Mary Dejevsky: We can't stop getting Russia wrong

Russians enjoy more freedom than is often condescendingly understood. Try the blogosphere if you don't believe it

Tuesday 15 February 2011 01:00

Revolutionary romantics of the world united not just to cheer on Egypt's protesters but to demand that their governments did so, too. Inside and outside Egypt, the cry went up that "after actively supporting Mubarak's corrupt and violent rule, the West has a duty to help end it". To which the hard-headed response should have come back, but didn't – no it doesn't. The West's interests lie in recognising reality, and making an informed judgement about if and when to change sides – a lesson even Tony Blair appears to have absorbed since his hubristic adventure in Iraq.

When Mubarak passed from being a force for stability in Egypt to the opposite, the time had come to switch sides. Romantics expressed frustration that neither Washington nor London nor Brussels came down unequivocally for freedom and democracy, until it was clear the protesters had won. And it is true that the inching away from Mubarak looked neither ethical nor elegant. But that's life. And if a revolution cannot prevail from within, there is not a lot outsiders can do to sustain it – except compound the havoc. The sidelines are the place to be.

Which brings us, in a slightly roundabout way to Britain and Russia. For among the historical parallels drawn in recent weeks, the most persistent has been with the heady days of Europe in 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything that followed. The argument is that the West actively supported the revolutions in the other half of Europe, but hesitated to do so in Tunisia and Egypt, because we regarded the Arab world as different, in other words, because we held a double standard.

Thinking back more than 20 years, I do not think that is the difference. The difference derives from a calculation about sustainability. The policy of détente – the Helsinki process on security and cooperation in Europe – was launched in 1975 and it entailed dealing with hostile and undemocratic governments, while recognising the stirrings of internal dissent. For all the Helsinki meetings and the breakfasts Margaret Thatcher took to holding with dissidents in Moscow (to the displeasure of her official hosts), no one in Western governments was fomenting revolution. That was for committed activists – on both sides.

The aim was peaceful evolution – a rather longer-term version of the "orderly transition" dreamt up for Egypt. When the European revolutions did happen, they took Western leaders by surprise, but that they were sustainable from within was, in most cases, beyond doubt – because the internal opposition movements had strong national roots, and because the imperial power, Russia, was debilitated and in the throes of a revolution of its own. Since then, the countries of East and Central Europe have been welcomed to the European Union and Nato, while Russia has sat on the sidelines and glowered. By treating Russia as though it never had its own 1989 (in 1991), we have created a separate conundrum.

It will soon be 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it has taken almost that long for the US to collect its thoughts on Russia. President Obama's initiative to "press the re-set button" was well-timed – as Russia felt the first serious pangs of isolation – and well-conceived – building on familiar security terrain that has produced the new arms treaty. "Old Europe" – France, Germany and Italy – managed to steady relations with post-Soviet Russia earlier, by dint of balancing trade interests with a realistic appraisal of any Russian leader's domestic constraints. Angela Merkel has proved herself particularly adept at straight-talking that avoided disrespect.

One country, though, retained an extraordinary ability to get Russia wrong. Our own. And this was largely down to the battle that raged, more fiercely than in any other country and more fiercely than over any other area of foreign policy, between romantics and realists. Why so many romantics fetched up in the area of Russia policy (and the realists in the Foreign Office's "camel corps" of Arabists) is a question that may have no obvious answer. But the results have been dire. For the best part of 20 years, Britain perpetually, perversely even, misread the Kremlin, including over the notorious second resolution at the UN Security Council on Iraq. This week's visit to London by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Prime Minister's planned visit to Moscow later this year may be proof we, too, are now looking for the re-set button.

It is a measure of how testy relations between our two countries have been that Mr Cameron's Moscow trip will be the first by a British prime minister for five years. It is par for the course, too, that even the foreign minister's visit was almost derailed by a row about a British reporter's visa. As so often, ideology was brought into a dispute where it did not belong, while everyone jumped to the worst possible conclusion: it's back to the bad old Soviet days.

Which points up a paradox: why was Mrs Thatcher then able to do business with Mikhail Gorbachev, while more recent British governments have found it hard to do business with Russia in anything but oil and gas? In large part, I suspect, it was the overblown expectations of post-Soviet Russia harboured by the foreign-policy romantics. When they ask wistfully why Russia could not be more like Poland or the Baltic States, their delusions are already exposed.

This is not to argue that Russians do not comprehend freedom and democracy, or are congenitally different – which the romantics also imply when they think their talk of "values" has fallen on deaf ears. It is to argue that everyone has to determine their future for themselves and that Russians actually enjoy more democracy and freedom than is often, condescendingly, understood. Try the blogosphere if you don't believe it.

There are other specifics that might set Britain apart. A variegated Russian opposition-in-exile that demonises Vladimir Putin, and so influences British opinion. Ditto vocal Chechen émigrés who harnessed star-studded support. An intelligence establishment schooled in Cold War espionage whose existence is justified by continuing the fight. And politicians who rush to negative judgement – over responsibility for the Georgia war, say – rather than countenancing the more complex truth.

If anyone should understand the difference between post-imperial ambition and actual reach, it should be Britain. As Britain should also understand Russia's prickly sense of its own dignity and interests. You might appear prickly if a hostile alliance moved up to your borders and planned anti-missile installations that treated you as an enemy, just as you might call foul when a country paying compensation to victims of "rendition" reminds you of the "values" you signed up to in joining the Council of Europe.

I don't recall hearing much about "values" in our relations with Egypt. Or with China, or France or the United States. It is a word reserved for those we feel we might convert. Drop the patronising romanticism, and let's see how relations might improve when we stop wanting Russia to be something it is not.

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