Austin, Texas. 27 April. Kalinka is the one Russian song that everyone in the West knows. It can often be heard wafting across the station concourses and grand open spaces of large European cities played by motley crews of begging musicians. If one had not visited Russia and experienced its rich musical culture one could be forgiven for thinking it is the only bloody song the Russians have. This week here in Austin, Texas, I attended the policy equivalent of one song Russia. It was an exercise in creative fantasy I have not experienced since the Cold War and which worries me.
The conference itself was great. Entitled Russia and the West, and organised by my old friend Sharyl Cross, Director of the Kozmetsky Center at St Edward’s University, it was a real pleasure to engage with some very senior and very bright Russian colleagues. Sadly, far from convincing me that dialogue with Russia could soon bear fruit, both my Russian colleagues and I came away realising just how difficult such dialogue will be.
The one song message was incessant. Russia is not only a great power, it is to all intents and purposes a superpower - just look at a map. Russia has this super economy, that is as rich in talent as it is in resources, and unencumbered by high debt. One American, very supportive of the Russians, went as far as to suggest that Russia is the economy of the future and that everyone should invest therein. The US, on the other hand, was doomed to decline and to be eclipsed by Russia. However, the best lyric of this fanciful song came from a respected and leading Russian academic who suggested with a straight face that only Russia and the United States can shape Europe and the world and must therefore re-establish the kind of bilateral relationship once ‘enjoyed’ by the US and USSR. Hybrid warfare? What hybrid warfare?
After I had stopped spluttering it was my turn to sing. Russia, I pointed out, has an economy which according to both the IMF and the World Bank is less than half the size of the British economy. Russia’s armed forces might be impressive but they are a growing burden on a relatively small economy. Russia’s demographics are going the wrong way, and because there is no separation of law and state investors will continue to hedge their bets when dealing with or in Russia. The size of Russia? It is a curse, not a blessing. As for Russians and Americans again talking over the heads of Europeans about the future of Europe – dream on!
To be fair I had kicked off hostilities by asking my Russian colleagues what I had thought was a simple question; what does Russia want? What are the policy outcomes it wants to generate from its current actions? The most I could elicit was a sense that because the ‘West’, whatever that is these days, does not listen sufficiently to Moscow’s song, and that the only way to get ‘our’ attention is to hammer on the door extremely loudly. You see Moscow has been forced into action by an unreasonable ‘West’ which refused to respect the ‘red lines’ Moscow says it once established on EU and NATO enlargement, and refuses to acknowledge Russia’s right to a security buffer zone around its borders and an extended sphere of influence.
Sadly, I am forced to conclude that until Russia awakes from its current power dream and re-enters reality it will be very hard to talk to Russia. Indeed, whenever I brought up ‘inconvenient’ issues that divide us, such as Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, or its aggressive actions against the Baltic States, I was told that if ‘constructive’ talks are to be established I should focus on a different agenda, i.e. Russia’s agenda.
Russia and the West share opposing world-views. Russia wants a return to a Europe in which the West accepts that Moscow has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of states around its borders and beyond. Westerners like me believe very definition of an independent state is its right to choose the alliances and unions to which it wishes to belong. Therefore, I can never, nor will I ever, countenance the idea of Russia having ‘special rights’ to interfere in the internal affairs of others, most especially the Baltic States. That is not to say I reject the idea that Russia has legitimate rights and interests in its dealings with NATO and EU members. However, such rights and interests must be pursued in a legitimate and constructive manner, which is sadly not the case today.
The tragedy is that I am no Russophobe. I have studied Russian history and I have a deep respect for Russia and Russians, and I fully understand how history weighs heavy on Russians. And yes, I would love to have better relations with Russia. However, until a profound change takes place in how Russia sees itself in Europe and the world I cannot see how anything other than maintenance can take place in what is today a deeply mothballed relationship.
Which brings me back to my question; what does Russia want? The real problem is that Russia does not know what it wants. It knows what it does not like, but not what it wants. This is why Russians find it so hard to answer such an essentially simple question. Rather, Moscow resorts to historical reflex and throws its considerable weight around, descends into self-pity…and then blames others.
Russia today is a habit in search of a fix, an itch in search of a scratch. And, until Russia sings another song it will be hard for the rest of us to listen.