In my previous paper for Desk Russie, I pointed out the fatal consequences of the lack of understanding of the nature of Putin’s regime by some Western leaders. I am trying to go further here: the attempts to re-engage with the Kremlin have also had long-term effects on the public mind of democracies, the myopia, sometimes voluntary, in front of the actions of the Russian state and the persistence of its propaganda.
We often have the impression today that attempts to re-engage with the Russian regime, or “reset” as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it back in 2009, have been abandoned. The search for a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia, marking the beginning of President Joe Biden’s term in office, or President Emmanuel Macron’s ambition to build an “architecture of security and trust” with Russia are now, as expected, relegated to the dustbin of history. The same applies to the attempts of Germany and Italy to do the same. There is progress already.
However, borrowing a metaphor from physics, there are still afterglows. Meaning lasting medium-term effects, even if the initial cause has disappeared. We underestimate too often the idea, such re-engagement has created in terms of persistent behavior on the part of political and economic leaders or opinion leaders.
First, there are objective realities, so to speak. The combined effects of the short-sightedness of some leaders; their lack of strategic vision; and the ideology of re-engagement—ideology, in the sense of the young Marx of The German Ideology: that very disposition of the mind reflecting a contempt for reality — has had powerful economic effects. We are all too aware part of Europe is depending on Russian exports of hydrocarbons and food products. Despite a new set of tough sanctions against Moscow, following the February 24, 2022 attack on Ukraine, some European and American companies keep on operating in Russia, even though some have withdrawn. Not so long ago, at the 2018 St. Petersburg Economic Forum visited by Emmanuel Macron, French officials were pleased France was the largest foreign employer in Russia, and praised the dynamism of Franco-Russian economic relations. Some French economic circles, especially those present in Russia, also continue to plead for a “return to normal” — as if nothing had happened.
Secondly, without this always being clearly expressed, it seems that certain European political leaders can keep on imagining a “negotiated solution” with the Russian regime on Ukraine, as if the cessation of hostilities, should it takes place, would lead to a return to the path initially traced. Some people seem to think, some of the toughest sanctions could be lifted on this condition, without Ukraine, including Crimea and parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, being entirely free from Russian occupation.
To sum it up, some may continue to live with the status quo as it has existed before the February 24 attack, and may be tempted to abandon the prosecution of war crimes against Vladimir Putin and those responsible for, ordering or executing them. Although no one can return to the naivety of the previous period, there is still a temptation to “move on” and re-establish so-called normal relations with the regime, including on the economic level. Certainly, the European countries and the United States will be more on their guard and will continue to accelerate their defense efforts. But there is a fear some will spread the idea of some form of normalization. To put it another way: many people implicitly consider that the sanctions as well as the various measures taken — from the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to the freezing of assets of certain Russian personalities to the banning of Kremlin-controlled media — are linked to the Russian offensive against Ukraine, but could be destined to disappear, if it came to an end. Such a view would be wrong, not only because of the situation in Ukraine, but also in Belarus and Georgia in particular, and the continuation of Russian strikes against civilians in Syria.
Thirdly, it is important to see the visible effects the policy of re-engagement has had in certain countries. In order not to “upset” Moscow, government authorities have often looked the other way in the face of the Kremlin’s actions of intimidation and propaganda. They have not always sought to launch investigations against its possible correspondents in European countries, and to adapt their laws to punish them. They have even sometimes continued, or even strengthened cooperation between security services. They have turned a blind eye on the dirty money flow used to corrupt and facilitate positions, favorable to the Russian regime. It is in the democracies’ interest to increase our vigilance on all these points in terms of security, and it will be necessary to go much further than the sanctions against certain oligarchs close to the Kremlin.
Finally, the very nature of all the attempts at re-engagement, because of the reasons behind them, was to reinforce the elements of soft propaganda from Moscow. In order to prepare the Kremlin, we have seen Western leaders, otherwise severe towards Vladimir Putin’s actions, take up themes such as humiliation, the balance of faults between Russia and the West, guilt towards Russia and debt towards it, or “understanding” towards Russia’s security concerns. While some of the language may be considered classic diplomatic rhetoric — albeit hardly understandable towards a regime that has been committing massive war crimes for 22 years —, it has had a damaging double impact. First, they have instilled the idea that perhaps the Kremlin regime was not completely wrong — a known relativization effect, that corresponds to the Kremlin’s intention — and that it would have certain rights. If the shock of the war in Ukraine seems to have momentarily swept away this belief in a part of the opinion sensitive to it, one cannot exclude that such a belief will come back.
Secondly, these fanciful stories have legitimized the game of the propagandists, who are far from having disappeared. Even now, in the midst of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, one continues to see some people expressing the idea, Russia was treated badly, it was not listened to enough, humiliation was the cause of the war, NATO should not have expanded to the East—some even taking up the legend of a promise that was put this way.
In the aftermath, it is fundamental not only to kill the idea of re-engagement itself, the war against Ukraine may have contributed to, but also the consequences of the ideology of re-engagement itself. It requires, on the part of some leaders, a humble acknowledgement of their faults and a personal intellectual work on the beliefs that gave rise to them. This is the beginning of political courage.