Letter From the Editors

Was 2020 the first year of this decade, or the last year of the previous one? Popular convention would put us one and a half years into the 2020s, but since there was no year 0, we are also only half a year into the 203rd decade of the Common Era. COVID‑19, with its distinctly 202nd-decade name, defined 2020, and political leaders, focused as they were on the unfolding crisis, tended to address all other issues with the same shopworn talking points they had developed over the previous 10 years. Only now, with vaccines on the way, do we see much taking stock of the damage (not only from the virus), or reassessing of priorities for the future.

But not all at once, of course. “Vladimir Putin’s Direct Line creates a sense that time is standing still,” Andrei Sinitsyn begins his overview of the Russian president’s “boring” annual call-in show. There were indeed many familiar topics, including Ukraine, the latest incident with the West, “sewers, gas hookups, bad roads, leaking roofs, wages, prices, the environment.” Wait, the environment? That isn’t one of the usual talking points. Furthermore, as The Moscow Times points out, Putin went further than ever before in this year’s Direct Line to underscore the greenhouse effect and that “we must minimize the impact we have.” Readers may recall that the Russian president also paid unprecedented attention to environmental issues in his Message to the Federal Assembly earlier this year – a move some commenters at the time attributed to a desire to find common ground with the incoming Biden administration.

Sergei Lavrov’s editorial, “On Law, Rights and Rules,” likewise buries the lede in ho-hum 202nd-decade rhetoric. “So there wasn’t much news,” Dmitry Kolezev writes, “and the minister’s article, which at another moment might not have been noticed at all, nevertheless managed to arouse some interest.” This interest was primarily directed at Lavrov’s indulgence in culture war scaremongering about what is being taught in Western schools. However, the ho-hum portion of the editorial, regarding the proper conditions for bilateral dialogue, takes on more significance when seen in the context of Lavrov’s contacts with John Kerry.

Political commentator Shamil Sultanov details two important private meetings between Lavrov and Kerry. In May 2015, then-secretary of state Kerry enlisted Russian support against ISIS and promised, in good time, to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute over the Crimea. This deal later came apart when Russia formed its own anti-ISIS coalition rather than following the American lead. In April 2021, a “supposedly accidental” meeting took place in India. Sultanov asserts that Kerry, in both his official capacity as climate envoy and unofficial capacity as a senior authority of the US “deep state,” was again proposing a grand bargain in the name of a common cause – fighting climate change. Is it possible that Lavrov’s main purpose in penning the editorial was to lay down ground rules for a climate coalition?

Sultanov also nixes the currently popular notion that a Russia-China alliance will challenge US hegemony in the near future. The Russians are too concerned about the partnership’s implications for their country’s sovereignty. The Chinese are not ready for such a confrontational step. In Kerry’s proposal for a global climate coalition, “there is something for Comrade Xi and his Politburo colleagues to think about.”

Given its role in the 20th-century cold war, Russia is always eager to assert its parity with the US, whether as a rival or as an equal partner. Media and political figures are always predicting a new 21st-century cold war as China assumes great power status. But there is no law that says great powers in the 21st century should behave like they did in the 20th. Or that a great power should set the same priorities in the 203rd decade that it did in the 202nd.