Russia is hostile and aggressive but it’s not a return to pre-1991
Nutcases and tyrants have historically had an easy ride in their own day; their crimes frequently being attributed to the unauthorised actions of ‘evil advisors’ rather than being commissioned from the top. Occasionally, this is true (the Peasant’s Revolt against Richard II might be one example – though Richard was only 14 at the time, and still a duplicitous and cruel character), but generally it isn’t. Time and again, foreign analysts advise their own governments that these dictators are under pressure from hard-liners, only for it later to turn out, after the regime has fallen and the papers are released, that they were themselves the most extreme hard-liner.
In some ways, that’s not too surprising. A leader inclined to push the boundaries can do so more readily than an underling worried about over-stepping the mark, who might then make themselves into a ready scapegoat.
Which means that when it comes to the Salisbury incident, it’s almost certain that even if the specific plan wasn’t authored or even signed off in the Kremlin, the method and the class of target will have been. That, of course, assumes that the Russian state was behind the attack but given the change in tone that occurred literally overnight from the French and US governments, the most reasonable explanation was that they’ve been shown, and convinced by, the reports. If so, Russia has made a clear strategic call that will have massive implications for the future of Europe for years to come.
Of course, the attempted murder of one foreign national in a foreign country is small beer beside the effective invasion, occupation and annexation of a whole region of Ukraine, or the civil war engendered in the east of that country, or invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, or the disregard for human life shown by the Russian military in Syria.
The common threads, however, between the Salisbury attack and the much more aggressive actions Russia has taken internationally over the last ten years or so are firstly, the lack of concern about any response from the West, but secondly, the lack of any desire to form good or even working relations with the West. Putin has chosen his course for Russia and he is not bothered that it will set relations back thirty years.
Or not. There’s been a lot of talk about Cold War 2.0 this last week. That’s perhaps a little too Anglo-centric a view. It’s certainly true that the attack, rather than being in Salisbury, could have been in Strasbourg or Stuttgart or Stockholm or San Francisco – but it wasn’t. There has been support and sympathy from Britain’s allies but not as yet any deep buy-in to a new cold war. Not that we should really expect that yet: there isn’t that much of a consensus in Britain either, whether within parliament or the country at large.
But a cold war is upon us anyway, whether we like it or not, and it’s been declared by Russia. What’s perhaps confusing is that it doesn’t look like the last one. We’re used to the concept of a cold war being defined by the global blocs of the 1945-91 stand-off, where the Soviet Union and United States competed not just geopolitically but ideologically. There is no such ideological conflict today and nor is the world so neatly divided. Russia feels compelled to put on the facade of elections, such is the triumph of the ideal of democracy, and the contest feels more like those of the multipolar nineteenth-century. Indeed, the defining geostrategic contest of the twenty-first century will very likely be between the USA and China, into which Russia doesn’t fit on either side – which may be another reason it feels freer to act.
What is almost certain is that last week’s events won’t be the last time Putin acts aggressively overseas, as long as he can exploit weakness in his rivals. Britain’s disengaging from the EU is one such weakness, as is a US president whose policies are unpredictable and erratic. He isn’t interested in co-operation because he believes – rightly going by experience – he can get more by action.
That has profound implications for the Baltic states, for the EU, for NATO, for the US, for defence spending and for much else besides. Is it in Britain’s interest to defend the Estonian border, only a few dozen miles from St Petersburg? But if not, what value is NATO, and where do Britain’s essential interests start? How do they tie in with the interests with other NATO countries? After all, in the last cold war, those economic and ideological ties gave an additional cohesion, beyond the perceived Soviet threat. Without those binding factors, inevitably, the differing economic and foreign policy imperatives make any meaningful unified response to any challenge much harder – as does Europe’s (including Britain’s) disintegrating political mainstream: finding consensus within countries is almost as hard as finding it between them.
But the challenge is there and sooner or later can’t be ducked. Chances are, going by today’s cynicism and anti-establishment wave, it’ll be later.