“What is good for the Russian is death for the German [or any non-Russian speaker]”
Old Russian proverb
Dear President Putin,
World Cup 2018: Russia’s Choice
Congratulations, Mr President! World Cup 2018 has been a triumph for Russian soft power. Your country showed a face to the world that for too long few of us have seen. Russia’s national football team also did your country proud. The aggressive, angry Russia of late was replaced for a few weeks of late by a joyous, efficient and welcoming Russia. It has been such a pleasure to watch for those of us who have studied Russian history and who have a deep respect for Russia and your people. With the World Cup now completed the glow of success, you are rightly enjoying this morning will soon fade. Therefore, you have a choice to make this morning as you prepare to meet President Trump: confrontation or co-operation?
What the World Cup demonstrated is that Russia can be great without needing to intimidate its neighbours. Greatness is intrinsic to the Russian people by nature of your history, your literature and your deep, rich culture. And yet, for the past ten years since your invasion of Georgia you have shown us a very different Russia. Since 2008 we have seen snap exercises that threatened EU and NATO members. In 2014 you occupied Crimea and changed the map of Europe by force and you continue to back a war in eastern Ukraine that has thus far killed more than 10,000 people. Your armed forces accidentally shot down a civilian airliner killing 298 civilians many of them Dutch, including my wife’s colleague and his family at Tilburg University. As a warning to other defectors, your agents attempted to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury in my own country. Last week a British citizen, Dawn Sturges, was killed by the Novichok toxin your agents left behind. Thankfully, Britain’s security services are more competent than the idiots who undertook that operation who, I am sure, incurred your displeasure with their cack-handed attack.
The relationship thus remains tense, possibly dangerous. To change that you will need to stop seeing the relationship with the West as a zero sum game in which you can only ‘win’ if we ‘lose’. The facts clearly signal a ‘reset’ (sorry) would be in Russia’s interests. Of 67% of Russian exports in 2017 10.9% went to China whilst 31% went to EU and NATO states, with the Netherlands accounting for almost the same amount as the Chinese. The overwhelming bulk of much-needed foreign direct investment to Russia comes from the West, with Germany to the fore, in spite of EU sanctions. As the World Cup has proved there is a different narrative your regime can use to convince your people of its efficacy and legitimacy.
Therefore, with due and humble respect, I would propose the following agenda for your meeting today with President Trump and well beyond. It is an agenda that would no doubt surprise the American president and quite possibly throw him off balance, a gambit for which you have a penchant. Whilst I would not expect you to admit liability for all the aggressive actions of the Russian state of late you might wish to express regret they happened. You might also suggest to President Trump that interference in the internal affairs of other states is unfortunate and needs to stop. There has also been talk of a marked reduction in Russian defence expenditure, although those of us who study these things recognise that the recent ‘downturn’ was little more than an accounting exercise to do with state-run ‘enterprises’. Still, you could reassure President Trump that you now wish to build on the justified feel-good factor the Russian people are rightly enjoying right now by announcing a marked shift in public investment away from the security state to health, education and infrastructure. Surely, your people deserve this?
It would also help if you could announce an end to the big and very expensive military exercises you have been holding of late, such as the massive and unannounced Northern Fleet exercise last month. Naturally, other issues would need to be high on the agenda, such as an end to your militarisation of the Arctic. In Syria, it would also be seen as a step forward if you expressed a willingness to seek a political solution that ends the suffering of the Syrian people.
Of pressing concern is your massive re-nuclearisation programme of the Russian armed forces and the transformation of Kaliningrad into another of nuclear ‘bastion’. You could begin this process by agreeing to further new, New START talks with the Americans and re-commit to the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Confidence would be further restored if you also signalled a willingness to respect the modified Conventional Forces Europe Treaty and begin the long march towards a new security treaty for Europe that does not simply (again) seek to exclude the Americans. After all, President Trump might ‘do his own thing’ anyway.
Above all, you have to accept that you are not faced by a Western Bloc. We in the West wish you and Russia no harm, and your country has friends and allies in Europe willing to work with you in good faith. One only has to look at the Nordstream 2 pipeline project with the Germans to recognise that. Germany is willing to by-pass the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine to realise a form of mutual energy dependency that is clearly strategic in both scope and nature. A big step forward could be made immediately if you accepted that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are free, sovereign states with the right to make their own choices, that such choices are not a threat to Russia and your security services behave accordingly.
In conclusion, Mr President, you are at an inflexion point in your relationship with the West and the World Cup has successfully afforded you have a chance to change the dynamic. If the West was really out to humiliate Russia many states would have boycotted World Cup 2018 and you must not take their decision to attend as weakness but as signal to co-operate. No-one is out to humiliate Russia because we all know that European security can only be afforded if Russia’s legitimate security concerns are met. Hopefully, today in Helsinki you can begin the dialogue that will lead to a new political settlement for Europe that will, in turn, bring the peace and prosperity the Russian people rightly deserve. For, no longer is it the case that what is good for the Russian must be death to the German, or indeed the rest of us.
Right now, you think you are winning your self-declared struggle with the West. However, you and I know this is a ‘game’ of power and for all Russia’s many advantages it is a game you will in the end lose. After all, the four national teams in the semi-final of the World Cup came from EU and NATO members!
Co-operation or confrontation: it is your choice, Mr President.