Tuesday, 23 September 2008

"Trying to work out what animates Russian behaviour should not be considered a treasonable offence"

Often it is diplomats, rather than politicians, to which we must turn for a sane and sober assessment of international events. On Open Democracy’s Russian blog, Sir Roderic Lyne, former ambassador to the Russian Federation (2000-04), has called for temperate analysis and assessment to prevail, when considering western relationships with Russia. His predecessor and namesake, Sir Roderick Braithwaite, previously called for more understanding of Russia’s position, in an article which was highlighted on this blog.

Lyne begins by cutting through the hyperbole which attended the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

“This is not Russia's 9/11; nor Prague 1968 nor Budapest 1956 nor Munich 1938. The thesis that the Cold War has come back is untenable ……… Emotion stirred by half-truths, ancient prejudice, spin and counter-spin makes bad policy. As the embers begin to cool in the villages of South Ossetia, all sides will need to ask themselves where the conflict has left us, and where we go from here. This requires calmer calculation than has been possible up to now.”


Having appealed for calm, Lyne begins to examine the special circumstances which have influenced Russian foreign policy in order to assess whether the Kremlin genuinely is formulating a strategy of confrontation with the west.

Russia remains in transition after the post-Soviet trauma; its leaders are still shaped by that trauma to a greater or lesser extent.

“With the exception of Dmitry Medvedev, they were in their 30s and 40s when the USSR collapsed.”


Although Putin has often been quoted referring to the collapse of the USSR as a tragedy, it is less frequently noted that he also commented, “anyone with a head should know it could not be put back together again”.

“The Russian "political class" is not monolithic. It is, quite naturally, pro-Russian: to expect Russians to be "pro-Western" is absurd. Across the spectrum, the elite is highly critical of the West, and has no trust in the United States. But it divides between those whose feelings might be termed atavistic or revanchist and those who make a reasoned critique, in sorrow as much as anger, of Western policies - especially the Iraq war, the Kosovo affair from 1999 onwards, United States plans for theatre missile-defence, and, not least, the expansion of NATO.”


There follows a systematic examination of how Russia might be thinking, what its tactics are and how effective those tactics might be. Some of it may be wrong and some of it might be condescending, but the approach is reasoned.

“Trying to work out what animates Russian behaviour should not be considered a treasonable offence. If our analysis is inaccurate, our policies will be wrong. We may not like the present phase of the Russian transition, but we are going to have to live through it. We may not like the present Russian leadership, but we cannot change it. It is strongly entrenched, enjoys wide popular support, and we must assume it will remain in power for many years to come.”


Many of the conclusions which Lyne arrives at, I would question. His approach does not quite extend to acknowledging that Russia has foreign policy interests which must be accorded respect and accounted for in international geopolitics. His call for a more considered view and his notion that a constructive relationship is more likely to visit change within Russia, than ‘containment’, or confrontation, is eminently sensible.

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