‘Why I believe the West is unfair on Russia’

Threatened: Putin has repeatedly blamed “Western provocation” for his actions abroad.
by Sir Tony Brenton

British ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, his diplomatic career had included work in the Arab world, on EU policy, in Russia, and in the USA. Brenton was knighted in 2007.

Russia’s conduct in Ukraine and Syria has encouraged whispers of a “new Cold War”. But Tony Brenton believes such talk is unwise, and that the West must stop seeing Russia as a bogeyman.

After the end of the second world war, Winston Churchill said “in war: resolution, in defeat: defiance, in victory: magnanimity, in peace: good will”.

In victory: magnanimity. The reason he said that was that at the end of the war we got it right. We poured money and political contact into Germany and Japan, and made of them two fine democratic states.

Flash forward to 1991, and the West had won the cold war. The rhetoric at the time felt magnanimous. History was over, Europe was united. We, the West, called the shots. We ran the world according to our rules, and Russia was to be a friendly partner.

Russia is a cornered animal with its claws out. We need to coax it into putting its claws back.

We failed dismally on delivering that promise in two ways.

First, economically. Russia had completely collapsed after communism. It needed massive investment, but we gave more money to Poland than we did to Russia. I witnessed then-president Boris Yeltsin pitifully begging for more economic support at an international summit.

What we gave them was lots of advice: Thatcherite neoliberal advice about how to run their economy, “privatise everything and it will be fine”; no thinking about the very different institutions needed to form a civilised society. The result was corrupt chaos and the poisoning of the nascent Russian democracy.

Our other blunder was on security. The great Russian nightmare is the West invading their borders, as Hitler, Napoleon and Charles XII did, threatening Mother Russia.

The West promised not to expand NATO into Russia’s sphere of influence, but a plan to adjust NATO’s place in the world was swiftly abandoned, and the organisation expanded into much of the former communist empire.

This alienated Russia, and we are now living with the consequences. Having poisoned Russia’s emergence, we then watched history unroll. And how Russia watched it was very different from how we watched it.

We trampled around the Middle East like bulls in a china shop. Russia watched this in horror, powerless to intervene. From their point of view, we were wrecking the world. So they set about trying to rebuild their power and their reputation, trying to protect their national interest.

There are many good reasons to spread the liberal order and the right of states to do their own thing. Those ideas are fine if you are able to enforce them. When the USSR collapsed, we were capable of this. But it is now clear that we no longer are.

Despite Western chest-thumping, we must ask whether we are really willing to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, or anywhere else. Plainly not.

So instead of prating about the new world order, we need to identify what we are willing to fight for and look to compromise on what we are not. Boris Johnson recently insisted that Russia should give Crimea back; they will never give Crimea back, and we are never going to be able to force them to.

We need to get real. We need to recognise that Russia has its own legitimate national interests. We need to recognise that we can no longer wander around the world imposing our will as we have done.

We need to think about how to de-escalate tensions. It is a result of our two different perceptions of the world that we got very very close to armed conflict over Ukraine in late 2016.

Russia is not an offensive state; it has one tenth of NATO’s military expenditure and one twentieth of its GNP. It is a cornered animal with its claws out. We need to coax it into putting its claws back. We are by far the more powerful side, and it is up to us to avoid the perils of a new cold war.

This is an extract from a debate at the Oxford Union in March; see Become An Expert for more.

You Decide

  1. Is the West unfair on Russia?


  1. Imagine that you have been granted a rare interview with Vladimir Putin. Write down five questions you would ask him.

Word Watch

More money to Poland
Poland has a population of 38m compared with Russia’s 145m.
Charles XII
The King of Sweden from 1697 to 1718. His invasion of Russia ended with disaster when the Swedish army suffered heavy losses to a Russian force more than twice its size at the Battle of Poltava.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — a military alliance between several European countries, and the USA and Canada, signed shortly after the second world war.
Following the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, when the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych was ousted, Russia invaded the peninsula of Crimea, which has a majority Russian population. Later that year Crimea voted to rejoin Russia, but it is still recognised as part of Ukraine by much of the international community.

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