Snubbing Putin at Sochi Did Not Help Ukraine

We do business with other authoritarian regimes when we need to — so the West should take illiberal Russia more seriously  

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Apocalypse in Kiev: Demonstrators resist attempts by President Yanukovych to end their three-month protest against his pro-Russian policies (credit: AFP/Getty Images) 

International sporting events are never just about sport, there is always a political subtext. The host country places itself in the international limelight, and the rest of the world calibrates its responses to whatever that light may show. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, were in effect the coming out party for the New China. The Western press for the most part reported in awe, and Western leaders paid appropriate deference by turning out en masse for the opening ceremony.

The Winter Olympics at Sochi were similarly intended as a celebration of revived post-Soviet Russia. But the international response was very different. An extraordinarily high proportion of Western press coverage was devoted not to the sports, but to terrorism, corruption and, in particular, gay rights. Not coincidentally, no key Western leader attended. Given that China is indisputably a more repressive and backward place than Russia it is hard to see any consistent argument of principle for this. Putin will (accurately) have noted the unwillingness of Western leaders to stand up to a strident domestic lobby in the interests of good relations with Russia. While, ironically, the rumpus has undoubtably benefited him domestically, it has been another Western slap in his country’s face.

The current sour state of relations between Russia and the West contrasts strikingly with high hopes on both sides when Communism fell. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a “common European home”, and Boris Yeltsin pressed for Russian membership of Nato and economic support for the transition to a market economy. Meanwhile President Bush was enthusing about a “new world order” and Western companies were queuing up to enter what looked like a huge new market and investment opportunity.
It is only too easy for each side to blame the other for the subsequent downward slide. The Russians will point to the inadequate financial support and insanely neoliberal economic advice which produced economic chaos and collapse. They will point to the redrawing of the Nato security periphery to keep Russia out while (contrary to promises they say they received) taking in “hostile” countries such as Poland and the Baltic Republics. And they will point to a consistent history of Western support for anti-Russian forces wherever they arise-Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine. If the West is so anti-Russian what choice does Russia have but to protect itself? From the Western side, the growing authoritarianism of the Russian state and the clumsy brutality with which it pursues its objectives-from the suppression of the insurrection in Chechnya, through gas outages and cyber attacks, to the murder of political opponents and support for unpleasant regimes abroad-make Russia a very difficult country for decent democratic politicians to be seen out with-as the empty chairs at Sochi made clear.
Today’s antipathy has a 20-year history. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Russia not only ceased to be a superpower but for a decade ceased to count at all internationally. This was the “unipolar moment” when the US bestrode the world like a colossus and the Western foreign policy agenda-with large doses of humanitarian intervention and promotion of democracy and human rights-dominated the field. The West in effect simply ignored Russia on a whole series of issues: through the expansion of Nato (prompted much more by President Clinton’s interest in Polish votes in Chicago than any consideration of the likely effect on Russia), the Bosnia and Kosovo wars, the US abrogation of the ABM Treaty, right up to the insouciant US encouragement for Georgia which was a large component of that country’s mad military adventure against Russia in 2008. I served in the British Embassy in Washington from 2001 to 2004-the period of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq-and don’t recall concern about Russian views ever seriously figuring in administration calculations at that time.Russia is a country acutely sensitive to “lack of respect”, and the West seems to have got into the habit of almost routinely neglecting such respect. Even before the Sochi scuttle there was Condi Rice’s condescending willingness to “forgive Russia” after the disagreements over the 2003 Iraq war; the appointment in 2009 of a US ambassador with a long history of published academic works strongly critical of Russia; the glib way all Western governments instantly (and erroneously) blamed Russia for the start of hostilities with Georgia in 2008; and the casual and public way President Obama cancelled his planned summit with Putin in 2013 because there was “nothing to talk about”. Russia of course faces its own charge sheet-attacks on Western business and NGOs, Litvinenko, Edward Snowden-but it is hard not to feel that, for many Western politicians, Russia has become a country to profile themselves against rather than try seriously to work with.
For a long time there was not much Russia could do about all this. It was too weak, and too distracted by internal problems. But the humiliation did play into Yeltsin’s search in 1999 for a successor who would stand up to the West. He found Vladimir Putin. 
Ironically, Putin, like Yeltsin, started out with hopes of good relations. He (fruitlessly) reopened the question of Russian membership of Nato and gave the US important (if unacknowledged) support in the aftermath of 9/11. But, spooked in particular by alleged Western involvement in the 2003-04 “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as by Western sympathy for Chechen separatism, he, too, swiftly came to see the West as a threat. Russia’s rapid economic recovery after 2001 revived its international self-assertiveness. It found a key ally in China. The two countries see eye to eye in their shared aversion to US “unipolarity” and to Western activism on democracy and human rights issues (an agenda with obvious implications for their own internal governance). China has also worked harder than the West at the political aspects of its relationship with Russia (Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip for example was to Moscow). In the UN Security Council Russia and China repeatedly blocked Western proposals for action on Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran and, most recently, Syria. Russia has firmly backed China’s approach to Tibet, as China has Russia’s to Chechnya and the Caucasus. Meanwhile, Putin, in a famous speech in 2007, castigated the West for edging towards “a new Cold War”, suspended a key European arms control treaty, and has threatened to site nuclear weapons on the borders of Nato in response to US plans to base new missiles in Europe.
All of this has come to a head in the past few months on two issues where, suddenly, the Russian view really matters-Syria and Ukraine. On Syria, a Western policy based on the assumption that Assad was just another Arab dictator who could swiftly be sent the same way as Mubarak and Gaddafi was derailed both by Western public resistance to any further intervention in the Middle East, and by the realisation (quicker in Russia than elsewhere) that Assad was more likely to be replaced by jihadists than liberal democrats. The result was a humiliating mess in which, in the deftest piece of Russian diplomacy I have seen in 20 years of dealing with the country, Russia pulled the West’s chestnuts out of the fire by first refocusing the debate on the (essentially diversionary) question of chemical weapons, and secondly, getting their client Assad along to what looks likely to be a very protracted “peace process”-giving him a lot more space to pursue victory on the ground. The issue of Ukraine is in many ways even more interesting. Russia’s efforts to create a “Eurasian Union”, in competition with the EU, constitute the most strategic Russian pushback against Western influence since the end of the Cold War. And Ukraine’s very close social, historical and economic links with Russia (think England and Scotland) make it the key domino. Russia pulled out all the stops to pull Ukraine to its side of the fence, and, at the last moment, looked as if it had succeeded. Given the domestic turmoil this has produced in Ukraine the ultimate outcome remains in doubt, but it has been a compelling demonstration of Russia’s weight and will to protect its position in what it still regards as its sphere of influence. As this article went to press, the pro-Russian Yanukovych government was attempting to crush the Ukrainian opposition by force. The extent of Russian responsibility for the bloodshed in Kiev was unclear, but there may be long-term consequences for relations between the Kremlin and the West, each of which blamed the other for the violence.
Confronted with these two Russian foreign policy coups the reaction of most of the Western commentariat has been to dismiss them. They have pointed out that Russia is an authoritarian petro-state with few real international friends, an increasingly sclerotic and corrupt economy, and a declining population. The external influence of such an entity, they argue, must surely be on the wane. Ukraine and Syria are no more than the final sparks of an expiring supernova. The premises here are right, but the conclusion does not follow. Certainly stagnation is what most commentators foresee for Russia in the near future (the favourite reference is Brezhnev’s dreary 1970s). The Putinian system of governance-where elections are manipulated, regime insiders give their loyalty in exchange for the licence to steal, big business operates in close cahoots with the government, and popular support is bought with hydrocarbon profits-has lost its economic mojo. This does not mean that revolution is in prospect; the clampdown following the demonstrations of two years ago has seen to that-and indeed has given Putin the political self-confidence to release Russia’s best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But there is still a problem. As the funds for internal graft run down, so tensions within the regime will become harder to manage, perhaps impossibly so. Putin himself has acknowledged the need for reform. But he knows very well that the changes needed-less official rapacity, stronger property rights, impartial rule of law-would themselves subvert the system they were designed to save. He is in a trap-which would turn lethal if, for example, there were a sharp downturn in hydrocarbon prices. Barring some very dramatic change in the way he runs Russia, the best he can hope for is, indeed, stagnation.But it does not follow that Russia is fading as a foreign policy actor. It is worth recalling that in the Brezhnevite precedent, Russia, under a regime far more authoritarian and economically misguided than Putin’s, ruled half of Europe and was second only to the US in global influence. While, as Putin well knows, those superpower days are gone forever, Russia still has huge assets. Its geographical extent and resource base remain of primordial global importance. It is the world’s second nuclear power. It is included as a matter of course in the inner groups dealing with key international problems ranging from the Middle East through Iran to North Korea. Its armed forces have recovered from their post-Yeltsin low and are now being re-equipped and modernised. And while Russia may not have many friends to the west, it still has close and valuable links in the east and south, notably (as noted) with China, but also in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Above all, this is a country which has grown used over hundreds of years of history to playing a leading role in world affairs-even at some domestic cost-and is not about to abandon that position now.
So, like it or not, we have to do with a Russia that is not in the foreseeable future going to converge with the West. (I remain optimistic for the longer term; but that is a different subject.) Nor will Russia conveniently disappear as a major foreign policy actor. The examples of Ukraine and Syria illustrate the challenges this poses.  Ukraine, with its large Russian-speaking population and dependence on subsidised Russian gas, shows that there are issues which are literally insoluble without Russian involvement. And Syria shows us a world where the West, whose relative global weight is already falling and whose appetite for overseas intervention has tangibly waned, will increasingly need the support of other influential nations if it is to achieve its international objectives.
It follows that the dismissal of Russia as a fading power whose instincts we abhor is becoming a luxury we can diminishingly afford. Certainly Russia’s instincts are different from ours. It has no time for the “values-based” foreign policy on which we pride ourselves. Its repressive style of internal governance remains an offence to European standards. And, as I know from personal experience, it is an extraordinarily difficult international interlocutor: suspicious, narrowly nationalistic and unyielding. But in extremis it has proved possible for the West to do useful business with it — over nuclear arms control, support for our operations in Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, values aside, there are clear areas of shared interest, notably over Islamic extremism, and indeed Ukrainian stability. We manage to maintain businesslike relationships with, for example, one-party China, fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, and increasingly illiberal Turkey. It is odd, and ultimately damaging, that we cannot do the same with Russia. The Chinese leader Xi Jinping was at Sochi. Our leaders should have been there too.