Mary Dejevsky: “re Gessen’s article [‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’]”
[Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington, and a special correspondent in China and many parts of Europe.]
Who makes US Russia policy and why is it in such a mess is the question Keith Gessen does his best to answer, by considering and talking to old “Russia hands”. It is a question, and an approach, that could usefully be applied to the UK, where relations with Russia – at official level, at least – are at least as bad as they are in the US, and where “Russia hands”, too, play a continuing role.
The UK is a unique parallel, because Russia policy in continental Europe (France, Germany) tends to show more flexibility and geopolitical awareness than UK policy has done (at least in the Putin period), and the countries of East and Central Europe have their particular history with Russia which helps explain why they see Russia as they do. The UK is one of the furthest European countries from Russia, yet it is increasingly as though the Cold War has never ended.
Gessen’s division of old Russia hands into “internationalists” and “realists”, is crucial – though I might rather define the approaches as “ideological” or “normative”, on the one hand, as opposed to “realistic” on the other. And it is strange, is it not, that views of Russia are so opposed in a way that applies to almost no other country?
Whatever terms are used, though, the contrast in the UK is not only stark, but, I would say, even more skewed than it is in the US towards the “ideological”. The “values agenda” is a continual theme of UK Russia policy, which serves to underline at every turn both the UK’s superiority and Russia’s multiple shortcomings.
“Realists” – those of us who believe we need to deal with the Russia we have, rather than the Russia we would like – and would things really be easier then? – have become fewer and further between as Putin has remained in power. The hostility has also become more personalised, with some “old Russia hands” saying that there can be no change until Putin, one way or another, is gone. Post-Skripal, the number of public “realists” has dwindled further; any alternative narrative pushed into the social, or alternative, media, and a crude attempt even made to dub academic sceptics on Syria, as on Skripal, as traitors. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/apologists-for-assad-working-in-british-universities-2f72hw29m
As in the US, Russia realists can be found across the whole gamut of old Russia hands – academics and past students of Russia; retired diplomats, military people. We are, though, a tiny minority. Those who actually experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union are marginally more likely, I would say, to lean to a realist view – as, of course, does business, which nonetheless takes almost no public part in policy-making, unlike in Germany, and leaves the policy field to the latter-day Cold Warriors. The “values agenda” – applied to Russia, rarely to China – continues to prevail at the Foreign Office, with very little even internal discussion of alternatives.
A tiny minority of MPs take a different line; as do slightly more in the House of Lords, where memories are longer. Retired top brass also tend to a realist view – but those now rising to the top of the armed services lack their perspective and seem to follow the reinvented Nato view that treats Russia as the central threat, if not to the UK, then to the alliance.
Gessen observes that younger – post-Soviet – scholars and others tend to look at Russia differently, and I observe the same in the UK. There are younger academics coming through the ranks, and if I speak to student or other younger audiences, I am suddenly in the unaccustomed position of having the majority on my side. In time, then, maybe better relations with Russia will be possible, for the UK, as well as the US.
I would make another observation. While Cold Warriors and values-crusaders set policy and dominate the elite, UK public opinion in general is far more realist-inclined. Media phone-ins, below-the-line comments (even in right-wing publications), those who write letters to newspapers, all tend to challenge the negative view of Russia, arguing that Russia has its own legitimate interests and its leaders have a duty to represent them. There is far more scepticism about Skripal (and Litvinenko before that) at grass-roots level than among the elite. Russia policy has thus become another source – albeit a minor one – of the distrust between the Government and the governed.