Is Vladimir Putin's Russia a threat to the liberal west? Our contributors duke it outby Kendall and Lieven / September 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
Bridget Kendall: Yes
If by “Russia” we mean President Vladimir Putin’s government and not the Russian people, and if “we” means western liberal democracies, then yes, I think it would be wise to fear the Russian bear.
I am not saying that Russia is a bigger threat than Islamic jihadists or North Korea. But nor do I accept that Russia is benign. It could be an important collaborator. Instead at the moment it seems bent on being a dangerous disrupter.
You know why Russia matters. It is the world’s biggest landmass, with a large nuclear arsenal. It is a major exporter of hydrocarbons, agriculture and weaponry, and a major power at the United Nations.
Yet Putin seems intent on using his influence destructively. He often wields his UN veto. He bullies his neighbours and plays on western weakness to make Russia look stronger. He proclaims that he no longer intends to play “by the rules of the game”—I think we were both there at the Valdai conference in 2014 when he first said it.
So, Crimea is annexed, Ukraine’s east is still at war, Georgia’s provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Russian satellites, and Russia is suspected of meddling in both the American and French elections. Plus there is an alarmingly long list of murdered opposition figures, which looks suspiciously like a policy of targeted assassinations.
The Kremlin dismisses this as the exaggeration of a Russophobic western press. But shadowy operations are designed to be denied. And anyway why believe denials? Remember how Putin insisted no Russian soldiers were involved in the Crimean takeover, only to give them medals shortly after?
Might it not be prudent to keep up our guard?
Anatol Lieven: No
I agree that many of the internal policies of the Putin administration must be strongly condemned. On external policies, however, I must point out that most western criticism of Russia assumes that Russia should behave as members of the European Union behave within Europe. But Russia will never be a member of the EU. This being so, it seems only fair to compare Russia’s behaviour not to that of Denmark, but to that of the US, or China.
And for each of Russia’s bad actions you can find one by the US. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal and set a terrible precedent. America’s invasion of Iraq was equally illegal and even more disastrous. Russians have proved correct in their warnings about the consequences of destroying states in the Middle East. Russia has some very ugly allies. Uglier and more dangerous than our ally Saudi Arabia? As to the Russian use of its UN veto—please. More negative and frequent than the US’s repeated use of its veto in defiance of the majority of western democracies?
I am not advocating support for Russian agendas, except where co-operation is clearly in our interest, notably against terrorism. I also believe in keeping up our military guard, against Russia or any other potential adversary. But when I hear western figures declare that Russia is the greatest threat to the west, I am troubled not only by the irrationality of such statements (in a world containing Islamic State?), but also by the fear that this is, unconsciously at least, a diversionary tactic—a way for western establishments to avoid much more dangerous internal issues, answers to which will require wrenching changes: growing inequality and its consequences; tax evasion by elites; financial regulation; unemployment; migration and lack of integration; the rise of extreme nationalist groups; climate change. Confrontation with Russia looks positively cosy by comparison, following a familiar script that requires no change and no new thinking.
I agree that Russia is not alone in setting a poor example. In fact, I’d add to your counter list not just the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, but also Nato’s 1999 Kosovo campaign, launched without UN approval; that precedent gave a pretext for Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine. But at least in western democracies there is some way to challenge leaders, whether through the ballot box or independent investigations like the Iraq War inquiry. People in Putin’s Russia who probe too deeply risk being charged with treason and thrown into jail.
Yes, there is plenty wrong with our western societies. I’d agree that the idea of Russia as a threat is far easier to grasp than the vagaries of terrorism, and that for Nato generals it’s probably a welcome return to the familiar after the failure of Afghanistan.
But even if western democracies have fallen short, that doesn’t excuse Russian behaviour. I worry that focusing on western shortcomings risks playing into Putin’s hands, reinforcing his cynical view that “might is right,” “money talks,” human rights don’t matter and that talk of “values” is a smokescreen to hide western hypocrisy. We need to stand up for these values and challenge authoritarian “mini-me” Putin look-alikes from Turkey to the Philippines.
I am also wary of seeing Russia and other “big” countries like the US or China as somehow in a different category, as though to be held to a different, lower standard. Why should their interests outweigh those of small countries and the world be carved up into zones of influence?
If I were Russian, I hope I’d have the courage to condemn Putin’s administration. But we are British citizens, and as such have a share of responsibility for Nato and (for a while) the EU and a duty to criticise these when we think they are wrong. Many people have made successful careers by criticising Russia. If our hope is to bring about change there, we need to think about the tone of our criticisms, and whether it’s really helpful for western governments to push such complaints. Resentment by ordinary Russians (and Iranians and others) at what they see as hypocritical criticism by the west has actually led to increased support for the regimes in these countries.
Hypocrisy can be a real problem. Early on in the Syria conflict, Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State, described Russia’s support for the Syrian state as “despicable.” But what of US and western support for the Algerian military in their 1991 coup against an elected Islamist government, which led to a civil war in which thousands died—a policy later replicated in Egypt? This hypocrisy blinded western policymakers to obvious facts: that peace in Syria depended on agreement with Russia and Iran; that on Sunni Islamist terrorism, US and Russian interests are identical; and Russian concerns about destroying Muslim states have been proved correct and should have been heeded.
We should not have a different moral standard for powerful countries, but we should recognise the reality of their power. This is as true in international trade and climate change as in geopolitics. International peace and progress on essential issues depend on agreement between the major powers founded on a recognition of each other’s vital interests.
We may certainly condemn Russia when it is wrong; but too much belief in Russian wickedness can serve as a belief in our own innate goodness—a goodness which is not exactly vindicated by the history of the Middle East, among other places.
You focus on why major powers should respect each other’s interests to work together. I too am for collaboration, but not if it sends a signal to leaders of big countries, Putin or Donald Trump, that it is OK to disregard the rights of smaller nations. You prioritise external policies. I want to make Russia’s internal policy part of the conversation. Because the question of fear of Putin’s Russia is, surely, one for its own citizens, as well as for Europe.
The Kremlin’s refusal to acknowledge the horrific persecution of gay men in Chechnya is deeply worrying. What else is being concealed? And while polls suggest public support for Putin, I no longer believe them, given the manipulation of information, and systematic intimidation and suppression of alternative voices. Yes, some Russians may resent western criticism. But others are quietly unhappy with their own government.
And that brings us to the other reason to be afraid of Russia: its lack of resilience. Putin did not use the oil boom years to address infrastructure problems and poverty. He has presided over a corrupt regime and ignored the succession question. “Without Russia there is no Putin; and without Putin there is no Russia” said one Kremlin aide in a comment that went viral. What happens when Putin goes? Nobody knows.
To their credit, the Russians managed the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 almost bloodlessly. The danger is that next time it could be much more chaotic and violent. Some say this is why Russia should stick with a strong leader and forget democracy. I think the opposite. All those Russians, so full of potential, who put up with so much during seven totalitarian decades in the 20th century deserve something better in the 21st.
When we mix western liberal democratic values with geopolitics, the results can become tangled. Thus the most homophobic government in Europe—that of Poland—is also the most Russophobic. Should Poland therefore be suspended from Nato? If oppression of gay people is to determine our foreign and security policy, this would also mean breaking with our allies in the Middle East. Overall, western policy has always been—within limits—to separate cultural differences from geopolitical interests, while hoping that the force of our own example will lead other countries to change.
As you say, the question for this debate is “Should we be afraid of Russia?” The two operative words here are “we” and “afraid.” Since we are both British citizens, “we” must mean “British.” And the answer is “of course not.” When Soviet tank armies stood in the centre of Germany, there was good reason for fear. Today, Russia’s frontiers are far to the east, and its military budget is less than one third of Europe’s Nato member states, and one ninth that of the US.
If I were Ukrainian, I might give a different answer; but then—to return to your point about values—our “allies” in Georgia and Ukraine are hardly distinguished by liberalism. The question is not then of a Russian threat to us, but how far we are willing to go in supporting Ukrainian and Georgian nationalist agendas.
And the west has already answered this question. We did not fight for Ukraine in 2014, or for Georgia—but, then again, Russia did not seize the whole of eastern and southern Ukraine, as it easily could have done. Under all the shouting, a cosy arrangement has arisen: we do not defend anywhere that Russia might attack, and Russia doesn’t attack anywhere that we might defend.
If they were truly afraid, western governments would have to raise massive new ground forces to defend Nato in eastern Europe. Nobody is talking about this. Because really the existential threat to western democracy comes from threats like climate change, which existing western security structures cannot address.
As for the dangers of a new Russian collapse after Putin, I also agree. But this is a completely different kind of threat from the Russian menace that our media constantly trumpets. It is also one on which we have no right to advise Russians. We lost that right, not only because of the disastrous nature of western advice after the fall of the Soviet Union, but through our complicit silence as our banks helped to loot the property of the Russian people and transfer it to the west.
We may well dislike Putin. We must also recognise that he is the product of a popular backlash against the disaster we helped create in the 1990s—and that Russians are most assuredly not asking for our help in finding a replacement.