Vladimir Pastukhov: The World Is Edging Towards War

August 3, 2017

Vladimir Pastukhov, professor of Political Science and research fellow at University College London, speaks to “Open World” about how the leaders of both Russia and the USA are behaving like a dysfunctional family, and why this is a bad thing for the entire world.  The original version in Russian is available here.  This translation has been slightly abridged for clarity.   

I think we’ve encountered a new phenomenon; a new type of ‘necessary’ sanctions and counter-sanctions which both sides are obliged to accept against their will. The political intentions of both sides are to loosen sanctions, while political reality forces them to strengthen them.

This situation has already exited the world of politics and entered the realm of drama.  In some ways today’s Russia-America relations remind us of life inside a dysfunctional family caught up in constant feuds.

If we pursue the analogy of the family melodrama further, we realise that marriages that are based on calculation and rationality are more likely to endure than marriages based on unrestrained passion.

In my opinion, a situation has arisen in which today the leaders of the USA and Russia are acting far too passionately, their relationship is a little too personal than is necessary for doing business.

Putin and Trump certainly have some personal connection, a particular type of spiritual affinity, but I do not think that this alone can help the two countries develop a constructive working relationship.  The more likely outcome is the opposite: it’ll create unnecessary difficulties.

The two men are one of a kind, genuine ‘soul mates’ who are drawn to each other subconsciously and in general understand each other pretty well. I believe that both of them genuinely counted on being able to negotiate and begin working together in their own personal interests as well as in the interests of their countries. However, it turned out that the system was stronger than them all along, and personal attraction could only go so far; the obstacles of reality blocked their path.

Trump has got himself stuck in a trap at home after demonstrating loyalty to the Kremlin, subsequently digging himself a hole and giving his enemies more ammunition with which to threaten him with impeachment. As a result he is forced to act against his own interests. It’s like Nixon in reverse, who all his life was an anti-Communist, but was forced to initiate a political ‘détente’.

Trump has always sympathised with Putin, yet he is being forced to carry out the toughest sanctions against Russia to date. After the annexation of Crimea the Kremlin has been in a similar situation. If Putin does not respond then he is signaling to the public that he isn’t ‘cool’, that he’s weaker than America, and the most terrifying thing for Putin today is the appearance of being weak. His main support base today is a loyal band of the ‘faithful’ who expect more and more victories over the Americans on every front. We already caught a glimpse of just how great their appetites are during the Alexei Navalny debate with Igor Strelkov.

It turns out that two people who would peacefully and agreeably negotiate with each other in accordance with ‘the unwritten rules of the game’, are forced to use these very same ‘rules’ to rough each other up. This is the main problem.

In my opinion, if we look at the whole spectrum of new American sanctions that have been lobbied by the Senate and the House, in the current situation these sanctions are more powerful than the counter-sanctions. It’s not just about the tightening of economic pressure as much as it’s about personal sanctions—in the vein of the Magnitsky Act. I believe that counter-sanctions today have a more formal character; they are measures taken purely for the sake of saving face rather than a direct attack upon Trump himself. Either way, the Kremlin is trying to give Trump a chance, in order to understand the difficulties he faces. Yet, the Kremlin’s reserve of ideas is worryingly small. The era of small-time counter-sanctions has finished; only double-edged measures remain on the table.

This round of sanctions has a huge story leading up to it, they did not arise out of nothing; they are the product of a developing situation, the result of steps taken earlier on. In a sense, we are all hostages to our past actions. Trump and Putin are no exception: they are only human. Russia is first and foremost reaping what it has sown in the not-so-distant past and is now faced with the reality that there’s little it can now do to change things.

A little over a year and a half ago the Kremlin wondered deep into the American political jungle. They went with the intention of finding diamonds, but instead they slipped on a banana peel.

When the American presidential elections began, the Kremlin had several different options for how to behave: they could have gone for the ‘banal evil’ approach attacking Hillary Clinton (no real returns but also risk-free) or to make a high-risk bet on Trump, putting all their money on his election campaign, playing on the side of the Republican party that was fraught with internal fighting. Of course they expected worthwhile dividends from the latter investment, but they did not consider the risks. The fact that the Kremlin went for such a high-risk investment in the American political scene has caused many to question the temperament of the Russian government. Either way, hidden passions are raging away under the motionless mask. This is real Dostoyevsky material.

And so they played a reckless hand and celebrated with ‘Russian madness’ style. But, unfortunately, the Kremlin overestimated its strength while underestimating the institutional nature of the American political system and its multiple ‘reserves’. Of course, Trump is not a ‘Tsar’ in the Russian sense of the word. Trump did not behave in the way that the Kremlin expected, and it’s already too late to simply walk away. I’m in agreement with [Moscow Echo Radio Journalist] Alexey Venediktov who said that the consequences of interference in the American electoral campaign turned out to be totally miscalculated. They had their fingers crossed and were hoping for a miracle.

The show is now over. Trump won’t be a ‘banal evil’ like Clinton, but instead will involuntarily become a stone in Putin’s shoe; causing constant pain and harassment, as he will first of all have to save himself, not Putin. After saving himself, Trump will be forced to exercise sufficient aggression towards the Kremlin. This outcome has absolutely no benefit to anyone at all. We have to put aside our attitude towards both Putin and Trump, whatever it might be; whether good or bad.

The position we find ourselves in today is a tragedy not only for Russia and America, but possibly also for the entire world.

In my opinion, there are no objective reasons for conflict between Russia and the United States today. The world needs their cooperation.

This is the key problem: the two powers should now work together, but as the result of completely subjective reasons they may lead us all into war. Objectively speaking, Russia and the United States do have mutual interests as well as mutual opponents, and there is great room for cooperation; moreover, this is vitally important.

This whole situation is subjective; born out of selfishness and adventurism, it is creating tremendous risks not due to whether it is playing into Putin’s hands or not, but because it is slowly edging the world towards war.

We have ended up in a situation in which bands of irresponsible and shady hucksters have come to power in two superpowers who between them have a vital responsibility for maintaining stability, peace and order, and for finding adequate responses to new threats, including the Islamist one.  For this reason, it is more likely that the situation will deteriorate rather than improve. This dysfunctional little ‘family’ will not be able to live in peace and love; each time it will be torn left right and centre, spitting up, then coming back together, each time with more and more scandal. This is my prediction.

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