Perhaps it is time to return to university campuses and rally against the ‘unnatural division’ of the continent. It’s worth it for us, Europeans, to revisit about the politics of the late 1960s. Would Willy Brandt or Walter Rostow see Europe as moving in the right directions? Would today’s Russia appear still a ‘historical anachronism’?
Governments in the West do not think so deeply of Russia anymore – in the 21st century something close to laissez-faire has been ever-present. Russia is been a source of dependable capital for the banking sectors of the US and UK and a important gas supplier for continental Europe. In his review of Henry Kissinger’s World Order, published in the TSL, Niall Ferguson lamented Barrack Obama’s ‘lack of strategy’ towards the Middle East and Russia. Whilst the administration has lacked conviction and been generally sluggish, what Ferguson sees as a want of ideas is more likely the result of a general apathy towards Russia. One imagines US lawmakers thinking, what separates Putin’s Russia from the strongman regimes of Saudi Arabia or Jordan? And after all Russia’s struggle to diversify and 170 million population makes its economy far less threatening than China’s; it is not a pathogen of American decline. But if the war in Ukraine negates this view, Ferguson suggest that “the foreign policy of the 1980s might, for one thing, offer more effective ways of dealing with Vladimir Putin”. It is important to recognise that Ferguson writes “more effective ways” and probably is not suggesting a strategic arms build-up in the Baltic.
So it is an interesting thought. Firstly because we are entering a period of strength, the Rouble is very weak, though Russia is not using it to supplement the economies of seven other countries, it does not have a command economy that is difficult to adjust nor is Russia fighting a war in Afghanistan. The United States cannot negotiate with the same advantages with which it did so 1980s. Moreover Russia is not being led by a man ‘with whom we can do business’, or more importantly has show his unwillingness to do business when faced with aggression – Vladimir Putin’s rise to power shares more comparisons with Leonid Brezhnev’s than it does with Mikhail Gorbachev’s. Ferguson is referring, perhaps, to the combative rhetoric of Reagan and his strong stance in the Third World particularly though Reagan is not the subject of his article. Overall it would be encouraging if we had leaders who could see beyond the present situation.
Yet must international relations towards Russia come in two such unimaginative forms: either a nostalgic return to the ‘Evil Empire’ or an arms-length faux Containment? Both are obsolete in a globalised and interdependent world. The identity crisis of EU countries has caused more and more leaders to speaks as if we are are living in well-defined nation-states. But we do not live in well-defined autonomous nation-states. This began to change in the 1970s and now we are entering what Jeremy Rifkin describes as The Empathetic Civilisation, where the same information technology that has modernised our economies is modernising our way of thinking. Never have the thoughts, feelings and culture of others been so accessible. Leaders cannot ignore this: they must see its potential.
2014 is the UK-Russia Year of Culture, a project responsible for the screening of Pride and Mr. Turner in Russia and the Bolshoi Ballet via NT Live over here. We do not have to alter any sanctions or stances on Russia to encourage the cultural exchange between our countries. These events must become the forerunner for a détente in our rhetoric at least, if this doesn’t translate into ceasefires.
This is truer to the logic of Containment – it was the logic of Ostpolitik – the belief that democracy and civil liberties are the natural order, that they are infectious, more so today than ever. Daniel Sargent noted how ‘awestruck’ people behind the Iron Curtin were with shows like Dallas, shows of plenty. Of course this was much more damaging to the Communist system that promised plenty and could no longer pretend it hadn’t failed. Now one would have to encourage social liberalism, collaboration between Russian and foreign artists of the highest level, or at least sharing of BuzzFeed articles. For example, one could imagine the affect that a film like Pride might have.
Although counter-culture in Russia has long been championed by students and their teachers and it is a much stronger counter-culture than too many believe. Only three months after its publication in the USA, thousands of copies of Karin Bawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who owns Russia? have appeared in the country. Masha Gessen rightly points out that the political alternative to United Russia is still ‘very small’ yet says “when their was dissent, when there was protest in Russia in 2011/2012, those where taking place in 99% of Russian cities and towns”. She continues “so that is as broad based a culture as Russia has ever seen… there are so many media tropes that have nothing to do with reality – one is ‘O that is urban protest!’, well of course it’s urban protest, Russia is an urban country!”.
The latter is very important. When trying to keep an open mind, when trying to understand Putin’s Russia, many of a Post-Revisionist sensibility mistake the Kremlin’s spin on events for informed opinion, or even fact.
Putin’s decision to stand up for Russian in the Crimea and in Ukraine is in discontinuity with the last 11 years of United Russia control. It is only recently that these of Russian decent have been given the same attention and the same de facto protection as Russian nationals. Vladimir Putin, like Slobodan Milosevic, once gained his power from Communist ideology (or ommunist nostalgia) before finding it in Nationalism. He is a politician and the West has been compliant in propping up his image recently. Christopher Read, of the University of Warwick, argues “Kiev [the Kiev revolutionaries and political clique] thought it was promised the EU’s assistance, should they over-through Yanakovych”. The EU’s wooing of Eastern Europe is a symptom of the Post-’91 feeling that the market should expand at all costs – this was somewhat logical at the time, the EU has undoubtedly improved the lives of its Eastern citizens. But in Russia this looked like a big push in a war of attrition and we risk making a Tsar on the other side.
Conversely, whilst Putin draws strength from this, it gives us the ability to undercut him if we prove not to be the monster he is building us up to be. We will ease of sanctions if the UN are allowed into Ukraine? How do we get the money flowing back into Ukraine? Whatever happens next Putin may have to be given a victory domestically; the West shouldn’t worry about this, he’ll most likely stay in power for another four years.
Overall one should wonder whether or not a less divided Europe would be worth the détente; I would argue it’s a greater historical anachronism than a Russian kleptocracy.