Tony Brenton is a former British ambassador to Moscow
Russia’s president is here to stay and his weakened country is looking to do a deal
For a man whose country is reportedly on the economic rocks, President Putin looked remarkably confident at his annual press conference yesterday. These conferences have become a high point of the Russian political year. Putin, without notes, fields unscripted questions from more than a thousand journalists. This year, inevitably, the major issues were the economy and Ukraine. On the economy, he acknowledged problems caused by the collapse in the oil price but claimed that Russia would adjust within two years. On Ukraine, he was uncompromising. Russia’s actions were legitimate. Sanctions were wrong. The West wanted to "chain and defang” the bear, but would never be able to do so.
A brave performance. But in a week where the value of the rouble has oscillated by more than 30 per cent, how justified by the facts? To what extent were we looking at a sort of reincarnation of "Comical Ali” – the Iraqi information minister who continued to proclaim ultimate victory for Saddam Hussein even as Western tanks rolled into Baghdad? The list of problems that Russia now faces is formidable, from the halving in price of its principal export commodity to the imminent tightening of both the EU and US sanctions. To what extent are the skids under Putin and his regime?
Things could of course get a lot worse; it is not wise to try to predict the oil price. But barring catastrophe Mr Putin is likely to be around for a while yet. There are three reasons for this. First, the Russian people in adversity show dogged resilience rather than active revolt. They endured the catastrophic Forties and hungry Eighties – and can be expected to get through the current downturn, too. Their pain threshold is high and their patriotism strong – so it helps that Putin can blame the West for much of their discomfort.
Second, the Russian constitution is explicitly designed to keep power in the hands of the president. Even in the dismal Nineties, when things were much worse than they are now, and the popularity of then president Yeltsin was in single digits, attempts to impeach him failed. There is simply no workable mechanism to remove a president who wants to stay.
The obvious alternative is some sort of palace coup. But, thirdly, the Russian elite fear and mistrust each other far more than they dislike the effect of Putin’s policies. When Putin announced his intention to withdraw from the presidency in 2008 the system nearly imploded as rival baronies sank their teeth into one other. Putin is the essential equilibrator of the system. He had to stay then and they are not going to get rid of him now. Finally, even if Putin decided to go his successor would have to be someone trusted by the security services, comfortable for the key state bureaucrats and business leaders, and patriotic enough for the Russian people. In effect another Putin.
So Putin is likely to be around for the foreseeable future. What does this mean for policy? There have been widespread fears that an economically weakened Russia is also a more dangerous Russia; that the patriotic rush given to the Russian people by the seizure of Crimea may need to be repeated, perhaps in the Baltics or Moldova, to take their minds off their forthcoming economic pain.
This is nonsense, largely propagated by commentators who only a few weeks ago were arguing that it was a strong Russia that was a menace to the international system. Even before the collapse in the oil price, Putin was plainly keen to get back to business as usual. That is why a country addicted to reciprocity has responded in such a limited way to Western sanctions, and has maintained cooperation in a host of other important areas, such as dealing with Iran. If anything, the Russians are now working harder at this.
Meanwhile, the ceasefire in East Ukraine at last shows signs of holding, and recent speeches by top Russians have shown an increasing recognition that Ukraine will go its own way provided Russian concerns (essentially neutrality and protection of the Russian-speaking population) are met. The fact is that the seizure of Crimea and support for the insurrection in East Ukraine, illegal and destabilising as they both undoubtedly were, were the product of a unique set of historical and political circumstances. They offer no template for Russian aggression elsewhere.
Given all this, how should the West handle what looks increasingly like stalemate over Ukraine? There is an evident temptation, not resisted in recent statements by No 10 and the White House, to enjoy Putin’s economic discomfort and sit tight until something in Russia changes. It could be a long wait – uncomfortable no doubt for Russia, but disastrous for pulling Ukraine out of the pit into which it has fallen. A wait too which, at least for the foreseeable future, will merely intensify the hyperpatriotism, statism and isolationism that increasingly predominate in Russian political discourse.
In the days when foreign policymakers thought long term, there would have been real discomfort at the prospect of Europe permanently landing itself with an embittered, nuclear-armed neighbour, with fast growing links with China. Wasn’t it Churchill who talked about magnanimity in victory? Isn’t now the time to start engaging with an undoubtedly weakened Russia on a way out in Ukraine in which everybody’s concerns are taken into account?