Monday, 21 September 2009

Cooperation with Russia is possible. Terror is a great place to start.

I was introduced to Charles Crawford’s ‘Blogoir’ site through the Bloggers’ Circle initiative. Charles, a retired FCO ambassador, purports to publish the world’s first hybrid diplomatic blog / memoir.

Clearly Crawford has a deep knowledge of Russia and the post Soviet space. Although I don’t agree with all his conclusions, I read, with a great deal of enjoyment, commentary which is well informed and clearly articulated.

Today Blogoir carries a post following up on some points made during a debate about the scrapped missile shield. It is inspired, partly, by an argument I made in the comments’ zone of a previous post, in which I had challenged the perception that Putinism is merely a crude form of nationalism.

A mark of the quality of his analysis is that Charles is prepared to accept that I have a point, as has another commenter, who believes that western decision making has played a considerable part in Russia’s ‘uncooperative’ attitude to Europe and America. Charles admits of Putin,

“the practical problems Russia has faced in dealing with such sprawling new borders and all the other human and policy issues arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union have been daunting, and handled pretty fairly. The Putin period has led to much greater discipline and sense of purpose.”

So we have discovered some common ground. Whatever the merits or demerits of Putin’s regime we can agree that he showed considerable state building skill. He inherited from Boris Yeltsin a federation, falling apart at the seams, and bequeathed to his successor a strong, centralised state and a desirable, relatively uniform common citizenship.

In addition, we can agree that insensitivity to Russia’s concerns, from Nato and other western structures, caused Russian disillusionment which affects ‘cooperation’ to this day. Nato’s support for Albanian separatists in Kosovo is a particularly lamentable example.

Having conceded these common coordinates Charles launches a spirited argument that there is no incentive for Russia to cooperate with western projects, or pursue substantively better relations, on anything other than its own terms. The US can try to ‘press the reset button’, but it is not likely to change Russian attitudes.

Charles identifies pertinent foreign policy issues. The first of which is a rather old chestnut – Russia’s attitude to former Soviet states.

“formally the Russian elite accept Ukraine's and the other CIS states' independence. But because they (rightly) see 'Westernisation' as a threat to their privileged and untransparent status, they do not want Ukraine to modernise according to normal European standards. So Western support for the tendencies which want reform, transparency and modernisation becomes a 'threat to Russia's interests'”

It is a contention which deserves closer scrutiny, as regards the Ukraine in particular.

What are the aspects of ‘westernisation’ to which Russia most strenuously objects? Perhaps the foremost concern is the Ukrainian president’s desire that his country should join Nato. Then there is a large Russian speaking population in the east of the country, whose cultural rights and affinities Russia is keen to safeguard.

President Yushchenko, whose regime comprises the least popular in Europe, does not share this ambition with the majority of his countrymen. The rhetoric from anti-Russian politicians (David Miliband is an example) holds that Ukraine should be free to chart its own course in foreign affairs. If that course is to reflect the will of the majority, then it will not involve membership of Nato.

Indeed, despite their democratic, pluralist rhetoric, the US and certain members of the EU have shown little interest in listening to Russian speaking voices from the Donbass or Crimea. If western values include respect for ethnic diversity, why isn’t more concern shown for minorities which happen to favour better relations with Russia?

No doubt the annual wrangle between Moscow and Kiev over gas prices will once again erupt, this winter. Hysterical columns will accuse the Kremlin of engineering an energy crisis. By expecting payment for its resources, at market rate, Russia will be portrayed as opposed to ‘reform, transparency and modernisation’. Few analysts will ask why Ukraine should receive preferential rates whilst it continues to lambaste its neighbour.

I do not believe that rapprochement with Russia is a doomed project. I do, however, contend that it will take time before a respectful approach to Moscow begins to alleviate suspicion.

Russia’s foreign policy objectives might not coincide, flush, with ‘western’ priorities, but there are definite shared concerns, on the economy, energy and, in particular, terrorism.

In the Caucasus a fresh Islamic insurgency is claiming lives. This region forms an important geopolitical tinderbox adjacent to Central Asia and close to the Middle East. It should concern policy makers throughout ‘the west’, as well as Russia. If we want to find a common area for cooperation, combating terror would be a great place to start.


Charles Crawford said...

Elegantly put. I'll reply over at my place soon.

The issue (I think, having worked for years at the diplomatic coal-face of these issues) is partly about what in principle should be possible, but more about what in practice turns out to happen when basic instincts and working practices as between Westerners and Russians simply do not coincide...


Charles Crawford said...

Just to add that I do not say that I am the first diplomatic blogger -there are plenty of them out there, especially among the State Department crowd.

Rather I did/do (somewhat vaingloriously) claim to be offering the first diplomatic 'blogoir', a hybrid blog and memoir, in an attempt to look back over a long career and draw some wider operational and philosophical conclusions from specific episodes as seen with the benefit of hindsight.

Russia of course offers rich material. There is plenty on my site about Russia and all the policy dilemmas for Russians and the rest of us arising from its history, gathered here:

Chekov said...

Ah! A careless error on my part. 'Blogoir' it is then.

yourcousin said...

When did Putin get his own "ism"?

As for terror in the Caucuses, am I wrong to think that you would be disinclined to include state terror in that assessment?

Because the last time I looked Putin seems to be reading more out of Alexei Ermolov's book than any other and while it worked for Alexei and worked in the short term for Putin I fail to see how a long term peace can be found using that strategy.

Chekov said...

am I wrong to think that you would be disinclined to include state terror in that assessment?

I certainly don't approve of suppressing Chechen banditry with more Chechen banditry. Nor do I advocate criminal provinces being tolerated within Russia's borders.

The most salient threat today is in any case different from the tribal separatism which marked the Chechen conflicts.

yourcousin said...

Sorry about the delay in response time. I'm not so much concerned about "Chechen banditry" as state sponsored terrorism and crimes against humanity which were carried out by federal forces under Russian command. Also to say that the current insurgencies have little in common with the first two Chechen wars is wide of the mark in my mind.

It is certainly a shame that you don't extend the call for understanding to non Russians.