Knights of the Long Table

15 February 2022, 11:32 AM

Western politicians continue to engage in talks with Russia to dissuade Putin from waging war on Ukraine. However, an agreement between Russia and the West on Ukraine is in principle impossible. Why?

An abnormally long table has become the unlikely protagonist of a flurry of shuttle diplomacy, aimed at deterring Putin’s war on Ukraine, that played out against the backdrop of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who had rushed to visit Putin in a last-ditch diplomatic attempt before traveling to Kyiv, spent six hours seated at this massive table. It seems like thrice jabbed presidents still fear COVID-19 more than war. And for some reason Putin has never been a fan of wearing masks.

Video of day

The bizarrely long table, which became a buffet feast for the world’s meme makers, is also a strong metaphor of the gap between Russia’s and the West’s stances and intentions not only towards Ukraine but also toward building a new world order and international security architecture.

After the talks in Moscow, Macron, as always, praised himself and claimed that “the aim had been achieved”. Some Western media hurried to report that the French president had made some sort of “deal on Ukraine” with Putin. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov reacted at once and denied the possibility of any agreement on Ukraine. That was a rare case of Peskov telling the truth.

The problem is that Putin does not live in the real Russia, or the real world of 2020 in the 21st century, but in “big history” where he wants to pose as a great political leader and military commander. In his mind Putin is not surrounded by Biden, Erdogan, Macron or Xi Jinping, but by the likes of Napoleon, Peter I and Alexander the Great. Putin wants to win a fictional great war and recover at least part of the former Russian empire as a final touch to his political biography. Putin’s rule has been a failure in terms of economic growth for Russia, the country’s share in the global economy stayed on the same level it was in 2000 when Putin became president. Russia’s share will only keep declining. Political institutions in Russia have degraded to such a level that any new leader would have to completely reestablish them.

Putin does not fear war as he is not going to wage it himself

Unlike the beliefs that are common among some western and Russian political experts, Putin does not fear war. He will not fight himself or command his forces on the battlefield. Putin’s reclusive way of life will not be changed by any war.

Moreover, Russia is already used to fighting. It has been engaged in a war with Ukraine since February 2014 and with Syria since December 2016. Russia’s ultimatum to NATO and the United States on “security guarantees”, intentionally released in December last year against all diplomatic norms, literally came out of the blue.  It is specifically designed as an invitation to a great war. There have been no new threats to Russia’s security over the last year. It is only Russia that threatens to destabilize its neighboring countries. It is odd to present your partners (and even enemies) a document, which contains a list of demands (which are unrealistic by default) and does not contain a single reciprocal obligation for Russia.

Nobody can stand up to Putin in Russia. Nobody has enough political authority or charm to talk Putin out of waging a war or using military blackmail. That is why Russian companies are already bracing themselves for tougher sanctions and running stress tests in case foreign currency transactions are cut off. That is why Russia is doing everything possible to be begged not to invade and feels like a world leader with “peace in the whole world” at its mercy.

If anyone can deter Putin from a war, it is China. Russia has grown increasingly dependent on China, both politically and economically, since falling out with the West in 2014 over Crimea’s annexation and the war in Donbas.

There are certain grounds believing that China does not really need a major war in Europe. However, for now it seems like this status quo only extends until the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Feb.20.

Nevertheless, the western politicians' relentless attempts to be diplomatically engaged with Russia are vital even if they turn out to be futile. It is not only better for diplomats to respond to ultimatums than for machine guns. The thing is that the war will not be contained in Ukraine. Once again, Europe will become the arena for a full-fledged world war.

Russia, ruled by the current regime, will not undertake any written legal obligations to guarantee security and peace in Ukraine, in Europe or in the whole world. Even if NATO publicly commits to a further non-expansion, it will not appease Russia in its current state. However, talks “at the long table,” no matter how far apart the interlocutors are, are still of vital importance. Russia will not become different under Putin. But it will retain the chance to change after Putin.

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Published in NV magazine on Feb. 10, 2022. Republication of the full version is not authorized. 

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