Russia desperately needs a de Gaulle.
by Chris Chatteris SJ
Russia desperately needs a de Gaulle, someone who can get a great country out of a monumental mess. De Gaulle skilfully guided France out of her imperial past and away from the temptations of imperial restorationism. He famously said to the people of Algeria in 1958, ‘Je vous ai compris’, ‘I have understood you’ or ‘I hear you’, a phrase of monumental ambiguity, bringing him some breathing space before he granted Algeria independence in the teeth of the hatred and resistance of the French settlers. Nevertheless, he had seen the writing on the wall and acted with decisive courage. ‘The Algeria of papa is dead, and if we don’t understand this, we’ll die with it’ is how he expressed his thoughts.
Harold MacMillan did something similar for Britain in 1960 with his ‘wind of change’ speech which announced the reality that Britain had no choice but to grant independence to its colonies.
Russia needs a leader who can also read the writing on the wall and has the courage and moral authority to act accordingly. Whether the war in Ukraine is Putin’s fault or NATO’s, or both, is now academic as far as Russia’s future is concerned. Hundreds of thousands of its best-educated citizens have abandoned ship, an ominous sign that the ship is sinking, and they know it.
There are things Russia has already lost. The dream of a swift, crushing victory died in the first few days of the ‘special military operation’. The drive to reach Odessa, a city founded by the empire-builder Catherine the Great, petered out. The strategic aim of weakening NATO backfired spectacularly with the addition of heavily-armed Finland and Sweden to the alliance. Russia is now losing a war it had expected to win in a matter of days.
Even the deterrent power of Russia’s nukes was lost once it became clear that it makes no sense to use tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons against such a dispersed enemy. Doing so would lose Russia all of its ‘neutral’ friends. The strategic dream of total domination of the Black Sea has vanished. Putin’s dream of the ‘Russian world’ or ‘greater Russia’ has been shattered by the hard reality of stubborn Ukrainian military resistance backed by Western materiel.
The things that Russia is rapidly losing are primarily economic. It’s vital fossil fuel industry, for one. Europeans will have a cold winter, but will they ever buy Russian oil and gas again? They are already alternative sourcing supplies and are accelerating the development of renewables. China and India may step in, but what they can buy is limited, and they are wary of irking their western trading partners. Moreover, Russian trade with the G7 nations declines with each new round of sanctions. Thus, business partnerships that took thirty years to build are rapidly falling apart. The underlying economic erosion is catastrophic.
A major geopolitical asset which Russia could lose is its seat on the UN Security Council. Hence, the status of a great and respected world power could be lost, and Russia might end up like a larger North Korea, effectively a client of China, or like East Germany, a land from which people flee. As a result, the Russian Federation may become unstable, with some states trying to opt out.
Even if a war-weary West pressured Ukraine into accepting a settlement, Russia would take decades to recover economically. And if Putinism survived, who would trust such a regime? Who would risk doing business with it? Who would invest in it?
Is there a de Gaulle or MacMillan waiting in the wings? A leader who can withdraw from Ukraine, wipe the slate clean, and create a new Russia in the image of the European nations which have abandoned the pursuit and the very idea of empire? Opposition politician Alexei Navalny is in prison; others have fled abroad. We can expect more Russian emigres in the next few months as we approach the final act in this Russian-Ukrainian tragedy.