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Markus Ziener

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Pavlov's Dog

Posted: 08/15/2013 1:08 pm

The Western world is clueless on how to deal with Mr. Putin -- and reacts way too predictable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is mobilizing against homosexuals -- and voices in the West are demanding a boycott of the Olympic Winter Games next year in Sochi. Moscow grants temporary asylum to the whistleblower Edward Snowden -- and U.S. President Barack Obama calls off an agreed meeting with Mr. Putin. Moreover, Mr. Obama sees a Cold War mentality that is still alive with Mr. Putin.

These are quite harsh statements and reactions. But: Are they helpful? Or is it still way too tempting for a politician to follow the simple, quick reflexes -- instead of thinking first about the consequences of certain actions. In any case: Shooting from the hip marks not only a lack of political statesmanship. If it comes to Russia it has the potential to destroy the basis for discussion. And even more serious, it can help cement what the West does not want: aconsolidation and extension of autocratic rule under the current Kremlin chief.

Example homosexuality: Anyone who believes that homosexuality in Russia is nationally accepted is dead wrong -- or misled by visits to the liberal strongholds Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to surveys, there is still a clear majority in Russia that rejects homosexuality. The situation in the United States by the way was not much different thirty years ago. So with his actions, Putin is in line with the majority of Russians.

In sync with most Russians was Putin before when he was silently supporting the harsh verdict against the band "Pussy Riot." The all-female band was staging an anarchistic happening inside the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012. While Western countries were in rage about the fact that the band members were sentenced to harsh prison terms, most Russians saw the actions of the band as an act of blasphemy which had to be punished.

Why is that important to know? It's important because Putin's calculus is strategic. For everything he does, the Kremlin chief has in mind mainly the domestic political agenda. By resisting the West's criticism he looks stronger, not weaker than before. At the same time he is driving a wedge between the liberal opposition in the bigger cities and those Russians who live in the provinces. With a boycott of the Olympics in Sochi -- an event Russians are immensely proud of -- the blame would fall on the liberals. Putin gets what he wants -- a further discrediting of those who are against him.

Does that mean that the West should be silent on Putin's excesses? Not at all. But Western reactions should be a little smarter, more balanced and more targeted. While it is both correct and important to bring the attention of the world to state repression in Russia, an escalation is not going to help the cause of homosexuals there -- to the contrary. The LGBT community is already wary that they could be made the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in international relations.

Example Edward Snowden: The cancellation of the meeting with Vladimir Putin looks and sounds resolute. But this and the rhetorical drumbeat from the U.S. are helpful for only one: Vladimir Putin. Standing up against the U.S. presents him as a leader with backbone. And by the way: The absence of an extradition treaty with the United States has not at least to do with the American unwillingness to sign such an agreement. Finally Russians increasingly are asking themselves: Would the United States extradite a Russian whistleblower who happens to end up in New York after he has published Russian secrets?

What is all this telling us?

1. The fact that all these debates are taking place in the open is proof that there are apparently no longer those "back channels" between Moscow and Washington which were so useful during the Cold War. These channels helped discretely to getting delicate issues off the table -- before the press got word. Today the American president rather talks about Putin's character on Jay Leno's Tonight Show.

2. The erosion of the relationship between East and West has also to do with the deteriorating standing of the Western system due to the troubles in the financial sector. The crisis of the Western economic model is providing an opening that Russia willingly exploits.

3. The West does not know how to deal with an autocratic Russia. The toolbox of the Cold War doesn't fit any more; and new tools have not yet been crafted. What the West in fact needs is an overhaul of its strategy, its blueprints and ideas -- and this probably sooner than later.

 
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