Reading Russia, Rewiring the West

Roderic Lyne
12 October 2008

Part one: Old hearts - or new heads?

What guides Russia?

"We are strong again - but we don't know what it's for", declared a Russian pundit at a recent conference (before the Caucasus conflict of August 2008).

This is the key question: for Russia, her neighbours, and the West. Or rather two questions: how strong is Russia; and what are its objectives?

We are coming towards the end of the crisis-management phase. No one has emerged from the conflict between Russia and Georgia with credit or with substantive gains. Inevitably, there has been over the past six weeks a surfeit of emotion, anger and hyperbole. This is not Russia's 9/11; nor Prague 1968 nor Budapest 1956 nor Munich 1938. The thesis that the Cold War has come back is untenable (as even Edward Lucas pointed out in his book).

Emotion stirred by half-truths, ancient prejudice, spin and counter-spin makes bad policy. As the embers begin to cool in the villages of South Ossetia, all sides will need to ask themselves where the conflict has left us, and where we go from here. This requires calmer calculation than has been possible up to now.

Where does Russia go from here?

What are Russia's objectives? Does the Russian leadership have a strategy of confronting the West (which would require a countervailing strategy from the West)? Does it have a strategy at all?

We too easily overlook the fact that the Russian Federation is still in transition, not the finished article. How could it be otherwise, a mere seventeen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Of course Russia's leaders and generals are still shaped by the mindset of Soviet power (just as memories of the Cold War are easily reawakened in the West): with the exception of Dmitry Medvedev, they were in their 30s and 40s when the USSR collapsed. It is not surprising that most Russians still struggle with the idea that Ukraine is a foreign country. How long did it take Britain to adjust to the loss of empire (while walking out of the founding negotiations of the European Economic Community and mounting the Suez adventure)? Why did France cling on to Algeria? Why do some Japanese still pay homage at the Yasukuni shrine?

Vladimir Putin's remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century is over-quoted and insufficiently understood. That's what it felt like to most of his countrymen; and if we had been Russian most of us would have felt the same. We would do better to remember another of his remarks (borrowed, I believe from Grigory Yavlinsky): that anyone with a heart should regret the collapse of the Soviet Union - and anyone with a head should know it could not be put back together again.

In the Russian elite, the heart and the head are in conflict.

The Russian "political class" is not monolithic. It is, quite naturally, pro-Russian: to expect Russians to be "pro-Western" is absurd. Across the spectrum, the elite is highly critical of the West, and has no trust in the United States. But it divides between those whose feelings might be termed atavistic or revanchist and those who make a reasoned critique, in sorrow as much as anger, of Western policies - especially the Iraq war, the Kosovo affair from 1999 onwards, United States plans for theatre missile-defence, and, not least, the expansion of NATO.

There is no shortage of people in Russia, especially in the military and security orbits, who are itching to confront the West in a serious way, and sincerely believe that the West is bent on undermining Russia. But the leadership has spent the past eight years avoiding direct confrontation with the United States and the West, perceiving, I think, that Russia is not strong enough to do so and would be greatly damaged - again - by an all-out confrontation; and that the main threats to its security come in the short term from its southern border and in the long term from China, whose growing might is a source of deep discomfort.

There is also a clear division over the right way to handle the "post-Soviet space". It is not about Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has few admirers in Moscow, including among ethnic Georgians. But the "Rose" and the "Orange" revolutions (both of which were felt as painful defeats by the Russian leadership: Ukraine's Orange revolution, in particular, was personally humiliating for Putin, and the worst setback of his years in power) triggered a debate which is still running.

It became clear to all that Russia's policy (including energy cut-offs, economic blockades and other forms of pressure) had not been effective. Former Soviet states were continuing to thumb their noses at Russia and move closer to the West. Voices from the "head" argued that coercion was counterproductive: Russia should instead use its new-found wealth to try to attract these states. But the feeling in the old "heart" was that Russia had simply not used enough muscle to impose discipline on upstart neighbours and prevent Western encroachment into Russia's historic sphere of influence. That was how Russia should use its strength.

As Georgia has shown, the "head" did not win this argument. For the two years up to 8 August 2008, Russia and Georgia were coming ever closer to conflict - a conflict which was both avoidable (had either side pursued more rational policies) and seemingly inevitable. Indeed, Vladimir Putin's speech of February 2007 at a security conference in Munich was a clear signal of (in Dmitri Trenin's words) "Russia's return to the traditional status of an independent player on the international stage, unencumbered by any relationship of ‘complex subordination' to the West."

Trenin's incisive analysis is worth re-reading: "If Moscow manages to agree with the West on new rules of the game, it will probably be able to raise its status and strengthen its security. But if it fails to reach such an agreement, the inertia of diplomacy based on force and the heat of anti-Western rhetoric will push Russia in a direction it has no wish to take - towards the confrontation that both President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have resolutely rejected in their declarations." (Dmitri Trenin, "Russia's Coercive Diplomacy", Carnegie Moscow Center, January 2008).

To the extent that Russia has a strategy, it is self-contradictory.

On the one hand, Russia wishes to be part of the international status quo. It has preached international law at the West over Iraq and Kosovo. It has felt threatened by the exercise of power unilaterally by the United States. A key goal of Vladimir Putin has been to restore Russia's position in the world, reversing the humiliation of the 1990s, and to be accepted at all the top tables - including, most prestigiously, the exclusive G8. He has repeatedly argued that this can only be achieved by leveraging Russia's economic strengths, and not by reliance on military power.

Russia's elite want the country to be more than a producer of raw materials, semi-finished products and armaments. Through modernisation, diversification, and moving up the value chain, Russia wants to join the ranks of the most advanced economies. Another key goal has therefore been to seek closer integration into the world economy, by joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO)and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), encouraging Russian companies to go overseas, and accepting the need for foreign investment (while also seeking to control it).

On the other hand, Russia resents the obligations of the status quo and, now that it is relatively wealthy, wishes to be free of them. This applies above all to the area of highest priority in Russia's external policy, the "post-Soviet space". Here, Russia's goal is to maintain a droit de regard and to prevent the further erosion of its influence by intervening actively and, where necessary, aggressively. In pursuit of this goal, Russia has been prepared to contravene international law, damage its hard-won international position and risk confrontation with the West.

Within that space, Ukraine is of cardinal importance (vastly more so than Georgia). It is so by virtue of its large, partly Russian population; its strong personal, economic and cultural ties to Russia; and its history (save for western Ukraine) as an integral part of the historic Russian motherland. We must assume that Russia would exert itself mightily, risk a great deal and pay a high price to prevent Ukraine from becoming, as Russians would see it, a platform for American power. I have yet to meet a Russian of any stripe who thinks that acquiescence in Ukrainian membership of Nato - at this juncture - is sellable within Russia.

President Medvedev has recently enunciated five principles of Russian foreign policy. A number of contradictions are built into them. The first and third principles are compliance with international law, and "full and friendly relations" with all countries; but the fourth principle stresses the "indisputable priority" of "protecting the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be", while the fifth asserts a right to give "special attention" to particular regions in which Russia has "privileged interests". The president does not say whether the "indisputable priority" and "privileged interests" of the last two principles would override the first and third. An omission from his list is any direct reference to the maintenance of international peace and security.

What lessons will the leadership draw from the Georgia crisis? Liberal commentators in Russia have tended to take a gloomy view: that hardliners are now so firmly in charge, and the leadership so trapped by the anti-Western paranoia which it has helped to encourage, that more moderate viewpoints are marginalised for a very long time to come. But when the Kremlin reviews the balance-sheet, how will it add up? Might it privately agree with the commentator Alexander Golts that "a successful military campaign ended up being a political catastrophe for Russia"?

If the point had simply been to retaliate for Kosovo, it has been made - but at the cost of a precedent in the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which breaches a long-held Russian policy and will come back to haunt Russia. If the aim was to deter Mikheil Saakashvili's adventurism, it has also succeeded. If the objective was to deter Nato from granting Membership Action Plan (MAP) status to Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian action was initially, at least, counterproductive. A publicly stated Russian ambition has been to oust Saakashvili: for the time being, the Georgians have closed ranks behind him. Russia's strategic objective is to recapture its "sphere of influence"; but the operation has stiffened resistance to this, in the neighbouring states and the West.

Moreover, the costs to Russia have been high: huge damage to its reputation in the world; zero support (discounting a couple of mavericks) in the international community; a manifest breach of international law; a sharp deterioration in relations with a more unified West; and material damage to the economy (on the success of which the popularity of the leadership depends). Certainly those who seek the modernisation of the economy and the success of Russian business will not be keen on a repetition.

The "head" will argue that the generals have overestimated Russia's strength and expended much credit for inadequate reward. There could be an interesting debate, behind closed doors. The generals have the bit between their teeth, and the "Crimea next" party will be in full cry. But it is not impossible that wiser counsel will prevail at the top, and that the leadership will start looking for a way of climbing down the tree rather than crawling further along a fragile branch. We should be ready to help them to do so.

Part two: The not-the-new Cold War

Towards a Western strategy

Trying to work out what animates Russian behaviour should not be considered a treasonable offence. If our analysis is inaccurate, our policies will be wrong. We may not like the present phase of the Russian transition, but we are going to have to live through it. We may not like the present Russian leadership, but we cannot change it. It is strongly entrenched, enjoys wide popular support, and we must assume it will remain in power for many years to come.

So what should the West do? Not, I submit, fall back on containment and isolation.

If it turns out over time that Russia has become very strong and is pursuing a strategy of reasserting sovereignty over neighbouring states and of deliberately and aggressively infringing international law and the legitimate rights and interests of others, the West will have no choice but to react vigorously. The apostles of "containment" will have their day. But we are not yet in that situation, and we would be foolish to act in a way which helped to bring it about, however strongly we may feel about the trap which the Russian generals set for Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili (and into which he obligingly fell).

As Boris Dolgin aptly comments: "our [Russia's] isolationists are close allies of Western supporters of containment" (see Boris Dolgin, "What peace looks like", 22 August 2008). Isolation would consolidate power in the hands of the most unreconstructed elements in Russia; deprive the West of leverage; create a pressure-cooker in a huge and heavily-armed country; and drive us ever further away from the goal of a stable and cooperative relationship with Russia. It is a measure of last resort, not a sensible objective.

Equally we need to make clear that the world of Yalta ended in the 1980s; that the coercion and bullying of sovereign, independent United Nations (and in some cases European Union) member-states is unacceptable; that we shall not acquiesce in the enforced recreation of the "zone of influence" of which Russian generals dream. Russia is as free as anyone else to try to exercise influence peacefully and legitimately through the power of attraction. If we are ever to wean  Russian policy-makers off their zero-sum mentality, we must avoid practising zero-sum ourselves.

So what should be the West's objectives? We need a strategy designed to:

  Preserve the security and stability of Europe and prevent further conflict over disputed territories.

  Buttress the sovereignty and independence of the newer and more vulnerable states, and deter coercion.

  Enable us to coexist and, to the extent possible, cooperate with Russia in this phase.

  And to keep open the incentives and opportunities for partnership if, in the future, Russia moves in a modernizing direction.

How can this be brought about? If the West is to steer a sensible course between outright confrontation, on the one hand, and passive acquiescence on the other, there are five steps that we need to get right.

First, we need coherence, within the European Union, Nato and the G7 (therefore bridging the Atlantic). Western divisions have encouraged Russian opportunism. No EU state is strong enough to be effective on its own. When the EU has succeeded in acting together (as over Kaliningrad and the 2004 enlargement), its solidarity has impressed the Russians. Russia's actions in Georgia have brought EU members much closer together. There has been an appropriately firm Western reaction which needs to be sustained. Full coherence with the United States will have to await the new administration, but will be easier to achieve if the EU uses the remaining months of 2008 to agree on clear principles for the future handling of Russia.

Second, we need clear signals. Conflicting signals to Russia and Georgia from different constituencies within the United States, the EU and Nato - including Nato's confused position at the Bucharest summit in April 2008 - undoubtedly contributed to the miscalculations of both combatants. It must now be made unambiguously clear to the Georgian leadership (as should have happened before) that the Western support now rightly being given to Georgia does not mean that the West is prepared to be drawn into a conflict by reckless behaviour.

In practice there is now only one way forward for Georgia, and only one course which the West should underwrite. The Georgian government must focus, with our help, on developing the country's governance, prosperity and stability. Over time, it must seek to make Georgia attractive to Abkhazians and South Ossetians, and to heal the wounds not just of 8 August 2008 but of the entire period since the early 1990s. It should also seek, in time, to improve its relationship with Russia; geography, if nothing else, dictates this. That may open the way to an eventual negotiation over the two territories, though the conflict has inevitably set the prospect back a long way. It should be made equally clear to the Russian leadership that any further encroachment on the sovereignty of independent states would meet a united Western response and bring cooperation to an end.

Third, we need to think harder about how the sovereignty of the vulnerable states is best protected. The decision on whether NATO should grant Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine is looming. It is little comfort to say that we should not be starting from here. NATO enlargement has been a mistake from the beginning. Oral assurances given to the Russians were broken; and the alliance has not managed to build a strong enough bridge with Russia. Enlargement has brought few benefits to the alliance; and it is questionable whether in reality NATO membership has enhanced the security of the states in question. It has not prevented them from coming under economic pressure or even cyberattacks.

For Russia to re-annex member states of the UN and, in most cases, the EU would be an exceptionally serious step and not one I believe the Russians would take; NATO membership is an additional deterrent, but only to the extent that the Russians believe that NATO would go to war. One need do no more than pose the question of a war of a devastating kind being triggered by, say, Georgia.

Two arguments are invariably put forward for NATO enlargement. One is that we should not give Russia a veto. This is facile: no one argues the opposite. The better argument is that NATO cannot say no to Georgia when it has said yes to others. But NATO members have a duty to consider the best interests of the alliance. Those would not be served by implanting an overstretched NATO in a volatile region full of unresolved conflicts; by letting the Georgians think that they could now act with impunity; or by mortgaging NATO - and European security - to a hot-headed Georgian leadership.

With Ukraine, the stakes are even higher. No issue could be more sensitive for Russia. In present circumstances, no Russian general would view Ukrainian membership of NATO as anything other than a direct challenge and threat. And why has NATO, an association of democracies, even contemplated putting a country on a path to membership when the available evidence shows that a clear majority of the electorate is opposed? President Yushchenko does not have a mandate to do this. To proceed further would be highly divisive in a country that is far from stable; and an invitation to the Russians to make trouble - or worse.

The West should freeze NATO enlargement until such time, many years hence, as it can be implemented without these consequences. It should instead use other, non-military means to buttress the sovereignty of the new states. EU first, NATO maybe later, would be a sensible approach. EU policy since 1991 has been too Russocentric. How many EU leaders, except from the immediate neighbours, have bothered to visit Ukraine, one of the largest countries of Europe? We should not compete with Russia over Ukraine, or promote internal divisions there. We should promote the idea that Ukraine is a natural partner for both Russia and the EU, where we each have different things to offer; and let the Ukrainians choose their own path in their own time.

Fourth, the West needs a viable, and to the extent possible constructive, format for relations with Russia. The idea of "strategic partnership" with Russia has failed. This has been evident for the past four years, but it has taken the Ossetian conflict to make the penny finally drop in the chancelleries and commissions of Europe. It has failed, not because it was a bad idea, but because neither Russia nor the West is yet ready for such a partnership. Our values are too far apart (and at the moment going further apart) for a genuine "partnership". On most of the world's strategic issues, we are no longer on opposite sides, even if we have tactical differences; but there is one strategic issue which divides us sharply - the future of, for want of a better phrase, the "post-Soviet space".

In place of the chimera of partnership, we need a more realistic policy of selective cooperation. Cooperation on the global problems where our interests overlap. Cooperation - on a basis of rules - in trade and investment. Cooperation in education, science, culture, information, and all forms of people-to-people contact. Our best hope of eventually bridging the divide is by investing in these areas - areas of mutual advantage.

We should not block Russian membership of the WTO, nor permit Georgia to do so. The WTO is not a political club or seal of approval: it is a technical organisation to facilitate trade. The G8 is different. It originated as a club of democracies which also comprised the largest economies. It has no formal powers and no permanent institutional base. Its present format no longer makes sense. It could be discontinued; or reformed as a smaller club; or enlarged to embrace China, India, Brazil and perhaps South Africa. The Georgian crisis has given momentum to an overdue review.

Fifth, but by no means least, the West needs to engage Russia - and not only Russia - in a negotiation about the future security of Europe. Russian proposals over the past year for such a negotiation have been received with understandable scepticism by the West, which sees them as a rather old-fashioned ploy to undermine NATO and delink the United States from Europe. But the situation has changed. The risks of failing to address the sources of tension and conflict inherited from the collapse of the USSR have been underlined. If we do not find a framework for addressing these issues, we risk sliding into a deeper confrontation.

There is a well-known precedent. For many years, for exactly the same reasons, NATO resisted a proposal by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and foreign minister Andrei Gromyko for an all-European Security Conference. Then the West changed tack; reformulated the proposal; and engaged in the lengthy negotiations of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The result was the Helsinki Final Act, which was a foundation stone of détente and became a charter in the hands of campaigners for change in the Warsaw Pact.

True, today we need a slightly different form of negotiation. The CSCE was largely a negotiation between two opposing blocs, though the neutrals and independents certainly made their voices heard (including tiny Malta). The context and the agenda have changed. All states would need to be represented equally in the negotiation. It would be cumbersome, slow (not necessarily a bad thing) and expensive. But it would be far better to have Russia and Georgia voicing their grievances across a table than fighting in South Ossetia.

We do not need to invent a new format. The CSCE still exists, relabelled OSCE, with fifty-six participating states including the United States and Russia. It has continued to carry out a number of useful tasks; but in recent years has been marginalized as a forum for negotiation on major issues. The West should take up President Medvedev's challenge. It should respond to his proposal, and his emphasis on international law and multipolarity, by formulating its own proposals for a reinvigorated, high-level negotiation based on the OSCE format. President Medvedev has complained that the West has shown no understanding of Russia's viewpoint: let Russia come and explain it - and Georgia, Ukraine and others too. The aim should be to achieve an agreed multilateral framework for the maintenance of peace and security in Europe, and on its geographical fringes, over the next decades of the lengthy and complex transition.


Labels can oversimplify. It does not matter whether we call the strategy "critical engagement" or "hard-headed engagement" or something different (so long as it is neither containment nor strategic partnership).

It may be worth recalling that, a quarter of a century ago, the West had to deal with a dominant regional power which was intruding on its neighbours and had an internal system we did not like. The main Western governments involved pursued a strategy of "constructive engagement" which eventually proved successful. It was a firm policy, but with incentives for cooperation and change. The country was South Africa, and there are many reasons why it is not analogous to Russia. The forces for change there were rising. In Russia, in the current phase, they are not: US Presidential aspirants compete to be the candidate of "change", while in Russia the popular ideas are stability, continuity and the restoration of past greatness - the issues of the "heart". In the next phase, when the realities of Russia's unattended institutional, socio-economic and regional problems become more pressing, and the downside of a fractious relationship with neighbours and the West more apparent, the case for the "head", for modernization, will be compelling. We should stay connected to the head.


Roderic Lyne was British ambassador to Moscow from January 2000 to August 2004

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