Reading Russia is never easy


While there are Putinversteher to be found everywhere in Europe there seem to be no Europaversteher in Russia. Where does this lack of understanding come from?


Denis MacShane
25 June 2015

Reading Russia is never easy. Chatham House recently produced a report on dealing with Russia, written with the help of two former UK ambassadors in Moscow, which painted Russia in almost entirely negative hues. This report lined up with the neo-Cold warriors in Washington and with the prevailing views of Polish and Baltic leaders that see Russia in terms of confrontation and containment.

On the other side of the argument there are the voices of Putinversteher (understanders of Putin), as the Germans call those who seek to explain rather than leap to knee-jerk condemnations of the Russian leader. They include the former UK Ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, Richard Sakwa of Kent University, and the Independent journalist, Mary Dejevsky.

Countdown to War

In an alarming (not to say alarmist) essay, ‘Countdown to War: The Coming U.S.-Russia Conflict’, the Harvard geo-political guru, Graham Allison, writing with Dimitri K. Simes, draws parallels with the current situation to the run-up to 1914: then, just as now, the Great Powers misread each other’s intentions.

Allison and Simes argue that Russia’s economic weakness, exacerbated by plunging oil prices and rouble devaluation, is offset by armed strength visible in the soldiers and equipment sent to destabilise eastern Ukraine, by the provocative air patrols over European states, by the turning of the Georgian region of Abkhazia into a military and missile base, and the threat to station Iskander missiles in Kalingrad aimed directly at Sweden and Finland.

Before 1939, the idea that Western democracies would send soldiers to ‘die for Danzig’ was dismissed. Allison and Simes argue that today the chances of Europe’s defanged and demoralised armed services being sent to be ‘killed for Kiev’ or lay down their lives for Latvia is similarly unlikely.

It could be argued that European nations have opted out of NATO Article 5 – the obligation to defend any NATO state, which faces military aggression. The US is sending some heavy armour and soldiers to the Baltic States, and a limited number of British soldiers have been carrying out exercises in Poland, but a recent Pew survey showed that 49 percent of respondents in European nations thought their country should not defend an ally.

So the West is left with economic sanctions, which irritate but do not deter.

So the West is left with economic sanctions, which irritate but do not deter. As the Financial Times recently revealed, Russia has adapted to sanctions. There is no question of ordering Roman Abramovich and Evgeny Lebedev out of London.

England’s private schools would likely collapse without Russian pupils. 30% of City lawyers’ income is estimated to come from working for Russians seeking to hide their money or organise their divorces in ‘Londongrad.’  


Given such pusillanimity, what is to be done? The first task is to grasp the Russian mind-set. How does Russia see the world? In two remarkably unambiguous essays by Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations in Moscow, he sets out how Russia sees the world, using analogies and metaphors that have zero resonance in the West. 

For instance, Karaganov asserts that: ‘Most members of the Russian elite have lost all faith in Western politics and seem to be determined to use force to educate their partners to respect.’ This is the most profound renunciation of the entire post-1945 settlement, the long peace, in which force was categorically rejected as a means of educating other nations to show respect.

‘Most members of the Russian elite have lost all faith in Western politics.’

It is far from clear, however, that opinion-formers in Western Europe understand what a shift has taken place. Michael Stürmer, the Berlin foreign policy analyst, argues that:

‘Better use should be made of formats and institutions that have proven their usefulness in overcoming the fault lines of the Cold War, such as the Helsinki Process or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Displays of military prowess should be reduced to a symbolic minimum. Political grandstanding should be suspended for the duration of the standoff. Self-restraint and face-saving should once again be part of the diplomatic toolbox.’

And so might say all of us. One way to reduce tensions would be better diplomatic and political contacts. But Russian diplomacy appears to have no existence outside the Kremlin.

Unlike Europe and North America where there is a lively, often critical debate about foreign policy by think-tanks and serious thinkers, where the foreign policy and intervention of governments is regularly critiqued – think of the condemnation of the Bush-Blair intervention in Iraq or the Sarkozy-Cameron folly in Libya – there appear to be no major mainstream Russian foreign policy analysts who ever dare find a word of criticism against anything Putin decides to do.

The Golden Age

When I was No. 2 at the FCO, I was nominally in charge of Foreign Office relations with Russia. It quickly became clear that, while offering polite receptions, Moscow had no mechanism of doing business at intermediate ministerial level. The only British politician who mattered was the prime minister. This reduction of diplomatic relations to mano-à-mano contacts between Putin and other presidents and prime ministers, with no room for intermediate contacts that can produce results, turn Russian’s foreign policy into a one-man show little different from the Stalin era.

Most members sitting in the Duma or Federal Council are not politicians as we might recognise them in Westminster or Washington – men and women who have sought election at different levels of government and spent a life-time talking to and persuading voters, and being attentive to the views of citizens. Russian parliamentarians either buy their seats or are made law-makers by the government or oligarchs.

For Karaganov, this situation is to be explained by the fact that Russia is ‘inclining towards old European standards – the priority of sovereignty, hitherto banned Christianity, and patriotism; while the rest of Europe is advancing post-European values.’ 

Karaganov is cheerfully cynical about his fellow countrymen. They have ‘achieved what they wanted when they dreamed “to live like people do in Europe”, including personal freedom, well-stocked shops, clean public toilets and even cars for the majority of families. And they are not seriously concerned about rule of law or real democracy for the time being.’ 

Karaganov prefers a more distant past. For him, ‘the most brilliant era in European history’ began 200 years ago in 1815 when ‘Russia’s strength, the idealism and wisdom of Alexander I, and the diplomatic genius of Metternich and Talleyrand helped European nations to forge the Concert of Nations, which ensured almost absolute peace on the continent for several decades and a relatively peaceful order for almost a century. The main achievement of the Congress of Vienna was that the post-war order was relatively fair and built without any humiliation of defeated France.’


For some influential Russians, the main achievement of the Congress of Vienna was that the post-war order was relatively fair.

This is not a view that would be shared elsewhere in Europe: a celebration of the restoration of the Bourbons, and the maintenance of repressive autocratic empires which rejected all liberal reforms and pretended the Enlightenment was an aberration. These policies gave rise to insurrections, thwarted revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1870 as well as denying the rights of the Irish, Poles and other oppressed peoples. But it is important to understand that today’s Russia does indeed see conservative and cruel post-1815 Europe as a model to emulate.


So what can be done? At a recent congress of the Party of European Socialists in Budapest, options were discussed for the future of EU-Russia relations. Though representatives of Russian did not take part, the main speakers were Germans who fall into the category of Putinversteher, and this what they see:

1) A Shared World based on renewing trade, the end of sanctions, and accepting much of the Karaganov world view;

2) A Common World of low growth, environmental destruction, and the rise of IS forcing Russia and the EU to agree common policies;

3) A Broken World as the current EU-Russia confrontation continues, leading to further conflict with the countries between Russia and the EU forming a permanent zone of instability;

4) A Divided World where the neighbours do not communicate or work together. The stalemate between Russia and the EU is frozen and Europe loses all chance of being a global player.

Most of the speakers wanted a mixture of options one and two. None went as far as the Allison-Simes scenario of major conflict. But given Euro-Atlantic political relations and globalised economic interdependence, it is impossible to write the United States out of the equation, especially given the EU’s unwillingness to take defence seriously as long as NATO is there to provide security cover. 

While there are Putinversteher to be found everywhere in Europe there seem to be no Europaversteher in Russia.

While there are Putinversteher to be found everywhere in Europe there seem to be no Europaversteher in Russia. On the contrary, Karaganov sees the post-1945 era based on US-European shared values of liberal democracy and open market economies as having run its course.  Instead he wants a ‘Forum for Eurasian Cooperation, Development and Security, a kind of new “Congress of Vienna”.’  This would consist of what he calls ‘leader-type, non-liberal democracies’.

Karaganov may be right though this vision of a world made to measure for new Metternichs and Talleyrands is dispiriting. One Dutch socialist at the PES congress asked me if we needed a new Willy Brandt to achieve an easing of tension with Russia, as the great German social democrat’s Wandel durch Annäherung (mistranslated as détente in English and French) achieved after the Soviet quashing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Indeed, there is no shortage of people in today’s Germany (and across Western Europe) who want to create better relations with Russia.

The West is not short of Brandts. It is Russia that needs a new Brezhnev, who, for all his brutality, had the vision to begin talking with Europe and the US, and laid the foundations for peaceful change.

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