world order.”
“It is senseless to try to help Putin save face because he does not intend to back down,” Skobov says. “Putin is certain” that he will always be able to outplay the West and gain concessions given that the West believes concessions work and business sees profits in working in Russia.
That certainty is the foundation of his “entire strategy of hybrid war,” a conflict in which “the Kremlin sends forces to Ukraine masking them” in one way or another and “Western countries until the last possible moment try to avoid open recognition of the fact of direct aggression by the Russian Federation.”
According to Skobov,”Putin constantly makes the same two moves over and over again: he commits an act of aggression and at the same time blackmails the world with the threat of another still more dangerous step. Then he imitates a willingness” to not take the second step if there are concessions. And the West sees his actions as a display of “’good will.’”
That reaction then allows Putin to get ready for his next act of aggression and repeat the same process, the Moscow analyst says.
The assertion of “certain ‘pragmatists’ that serious economic sanctions against the Russian Federation are harmful because they convince the Russian population of the hostility of the West and lead it to support the anti-Western policy of Putin” is “deeply mistaken,” Skobov says.
In fact, he says, at the present time, “anti-Western, imperial revanchist attitudes in Russia have reached such a point that there is simply no way for them to be increased still further.” Thus, if the West intensifies its sanctions, it “at a minimum will lose nothing.” And there is the possibility that it will gain something very important.
If the West doesn’t impose more sanctions, Putin and his elite will see this as a triumph of his policy and that will lead him and them to proceed in the same direction rather than change course. “People who are driven by revanchism must experience its consequences,” Skobov says. “This is the only means of curing that.”
“Putin’s support will end very quickly when his aura of being incapable of losing dissipated and when he begins to suffer real failures. And the only means to stop him is to ensure that he faces defeat.” Trying to “’understand’” him or “’find a compromise’” will only put off that day and mean that the West will have to do the right thing from a worse starting point.
Putin’s use of blackmail is “always a bluff,” Skobov concludes. He “really is very much afraid of losing face” because he knows that his loss of face will lead to “the destruction of his power. Therefore, one must not help Putin save face. One must help him lose it, and one must help him break his neck” as well.