The outlines of a new Russia policy have taken shape in the UK over recent years. The aim is to protect ourselves and our allies. The days when we thought we could influence developments inside Russia are long gone. The policy, to use the language of the Cold War, is one of containment rather than rollback.
Contrary to what the Kremlin or its propaganda mouthpieces might say, the policy is not based on Russophobia nor on the exaggerated threats of old Cold Warriors. Instead, it is based on a sound – and realistic – understanding of the last quarter of a century. It is a period over which Russia has successfully challenged the European security order; it has invaded two of its neighbours, twice gone to war with its own people, and engaged in repeated acts of military sabre-rattling, subversion and economic coercion.
The issue with the policy is that Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, appears not to have been briefed on it. Speaking earlier this week, he said: “Twenty years ago it seemed possible that there would be another relationship. I genuinely thought that we would be able to welcome Russia into the comity of democratic nations… I think we have to do a bit of soul-searching about why it didn’t happen, how we lost Russia… I think there were faults on both sides.”
The notion that the West somehow “lost” Russia is as misguided as it is mistaken. It is premised on a belief that Russia, which had dedicated itself to a continuous revolutionary struggle against “Western imperialism” (as it was initially defined) since the October Revolution of 1917, could somehow have been enticed to become the West’s friend after 1991. Certainly, there are things the West could have done differently. But Russia was never the West’s to lose.
For starters, Russia was not willing to give up its empire. From the early 1990s onwards, it was clear that Russia viewed the Soviet Union not as an empire but as its empire. It refused to recognise the sovereignty of the “former Soviet republics” (as it termed them) and felt entitled to meddle in their domestic affairs.
Of the Soviet Union’s 286 million population, around 140 million lived outside of Russia. Almost none of them wanted to be ruled by Moscow during the Soviet period, and almost none of them wanted to be ruled by Moscow after 1991 either. Nevertheless, when senior Russians speak about their role in the former Soviet Union, they use terms like “sphere of privileged interests” and “the near abroad”.
To Moscow, the states of the former Soviet Union are not real countries. It resents their ability to make their own foreign-policy choices and to determine their own geopolitical orientations. When Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with the former Warsaw Pact countries of central Europe and two of the ex-Yugoslav republics, sought to join the EU and Nato, the Kremlin saw this in zero-sum terms: one power bloc was expanding into an area another bloc had vacated.
This view fundamentally mischaracterises what happened. These countries joined by choice. They had to argue hard, in both Brussels and Washington, to be let in. Initially, some were regarded as too backward and volatile, and were told to come back later. Both EU and Nato enlargements were accompanied by careful diplomacy meant to alleviate, as far as possible, Russian worries. In the case of Nato, Russia was brought into the heart of the alliance. The Nato-Russia founding act was signed in 1997 and the Nato-Russia Council created in 2002. Russia was treated as a partner, not as a pariah.
In addition, the notion that the West “lost” Russia is self-centred. Russia has never been all about “us”. The West has had little influence on Russia since 1991, even when we’ve enjoyed more positive relations with Moscow than we currently do.
The most important developments in Russia since 1991 – the mass privatisation of Russia’s state-owned energy and industrial sectors to a small group of oligarchs, the return to prominence of the country’s security services and the return to power of men from within them, the elimination of a free press and political opposition, and the emergence of a grotesquely corrupt kleptocracy – took place against Western advice. The wars in Chechnya and Georgia were met with our protests. The annexation of Crimea and undeclared war with Ukraine triggered Western opposition, strength, and unity – which, remarkably, have held over the last three years.
The Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Office recently announced, will soon visit Russia at the invitation of Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. This is part of an effort to build a more constructive dialogue with Russian on global security issues – or as part of a policy of “sustained and robust engagement”, in the language of Whitehall mandarins.
The Kremlin is likely to see Johnson’s comments on “losing Russia” as an example of British weakness at a time of Transatlantic uncertainty, and it will seek to take advantage of them. It will see Johnson’s call for the West to recognise its own “faults” as the possible start of a rapprochement between London and Moscow. Given the UK’s need for trading partners post-Brexit, who can be sure this isn’t the case?
What concessions would Moscow seek? At the very least, tacit recognition of Russia’s right to interfere in states it considers to be within its sphere of interests. In other words, the return to a system in which big countries are privileged over small countries.
Or perhaps, the Foreign Secretary’s comments – given that they are rather more conciliatory than UK policy – are a canny move, part of a well-designed strategy. For the past 20 years, Russia has used ambiguity and uncertainty to keep the West off balance. Maybe the Foreign Secretary now wants to give Russia a taste of its own medicine.