Here is a link (££) to my latest Telegraph piece on the Obama expulsion of Russian diplomats.
In case (like me!) you can’t access it, some highlights of what I sent them:
It’s safe to say that President Obama and his team knew little about Russia before the President visited Moscow a few months after his election in 2009. Why should they? Russia is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum surrounded by a mysterious riddle. Above all it’s BIG. Big attitudes. Big grudges. Big ‘intensity’. Russia likes being Russia. Nowhere else does Russia like Russia does.
Thus the hapless early moves by President Obama to make a New Start in US/Russian relations. First in 2009 came Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, presenting the bemused Russian Foreign Minister with a bright red Reset Button, a slick PR gesture wrecked only by the Americans using the wrong Russian word for Reset.
Then came President Obama’s keynote speech in Moscow. Look how oddly it reads now:
There is the 20th century view that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence… These assumptions are wrong…
The future does not belong to those who gather armies on a field of battle or bury missiles in the ground; the future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create. That is the source of power in this century.
Putin Moscow not unreasonably took such syrupy Obama liberal platitudes as a sign of feeble-mindedness, and came up with a view of its own: that plenty of power today comes from cunningly combining of 19th century attitudes with 21st century e-methods.
President Obama leaves office with a dismal policy record in this central relationship with Moscow. On his watch Russia has illegally snatched territory in Europe; elbowed Washington aside in the Syria imbroglio; and had the temerity to play tricks in the US presidential campaign itself, exploiting senior American complacency and anarchic Western social media babbling.
Yes, US/EU economic sanctions have cost Russia billions if not trillions of dollars in lost growth. Russia doesn’t care. Its London embassy takes post-modern propaganda to giddy new heights. Why should Russia demean itself by retaliating to Obama lame duck expulsions when it can show Churchillian magnanimity?
So are we now in Cold War 2.0, in which an emboldened President Putin has obvious momentum? Probably not. It’s more difficult – and maybe even more dangerous – than that.
The Cold War was all about symmetry: two well-defined political blocs each representing well-defined ideas and systems manoeuvring patiently. There were rules, both explicit and implicit. The Cold War ended by the Soviet Union abruptly collapsing, with Yeltsin’s Moscow forlornly accepting the Western paradigm of rules.
The rivalry now is quite different. President Putin is seeking to redefine those rules themselves. On the philosophical level he pokes away at the legitimacy of the West’s vision of world order. He makes power-plays (Ukraine/Crimea and Syria) that change facts on the ground in Russia’s favour. And through state-sponsored e-mischief of as many varieties as clever Russian minds can invent, he creates fluid new ways to exert influence in other countries that defy easy categorisation.
All this amounts to high-level asymmetric warfare: drawing uncertain Western governments on to completely unfamiliar psychological and operational territory, where nimble single-minded discipline has a clear edge over flabby cumbersome ‘multi-culturalism’. Nothing is well defined except one proposition: Russia is strong! You are weak!
Normally it’s a sign of weakness to boast about one’s own strength. It suggests an obvious inferiority complex. Yet part of the effectiveness of Putin’s current approach is doing the opposite of what’s ‘expected’, just to see what happens. A strange sense of strength or at least self-confidence is portrayed.
Maybe Vladimir Putin is right. Perhaps it is time for a brand new look at NATO and the EU and all the other institutions that shape the European security and economic space, but were set up under conditions that no longer make sense. Russia can enter that complex negotiation as a leading ‘equal’ partner with Washington.
Are there deals to be done with Moscow by President Trump? Of course. There are always deals to be done. But as Lenin famously put it, “Kто кого?” Who [stuffs] whom? Who gets what? Who decides the rules?
Moscow rails against Western ‘double standards’. But what standards does Moscow accept when it comes to upholding the international borders that emerged from the end of the USSR? Meeting reasonable modern Russian security concerns is one thing. Accepting brutish old-style Russian imperialism is another.
The risk for Europe and world peace is that President Trump is too vain and impatient to listen to tough-minded advisers. He follows the unhappy precedent of George W Bush who ‘looked President Putin in the eye and found him trustworthy’. Then he gets disastrously bamboozled.
Oh well. 2017 will be fraught with interest in this as in myriad other respects.