The world is going to be stuck with Vladimir Putin for at least a while longer – and the world has become divided over how to deal with that fact.
How long he will remain is an open question. The Russian President’s announcement last week that he would yet again seek to change his country’s constitution, with a referendum that is sure to pass, is hard to interpret.
It might be his attempt to continue wielding near-absolute power after his term ends in 2024, by moving from the president’s office to the prime minister’s office, as he did from 2008 to 2012. Or it might be his way of keeping the idea of Putinism, and his faction within the Kremlin, in power.
In any case, he is not going gentle into that good night. Late Putinism threatens democratic peace. He has not reversed course on the invasion of Ukraine, the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the poisoning of citizens in Britain, the active and successful interference in elections in the world’s major democracies or his support of despots, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who carry out mass atrocities in their own countries.
In other words, Mr. Putin has turned the old rhetoric and power relations of the Cold War into a new reality. And that has provoked a sort of international rerun of the great “containment” debate of the postwar years, in which democracies struggled over how, and whether, to prevent Moscow from having an influence on the world.
This time, the United States and Canada are taking the more absolute approach, imposing wide-spectrum sanctions on top Russian figures and organizations – and anyone around the world who does business with them.
European leaders are taking a different approach. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have recently sought openings, forms of co-operation and business deals with Mr. Putin’s Russia that defy the logic of sanctions and the new containment. The two leaders disagree profoundly over the way the rest of Europe should relate to Mr. Putin, but they share the belief that it is better to have him at least partly inside the tent, directing his stream of invective outward rather than inward.
It is not as if the leaders of Europe’s big economies are unaware of the danger Mr. Putin’s rule imposes – a far more tangible and direct danger than what North America faces. Mr. Macron’s main political challengers in France are parties and movements that receive direct support from Russia and emulate Mr. Putin’s ideas; there is a good chance Mr. Macron will lose the next election to one of those parties, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. And German intelligence agencies have warned Ms. Merkel about Russian interference in elections and extremist movements in Germany.
But they are moving closer to Mr. Putin. In recent days, Ms. Merkel and her ministers made a rare journey to Moscow for a meeting with the strongman President, then hosted him in Berlin for a summit to attempt to stabilize Libya. They hope to use his influence to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, after the U.S. withdrew from it, and to help complete a huge Russian natural-gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, that is hampered by U.S. sanctions meant to stop such pipelines from being built. (Germany is no longer entirely dependent on Russia for heating fuel, as it was a decade ago, but many of its star corporations stand to benefit from the pipeline.)
Mr. Macron has gone further, suggesting in a series of cordial meetings with Mr. Putin last year that Russia be “normalized” and invited back into important European institutions, and possibly the Group of Seven, without having to atone for its invasion of a European country or its interference with democracy.
Both German and French foreign affairs officials tell me they and their heads of government see Russia’s hostility as a grave problem – but they believe there’s an even larger threat in having Russia fall out of the European sphere and potentially into a permanent alliance with China.
Mr. Macron tends to say this out loud. “We know that civilizations disappear,” he told French foreign service officials in a dystopian address last year. “Europe will disappear. And the world will be structured around two big poles – the United States of America and China – and we will have to choose between dominations.”
This hyperbole masks another deep belief of European policy elites: That Russia is teetering, economically and politically, with or without sanctions, and when things come crashing down again, as they did in 1991, it would be better if Russia collapsed inward, toward Europe. That’s not an unrealistic vision. But this European approach, unfortunately, also strengthens Mr. Putin’s hand.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.