LONDON – Is Russia friend or foe? The answer is that nobody quite knows and a great many people feel tugged in two directions.
On the one hand here is a gigantic nation covering one-eighth of the world’s inhabited land area, bursting with talent, a historical ally of the West against Europe’s worst tyrants (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler) and against fascism. This is the Russia of boundless resilience, of deep culture, of Tolstoy and Pushkin and Lermontov and Solzhenitsyn, a place for which many in Britain and elsewhere reserve a degree of fondness and admiration, and a vast and resource-rich part of the global community whose cooperation is essential in stabilizing the world around us.
On the other hand we have the prickly Russia, petulantly trying to be a great power without behaving like one, the Russia of widespread criminality and corruption, of persistent hackers, of everything somehow masked (“maskarova”), ambiguous and half true, of hybrid warfare, facing Janus-like into both Europe and Asia yet somehow being a comfortable neighbor of neither.
Above all it is the Russia of President Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB man endlessly quick-tongued and plausible. Here is the master of the appealing narrative — the one which says Russia has been humiliated, Russia must pay back, Russia must grow again and reassume its sway over the former neighbors, satrapies and satellites.
It works. Putin has his critics, where they dare, but he is immensely popular throughout Russia, fulfilling the father-figure role for which Russians have always yearned since the days of the czars.
Can he be trusted? He seemed all smiles when he visited Tokyo recently. There were high hopes that he might make some concessions over the convoluted island dispute, or at least over some of the islands for which Russian claims were even more questionable. But somehow nothing much emerged.
Now we see the olive branch being waved by the U.S. president-elect, Donald Trump, who says he has received a nice letter from Putin. And that arch-realist Henry Kissinger has entered the scene, labeling Putin’s illegal annexation of the Crimea “inappropriate” but signaling that Russia has to be talked to and engaged.
The Russians are back in the Middle East in a big way. Nothing is going to be settled in the Syrian chaos without Russian involvement. How Putin hopes to benefit the Russian people with his crude and brutal intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad remains a mystery, but in harsh realpolitik terms he is probably on the right track.
For the time being Syria can only possibly be saved from disintegration under Assad. The Western powers who believed that Assad’s days were numbered clearly backed the wrong horse from the start.
An even greater blunder by the West would have been to organize a head-on assault on Assad, which would have to have been followed by another military occupation, as in Iraq, and an unending sequence of entanglements and disasters, as in Iraq. Luckily the British, and then the Americans, shied away from that back in 2013.
So that leaves the Russians, along with the Iranians, and an increasingly anti-Western Turkey, in charge of the Middle East battlefield. But are they to be envied and can their methods possibly bring stability? Eastern Aleppo has been reduced to rubble by Syrian and Russian forces, but this “victory” could prove as temporary for the Russians as “victory” did for the Americans in Iraq, or for the Russians themselves after their invasion of Afghanistan 38 years ago.
The reality is that in the 21st century nothing will be solved in the Middle East by conventional military methods, by bombs and missiles and tanks, let alone by occupation by force. Putin’s impatient and machismo style there belongs to the past. The defeat of disorder can only be secured through patient, softer and subtler methods of persuasion, by winning the high ground in the information struggle (or the “discourse war,” as the Chinese term it) and by delegitimizing and undermining the authors of violence and terror.
The irony is that the Russians used to be rather good at this kind of diplomacy — and in other theaters still are. Many Russian diplomats round the world are charm itself. But their current leader seems increasingly to be overlooking these skills in his quest for restored Russian greatness and, of course, his quest to keep himself and his coterie in power.
In the end he will fail. The flood of oil and gas revenues on which he rose to power has already shrunk, and despite the frenzied hopes of oil traders, and talk of production cuts, will never return to the $100 heights of the past decade. Fading Western taste for oil and fossil fuels will not be replaced by Asian oil thirst, as many optimistic oil price forecasters predict.
In the end Russia will return to a different kind of greatness, as a talented giant and a partner with the democracies in the international pursuit of global peace and stability.
But it may all take a long time. Perhaps if Russia could be ruled again by a strong woman instead of a machismo man its prospects would change. Now there’s a thought. There is nothing like a good strong leadership dose of feminine common sense to bring people back to reality. It might be just what is needed to make Russia a better collaborator for Trump and his team — as well as getting a grip on all those absurdly over-bemedaled Russian generals with their one-track solution to the world’s highly complex problems.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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