Russia, Ukraine and the West: taking a longer view

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Russia, Ukraine and the West: taking a longer view


To state that the international community seems to be facing greater dangers than it has for many years risks merely repeating a theme of several powerful pieces in TheArticle by its editor, Daniel Johnson, backed by highly qualified contributors such as Lt Gen. Sir Robert Fry. How these developments have happened and how we — the West in general and the UK in particular — should respond is a different matter.

At the moment, China and Russia top the threat list, with the Moscow/Kyiv confrontation currently the most urgent. But they are far from the only ones.

Nine of the ten most read contributions in 2021 to the Journal of Democracy, the think tank in Washington affiliated to the National Endowment for Democracy, amount to a catalogue of gloom. Apart from “The Rise of Political Violence in the United States”, “Russia’s Road to Autocracy” and “China: Totalitarianism’s Long Shadow”, a piece on India is concerned with its constitutional instability, while another is titled “Latin America Erupts”.

During the past two months, my inbox was filled with notices of Zoom webinars by democracy promotion bodies in a number of countries concerning “democratic backsliding”, electoral malpractice, deep-rooted corruption, and worrying foreign interference in domestic politics, with Russia as the main perpetrator. And that was before the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine started filling the headlines.

Rather than offering another running commentary on fast-changing news and speculation about this crisis, I propose to take a step back to the winter of 1989-90, when the Berlin Wall had recently been breached and the Soviet Union was breaking up. In November 1989, when Daniel Johnson, whom I did not yet know, was playing an historical role as a journalist in Berlin, I happened to have just arrived in Bonn. There, I was to start research for the policy planning staff of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on “political aid” with particular emphasis on overseas projects funded by the West German Auswärtiges Amt. For me, the objective was academic, namely to pursue an understudied aspect of my specialism in the funding of political parties, namely funding injected by foreign governments. For the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the purpose was to see if the UK should copy or adapt a version of the foreign work of the German Stiftungen (foundations). This research soon led it to set up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Months later, I was in Washington carrying out similar work on the recently created US National Endowment for Democracy. Luckily, I had an office at the best think tank it has ever been my good fortune to attend. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars accommodated a mixture of academics, politicians, military officers and, as I was to discover, those with experience of diplomatic and mysterious worlds. The crowded lunch room frequently brought me side by side with legendary figures, taking weeks or months off from their careers to review a wide range of topics.

Several times, I was able to chat on a whole variety of things with Shlomo Gazit, the Israeli major-general who had been called after the disaster of Egypt’s attack at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war to head and to reform Israel’s military intelligence. His job was to find out how the vaunted AMAN — Israel’s defence analysts — had been so taken by surprise. Gazit outlined several exercises he had recommended to his staff, including case studies of past failures by other countries’ military intelligence agencies. I did not keep a diary and do not remember any details. My strong impression is of his insistence on contrarian approaches: the questioning of office orthodoxies and assigning teams to put themselves in the minds of the adversary. A recent article by former Mossad head Efraim Halevy — the relative Sir Isaiah Berlin regarded as his nephew — argued the same.

So, please excuse this exercise in taking a Russian viewpoint. I have no claim to special knowledge or insight into the Russian mindset; but basic logic, as well as some of Vladimir Putin’s own statements, make some things obvious. In any case, trying to appreciate the adversary need not be a recipe for weakness.

As a start, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 not only left Russia with grievous losses of population, territory and resources, but also with internal insurrections within its remaining lands, particularly in Chechnya. In 1990, the Soviet population exceeded 290 million, well ahead of that of the US. Currently, Russia’s population (146 million) is half that of the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse and considerably less than half of the present US population of 333 million. Despite burgeoning international revenues from its oil and gas reserves, the Russian GNP is fourteen times smaller than the US’s.

On top of its surrender of much of the former Soviet Union, Russia has lost all but one (Belarus) of its former satellites. This adverse development has serious implications for its strategic position. The Warsaw Pact is no more, while NATO has constantly expanded, with fourteen new countries being admitted since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Viewed from Moscow, history looks different. Russia has barely survived successive attacks from Europe and only with tremendous sacrifice. Napoleon’s attack is commemorated by Tolstoy; the counter-attacks on Russia by Germany and its allies in the First World War brought down the tsar; following the 1917 revolution, foreign governments scrambled to assist the White counter-revolutionaries in the resulting civil war; then came the genocidal assault by Hitler in 1941; then collusion by the victorious Western allies with Nazi agents, scientists and war criminals immediately after and even during the Second World War.

From a Western viewpoint, military and economic precautions against Stalin became a necessity even while battles against the Nazi armies were still in progress. We now know that Stalin’s extreme fear of Western intentions was not wholly misplaced. Within days of the German surrender in May 1945, Churchill asked UK military planners to consider “Operational Unthinkable”, an early attack to be coordinated with the United States against positions in territories in eastern Europe occupied by Stalin’s forces. Military chiefs in Britain and the US rated this as unfeasible. However, Western covert and guerrilla operations against the emerging Soviet bloc did take place.

Western moves against countries sympathetic to Russia did not stop — as seen from Moscow — after the fall of the Soviet Union. While the West is justifiably outraged by Serbian war crimes in Bosnia, Russians must feel that protests by NATO countries against Russia’s military threats against Ukraine are somewhat undermined by US bombing in the 1990s of Serbia in order to defend Kosovo’s breakaway from Serbia.

Coming to the question of foreign interference in other countries’ domestic politics, Russia may not view the 2014 protests in Kyiv’s Euromaidan Square, which led to the flight of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, as wholly lacking in outside support.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the matter of whether it is up to Ukraine to decide whether to join NATO and whether to become part of the European Union. Influential Western academics, such as Yale’s Timothy Snyder, have supported EU expansion into Ukraine’s fertile and extensive “black earth”. It was Yanukovych’s failure in 2013 to sign an EU Association Agreement, effectively a form of semi-EU membership perhaps leading to full adhesion, which sparked the organised protests in the Ukrainian capital and Yanukovych’s flight in February 2014. This development, viewed from Russia as a non-democratic ouster of a president chosen in what was internationally recognised as a fair election, sets the stage for the current standoff.

To Russia, EU projects such as its “neighbourhood policy”, “Eastern Partnership Community” and  “Association Agreement” amount to what the EU Commission’s then president declared in 2008 to be the “political association and economic integration” of countries on Russia’s southern rim. Such integration into the Western sphere of influence would — again I write specifically of fear from Moscow — become even more against Russian interests were Ukraine (plus potentially Georgia, Moldova and other countries) be admitted to NATO. The NATO charter obliges every NATO member to come to the aid of a fellow state. Thus Ukraine’s admission to NATO potentially would directly affect the military obligations of (among others) the US and the UK.

Western rhetoric of “they should join NATO if they wish to” pits national self-determination against basic aspects of realpolitik. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Kennedy administration in Washington was, quite realistically, thinking and speaking in terms of the vital US strategic interest that Soviet missiles should not be based so close to its borders. The will of the Cuban government under Fidel Castro to host such missiles was not seen as an acceptable excuse.

While it makes sense to appreciate the perceptions of Russian nationalists of their beleaguered past and of their hard-won triumphs against outside attack, this provides only one part of the picture. Political leaders minded to attack neighbouring countries all too often, whether genuinely or opportunistically, justify aggression as defensive. ”Appreciating the adversary” also requires us to examine Vladimir Putin’s personality and his domestic actions. Lacking qualifications to do this myself, I have only started to inquire from academic Russia experts. One of the UK’s most prominent of them professed simply not to be able to judge Putin. A second felt that Putin’s prime motive is to maintain his own power over the next ten or fifteen years. He will promote this aim by using military threats or actions to help install a government in Kyiv more friendly to Russia — that is, to reverse the humiliation of the ouster in 2014 of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Yanukovych by the crowds gathered in the Euromaidan protests, which ended in violence. According to this analysis, capture of territory in Ukraine is not the central goal.

What are we to make of this thesis that the main driver of the current Ukraine crisis simply is Putin’s drive to consolidate his internal power? The evidence cannot be ignored. Putin has evaded constitutional rules introduced after the fall of the Soviet Union to impose, as in the US, a two-term limit on the presidency. He did this initially by switching his formal position from president to prime minister and installing a willing helper in the presidential role while he retained the real power. When his time as premier again allowed him to become president he resumed that office. This meant that by 2020 he had already occupied — de jure or de facto — top executive office for twenty years. The next device was a referendum held in 2021 to change the rules. As a result, he is now able to remain as president until 2036. He is already in his seventieth year.

When a nation’s president seeks to retain executive power for so long, he (for it invariably has been a man) must adapt the political system to safeguard against opponents. Putin’s critics point to institutional changes threatening judicial independence, to evidence of widespread electoral fraud and corruption, and to scandals such as the Magnitsky affair. This involved the death in prison of a 37 year old lawyer who reportedly had been brutalised and denied medical treatment in prison after he pursued a $230 million corruption case. Magnitsky’s supporters now in the West have used the case to highlight what they have argued is the prevalence of state-connected kleptocracy in Russia.

Opposition politicians have faced personal risk. Boris Nemstov, a deputy premier under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s who became a critic of Putin, was found dead in 2005. In 2020, Aleksey Navalny, a former candidate for the Moscow Mayoralty and an anti-corruption campaigner aiming to register a political party, became sick on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Flown for treatment in Germany, it was found that he had been poisoned with a chlorinesterase inhibitor. Subject to a suspended sentence in a controversial financial case, he was arrested on return to Moscow in 2021 and then imprisoned. His conviction had been upheld in Russia although it had been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. A mass of evidence supports the analysis of the US-based annual study of Freedom in the World of Russia’s striking democratic decline.

I come at this point to the question of assessment. To look at matters from the other side certainly does not mean accepting all the above reminders of Russian fear and grievance. Still less does it excuse such gangster behaviour as the poisoning of Russian dissidents living in Britain. Indeed, I do not wish to debate how the Biden administration and its main allies should respond over the coming day or days, except to say that Britain’s rapid but limited transport of defensive military equipment to Ukraine as a symbolic and practical deterrence against a Russian invasion is appropriate.

It is in an intermediate timescale and at a strategic level that Western decision-makers need to consider how best to combine firmness with understanding.

First, I genuinely am not yet clear whether there has been adequate long-term thinking in the team of the current US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. Do Blinken and President Biden see Russia as a  threat worthy of potentially major confrontation? Does it make sense to think about a Finlandisation (that is, neutral) status for Ukraine and Georgia rather than their integration into Western political, economic ad defence systems?

If Washington predicts serious escalation of tensions with Russia, why did it show such weakness when it abandoned Afghanistan? And has it taken account of possible retaliatory measures by Russia, such as providing aid to Iran in crossing the threshold to developing a nuclear weapon and missile systems able to deliver it? How does Washington expect Russia’s likely use of Western (particularly German) dependence on Russian energy resources to affect Western economies? Will possible disruption of Russian energy supplies in response to anti-Russian sanctions following an invasion of Ukraine damage plans to limit global warming? Can the US-led Western powers take on Russia and China at the same time?

Second, there is the long-standing, inherently complex, foreign policy issue, seemingly not yet resolved by Washington or by the West more generally, of the relationship between the pursuit of self-interest and support for human rights in foreign countries. It is easy enough to declare that support for human rights always coincides with national self-interest. However worthy this aim, it is easier to achieve in some conditions than in others. The murder in Russia of awkward journalists and the imprisonment of opposition politicians is deeply alarming. But the manner in which the West effectively has disregarded the murder by Saudi agents within that country’s Istanbul’s consulate in 2018 of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi indicates the problem of moral consistency.

Third, a related area of international policy concerns technical and financial assistance aimed at promoting democracy and good governance abroad. This was the topic of President Biden’s “summit on democracy”, held last December in Washington. Non-governmental organisations, mainly funded by Western governments and international agencies, have burgeoned since the 1980s. A problem is that some of them have become large bureaucracies with the expected consequences of being particularly concerned to defend and expand their own budgets.

Fourth, whether the explosion of social media and the expansion more generally of the internet has radically altered political campaigning and financing around the globe, and whether foreign interference in domestic politics and foreign funding of elections calls for new control measures, are important questions to which answers have tended to be insufficiently evidence-based and too fuzzy. Ukraine and Russia are but two countries concerning which we need harder information.

To conclude, it is obvious that senior diplomats and ministers, especially at the moment in the UK, are snowed under with fast-moving, multiple issues which they have too little time to consider. Immediate needs and decisions — especially now — crowd out time for study and reflection of root matters. My aim in writing this piece is to move attention away from day to day dramas, however urgent and compelling, to the underlying discussions that are needed to guide day to day responses to a profusion of fast moving events.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 93%
  • Interesting points: 96%
  • Agree with arguments: 89%
58 ratings - view all

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