After the collapse of the USSR there was a honeymoon period when the West and Russia had ‘good relations’. This period coincided of course with a chaotic transformation of the Russian economy and Russian society to free-market capitalism – a period in which a few Russians – often with prior links to either crime or the Soviet State machine – became very wealthy and many Russians suffered a great deal.
In the last 10 years it has all gone wrong; now the US is on Russia’s list of “unfriendly nations” and the UK is probably not far behind. Differences over Crimea and Syria and the Arctic play a large part. As no doubt do various (likely) Russian intelligence operations in Europe. The Litvinenko poisoning went largely unanswered, but in the febrile atmosphere after the annexation of Crimea the attempt on the life of Skripal did not. My own view is that it is highly likely that a Russian spy agency poisoned the Skripals and that this was a significant political mistake – they simply don’t grasp how these things are seen in the West.
But, behind all this, there is a difference of minds. Russia, under Putin and his allies, has gathered itself and found a direction. It defends its national interests and “pursues its own path to development”. And it is this that the West cannot abide. Western politicians and operators in the military machine simply seem to lack the breadth of diplomatic skills and maturity to deal with a partner who is different and who wants to be equal. This is confirmed by this comment today reported in the Daily Telegraph by a senior UK Military commander:
General Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of Britain’s Strategic Command, says the West “assumed our adversaries would see the world as we did” when it ended but “they didn’t”.
And that, really is it. Why on earth should Russia “see the world as we do”? How ignorant do you have to be to think that a state with a long history of its own is suddenly, overnight, going to wash away that history and adopt your cultural values and mindset just because they have reached a watershed moment in their history? Did France in 1789 cease being France? But this is what Sir Patrick demands. Otherwise it is war. Of course; Russia has its own history, completely different from ours e.g. no Roman occupation, a different religion – in fact multiple different religions. They live in a different part of the world with a different climate. (And as Nietzsche knew climate affects national character). When the Soviet Union fell of course Russia was going to pick itself up and go forwards in a direction based on their own values and history.
Sir Patrick’s text (these people often use the Telegraph to make controlled public position statements) then explains how Britain is gearing up to be an effective adversary of Russia in the supposed new multi-domain hybrid warfare space. There is the interesting admission that this is a rekindling of Britain’s imperial past. And a partial admission relating to Britain’s cyber attacks on other countries which are described amusingly as “reconnaissance”. The problem is perhaps that warriors like Sir Patrick are making the running. And this is because there are no statesmen and diplomats above them with the depth of vision and maturity to reign them in.
In the stand-off between the West and Russia there appears to be a lack of awareness of the need to understand – and respect – how the other side thinks. And above all not to assume that different means bad or dangerous. The fault appears to be more entrenched in the West but Russia could do more here too, to understand how Western leaders think – what matters to them – and to adjust their actions accordingly.