Peculiar Commentary from Sergey Lavrov

Here is a thing that Sergey Lavrov said recently:

But our western colleagues are doing little when it comes to using their influence on the Kiev authorities to persuade them that there is no alternative to sticking to the agreements between them and the self-defence fighters. Our partners, who actually introduced sanctions, make no secret that these measures are not about Ukraine. In fact, judging by their statements and actions, their true objective is to recondition Russia, force it to change its positions on key issues that are a matter of principle for us and to accept the western narrative. Such approaches are relics of the past century, a by-gone epoch reminiscent of the inert colonial mindset. As the world order becomes multipolar, it is impossible for a branch of a single civilisation (we are all descendants of the Christian civilisation), a group of countries to impose its will on others. There is an understanding that in today’s world without the support of other centres of power, it is impossible to solve such issues as terrorism and infectious diseases (for example, many are currently horrified by the Ebola virus). How long this period will last depends on whether politicians with a global strategic vision come to the fore.

Question: If we follow the logic of the West, sanctions can’t be lifted until there is a regime change in Russia?

Sergey Lavrov: They are not talking about a regime change, although such statements can be heard from some on the fringe of European politics. Essentially, we are being told to change our policy and approaches. If they had offered that we join efforts, it would have been a different matter. But we are being told that they know what should be done, so all we have to do is follow suit.

Given all that’s come out of Russia and the Kremlin over the course of the Ukraine crisis I suppose this passes for fairly mild and not all that surprising, but in a certain way the exchange is notable for its exquisite and subtle combination of truth presented as shocking reality and reality calmly ignored as a fringe delusion.

First, regarding the imposition of sanctions, you have Lavrov saying, “In fact, judging by their statements and actions, their true objective is to…force [Russia] to change its positions on key issues,” as if he’s some kind of seer for having divined their true, hidden intent. Except, no shit. Sanctions are a form of coercive diplomacy. It’s a thing – you can even read about it on the Internet. Like, surely the idea that sanctions were imposed in order to get Russia to change her behavior is not news to Mr. Lavrov?*

Then, the questioner poses a delightfully leading question regarding the necessity of regime change in Russia in order that the sanctions be lifted, and Lavrov dismisses this by saying only on “the fringe of European politics” can such statements be heard. But of course this isn’t really true at all. Or, rather, it is true that mainstream politicians are not calling openly for regime change in Russia as a condition for sanctions removal, but it is also true that you don’t have to work too hard to tell a story in which that is functionally a necessary prerequisite. If you take the view that Putin’s regime is currently so brittle as to be reliant for its survival on the nationalist euphoria generated by the current situation in Ukraine, then it stands to reason Putin will never pursue the policies of disengagement in Eastern Ukraine which would be necessary to see the sanctions lifted. And so all of a sudden Lavrov’s interviewer is not so far off the mark – a nice example of the blinkering echo chamber in which many Russians’ worldview seems to be created. Really, it’s classic Soviet thought – in the words of Czeslaw Milosz: “Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision/ Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.”

Beyond the specific situation of Ukraine, it’s this perceived state of affairs that makes Putin’s paranoia, on its own terms, entirely rational. Obviously Freedom House is not an institution whose raison d’etre is the overthrow of the Russian government, it is democracy promotion. But if you are the Russian government and you are also not a democracy…”Hello, immovable object? Yes, I’ve got an unstoppable force I’d like to introduce you to.” All of which makes you wonder, perhaps Western diplomats would be better served by just coming out and saying what we all know to be true – Putin is an autocrat, Russia is not a democracy, and he is not somebody with whom we can work. Russia is too big and too messy and too nuclear-armed to ever go to war with, but we all eagerly await the day when this government is replaced with an actual democratic one. Until then we will ardently work to support democrats in Russia and assume the worst about the functioning of the state apparatus. Can it really go much worse?

*I realize I’m probably being a bit unfair with this point, and probably the clumsiness of the language owes more to translation than anything else. On the other hand, if you told me that most Russians, or at least Russians in key leadership positions right now, perceived Western sanctions as “punishment” (and not as part of legitimate statecraft) I would believe you