The blame game: flawed visions of Russia's future

Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie think tank in Moscow, recently spoke in The Hague about the tensions surrounding Russia. Hannes Adomeit, a German military expert, subsequently criticised him for laying most of the blame on the West. Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who was Great Britain's ambassador in Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed,  weighs up their arguments. The U.S. and Europe are at least partly responsible for the spoiled relations between Russia and the West, he finds.

by Rodric Braithwaite

Trenin is thoughtful but a bit bland. Adomeit sometimes resorts to denunciation rather than analysis. But both make good points about matters which are too often debated in black and white rather than the fifty shades of grey which actually colour them.

Trenin argues that the end of history has not and will not come about. Adomeit challenges him, but Trenin is right.

Fukuyama announced it in 1992. George HW Bush then proclaimed that America had won the Cold War, and that 'a hitherto divided world now trusts America, the one sole and preeminent power'. Both believed that they were witnessing the final triumph of liberal Western values. They were wrong.

president george h. w. bush and russian president boris yeltsinYeltsin on a visit to Washington in June 1992 when hopes were high for a friendly relationship between Russia and the West. Photo Wikimedia

Trenin and Adomeit seem to think that EU Europe, at least, has escaped from history. It was certainly the admirable intention of the Founders to bring the European civil war to a permanent end. They had a measure of success. But who can say whether that will continue? Poor old Europe is now in considerable disarray, with illiberal forces on the rise as they have not been since the 1930s. 'The triumph of liberal democracy in EU Europe' may be less secure than Adomeit or the rest of us hope.

The West was the stronger party

Trenin claims that America's failure to treat Russia as an equal is partly - or largely - the reason why Russia is now challenging the American-led international system. Here too Trenin is partly right.

Presidents Bush and Clinton did try to behave in a statesmanlike and generous manner towards Russia after 1991, even though Russians do not believe that. But not surprisingly they were inevitably inclined to conflate American interests with those of the rest of the world, including Russia's.

Adomeit argues, in addition, that America no longer poses a serious military challenge, and that the Russians are deliberately exaggerating it for their own political reasons. But America, like Russia, still has the nuclear power to wipe out the other. And America spends, by some measures, nine times as much on defence as Russia does. The Russian government and the Russian general staff are bound to take account of that.

Moreover Trenin is right: America, for obvious reasons, has never been willing to share leadership with Russia - on European security, for example. Adomeit almost goes so far as to argue that the Russians would be better off if they accepted American tutelage. But you can see why they might not think so. After one meeting with President Yeltsin, Clinton remarked to his aide Strobe Talbott: 'We haven't played everything brilliantly with these people; we haven't figured out how to say yes to them in a way that balances off how much and how often we want them to say yes to us. We keep telling Ol' Boris [Yeltsin], "Okay, now here's what you've got to do next - here's some more shit for your face." '

What were the Russians to conclude from that?

Why didn't  democracy triumph in Russia?

We talk a great deal about European values. I believe that the philosophical, scientific, political and artistic achievements of the Europeans are second to none and that we are rightly proud of them. But it was also Europe which brought us two world wars and the Holocaust (the Gulag as well, if you believe as I do that Russia too is part of Europe). We need to use our language carefully, and with due modesty.

There are many historical and cultural reasons for Russia's difficulty over the centuries in developing a democracy based on the limitation of power and the rule of law. They have been endlessly debated, and there's little point in rehearsing them here.

But the aspiration to great power is not a unique barrier to democracy, as Adomeit argues. Russia is not the only country that thinks in terms of 'strategic nuclear assets; raw materials... and its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council'. These or their equivalents in earlier ages have always been the attributes of great power. Since Peter the Great, if not earlier, and certainly including Stalin, the Russians have aspired to them. So have most other rising powers, Britain and America among them: but both remained democracies.

Who is to blame?

Trenin blames the failure of Russian democracy partly or largely on the West. Adomeit disagrees.

So how should we distribute the blame? I believe that Russia, like other countries, gets the government it deserves. In the end only the Russians themselves can put together a workable democracy. Others can only help at the margins. After 1991 the West really tried, though Russians don't believe that. But their efforts were clumsy and counter-productive.

The idea that Western actions had no impact on Russian affairs nevertheless makes little sense. We conduct foreign policy in order to influence the acts of foreigners: none of us believe that the act is entirely futile. Our actions may be directly effective. Or they may have unintended consequences. Or they may affect the emotions and prejudices of our opponents in unexpected and perhaps unpleasant ways.

The efforts of the West after 1991 were clumsy and counter-productive

However you weight the blame, no one would now seriously argue that Britain, France, and Russia had no responsibility at all for the outbreak of the first world war, or for the events which followed Versailles. It is equally implausible to argue that the West has no responsibility at all for what has happened in Russia since the end of the Cold War.

The Weimar parallel

Parallels with the collapse of Weimar and Hitler's exploitation of the Sudetendeutsche to justify territorial aggrandisement were already being drawn by Westerners and Russians in the late 1980s as an explanation for what was then happening in the Soviet Union.

To me at least the parallel still seems reasonable and instructive. It wasn't invented as a mere falsification of history by Putin and the silovki as Adomeit seems to think. Revanche is a familiar reaction to humiliation and defeat: France after 1871 as well as Germany after 1918. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, it was a perfectly obvious danger in Russia. 

The Crimea crisis 

ukraine independenceUkrainian citizens demand independence in 1991

Trenin argues that the Crimea crisis was predictable. Adomeit takes issue with him, but Trenin is right here too. The crisis was a possibility from the moment that Ukraine looked like becoming independent. Yeltsin sent his vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoi, to Kiev at the end of August 1991 to warn the Ukrainians not to mess around with the frontiers. Gorbachev's adviser Anatoli Chernyaev remarked in November 1991 that Yeltsin might have to use force over Crimea. The crisis bubbled onward for the next quarter century: it was the form that it took in 2014 that was unexpected.

NATO enlargement

The argument about NATO enlargement has gone on for too long in useless circles. Given the politics of the time, NATO enlargement was probably inevitable. The published documents are undisputed. Adomeit is right that no solemn commitments  to the contrary were given, and nothing was put in writing. But ambiguous things were said by Western leaders, and Russians inevitably heard what they wanted. The Western failure to understand that was a policy failing then. It is a failing of historical interpretation now.

The Russian minister of Foreign Affairs under Yeltsin, Andrei Kozyrev, warned what might happen as early as December 1993, when in the context of the Yugoslav crisis he said in Stockholm: 'In essence, this is a post-imperial space, in which Russia has to defend its interests using all available means, including military and economic ones. ...All those who think that they can disregard these particularities and interests – that Russia will suffer the fate of the Soviet Union – should not forget that we are talking of a state that is capable of standing up for itself and its friends.'

We sneered at Kozyrev's hyperbole. But he was certainly describing the attitude of many among the politico-military classes - and among my liberal friends too. Russian fears or obsessions were then exacerbated by NATO military action in Bosnia and Kosovo.

We need to understand Russian fears or obsessions. Simply to dismiss them confuses our own policymaking

None of this was invented by Putin. It still colours Russian popular attitudes and policymaking. We may think the Russians are exaggerating, or wholly deluded. But to deal with people effectively, in public as as in private, you need to understand the emotions that drive them. Simply to dismiss them confuses your own policymaking.

An appropriate response

It should not be difficult for 'the West' to devise and implement an appropriate response. Thus:

  • NATO has to show that it has the will and resources to protect its Eastern members: recent deployments have gone that way.
  • Attempts by the Russians or anyone else to steal our secrets, penetrate our cyberspace, and meddle with our politics are unacceptable. Some will argue that we do the same to others, and that we are guilty of double standards. So we may be, but that is no reason not to look after our own defences.
  • The same goes for foreign attempts to kill people on our territory. The British had the forensic and scientific skill to trace - beyond reasonable doubt - some of those behind the attempts on Litvinenko and Skripal. Whether or not Putin gave the order is irrelevant: he carries the ultimate responsibility for running his country. Indeed, he glories in it.

Which way next?

Adomeit's rather tired list of Putin's crimes is not the main thing. More important are the geopolitical issues raised by Trenin: whether Russia can break out of a vicious domestic political circle, and transform its perennially bad relationship with the outside world.

A quarter of a century ago I wrote that it was not an act of mindless optimism to think that that Russia might work out its own (not imported) system of liberal democracy over the next three generations. Now a generation has passed, and I am less sanguine.

Trenin proposes an alternative vision of Russia living a new life, no longer hoping to become part of  'Europe plus', sitting in its swivel chair in Eurasia, at peace with itself and the world, able to shed its cooperative attentions on all. I wonder, though, if Russia can escape its geography so easily, and detach itself from its age-old ties to the history, culture, and religion of the rest of Europe.

But at least Trenin's vision looks beyond our own narrow debate, where many of the issues have already been flogged to death. Much of the discussion in Europe misses the point anyway. Putin and his doings are of great concern to us Europeans. But I don't see why the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians should bother so much about him.

In the wider world Trump is dismantling the instruments of American influence in the belief that he can rely instead on raw power. He is thus making way for China to rise even more quickly. The real problem for Europe is how to cope when the Pax Americana no longer operates as comfortably as it used to.