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Putin between the Tsar and The Commissar | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Vladimir Putin at a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Reuters)

After decades at the top of Russian politics, Vladimir Putin should not be an unknown quantity, at least as far as Western specialists are concerned. One question they ought to consider is how hard and how far Putin should be pushed to remain within the limits of acceptable behavior.

Putin’s brief visit to France, in fact to the Palace of Versailles this week, provided an opportunity to pose that question in a calmer and more pondered manner.

The fact that Putin accepted a short-notice invitation from the new French President Emmanuel Macron showed that the Russian leader is desperate to regain entry into the circle of the so-called “great powers”.

Excluded from the G-8 and regarded as a pariah in capitals that count, Putin was only too keen to secure a photo-op indicting a breach in his isolation.

Next, one of the themes Putin hammered in at Versailles was that he hoped the Western “specialists” would regard Russia today as it is today and not as the defunct Soviet Union it once was.

The excuse for the Versailles visit was the 300th anniversary of a visit to France by Peter the Great, the founder of modern Russia. Tsar Peter was the founder of the so-called Westernizers school in Russian national debate, those who believe that Russia is part of Europe and should free itself from its “barbarian” Asiatic heritage.

Peter wanted Russia to adopt modern sciences and systems of education and went as far as forcing the boyars to shave their long beards and the Muzhiks to wear “European” style clothes.

During his 12-week stay in France, the tsar hired a host of French, and other European, teachers, historians, artists, architects and administrators to accompany him to Russia and help transform it into a modern European nation. Those recruits were to build Petrograd, today’s Saint Petersburg as an Italian city and redesigned Moscow as a French metropolis.

Peter’s westernization platform was opposed by Slavophils who believed that Russia has its own soul and should fulfill its own manifest destiny by expanding its empire and spreading its version of Christianity.

During his career Putin has played both themes, he has been a westernizer at some times and a Slavophile at others. In Versailles, paying glowing tribute to Peter, the current master of the Kremlin was in his westernizer mode.

The sub text of his message was that Russia’s recent “conquests” in Georgia and Ukraine should not be seen as part of a broader attempt to revive the Soviet Empire. At his joint press conference with Macron in Versailles, Putin ditched his nationalistic routine and described the task of politics as one of improving the lives of the people.

His aim was to reassure Russian middle classes badly affected by economic sanctions, the falling oil prices and the Russian economy’s general decline since 2012.

Putin also tried to change the conversation by casting such issues as Syria and Ukraine as only some of the items on a heavily loaded global agenda. He made some song and dance about fighting terrorism, always a topic that catches the attention in the West, and offered Russian cooperation.

Obviously keen to show that he has re-attached Russia to “big power” circles at least in a minimal way, Putin instantly accepted Macron’s suggestion to create a joint group to suggest strategies in fighting terrorism.

All in all, he Putin, we saw in Versailles this week seemed to be less defiant, less arrogant and more amenable to playing the game according to some rules. To be sure, that could be nothing but a pose, adopted at a tough moment by an adventurer that has been mugged by reality. Therefore, it may be prudent not to fall for Putin’s new “I can be a moderate” number.

Maybe those who think like the US Senator John McCain, that Putin is more dangerous than ISIS, are not that wide of the mark, although I doubt it because McCain has hardly been right about anything.

Nevertheless, it would be unwise to dismiss even the slightest positive modification in Putin’s demeanor. The aim should not be rubbing Putin’s nose in dust by making sure he meets his comeuppance. Nor should it be to humiliate Russia. Putin has put Russia on a frisky trajectory that also threatens the peace of Europe and the stability of the Middle East.

The aim should be to walk Russia aback from that trajectory. If Putin is prepared to open a window of opportunity it would be unwise to shut it in his face. This does not mean offering him a smorgasbord of concessions as the hapless Barack Obama did with his childish “re-set” gimmick.

Putin is right in suggesting that Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. For the USSR was an enemy of Western democracies while Russia today is at worst an adversary.

According to French sources, at Versailles Putin dropped a number of tantalizing hints. On Syria, he made mention of Bashar al-Assad, the puppet that is manipulated by Tehran and Moscow for their own ends. Instead, Putin insisted that any solution for Syria should not pass by destroying “the state institutions.”

That is something that the Western powers, and the mass of the Syrians; should have little difficulty accepting.
Leaving aside a few hundred individuals directly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity there is no reason why the remnants of the Syrian states personnel should not have a place in a future free Syria.

Putin’s new posture comes against a background of a sharp drop in Russian military activity in Syria. Last month Assad and his Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem announced an Aleppo-style operation against Idlib with the Russian air force launching a massive carpet bombing operation. That hasn’t happened.

Russia has also swallowed two attacks by US forces against Assad’s positions and units without trying to reciprocate in any way. Putin now uses the term “de-escalation” for both the Syrian and Ukrainian crises.

He may well be trying to buy time or to divide his adversaries.

But he may also be reflecting the fact that he is learning from his experience that old Imperialist policies are self-defeating in the end. His new posture shouldn’t be dismissed out of and; it should be tested. If it is verified that he wants to walk his cat back, he should be helped to do so.