If Russia has a wise old man who knows where all the bodies are buried- at least in foreign policy- it probably is Georgi Arbatov, the retired head of the Moscow think tank, the Institute for the USA and Canada, and former foreign policy advisor to Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who in turn ran the Soviet Union (in Yeltsin’s case Russia) from 1964 to 1999. Arbatov, lucid as ever at 84, has a warning, delivered to me in his small, dusty, Soviet-era apartment an hour’s drive from Moscow: “We have not yet returned to a new Cold War. But we can get into one…the danger looms over us. Two years ago it was impossible to think of this. Now it is possible.”
The most dangerous frontier of the post-Second World War was the Iron Curtain, which stretched from Lubeck Bay on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic. As Jan Morris has observed, “it separated not just states, or people or territories, or histories, but ideas.”
When that was breached by the Soviets themselves in 1989 we knew European communism was dead, liberty was restored and military confrontation that came close to incinerating half the planet was over. Or did we? Communism will never return to Russia. But liberty? It is certainly waning from the wild freedom of the Yeltsin days. But most Russians don’t notice, partly because there is still plenty of it compared with Soviet times and partly because the last six years the economy has taken off like a rocket and is likely to continue that way for some time to come. However, the diplomatic and military atmosphere has definitely soured and badly so.
Russians have become more nationalistic and are in no mood to so easily bend, as they did in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, in the West’s direction. Indeed, there is a fast growing instinct to simply lean the other way, as manifests itself over Kosovo and the response to the British request to extradite the alleged assassin of Alexander Litvinenko.
The post Cold War aggressiveness of American and British foreign policy affecting Iraq, North Korea, and the southern former states of the Soviet Union has step-by-step unsettled Moscow. The straw that broke the camel’s back is undoubtedly the U.S. decision to build a new radar facility on Polish and Czech soil, that although directed at putative Iranian rockets could easily be upgraded to be aimed at Russian ones. But it began with President Bill Clinton’s decision to expand Nato right up to the frontiers of the old Soviet Union.
Left to their own devices West European leaders would never have thought up the expansion of Nato. Clinton foisted it upon them. Still, they had a mouth if they had chosen to wag their tongues.
If only there had been the same somnolence in Russia then perhapsClinton’s gamble with history would have been alright. But there was deep and profound outrage that has now come to the surface.
“Who lost Russia?” is a question that the next generation may sweat over just as the pre World War 2 generation sweated over a resurgent Germany under Hitler. As John Maynard Keynes had argued, the Versailles peace treaty imposed after Germany was defeated in World War 1 was designed not to heal scars but to keep open the wounds. Bitterness and vindictiveness became ingrained in the German psyche.
Russia if not defeated in a military campaign knows it was decisively beaten in the Cold War. Part of its polity became resentful and potentially revengeful. Another part felt liberated and open to all that the West had to offer. The trouble is that the West offered so little. It missed a great historic opportunity, in total contrast to the benign way it rushed to help a defeated Germany. The lesson it learnt from Versailles has been forgotten with Russia.
In 1998 at the time when Clinton was pushing his Nato expansion plan a group of prominent American conservatives wrote in the New York Times that “antagonism is sure to grow if the alliance extends ever closer to Russia…We will have misplaced our priorities during a critical window of opportunity to gain Russian cooperation.”
Arbatov, although severely critical of the West, does not exonerate President Vladimir Putin for the deteriorating situation. “We have to stop this stupid talk about Russia will go its own way,” he says.
I agree with Arbatov: Much of this could have been avoided if Europe had made it clear that it wanted Russia inside the Union, in say 10 or 20 years. But just as European prevarication on the issue has unsettled Turkish stability so it has done the same with Russia.
August 10, 2007
By Jonathan Power