Now that the sometimes prickly yet largely controlled relations between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War have given way to first mutual suspicion, then acrimony, and now full-blown crisis, Peter Conradi, foreign editor of The Sunday Times and once Moscow correspondent for Reuters, asks pertinently in his recent book: “Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War”.
Of course, put that question to the myriad of Russian versteher who opine on the subject these days in the traditional, social and now fake media will inevitably elicit two answers. The first is “the West”, from the odd grouping of leftists, rightists, populists, isolationist libertarians, and those who want to mark themselves out from the rest of the Western press pack. The second is “Russia’, from the traditional Russophobes and the growing numbers who are simply tiring of Russian’s antics and can no longer ignore its descent into a nasty authoritarian police state with imperialist ambitions.
Conradi, however, is much more curious and even-handed, and takes the reader by the hand through the seminal events in the history of diplomatic relations between the two old foes over the last quarter of a century or so in the search for the answer: from the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself, to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, on past 9/11 and into George W. Bush’s “entirely new relationship with Russia” and the signing of the Nato-Russia Council accord, leading to the disillusionment, then the war with Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the subsequent sanctions, and now what is widely considered to be a new Cold War.
The writing is solid, embellished with great detail and research, giving some new information here, reminding of some forgotten nugget there, though it lacks any penetrating new insight or newly uncovered revelation.
Where Conradi does a much better job is busting a few myths and misconceptions that have grown up over the years into what are now shibboleths held by one side or the other.
For example, Russia (disingenuously) and Kremlin stooges, such as Stop the War’s Lindsey German (credulously), still insist, without providing any proof, that the West had given guarantees to Russia that Nato would not expand into the former Soviet bloc. Nato’s expansion was certainly a bone of contention, especially when it took in the Baltic states that had once been part of the actual Soviet Union, and Western leaders and policymakers had disagreed among themselves whether it was advisable, but “despite the opening of countless records and releases of archival material, it is clear that the assurance remained just that. No legally binding written guarantee has ever emerged.”
When the Russians are being honest among themselves on the subject, criticism has been levelled at the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a failure to secure that binding guarantee. But he has written that, “German reunification was completed at a time when the Warsaw Pact was still in existence, and to demand that its members should not join Nato would have been laughable… No organisation can give a legally binding undertaking not to expand in the future.”
Of course, while the question in the title might seem reasonable enough, like most things in life the answer is never so simple: yes, there were various missteps by successive US administrations, but there was an inevitability about the way that the steep decline of Russia in a unipolar world gave rise to a resurgent nationalism by this most paranoid and petulant of nations, regardless of how the West had reacted to its overtures in the first flush of excitement in the post-communist era. As Putin once famously declared, “there’s no such thing as ex-KGB”: given the spooks began taking hold of the country with Putin’s ascendency, the idea of them opting for a modern democracy based on liberty and the rule of law simply ignores what makes them who they are.
On the Western side, Conradi appears to lay much of the Western blame on the presidency of George W. and his “explicit rejection of the pursuit of international stability, which had been the basis of US policy since the end of the Second World War… Now Washington preached intervention, while Russia called for maintenance of the status quo and non-interference in sovereign countries. What to Bush seemed like a neat coincidence of morality and national self-interest looked very different from Moscow.”
Given that those countries at the top of the list for democratisation seemed to be those of Russia’s near abroad (Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine had just had ‘coloured’ revolutions), coupled with disappointment over what little it had got out of the new post-Cold War era and the way it was not treated as an equal by America, it is hardly surprising that Russia, fed by its deep-seated paranoia, thought it was next for regime change and so a retreat into its default anti-Westernism was predictable.
The result was the seminal February 2007 Munich Security Conference speech by Vladimir Putin, which many in the audience, which included German Chancellor Angel Merkel and then US defence secretary Robert Gates, felt “sounded remarkably like the declaration of a new Cold War”.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the Russians to revert to type. As Dick Cheney noted after Putin and his entourage had rudely interrupted a commemoration ceremony for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland in 2005 as a calculated snub to Polish President Kwasniewski, “Watching his behaviour that day reminded me why Russia’s leaders are so disliked by their neighbours and why we were right to expand Nato and offer membership to former Soviet client states like Poland and Romania.”
While Bush and Putin continued to have relatively warm personal relations despite the deteriorating geopolitical situation (though not as close as those of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin), Obama and Putin got off to a frosty start that got chillier from thereon in. “The reset [in US-Russian relations] that Obama attempted after he came to power was aimed at establishing a new partnership with Moscow. But by the end of his second term he was trying to isolate Russia or ignore it, even as Putin ran rings around him, first over Ukraine and then Syria,” writes Conradi.
Same old, same old
Conradi ends with a look at how the West might get its relations back on track with the Kremlin. Ukraine remains a running sore, and might be best sorted by turning it into a neutral country that acts as a ‘bridge’ between East and West, and making sure the western, pro-EU half of Ukraine is a success to act as draw for the eastern, pro-Russian part. His other suggestions, such as encouraging the young to make more personal ties with Russians, sound insignificant and trite.
In the end, both sides must share the blame: the West and Bush for pushing an expansion of Nato well beyond the bounds of what Russia would accept, like into Ukraine and Georgia; Putin for his country’s isolationism built on paranoia and lies, and a desperate desire for respect that “in Russian eyes so often translates into a desire to be feared”. As Merkel told former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in August 2008 as a ceasefire was agreed in the Russo-Georgian war, “It is rare that all the blame is on one side. In fact, both sides are probably to blame. That is very important to understand.”
However, Conradi’s ultimate conclusion is the right one: “If anyone is responsible for losing Russia, then it is Putin.” It is the current Russian president who has decided that to stay in power and keep alive his system that has made himself and his acolytes immensely rich, he has had to jettison any semblance of a policy of accommodation with the West and turn it into one of confrontation. “He has come to appreciate that waging war, first against Chechnya, and then in Ukraine and Syria can do wonders for his ratings.”
Unfortunately for the optimists, Conradi disses the idea that once Putin departs the stage, the problems will leave with him. “Looking back another quarter of a century from now, it will likely be the pro-Western Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm.”
“Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War,” published by Oneworld Publications (16 February 2017)