This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Just as 2016 defined the politics of its decade, so 2024 has the potential to send an electroshock to political consensus in the 2020s. It starts with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s crusade for a fifth term in office is preordained, but not pro forma. One had only to take in the Wagner Group warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s quixotic attempt at a power grab last June to understand that politics in an autocracy is complicated.
As Dmitri Tremin, the pro-Putin former director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, put it, “It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Russia is run and largely owned by the same people.” As a senior Russian official separately observed: “Russia has privatised politics.”
Putin is not invincible — the battlefield performance in 2022 was a demoralising failure for the Kremlin — but he remains notably undefeated. Though Putin marches toward a Stalin-length tenure, he does not preside over a Stalin-style totalitarianism. (And it is not fully clear this former self-professed democrat from the country’s most Occidental metropol truly lusts after North Korean-level control.)
The standard-issue summary of modern Russia features Putin as thuggish spoiler to the imbecile, but right-minded management of President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. That sells Yeltsin simultaneously too short, and too liberal. Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin was a seminal innovation in interpretation. Summarising the argument, the left-realist writer Thomas Meaney says, “the Yeltsin-Putin years appear together as a coherent unit”. Fast-forward and Putin has a heartland constituency, much of which has borne the battle of Russia’s elective war of national pride.
Amongst the most gnarly coverage of this war, there has been scattered reporting of Putin reinstituting notorious Soviet Order No. 227 at a far smaller scale — the execution of retreating soldiers. It’s hard to know what to believe. Recall: Russia’s initial underperformance was a surprise; the potency of the Prigozhin putsch attempt was on few radars; and Putin’s grander comeback in 2023 seemed unlikely amidst the successful Ukrainian offensive of 2022.
Don’t be surprised if Putin sues for a temporary, shock peace in the middle of 2024
But at the risk of further forecasting, the Russia “bulls” are beginning to look right — just a year or so late.
The tailwinds for the Kremlin are now considerable. From Washington (where further funding is in existential doubt) to Warsaw (where Volodymyr Zelenskyy has antagonised even Europe’s hawks) there is a sense that Ukraine is either a stalled or losing venture. Russia increasingly commands the agenda. Once Putin placates his various constituencies and quite likely wins in a rout in March’s presidential election, he will turn his full attention to both the war and gaming out the US election. Domestic opposition to his rule will be at an all-time ebb.
So don’t be surprised if Putin sues for a temporary, shock peace in the middle of 2024.
If entertained in America, Britain, France and Brussels, hardliners on the Western side will be horrified. But they also have had two years at the wheel with only a count of bodies to show for it.
The game theory for Russia is clear enough. Putin has demonstrated his willingness to flout international convention and can, clearly, launch new offensives in the hope of gaining more Ukrainian territory if Donald Trump wins the White House (and adopts a dovish disposition — which is not a guarantee).
Whereas if Biden somehow pulls off re-election, Putin can all but bank on a divided Congress (Republican Party control of the Senate is near certain) to obstruct Washington diving back into the quagmire.
The rationale for Biden to entertain peace is also clear: he can cut his losses.
Biden can claim a frankly lame victory. But most importantly, he can remove the albatross of an increasingly unpopular war, which (redolent of the Iraq War in the mid-2000s) is highly motivating to Republican voters to oppose. Turnout will decide the next US president. Biden needs to defang the conservative base if he has a prayer.
Given how apocalyptic were assessments of Russia’s position until fairly recently, the longer-term tailwinds are also remarkably positive for the Russians. Whilst hardly in lockstep with Putin’s agenda — contra the caricatures of the “Russiagate” tier of analysis — it is the case that the Republicans are now the most important Western party open to hearing out the case for Russia being afforded a sphere of influence.
“The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernisation of the alliance. … We have the right to ask, ‘Against whom is this expansion directed?’” Putin posited during his infamous 2007 Munich Security Conference address to an anxious audience that included the independent senator Joe Liberman and that senator from a very different GOP, John McCain.
Back in the day, even entertaining the idea that NATO expansion had been foolhardy was relegated to small publications in Washington, ivory towers and internet chatter — and maybe Senator Rand Paul. Now it’s GOP mainstream orthodoxy, with a vanguard of new voices such as Senator J.D. Vance and Senator Josh Hawley, and a potential National Security Advisor in Elbridge Colby. That orthodoxy will be cemented when Trump likely gallops to the Republican nomination in the coming weeks.
The Kremlin has already sent out the bat signal, for any watching. “The West is really changing its tactics — maybe even thinking about clarifying the strategy,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov riffed at the end of December. “There are some approaches, some whispers: why don’t you [Russia] meet with someone in Europe who would be ready to talk, talk about Ukraine without Ukraine itself.”
Putin spoke in a similar cadence in his New Year address. There was a “track two” working group in 2023, anchored by the former Council on Foreign Relations chair, Richard Haass, and it is possible if not likely that other such discussions exist that have so far been kept out of the press.
For the Democrats, if they mean what they say (and most evidence suggests that they do), they will take heed of Biden’s address to the NATO summit in 2022. Putin, said the president, “still doesn’t understand that our commitment to our values, our freedom is something he [we] can never, never, ever, ever walk away from”. Will the same Biden really gamble that the negotiation of Ukraine’s future be handled by Trump? More likely: 2024 will mark the endgame, for all sides, for delusion in Ukraine.
It is important to remember that Biden, who has a history of being underestimated, is himself a wildcard. As farcical as it seems to hardline advocates of foreign policy restraint, there are hawkish criticisms of Biden’s conduct in the Ukraine war.
Even when Biden appeared on the brink of reviving the Bush Doctrine — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he thundered in Warsaw in 2022 — Biden quickly walked back from the edge. As implausible as it may sound, a Wall Street Journal editorial asked on New Year’s Day: “Does Biden Want Ukraine to Win?”
In the Great War, there were apparatchiks in the Kaiserreich that urged a fight to the death even after the collapse of the undeclared dictatorship of Erich Ludendorff and the abdication of the Kaiser himself. Similarly, and a year earlier, Aleksander Kerensky incautiously fought a war he inherited from the Tsar he had deposed and succeeded — with disastrous consequences. In a more contemporary example, President George W. Bush doubled down on an Iraq War “surge” following a rout in the 2006 midterm elections. Doubtless there are those urging Biden to a similar show of resolve after the setbacks of 2023.
But neoconservatives and interventionists cannot count the forty-sixth president as a true believer. For as many examples as there are of Biden the “empire politician”, there are counterexamples of Biden the expedient bleeding-heart, as well as of Biden the survivor.
Casting his vote against the first Gulf War in 1990, Biden struck a note of Trumpian panache in the Senate: “What vital interests of the United States justify sending Americans to their deaths in the sands of Saudi Arabia?” Biden was joined in that vote by his longtime friend John Kerry (who is leaving the Administration this spring to campaign for Biden).
Kerry was the 2004 Democratic nominee for president with Biden as the odds-on favourite to be Kerry’s first choice to be Secretary of State. As Barack Obama’s man in Foggy Bottom, Kerry was notorious for his logorrheic attempts to stabilise relations with Russia and Iran. On the latter front, this is a reputation that Biden bears, as well — although he has shown no particular interest in Iran, nor in the type of bargain brokered by his frenemy old boss.
But in formal remarks after his first meeting as president with Putin in June 2021, Biden mentioned Ukraine only once. How heavy a lift would it be for Biden to merely revert? Much of the world has moved forward as if Covid-19 never happened. After all, what’s another war in Eastern Europe?
Declaring the American exodus from Afghanistan in 2021, Biden broke briskly from pre-existing US policy. From the White House’s historic if seldom-showcased Treaty Room, Biden announced: “Our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”
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