Andrey Pritsepov is Consul General of the Russian Federation in Scotland. He assumed his position in February 2014. Mr Pritsepov is the first diplomatic figure to be interviewed for CABLE’s monthly feature The Diplomat.
Q: Mr Pritsepov, how did you become a diplomat?
Well, I’m actually a seasoned diplomat. I have thirty five years of a professional career. I started as a Soviet diplomat. Now I’m a Russian Consul General. The start of my career was quite interesting. I was at university – I went to a special university dedicated to the study of international relations – when an instruction suddenly came from the Foreign Ministry to prepare a group of students who had Norwegian language skills. Now I was among those lucky people who was involved in Norwegian so my first posting was not to Africa or to East Asia, possibly the most challenging diplomatic environments at the time, but to the Spitsbergen Archipelago.
It was the most memorable two years of my life. A very interesting posting. You had the civilised aspects of the diplomatic job, coupled to the harsh realities of the Arctic climate. What I recall most from that posting was the friendship in the years of the Cold War between the Russian and Norwegian miners. For me, it was a visible example of how the Arctic can unite people – because of the climate, the hardship and the necessity to work together. And we still have a prolific relationship with Norway. Aside from issues such as maritime safety, we’ve been working together on trying to save cod stocks in the Barents Sea. And we’ve managed to do it.
Q: We’ve seen something of a Russian military in the Arctic in recent years. Why?
It’s actually quite a natural reaction to the challenges facing Russia. If you look at what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military had almost disintegrated. We needed to rebuild. And we are doing that. We are getting back to a certain level so that we are in a position to protect our interests and deal with any country which may have hostile thoughts.
Q: When you think of early career and now, how has life changed for the diplomat?
It’s a good question. But a difficult one. Diplomacy as a profession is evolving steadily and the new means of communication will of course impact the means of diplomacy. After and during the Cold War, diplomats used to communicate eye-to-eye. Now it’s often email. It’s far more technical and, at times, it lacks personal charisma. I think these developments have impoverished diplomacy.
The impact of social media on diplomacy is immense. Whether we like it or not, diplomats wear many hats. One diplomat could be very cordial, polite, and nuanced, eye-to-eye – but he could be quite different when writing something on Twitter and Facebook. Whether it’s for good or worse, I’m not sure. But I trained as a specialist in international relations and I was taught to respect certain rules of behaviour. I think what people do now on social media often breaks those rules.
Q: Do you tweet?
(Laughter) No, I don’t. My colleagues here do that. But when you see some heads of state tweeting some very colourful tweets – it wouldn’t help at all if you were trying to reach compromises and settle disputes.
Q: Should President Trump be tweeting?
It’s up to him. His country has its own history of politics and rules of political behaviour. What is normal in his country might be quite abnormal in my country so it’s not up to me to judge him.
Q: How would your job differ if your posting was to the Russian Embassy in London rather than being here in Edinburgh?
Well, firstly, I’m very privileged to be here. I think Scotland is rich in political culture, and also the culture of creating compromise, leading intelligent discussions. London, of course, is a crossroads for diplomacy. Everything that happens in the world happens there. I recall when I was posted there, I’d often visit several events in just one evening. I found it to be a huge challenge. But it also had a very positive effect. I grew professionally because of the experience.
My predecessors told me that Edinburgh would be a very peaceful and quiet posting. And I’m sitting here after two referenda, two general elections, regional elections. And I’m still counting (laughter).
Q: What is the biggest obstacle to better relations between Moscow and the Western capitals?
Political ambitions. We need to encourage a new mood in international relations. One of cooperation. Multilateral cooperation. That’s why I’m always keen to encourage people to look at things like the Arctic Convoys. It was one of the hardest times for civilisation and look at how many nations cooperated to build this bridge to Northern Russia – from New Zealand to Canada. The experience shows that if there’s a political will, anything can be achieved. The positive impact of multilateral cooperation exceeds any challenge or threat. That is what we need.
Terrorism is a challenge that can only be addressed by collective efforts. When the Russia-NATO Council was established, one of the major fields of cooperation was counter-terrorism. Now it wasn’t just sending delegations of officials. There were some very practical projects too. For example, detection of explosives in civil infrastructure and at civic events. And I think if we could manage to accomplish these kinds of technical, apolitical projects together, we would be safer. The world would be a safer place.
Q: How does Western politics look from Moscow?
I remember a very good quotation from a politician: ‘alienate Moscow at your peril’. I think that’s a very good expression. Moscow is always inclined to forge alliances. It was our proposal to create a pan-European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. We’ve also proposed the establishment of a pan-European security agreement that will guarantee collective and indivisible security for all member states in Europe. If those proposals were agreed upon and put on paper, I think we may have escaped many of the unstable situations we see now.
Q: What has to change to make that happen?
We need political goodwill. Russia is always not just prepared but eager to provide that goodwill. And these are not just words. The history of my country provides a number of examples of how collective goodwill can overcome any hardship.
Q: How do you respond to claims that Russian involvement in the Syria conflict has worsened the humanitarian situation there?
Well, I always try to be proactive in these kinds of assessment. And the last time the local newspapers made such an assessment, I wrote an article in a newspaper to respond. Now, I’m writing a new article about Syria.
We once had this very good diplomat. Actually, he was a bit of a guru to Russian diplomats. His name was Mr [Andrei] Gromyko, or Mr Nyet [Mr No] as he was nicknamed. He was a patriarch of the Russian classical school of diplomacy. One of his golden rules was: do not oversimplify any fact. Another was: see the picture in all its complexity.
Those rules fully apply to how we should view the Syrian crisis. And not just the Syrian crisis but other conflicts in the Middle East where there are several of parties involved in the fighting. Now this conflict in Syria cannot be settled only by military means. So you need to skilfully combine the means of diplomacy, the means of conflict prevention and settlement, alongside military means. Only this combination, skilfully done, will settle the crisis. And Russia is doing exactly what is needed.
After our military involvement, having been asked by the legitimate government of Syria to intervene militarily, we – and I mean Russia and all of the nations working for good in the region – have achieved a major step forward. We’ve launched the Astana talks between the various parties involved in the conflict. We’ve reached, I think, groundbreaking agreements on deescalation zones. I think four zones are established. It’s a major achievement.
The Syrian crisis, specifically the political side of the Syrian crisis, will only be decided by the Syrian people. No foreign power could impose something on them. Syria is a proud nation with a long and glorious history. I think they can have a very bright future.
Q: What can the Russians bring to the Middle East that the Americans can’t?
Stability. That is because Russia is regarded in several Middle East capitals as a mediator, a player that can be trusted. Some other countries have unfortunately lost that trust. Trust is a very precious thing. You can lose it overnight but to build it up can take decades. Russia has a history of playing a stabilising role in the Middle East so now we are back there. We will do our utmost to put a stop to the conflicts and to reach political comprise.
Q: Let’s turn to the subject of so-called fake news. Some Russian media agencies are accused of pushing misinformation and political agendas in Western Europe. How would you respond?
There is one basic principle in diplomacy. It’s called reciprocity. Unfortunately, this basic principle was taken as a starting point in this information war that is raging – for all parties. The fake news issue is an invention not of the last decade but of long ago. Living in the Soviet Union, I’ve been an unwilling consumer of fake events. Now Russia and Russians are fast learners – and we were dragged reluctantly into this exchange. I am highly critical of any outlet which deals in fake news but let’s be straightforward: they exist and they do produce fake news.
So my task is not to let this fake news spread further and do damage to Russia’s relations. This is why, reluctantly but I have no other option, I have had to respond to allegations and accusations of our submarines swarming in UK territorial waters, and our strategic bombers flying over Big Ben.
Maybe you recall there was one incident in the Irish Sea where an Irish trawler was almost dragged under the water by a submarine? The mainstream media was, again, promoting the Russian threat formula. After one year, the Defence Minister of a certain country told the rest of the world that it was in fact their own submarine that was responsible for the incident. That is why I try to respond to each accusation of aggressive behaviour.
But the worth of fake news is what you might call half-truths. Like when you disclose the number of Russian overflights near someone’s airspace – but don’t reveal the number of Western overflights near Russia’s borders. And I can tell you, the number we experience is ten times more.
Q: Are you saying there’s an anti-Russian agenda in our media?
No. I’m an optimist and I believe in common sense.
Q: So why are such things not being reported by the Western media?
I don’t know. Sometimes, it’s difficult to argue why a certain amount of money shouldn’t be spent on covering healthcare, social care, sprinklers, but should be directed towards….certain global adventures.
Q: Can Mr Putin deal with Mr Trump?
I can reassure you that Mr Putin can deal with any politician. He’s very experienced. He’s seen quite a lot. It’s not complimentary to my industry but he has very skillful experts who provide him with very sophisticated information so he’s well prepared for any negotiations. He has a very good memory and his political skills are quite superior. I’ve witnessed it myself during negotiations. Whether he will find a common ground with Mr Trump – it’s not certain. But again, I’m an optimist. I always hope that common sense will prevail. I think there is no alternative to Russian-American cooperation when it comes to combating the big global threats.
Q: Will we see a UK-Russia trade deal after Brexit?
Yes, I would like to have a trade deal which is as extensive as possible. As two developed economies, we have a wide agenda on which we could cooperate. Not just oil and gas where we’ve already made good progress, and also in the financial sector. But other things, from agriculture to fisheries, high-tech to pharmaceuticals. Again, where there is goodwill, there’s a way.
Q: Iceland and the Faroe Islands do excellent trade with Russia. They sell you fish, they service Russian fishing boats. Could post-Brexit Scotland do something similar?
I’ve been here long enough to understand the potential for this trade. I can give you some perspective on the trade potential in brief statistics. So our trade with countries of a similar territory and population to Scotland – Norway and Denmark – exceeds two and three billion pounds annually. With Scotland, it’s nearer one hundred and sixty-five million. So you can see the potential for growth.
Through meetings I’ve had with CEOs of Scottish seafood companies, I know that Scotland was Russia’s largest trade partner in pelagic fish – mostly mackerel – for roughly thirty-five years. Of course, now it’s in tatters because of the sanctions and counter-sanctions. But the potential is there.
Q: What do you love about being a diplomat?
(Laughter) I’ve never really thought about it. When I was a young boy, my father was a Soviet diplomat so perhaps it’s inherited. My love of travel may have been a driving force when I was younger but now, after thirty-five years in the job, it’s not about that for me. What I long for when being posted abroad is intelligent discussion and discovering different viewpoints. Views based not on stereotypes but on an open-minded look at the world and its problems. That’s what I enjoy.
Feature image: Mr Pritsepov speaking in his office at the Russian Consulate in Edinburgh, Wednesday 5th July. © David Pratt. All Rights Reserved.
CABLE would like to thank the Russian Consulate in Edinburgh for its cooperation and hospitality.