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If we don't dial down the diplomatic tension with Russia, risks to the human race will become extreme

In the past, the ideological difference was a sort of key to unlock an easier relationship, a difference that could be conveniently parked or used as a kind of alibi. Nowadays things are very different

Tuesday 10 April 2018 16:33 BST
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The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, discusses threats to international peace and security at an emergency Security Council session
The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, discusses threats to international peace and security at an emergency Security Council session (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Rarely can a nation have put on such an unconvincing show of hurt bewilderment as Russia has. If the United Nations could dish out Oscars, then the Russian envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, would be a shoo-in for best actor in a supporting role (the bigger prize going to Vladimir Putin, of course).

Confronted with virtually incontrovertible evidence of its involvement in everything from the invasion of Crimea, to shooting down a Malaysian passenger jet over rebel-held Ukraine, to hacking the Estonian government, to attempting to murder its ex-spies and assisting the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, the Kremlin simply shrugs, claims it is “nothing to do with us”, and invites the rest of the world to prove any claims.

Wild conspiracy theories and all manner of imposable “false flag” scenarios are offered up; games are played with words; the slightest flaw in what any Western figure says is seized upon and distorted to maximum effect. The Russians, at least since the dawn of the Soviet era, were adept at making up stories to cover up their crimes against human rights and their neighbours’ independence. Under Vladimir Putin, they are better at playing these games than ever.

So now that Yulia Skripal has been discharged from hospital, the Russians demand to exercise a nonexistent right to see her as a Russian citizen (she has shown no such interest in meeting them). While the evidence for Russian complicity in the chemical weapon attack in Douma is mounting, the Russians claim that someone else – anyone else – did it. They seem to think that the British themselves decided to unleash a deadly nerve agent in their own city of Salisbury, simply to make Russia look wicked. Clearly, that is bare-faced nonsense. Any trust that once was building between Russia and the West has been dissolved by toxicity, real and metaphorical.

Hence all the talk of a new Cold War. In many respects, the historical parallels are striking. In the “real” Cold War, the two sides played out their rivalries via proxy wars, using other people to fight them, invariably in poorer nations such as Korea, Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan. Today the superpowers and their regional allies – such as Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia – are up to it again, this time in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. All these conflicts, old and new, were characterised by their barbarity, wholesale levelling of cities, cultural vandalism and routine war crimes.

Yulia Skripal: Poisoned daughter of Russian former spy discharged from Salisbury hospital

Then, as now, there were strange episodes of spies being dispatched with unusual methods; the Bulgarians (then Soviet allies) killing an ex-Soviet agent in London with a poison tipped umbrella in 1978 being the most famous. There was also propaganda (“fake news” in today’s terminology); interference in elections by the CIA and KGB alike; Russian vetoes at the UN; assassination of inconvenient foreign leaders; and periodic diplomatic expulsions.

And the Soviet Union, like Mr Putin’s modern-day Russia, was always keen on territorial expansion and securing military allies, bases or “spheres of influence”, especially in the traditional superpower playgrounds of Eastern and Central Europe, South America, Africa and the Middle East.

Yet there are factors today that make a new Cold War more dangerous. There is the more normalised use of chemical weaponry, for example (though the American use of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam is an uncomfortable precedent).

More fundamentally, in the first Cold War there was an ideological factor. Both sides were competing to deliver prosperity and security for their peoples through radically different economic and political systems. We know which side lost, but it took decades to play out.

Today those ideological lines are far more blurred, and Russia seems to want power, territory and influence for its own sake – a more traditional nationalist motivation.

In the past, the ideological difference was a sort of key to unlock an easier relationship, a difference that could be conveniently parked or used as a kind of alibi. Thus, it seems difficult now to envisage another round of detente, such as was seen in the 1970s where both sides agreed to peaceful coexistence; or again in the 1980s, when Russia sued for peace, having been outspent in military and consumer spending by the United States, and looked forward to emulating the West. At these points, the two nuclear superpowers persuaded themselves and each other that the only thing dividing them was Marxist-Leninism; as we see now, there is more to the rivalry than that.

Indeed, the very adoption of a version of capitalism by the Russians – something unimaginable in the era of Stalin or Brezhnev – threatens the stability of the Russian state as it never could before. The USSR could always hide behind its isolated economy when it ran into a row with the West. Today a more open Russian economy is far more vulnerable. A fully convertible rouble can be made to crash, along with its bond and equity markets; Western investors can withdraw their money and their technology; economic sanctions can inflict harsh personal damage on oligarchs and rulers and the common people alike, as they could not so easily in the days of commissars and kolkhozes.

Recent weeks have seen such damage being inflicted on the Russian economy. Far from persuading Russia to own up to its sins or ease up on its aggression, it may simply make Putin and his gang seek refuge in a more Soviet-style self-sufficient, isolationist economy, with even less contact with the West. In the meantime, such destabilisation may make Russia’s leaders even more trigger-happy. The West’s new financial and economic leverage on Russia could actually make both sides less stable and secure. What, for example, if Russia simply reneged on its debts and nationalised assets belonging to the likes of Samsung, BP or General Motors? It has been done before.

Sooner or later, surely the West and Russia will need to start talking again, and to move on from where we find ourselves today. The alternative is the kind of permanent, unending and usually tense Cold War that endured for three decades or so after the Second World War. Russia – and particularly Putin’s circle – should certainly be sanctioned for its actions and made to pay an economic price for what it has done. The West should put a show of strength wherever Russia or its proxies probe Western defences or resolve – be it Syria or Estonia or Yemen. And when they use chemical weapons.

Yet the escalation, logically, has to stop at some point before the risks to the human race become extreme. Difficult as it may be, we may soon have to exert some extra caution over how we react to Russia’s aggression, lies and deceptions, in the hope of some reciprocal clam from the Kremlin. Backdoor diplomacy will again be needed to dial down the tension. The question is, though, whether paranoid Russia is also ready to “cool it” before our new Cold War turns even hotter, and more Syrians get gassed to death.

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