To succeed in the world, it is much more necessary to discern who is a fool, than to discover who is a clever man’.
Charles Maurice de TalleyrandThe Danger of Romantic Prejudice
Oxford, England. 22 March. The primary discipline of the analyst is to overcome the romanticism of one’s prejudices and face the hard truth of evidence. Here in Oxford, I had one such moment of delightful prejudice on an early morning walk in Christ Church Meadow. It was what I call a Vaughn Williams moment. My favourite piece of music is Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and as I walked in solitude with only a retiring snowscape to keep me company my mind conjured the romantic picture of a Tudor England that inspired Ralph Vaughn Williams to paint his magical 1910 musical homage to a country that never existed. Some Europeans are enjoying their own delightful prejudice over President Putin’s Russia and a really democratic and friendly country that sadly and probably may never exist. It is time for Europe (and the White House) to face hard truths about Russia.
This morning British Prime Minister Theresa May is in Brussels for a European Council meeting at which she will call for non-Russian Europeans to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the UK in the wake of the use by Russia (yes!) of a military grade nerve agent in the heart of Miss Marple England. She will point to a pattern of behaviour since the 2008 invasion of Georgia that shows President Putin has no intention of being a strategic partner of the West in all or any of its now many guises. Indeed, with every term President-for-Life Putin (let’s not kid ourselves!) has become progressively more anti-Western. She will also suggest that Putin is now locked into a campaign of intimidation, coercion and occasional outright aggression that extends across the new landscape of conflict – from the foothills of information war to possibly one day the mushrooming mountains of nuclear warfare.
She will doubtless receive the support of several central and eastern European states who know only too well the heavy method of Russia when the Siloviki (roughly translated from Russian as ‘those from the force structure’) are in charge in Moscow. She may even get the continued declared support of the three other members of the powerful Quad Squad – France, Germany and the United States, even though there are profound questions as to just how far Paris, Berlin and Washington will go to support Britain in its hour of need. Doubtless, she will test to see just how qualified the EU’s “unqualified support”. As she speaks, several other states, most notably Greece and Italy, will shuffle their feet in embarrassment, but say or do little.
A European Security Order?
This morning much of the British Press is frothing at the mouth, in the way that much of the British Press regularly froths at the mouth, about this week’s post-election letter of congratulations European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker sent to Putin. The timing of this obsequious letter is certainly unfortunate given that two European citizens are fighting for their lives in a Salisbury hospital alongside one innocent Russian. The inference of much of the coverage in Britain is that Juncker is more agin democratic Britain than he is for autocratic Russia.
However, there is one phrase in the letter which captures the essence of the dilemma Russia poses to Europe and the wider West when Juncker calls on Putin to help re-establish “…a co-operative pan-European security order’. A word of caution here: Juncker’s deliberate wording has for Russians a very clear meaning and implies a new Europeans security order that excludes the Americans. If Juncker really is going down that long Russian road then he is, even more, the inappropriate man holding inappropriate office that I have always held him to be. If ever there was a leader prone to romantic prejudice it is Jean-Claude Juncker. Indeed, Juncker seems incapable of grasping the plunging cynicism of President Putin, which is ironic.
Putin’s strategy is to weaponise the rules-based system of international relations that the European Union embodies by defecting repeatedly from agreed norms and treaties. For Putin to accept a new European security order he would need to abandon a strategy that has come to define him and his Russia. More likely, Putin sees Juncker as one of the many useful idiots there are across Europe that serve him – directly or indirectly. As an aside, the Chinese seem to concur with Britain and other Western powers as Beijing’s ambassador to Moscow yesterday refused to attend a briefing at the Russian Foreign Ministry at which Britain was accused of carrying out the Salisbury attack.
For sake of argument, let me assume for once that Juncker and the Commission have a point by seeking to maintain dialogue with Moscow even in a crisis, and even as EU member-states consider further steps to punish Russia for an egregious act of aggression. For some time now my friends in Italy, Greece and elsewhere have told me that I am too pessimistic about Russia and that Moscow poses little or no threat to Europe or Europeans…anywhere. That, the only way to engage with Moscow is to befriend the Kremlin as threats only reinforce the romantic prejudice therein and its belief that Russia is still an encircled and threatened superpower.
Friends, Russians, Bogeymen?
My response? Now is the moment for such friends to demonstrate their influence in and over Moscow and convince President Putin of the benefits of co-operation with Europe and the wider West. If they succeed, and Moscow abandons its use of coercion as diplomacy, I will be the first to congratulate and thank them for helping to lift Europe upwards towards a new era of security and stability.
Equally, the same friends need to be clear about the implications of failure. If they are merely blustering because they are too dependent on Russian energy, or simply lack the political backbone to denounce any Russian act however aggressive then they are simply victims of their own romantic prejudice. And, in their weakness, they would not only undermine the security and defence of Europe but reveal NATO to be little more than an expensive bluff, something that would certainly make the day of President Putin.
It is time for Russia’s ‘friends’ to face hard truths…and take firm action. If not, as one senior British official put it yesterday, Russia is a ‘strategic enemy’ with all the implications that has for Europe and the world beyond.