Thursday, December 8, 2016

Gleb Pavlovskiy On Putin, Obama & Trump

On December 7, I moseyed on down to Yale to listen to Gleb Pavlovskiy discuss, "The Future of Containment: The Gap Between the Real and Imagined Possibilities in Russian-American Relations in the Age of Trump”.

Pavlovskiy is Professor, State University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia); President, Effective Policy Foundation (Russia).  Born in 1951, Pavlovskiy became a dissident in the 1970s and, in 1982, was sentenced to three years of internal exile for anti-Soviet activities. From 1996 through 2011 he served as a consultant to the Kremlin, working for Yeltsin, Putin and Dimtry Medvedev.  For the April 2016 edition of Foreign Affairs he wrote an article  (well-worth reading) expounding on his theory of the Russian sistema under Putin.
Pavlovsky bears some physical resemblance to Mikhael Gorbachev.  The presentation and Q&A was in Russian (spoken by at least 2/3 of the 16 attendees), with followup translation so I may have lost some of the nuance.  The summary is in two parts; Gleb's views of the Russian system and then his comments on US-Russia relations.

The Russian Sistema
Russia does not have a state or regime, it has a sistema, a"complex system of decision-making and power management".  By that Gleb means it does not have the structure or organization of a state or regime.  Pavlovskiy thought when he began working with the Kremlin that it would evolve the institutions necessary to a state, but it has not done so.

The system is informal, not just run by Putin alone, and there are no checks or balances.  Official titles bear little resemblance to real political power and much of what happens is improvisation and done by indirection.  There is not a lot of long-term strategic thinking and they operate internationally from a position of weakness, because of lack of economic strength.  Putin operates on the assumption that he will take some action and then "something will happen".  Because of this decision-making is unpredictable which has become an asset because the West doesn't know how to deal with it (though this may change with Trump).  Gleb remarked that "our politics consist of special operations".

Because the system has no long-term goals, it's always focused on buying more time, which has had "monstrous" effects on the economy and lack of nation building.

There is no development of government institutions, nor training for next generation of leadership.  "The most frightening topic is the mass media".  It has constructed a fantasy world in which it is impossible for citizens to knowledgeably discuss anything.

To illustrate the lack of long-term thinking, Gleb mentioned that, on several occasions, Putin remarked to him that he did not understand why Stalin withdrew from Iran in 1946.  Gleb said it was because Stalin was thinking longer-term about the stability of the political order he had established, while for Putin you never give up what you have, you just wait to see what happens next.

On specific issues; while the Crimea takeover was a success, the Ukraine operation in the Donbass has become a quagmire.  Putin brilliantly exploited the Syrian intervention to detract attention, both foreign and domestic, from the Donbass.  Syria also provides the ability to openly test Russian military capabilities (which could not be done in Donbass) and changed the international status of Russia by converting weakness into strength.  He also mentioned that one of the most powerful figures in Russia today is the strongman of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrovc.

U.S. - Russia Relations
During his talk, Gleb made reference to Obama "leaving the Russian system feeling good about itself".  In the Q&A, I asked him to explain why.  He responded that the imposition of sanctions (which he characterized as a failure), levied after the invasion of Crimea, strengthened the regime by allowing it to portray itself as under attack by the West and triggering a wave of Russian nationalism.  He said the better course of action by Obama would have been to put an army battalion on the ground in Crimea.  Russia would have understood that message and not taken action.  He then added:
"Sometimes there are actions that are seen as moderate but have radical impacts"
He believes sanctions were such a "moderate" action and emboldened the Russian regime, adding to its unpredictability.

His views on Trump were mixed.  He started off by saying:
"For the first time Russia has received a worthy partner - almost as unpredictable as we are"
Later, he referred to Putin now having "a strong sparring partner".  He felt the way Trump had wrong-footed his opponents along the way to victory was very much like Putin's style; splitting your opponents but keeping together your supporters.  On the one hand, with Trump in office there was an opportunity for "a new strategic dialogue" and "reduction in tensions", but on the other, the very unpredictability of Putin and Trump made it difficult to forecast any specifics.  He did emphasize the Trump is playing a much stronger hand than Putin.  Overall, I took from the discussion that he thinks Trump may be as big an improviser as Putin.


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