Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Russia: The urban myth foreign policy approach

It seems that Russia’s new post-Cold War strategy is based on the urban myth that if you’re approached by a group of muggers you should act like a lunatic, as that’ll confuse them and make them go away. How else to explain Medvedev’s “we’re not afraid of a new Cold War” comments?

I mean, Putin saying that the fall of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century is one thing, but wanting the Cold War back? An isolated, starving, impoverished Russia relying on slave labour and a culture of fear to maintain its crumbling infrastructure? He’s not afraid of that?

I’m beginning to think that Putin/Medvedev have seriously misread their hand here. After all, you don’t talk about how

“Russia is a state which has to ensure its interests along the whole length of its border. This is absolutely clear.”

just before heading off to a meeting of, erm… states that share borders with you unless you’re either very confident, or you have no clue whatsoever how to conduct international diplomacy. And all they’re doing by being unpredictable and belligerent is showing Europe and the West that we were right all along to think that Russia was an unreliable business partner, and so to look elsewhere for energy sources. Russia’s acting like the shopkeeper who threatens his customers. Yes, we may put up with it for a while due to the inconvenient locations of the other shops – but other shops there are.

More, hopefully, later. There have been some truly bizarre developments over the last few days, and I’m still trying to get my head past the mental image I now have of Russia as that big kid at school who’d go around trying to bully people, but couldn’t actually throw a punch.


  1. I don’t know. I’m not convinced that, from a Russian point of view, their actions are mistaken or irrational. It seems to me that it has been made pretty clear by “the West” that Russia is expected to shut-up and allow what it perceives as its legitimate interests to be undermined relentlessly and that negotiations – for want of a better word – will not be carried out in good faith. Kosovo springs to mind – apparently it’s a special case because “the West” says so (and the media coverage of it seems so biased that I have a really hard time figuring out an opinion on it).

    A sane response in that case is to make the alternative clear to the other parties, which it seems to me they’ve done. Now, if the other parties think that they can live with a new Cold War, then calling their bluff might turn out to be a bad move.

  2. An isolated, starving, impoverished Russia relying on slave labour and a culture of fear to maintain its crumbling infrastructure

    And how would that differ from how Russia is today?

  3. I am also still unsure about what is behind the moves of Russia, and I also don’t really see where they are heading…

    People also seem to ignore that the Cold War meant the constant threat of complete annihilation of mankind – nobody can want this on the earth, neither Russians nor any other Europeans nor the rest of the globe.

  4. It may be that by not afraid of “new cold war” is seen differently from a Russian perspective. You note yourself the “catastrophy” comment, which is ridiculous precisely because of what it means (i.e. lamenting a fall of the totalitarian regime that caused millions of deaths is inexcusable). But my guess is that the lament is for the romanticized version of the SU, a powerful state, feared and respected. Seen in this light, the return to the Cold War would be under this strange logic a welcome development

  5. Colman – I’m inclined to agree to an extent. I’m certainly not too sure what other course is left to them other than throwing their toys out of the pram. After all, Putin made some valid points about Western hypocrisy and Russian concerns back in February, before Kosovo declared independence, and no one paid him the slightest bit of attention. Like it or not, the West IS being hypocritical here. So’s Russia (*cough*Chechnya*cough*). But Russia’s coming from a weaker position, so has to attack harder, I guess…

    Cabalamat – there’s slightly less slave labour now, surely? Still some, obviously (military conscription and all that), but nowhere near as much as in the USSR at its height.

    Julien – the Cold War meant the possibility of annihilation, certainly, but Mutually Assured Destruction primarily meant stand-offish lack of direct engagement, as well as turning a blind eye to the occasional meddling in areas where it would be too much trouble to intervene (the USSR mostly ignoring America’s meddling in Latin America, America mostly ignoring the USSR’s invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afhanistan, etc.). I wouldn’t be too surprised if what Russia really means, behind the scary rhetoric, is stop interfering with us and we’ll stop interfering with you.

    Vitaly – the romaticisation of the Soviet Union certainly seems to be a major issue in Russia. The Russian people’s continued refusal to get behind parties and politicians that the West sees as infinitely better than what they’ve got – the ridiculous majorities for Putin and Medvedev while the likes of Kasparov and co barely keep their deposits, etc. – has confused many non-specialists who assume that everyone wants to live in a democracy. And what confuses them even more is that after Putin’s lot, the second most popular party has almost always been the Communists. Hell – Putin’s the most popular Russian leader ever, according to several recent polls, and those same polls have generally seen Stalin placed in at least the top three…

  6. When Putin said Putin the fall of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th, it had multiple senses (most of which western europeans miss)), i.e. it was a catastrophe for the peoples whose standard of living plummeted, lead to a massive increase in early deaths, drew new borders that provoked conflicts (Armenia/Azerbaidjan, Chechnya), divided people etc. etc. To shoe horn his comment in to a single explanation does it absolutely no justice.

    The comments about slave labour are ridiculous. Wealth in no longer concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersberg but has spread to the regional capitals and further inland. True, the infrastructure is falling apart (roads, buildings, pipes) but they have the money now to fix this. If you want you can quote statistics that the Russians are actually dying off, but these figures are only a snap shot. As for HIV/AIDS, Russia spend over $250 million dollars on prevention last year. They are not standing still.

    As for the ‘Russian people’s continued refusla to get behind parties…etc.’ they already did. What short memories people have. Have you forgotten that Boris Yeltsin took executive powers and attacked the duly elected Russian Duma because it challenged his almost dictatorial powers? Yeltsin started the first Chechen war (though with the aid of local Chechens such as Gantemirov and the big Kremlin chechen Ruslan Khasbulatov). Advice from the West about massive and rapid privatization was not due to help the Russians but to stop the Communists from returning to power (google Noreena Hertz – she worked for the IMF at the time).

    Yelstin kept on winning elections because of the ‘help’ of the oligarchs, they got massive shares of government industries for cash. There was no other way that Yelstin could have won in 1996. Yelstin screwed his own people, manipulated elections and started wars. And some people wonder why Russians don’t vote for liberals like Yabloko. I don’t know why either why you are so rosy eyed about Kasparov. He is a gnat’s ***** from the neocons in the US and has no popularity in Russia, i.e. he’s like Gorbachev, very popular abroad, hated at home. I don’t know why I’m really bothering considering all the cliches and just lack of knowledge about Russia that I’m reading.

    For better understanding, was one of the best (now defunct) and cataloged, amongst many other things, the misdeeds of the oligarch, who has what etc. It has been relaunched now as It’s very rude, it’s very crude and straight to the point. They also blow gians holes in the so called russia analysts in the major papers.

  7. Aleks – you’re evidently rather passionate about the subject and are making some useful contributions on various posts around the site (for which, thanks), but you keep seeming to misread what I’ve actually written. I don’t take Putin’s comment at face value in the slightest, nor do I have a rosy-eyed view of Kasparov (actually, I think he’s a bit of a dick), nor do I forget the failures of the 1990s (especially not the role of the oligarchs – I’ve edited a couple of books on the subject), and the slave labour / infrastructure comments were referring to Russia under Stalin.

    I can’t do a potted history of post-Soviet Russia every time I write something, so I’m merely alluding to things in the hope that the readership is knowledgeable enough to fill in the gaps (which they generally are), while making broader points. Here, the broader point is twofold: 1) that the Kremlin’s doing itself no favours by its recent actions, and 2) that Europe (and the West more generally) can happily get by without Russia.

    Please do carry on commenting – but please stop assuming that I’m a brainwashed anti-Russian moron. Ta!

  8. Dear Nm,

    I certainly do not believe that you are a brainwashed anti-Russian moron, though I also was referring to other replies. Your EU posts are some of the best I’ve seen, but (and I suppose this is why I sometimes am apt to ‘over-egg’ the pudding), get frustrated by the snappy, well trodden cliches that are constantly thrown about in the Media which boil everything down to a yes/no, black/white explanation that a lot of people (including yourself) agree is a lot more complex.

    I felt your post to be ‘semi-skimmed’ rather than the ‘full cream’ I generally prefer(nb, I don’t drink milk) and didn’t really do itself justice (I’m not trying to be rude here). I do certainly understand that it is neigh on impossible to provide a potted background and keep the post concise.

    Regarding your points,

    1) The Kremlin may not be doing itself any favors (debatable) in the short term, but then again the Western media has basically turned against it under Putin and I don’t think the Kremlin cares too much when it is really important. It is the long game that they are playing, namely a basic agreement about limits and who can do what.

    It seems that whilst in one part both Putin/Medvyedev enjoy deliberately playing up their side with worn out cold war cliches, they are only one side. Consider the return difference in rhetoric between Britain (strident), France (loud – blabbermouth Kouchner, but otherwise calmer), Germany (what a mess) and the Italians (come back to my place for coffee and we can all sort this out in the bedroom).

    It’s to easy to get swept away with the propaganda and loose focus. For all the bluster, nothing has been done. This is the single most significant point. Sure, the Euros are meeting today to share sandwiches and get the blood pumping, but considering its long and failed CFSP, it has to be seen doing something even if ultimately it does nothing in a substantive manner.

    2) Europe and the US may be able to get by ‘without’ Russia, but ‘happily’? The US, sure (apart from the thousands of nulcear weapons), but the EU? I’ve posted elsewhere that regardless, Russia is a neighbor and important for the EU. A population of 150 million people, a rapidly growing middle class who travel and spend real money on holiday etc. etc. Not to mention that Germany after 1989 made Russia its strategic priority and has invested massively in Russia.
    The EU accounts for 52% of Russia’s foreign trade and with over 60% of foreign direct investment in Russia is also the biggest investor in the country. Russia for its part is the EU’s third largest trading partner after the United States and China. In 2005 aggregate trade between Russia and the EU was worth 166 billion euro.

    What I do wonder is what this will do to ‘Europe’. On the one side we have the UK, Dutch, Poland and the Balts, in the middle France, Italy, Spain, and more to the other side Germany. Does anyone honestly see Germany just giving up all the investment political, economic and otherwise it has put into Russia just like that?

    What I also wonder is if there is any resentment in the EU against the US for having been dragged into this little event? Much as the US dragged the EU into Kosovo (promising independence to the albanians there), yet again it is the US under the aegis of NATO, but the US and its ‘coalition of the willing’, but politically who can be held most responsible for ‘failing’ to tell the Georgians not to do it. Maybe because it is a ‘united we stand’ thing, but if I were in the EU, I’d be very p*ssed off with the US. The EU tries to avoid such crises like the plague, though there will always be useful idiots (and idealists) like Solana who think that such crises are a god send as a means to forge a CFSP – despite it usually being a good idea to formulate a CFSP when there is not a crisis rather than off the hoof when there is one.

    The situation could be ‘easily’ solved though. Germany could pull out of NATO. It is not as crazy as it sounds. Ok, I exaggerate but if the EU won’t pull back on Kosovo (we’ve made our mess, we’re sticking with it) and is already unilaterally implementing its own policy (Aahtesari) there, why can’t the EU accept (the way that Russia ‘accepts’ Kosovo) that Georgia is just not fit (i.e. cannot be trusted) to fairly rule over the breakaway provinces? It is not like the EU is an ‘neutral’ in either case.

    I wonder how many ways there is to spell ‘unique’?

  9. it will be interesting to see how all this unfolds, especially in relation to the Ukraine base leased to Russia.