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Mysterious Enigmatic Russia

Based on his observations at the FCO, former British Ambassador Charles Crawford discusses the country over the past 80 years


‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.’

And so it proved. Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941 and one of the most devastating battles ever seen in human history began.

One excellent way for diplomats to understand Europe and its history is to look at a YouTube video that demonstrates how borders have changed in this part of the world over the past 1000 years or so. For the first few centuries, you watch all our different kingdoms, principalities, duchies, empires, fiefdoms and other historical phenomena grow, wriggle, merge and disappear like bacteria on a petri dish. Consolidation oscillates with fragmentation. Russia isn’t there at first. Wait … now, there it is. Then it grows and grows and grows, until it sprawls across much of the northern hemisphere from Alaska all the way round to Finland.

After Stalin’s victory over Hitler, Russian power reaches its outer limits: Soviet stooges take over a swathe of European countries and tie them tightly to the USSR in the Warsaw Pact. The USSR ends up covering over 22 million square kilometres – close to one sixth of the world’s total land surface, and 90 times the size of the United Kingdom. Serious business.

Then in 1991 the map has more convulsions. The USSR gives way to 15 countries, with Russia much the largest. The European Union and NATO get bigger.

Churchill’s mysterious enigmatic riddle lives on. How does a country as vast as Russia stay ‘safe’? How does it begin to define and uphold a ‘national interest’, when so much effort needs to be expended to hold together a land mass over 11 time-zones? How to involve in a just way the mass of Russians while keeping control?

Such questions preoccupied the nobles in Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina. They mused at length over the spiritual liberation that Russia’s emancipated peasants should enjoy from joyfully working the land, while fearing that in fact they’d be too drunk or feckless to do anything much at all.

Along came the Soviet Union with decades of heavy industrialisation achieved by enforced deportations, starvation, murder and oppression. By the end of this ghastly experiment the shops in the grandest streets of central Moscow were empty: the state owned a vast arsenal of weapons, but its citizens could not buy a banana. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt rudely dismissed the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with missiles.”

I served at the British Embassy in Moscow in the early days of its transition from central control towards a market-based economy. The changes we saw as Russians at long last were free to use their own initiative and energy were staggering. When we arrived in 1993 it was very difficult to find anything. By the time we left in 1996 there was a plump Yellow Pages book advertising all the usual services.

The key to understanding Russia’s foreign policy approach under its current management was perhaps explained by Vladimir Putin in 2003, when he said something to the effect of “I aim to keep what’s ours.” So much said, in so few words. What does it mean?

What Russia sees as ‘its’ includes at a minimum every inch of land within Russia’s borders as they were when the USSR dissolved. Any territory within Russia that might prefer to be independent or even talk about it (most notably Chechnya – maybe Siberia too?) gets nowhere. But maybe Putin’s formulation can be looked at in a wider way, to include some or all of the following:

• any territories ever conquered by the Tsars or Stalin (including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, large areas of Poland and Finland)

• any territories that belonged to the USSR

• any territories where Russian influence ‘naturally’ belongs

• anywhere where non-trivial numbers of Russian-speakers or people with Russian passports find themselves outside Russia’s current borders (eg Latvia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan)

Thus now the philosophical dilemma for the European Union and Washington. If, say, Ukraine as a large independent European state politely asks to join the EU or NATO, how to respond? Is Ukraine independent in name and law but ‘really’ part of Russia’s ‘natural sphere of influence’?

Even if the curiously murky idea of supposedly ‘natural’ ‘spheres of influence’ is rejected on principle, is it wise to try to incorporate into mainstream Euro-Atlantic structures a country that has lots of Russian-speakers when Moscow is loudly objecting? Maybe not. But what then is the status of Ukraine and Ukrainians? Are they left in a psychological twilight-zone to await Russia’s imperial instructions? Isn’t imperialism nowadays meant to be bad?

Russia’s clumsy annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a jolt to European and wider ideas of international order. Only eight UN member states have disgraced themselves by recognising it. The overwhelming international consensus is that Crimea is not to be accepted as part of Russia. Western governments have responded to this and other Russian machinations with sharp economic sanctions.

One wonders how far if at all the Kremlin thought about what its Ukrainian power-plays would cost Russia. The figures are stark. Russia’s GDP had been growing strongly from the late 1990s, up from a puny USD 200 billion towards USD two trillion by 2013. Following Russia’s interventions in Ukraine it has now fallen back by hundreds of billions of dollars. Or look at how Russia and Chinahave set about their reform business since 1990. In 1991 their economies were roughly the same size. Now, a mere 1,400 weeks later, China’s is ten times bigger than Russia’s, and that gap is growing fast.

Compare likewise the US’s lively economic performance with Russia’s over the past few years. Growing wealth brings growing options.  Any sensible Russian analyst must see these raw numbers as showing their country’s startling strategic policy failures.

For those of us who worked with Russian diplomats back in the early 1990s when there was a real close sense of optimistic practical cooperation, Russia presents a depressing picture today. Little green men. Asymmetric warfare. The destruction of flight MH17. Internet troll factories. Cyber attacks. Meddling in Western elections. Journalists and political opponents murdered. Nerve agents in Salisbury. Mass spy expulsions. More sanctions.

Who is to blame? Didn’t Western governments themselves set a ruinous precedent by pushing Kosovo’s independence in the face of principled Russian (and Serbian and Chinese and Indian) objections? Isn’t Russia’s current attitude an inevitable if not correct reaction to decades-long Western policies aimed at humiliating and curbing Russia?

As it tackles such questions, Western punditry on Russia contains contradictory elements. Some people suggest that for deep reasons of (choose your reason) history or geography or Tsars or communism or vodka or the Russian Soul, Russia has no choice but to behave the way it does: best to keep well back and not risk trouble. Others argue that Russia of course does have choices, but those choices may not be those we like: keep that bear calm and happy, even if he eats his neighbours’ rabbits now and again. And others say that the only sane way to deal with Russia is to make sure that the Russian political and economic elite know that bad choices have bad consequences, both for Russia and for them personally.

In diplomacy there are always deals to be done. The trick is to identify them, and then create the right mood for making steady progress. As things now stand, that looks to require President Putin and key Western leaders to decide to sit across a table and agree that the relationship they have now is in no-one’s interests. Time to try something completely different.



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