Vladimir Putin wins a landslide victory! Six more years! Even Vladimir Zhirinovsky complains that Russia is no longer a democracy, and he should know!
Once upon a time there was a Cold War. We all knew where we were amidst ‘East-West (sic) relations’. Responses to policy moves could be fine-tuned. Measured. Manoeuvred.
Then the Cold War ended. Soviet communism crashed as a system and an idea. For quite a few years Western governments made a real effort to work closely with Moscow as a normal or even close partner. See eg the Contact Group work on the former Yugoslavia imbroglio.
I myself was right in the thick of this, both in London and then in Moscow and Sarajevo. In some areas we sent the Russian Foreign Ministry copies of UK policy documents and shared ideas informally in much the same way as we did with eg France or Germany.
There was even a moment when the Russians solemnly passed us a thin but neat file containing some secret Russian intelligence reports on what the nasty Gaddafi Libyans had been doing to cooperate with the IRA. This was only a molecule or two of thin ice on the tip of the iceberg of Russian intelligence material that they might reasonably have shared. But it was a start!
It all went wrong.
The stupid Brits turned down a visa for a declared Russian senior intelligence officer the Russians wanted to send to London. We at the Embassy in Moscow never found out why. What had he done to make him so unacceptable? What did it matter anyway if he was ‘declared’? If he was such a badass, wasn’t he exactly the sort of person we should be encouraging to stay in London to help get our messages back to the darker parts of the former KGB/GRU and so steadily build mutual confidence?
To no avail. The visa was refused. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the Russian side concluded that all this British/Western fancypants talk of ‘new partnership’ meant nothing much in practice.
Yeltsin moved aside. Putin and Putinism took over. Look at this astonishing video from the Mists of Time, namely 2002:
This is a supreme example of Putin’s negotiating style. He’s projecting almost casually violent linguistic rudeness not only to the world but especially to the senior European leaders sitting next to him, and through them to the Russian masses:
I am strong. I’ll say whatever it takes. You? Not so much!
Solana and the others can’t believe their ears. What did he just say?
By the time the interpreted words pass through their headphones and penetrate their consciousness and they’ve worked out what to say in response, they’ve lost the chance to hit back. They look forlorn. Weak. Putin has asserted psychological dominance over the agenda and, crucially, over them as leaders – and as people.
Along came Kosovo’s independence, pushed forward by London and Washington with varying support (or none) from other EU capitals, despite strenuous Russian objections. Russia of course did not care two hoots about Kosovo or Serbia. What it did care muchly about was the precedent being set here: international borders in Europe (and elsewhere?) being changed without a clear, principled international consensus on what was going on and what should happen next.
This was and is still a really strong Russian point, right at the heart of international law, regardless of the merits or otherwise of Kosovo’s case to be an independent state. Plenty of other states around the world are worried about their own fragmentation or enforced border changes going against them. Their own borders surely have to be under their own control, not proclaimed by smug Western capitals?
Kosovo has ended in a miserable position. It has 113 countries accepting it as an independent state, but Russia, China, India and many others are sitting tight. The flow of new recognitions has slowed right down.
Russia waited, then pounced on Georgia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia claimed to be independent, achieving recognition only by useful idiot lumpen socialist states Nicaragua and Venezuela. And Nauru!
Then Crimea. Here Russia not only sliced off territory from a neighbouring state. It nabbed that territory for itself! A blatant breach of international law, the first such theft of land in Europe in decades. As previously noted, the costs of this lunge for Russia are colossal.
Haha now after this latest appalling Skripal episode even Jeremy Corbyn seems to want to pile on the pressure against Russian ‘crony capitalism‘:
We agree with the government’s action in relation to Russian diplomats, but measures to tackle the oligarchs and their loot would have a far greater impact on Russia’s elite than limited tit-for-tat expulsions. We are willing to back further sanctions as and when the investigation into the Salisbury attack produces results.
Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption … However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a ‘new cold war’ of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.
Wait … what? McCarthyism?
* * * * *
The big issue here is simple.
Western capitals have nothing against Russia or Russian success. There is not a shred of evidence that anyone opposes Russia developing its economy fast and getting steadily more influential as China has been doing.
The only people stopping that are the post-KGB Russians running Russia, who have built vast fortunes at the expense of their own country’s purposeful development. They can’t accept Russia’s ‘normal’ integration into world financial/economic processes, as that means creating in Russia a rules-based system with some meaningful integrity/transparency. In a word, accepting limits. Deep in their paranoid Soviet mindset is a rejection of rules and limits themselves, as part of an even deeper rejection of Enlightenment values in the form of checks and balances:
Respect for rules is a form of weakness. You have your puny so-called limits. We don’t!
Once that grim notion takes hold, it’s hard to find anything to discuss with Moscow. Why bother, if they set no limits on what they say or do and so can’t be trusted? Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, climate issues, migration, cyber security: if any issue is looked at by the Russian leadership in purely cynical opportunistic zero-sum terms that rule out building common ground and a measured fair-minded way forward based on self-restraint, why talk?
Putting it another way. London and all Western capitals will be pleased to engage with Russia on all issues where there is scope for reasonable hard-headed agreement.
But there can be no agreement that it is OK to prop up useless dictators such as Assad who have wrecked their own country and dropped chemical weapons on their own citizens; no agreement that it’s OK to steal a neighbouring state’s territory; and no agreement that it’s OK to let loose illegal chemical weapons to murder people beyond your borders.
There’s no reasonable agreement to a world without rules.
Will Vladimir Putin in the next six years conclude that it makes sense to manoeuvre Russia back in that direction, as the approach of the past six years or so has simply left Russia weaker and poorer?