Tracking the Bear - An F-15 Eagle from the 12th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, flies next to a Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber Sept. 28 during a Russian exercise near the west coast of Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The West cannot ignore Russia. But it must try to understand it better. Angus Roxburgh draws upon his vast experience to consider why relations with Moscow have soured and what steps might be taken to improve them. 


No country looms larger these days in the fevered imaginings of “the West” than Russia; no leader is subjected to more speculation, much of it ill-informed and hysterical, than Vladimir Putin. Cliché and stereotype have displaced rational assessment. Russia is invariably described as “increasingly assertive”, “expansionist”, “aggressive”, “subverting Western democracy”; Putin is always “unpredictable”, “brutal” and “dictatorial”. Everything Russia does is twisted into a grotesque caricature. Britain’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, even declared that there was a “special” Russian word which denoted a heinous “new” kind of lying that Russia specialised in: the word was vranyo  – “where the listener knows the speaker is lying, and the speaker knows the listener knows he is lying, but keeps lying anyway.” Fascinating, Mr Fallon, but in fact vranyo is just the normal Russian word for “lying”.

The real giveaway adjective is “unpredictable”, because it is used, naturally, by those who fail to predict. But you only fail to predict if you haven’t made the effort to understand. If you live in an echo chamber, bouncing the same myths and half-truths back and forth, then certainly you will be taken aback by your enemy’s actions. If you study them, you at least stand a chance of seeing what’s coming.

Of course, nobody should close their eyes to the facts. Russia under Putin has challenged what the West, particularly America, saw as its divine right to shape the world in its own image. He has broken international law by annexing Crimea and sponsoring breakaway republics in Ukraine and Georgia. His forces have committed atrocities in Syria. And at home he has presided over a steady erosion of democratic rights, press freedom and rule of law.


Russia under Putin has challenged what the West, particularly America, saw as its divine right to shape the world in its own image.

But these are reasons to study things with a clear mind, not to lapse into hysteria and hyperbole. To plot a better way forward, we need at least to examine whether the West played a part in “creating” the Putin we now love to hate. We need to consider whether our current policies are making things better or worse. And, if we wish to formulate policies that actually work (instead of, for example, endlessly prolonging sanctions that manifestly fail to achieve their aim), then we need to try to understand what it is that makes Russia tick. Finding an explanation for the Kremlin’s actions is by no means the same thing as excusing or condoning them. It simply helps us to make more sensible choices when trying to counter those actions.

Two very real facts make a more sober approach essential. One is that, whether we like him or not, Putin is almost certain to stand for re-election next March, and will rule Russia until 2024. That’s another seven years. The second fact is that, however hard we might try to undermine it, Russia has the biggest population of any European country, is the world’s biggest producer of petroleum, and is set to become Europe’s most powerful economy (according to PwC) within the next thirty years or so, overtaking Britain, France and Germany by 2050. We therefore have little choice but to find ways to deal with it. Wishing it away will not help; and neither will more aggressive efforts to undermine or constrain it. The choice is simple: either we continue to confront this enormous Eurasian power, and find ourselves sleepwalking towards war; or we grit our teeth and find ways to live with it. It should be clear that our efforts over the past quarter-century to tame, confront, “civilise” and democratise Russia have backfired. We need to rethink Russia, and finds ways to co-exist (at the very least) or co-operate with it in the century ahead.

CAN TRUMP DO IT?

Donald Trump became US president boldly insisting that it was “better to get along with Russia than not”. On the face of it, lessening tensions between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers would seem to be a no-brainer, as would Trump’s vision of working together with Moscow to fight Daesh. Yet this vision caused panic among America’s European allies. Making friends with Putin was bad per se, and “giving Putin what he wants”, it was assumed, could only be done at the expense of those who feel threatened by Russia, in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states. Trump’s remark that NATO was “obsolete” and that its Article 5 mutual defence clause might not apply to allies who failed to pay their way, caused near apoplexy. Russia’s apparent attempts to influence the election in Trump’s favour only added to the sense that he was nothing less than a Kremlin pawn in the White House.


On the face of it, lessening tensions between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers would seem to be a no-brainer, as would Trump’s vision of working together with Moscow to fight Daesh. Yet this vision caused panic among America’s European allies.

My own sense was that Putin’s “support” for Trump was greatly exaggerated. It was clear that the Russians abhorred Hillary Clinton, and probably did try to undermine her campaign, but the idea that Putin longed to deal with a man as erratic and unfathomable as Trump seemed far-fetched. The love went mainly in the opposite direction. Trump fawned over Putin, apparently because he believed the Russian had called him “brilliant”. But this was a mistranslation of an off-the-cuff remark, when Putin gave a neutral response to an unexpected question about Trump during the campaign: he was yarky or “colourful”, and “talented” (apparently a reference to his evident prowess in business). Putin was never effusive; I suspect he was well aware of Trump’s limitations, and would much prefer to deal with a stable, predictable, “clever” leader.

Trump’s wayward behaviour in office will have been watched with dismay in the Kremlin, which notably ordered the media to stop its bizarrely over-the-top coverage of the new president after a couple of weeks. His first moves on Russia were contradictory. His appointments of James Mattis as Defence Secretary and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State – followed by the replacement of the pro-Kremlin Michael Flynn by the hawkish Lt. Gen. H.R.McMaster as National Security Adviser after less than three weeks – suggested that a major shift in Russia policy was unlikely.

Trump himself seemed to have no policies at all other than a vague desire to “get along with” Putin. He immediately offered to end US sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in exchange for a nuclear arms deal – something that, as I will explain shortly, is not really a Russian priority. In their first telephone conversation, Putin suggested something more pragmatic – extending the New START arms control treaty (signed by Obama in 2010) beyond its expiry date in 2021. Trump apparently had no idea what Putin was talking about and had to consult his aides before replying. Then he rejected the idea. A few weeks later, Trump tweeted that he wanted to increase the US’s nuclear arsenal. At this point Putin and his security chiefs must have rolled their eyes and decided just to sit tight for a while, until the White House came up with a coherent strategy.

That Trump’s first overture should have concerned nuclear weapons was a clear demonstration that he had no clue about Russia’s real concerns. Arms treaties – SALT, START, INF and the like – were the stuff of the Cold War, when no summit was a success if it didn’t put a cap on some category of weapons. But since the collapse of communism 25 years ago, all Russian leaders have been obsessed with something different – security, yes, but not primarily the threat of nuclear war, because successive arms control treaties have achieved a “balance of power”, that is, approximate parity in the two sides’ arsenals.

Nowadays, Russia’s overwhelming security concerns are: one, the expansion of NATO, and two, the deployment of a missile shield in eastern Europe. NATO insists that the latter is aimed at protecting Europe from a possible future Iranian nuclear capability, but Moscow believes that (even if that were its primary function) a NATO missile shield upsets the existing strategic balance by making it possible for the West to shoot down large numbers of Russian nuclear missiles. It is for this reason that Putin has responded to the Western deployment by installing new missiles in Kaliningrad region (whose purpose is to take out the missile shield in a crisis), and by promising new intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace the offensive capacity that Moscow believes is eroded by the missile shield.


As for the missile shield, this is rarely even discussed in the Western media. Yet, having worked for three years as a consultant to the Kremlin, hearing their concerns day in, day out, I have no doubt at all that it is the single greatest aggravating factor in east-west relations today.

None of this should be a secret to the Americans. Three Russian leaders – Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin – have banged on about little else in the last quarter-century. But their views have been ignored. Gorbachev was promised (verbally, but not in writing) that NATO would not expand up to Russia’s borders. Yeltsin protested when it happened, especially as he had not only accepted the right of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to become independent states, but welcomed it and had good relations with them. Putin accepted NATO’s expansion (and therefore implicitly the extension of the US sphere of influence into eastern Europe) but warned quite openly that Russia would never accept a further enlargement of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia – and showed that he meant it when he invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Crimea in 2014 (apparently to forestall Ukraine’s inexorable absorption into the Western system, which would have seen Russia’s huge Black Sea naval base turned over to NATO).

As for the missile shield, this is rarely even discussed in the Western media. Yet, having worked for three years as a consultant to the Kremlin, hearing their concerns day in, day out, I have no doubt at all that it is the single greatest aggravating factor in east-west relations today. If President Trump wants to win Putin over, this is where he should start, not with Cold War-era talk about nuclear arms reductions. There is a precedent, which I learned about from interviews with top-level American and Russian officials. Back in 2007 a deal was almost struck, which might have changed the course of history – and maybe still could.

A HISTORICAL PRECEDENT

One of the first American rebuffs that President Putin faced – one which helped to turn him from the relatively “nice” guy he was at the start of his rule into the tough guy we now face – came in 2001, when President George W. Bush informed him that he was abandoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, to free his hands to pursue a new national missile defence (NMD) system (essentially a revival of the Reagan-era “Star Wars” plans). The point of the ABM Treaty was that it prevented either side from developing defences that would undermine the strategic balance (the rough equivalence in American and Russian nuclear firepower). Bush insisted that the new missile shield was not aimed against Russia and therefore did not affect the nuclear balance. Putin thought otherwise. He came to the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in June 2007 armed with maps of missile trajectories and other data to demonstrate how Russia would be affected by the shield. Bush was taken aback: “I didn’t realise you take this so seriously.”

“We can’t sleep for thinking about it!” Putin replied.

Putin then suggested that, since the shield was not aimed against Russia, Russia could be part of it. He offered the use of a Russian radar system in Azerbaijan, closer to Iran, so there would be no need for the one Bush was planning in the Czech Republic. He also offered a little stick to go with the carrot, saying that if the US insisted on deploying radars in Europe, Russia would have to target them with its own missiles, whereas if they agreed to use Russia’s radar…

A month later, at Bush’s family home in Kennebunkport, Putin went further: he would upgrade the radar in Azerbaijan, and also throw in a new radar in southern Russia to create a joint early-warning system for common missile defence covering not just the US and Russia but the whole of Europe. Bush was tempted. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told me later that the Kremlin was ecstatic at the possibility that the two rivals could be on the brink of becoming allies.


Bush was tempted. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told me later that the Kremlin was ecstatic at the possibility that the two rivals could be on the brink of becoming allies.

America’s military lobby swung into action. A team of experts inspected the Azerbaijan radar station and concluded it could do no more than monitor an attack, not help prevent one. They would still need to go ahead with missiles in Poland and a state-of-the-art radar in the Czech republic.

But in October 2007 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates – both relatively dovish members of the Bush team – went to Moscow determined to “find a way to scratch the itch that the Russians have about being left out of this,” according to Rice. In a move not reported to the press, Rice and Gates made an offer that the Russians liked. It was intended to bridge the divide over whether or not the Iranians posed a threat. According to Lavrov, “they suggested that the US would not activate their missile defence system until we, together with them, established that there was a real threat.”

According to Rice, “Bob [Gates] said: suppose we dig the holes, but we’ll do a joint threat assessment on Iran, and won’t actually start deploying interceptors until there is some shared understanding of where the Iranians are going.”

“It was going to take some period of years anyway to get these sites operational,” said Gates, “so we could wait for the installation of the interceptors until the Iranians had flight-tested a missile that could hit Europe.”

The suggestion went down well, because it at least delayed things, but it did little to disabuse the Russians of their conviction that they, not Iran, were the Americans’ real target. At this point Gates came up with a proposal which he later admitted, with a wry smile, was certainly not agreed with the hawks back home. “I thought that there were a lot of things we could offer in the way of transparency, in terms of giving them access. We could even have a more or less permanent Russian presence there, like arms inspectors.”

Within minutes the idea evolved into an offer to the Russians to have a permanent military presence, 24/7, at the US installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Gates recalled rather ruefully: “All these measures that I talked about, I was just making up on the spot. If Condi and I agreed then why not see if we could make some headway with Putin.”

The Russians were astonished. Lavrov asked the Americans to put it on paper. But when Gates and Rice returned to Washington with their ad hoc proposals, there was, in Gates’ words, “consternation”. The ideas had to be assessed by all the relevant Administration departments – defence, state, national security – in the so-called “interagency process”. It soon became clear that the neo-cons had not the slightest intention of giving the Russians 24/7 access to their most secret, hi-tech facilities. They also belatedly consulted the Czechs and Poles, and were given short shrift. As Gates recalled, with smiling understatement: “There were several areas in which the interagency process here sanded off some of the sharp edges of the offers and made them less attractive.”

The offer was put in writing, as requested, but in place of “permanent Russian presence”, it suggested that embassy attachés could occasionally visit the Czech and Polish sites. The Russians shook their heads with derision. Lavrov recalled in an interview: “We got the paper in November and not one of the proposals was in it.”


If NATO brought Russia into the missile defence system as a genuine partner, Putin would almost certainly cancel the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and the development of new intercontinental missiles, both of which he explicitly stated were reactions to NATO’s moves.

The missile defence system went ahead, modified by Obama, but still seen by Russia as a threat. It remains the biggest obstacle that will have to be overcome if any kind of new détente is to take place. The benefits, in theory, could be enormous. If NATO brought Russia into the missile defence system as a genuine partner, Putin would almost certainly cancel the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and the development of new intercontinental missiles, both of which he explicitly stated were reactions to NATO’s moves. This would defuse tensions with the Baltic republics, and allow NATO to reverse its troop build-up there, while Russia could also pull back forces from its western frontier.  Everyone would win.

Could President Trump make such an imaginative step? The auguries are not good. For one thing, Trump sees Iran as his number-one enemy, so it would take a lot to persuade him to remove the missile shield (though not necessarily to involve Russia in its operation). A bigger obstacle would be the inevitable resistance of the American military-industrial complex, which is earning billions of dollars from the system.

BREAKING THE MOULD

One thing is clear: current Western policies are counterproductive. I cannot think of a single example from history where Russia (or the USSR) buckled under Western pressure and gave us what we wanted. A new approach is urgently needed, based on respect, not bullying, and on a sober appreciation of Russia’s own concerns. Wield a stick by all means, but without some kind of enticement as well Russia will merely brandish even bigger sticks of its own.

The West has to face up to a few stark realities. First, that America’s attempt to ignore Russia as a second-rate “regional” power (Obama’s words) failed. Second, that security will always be Russia’s number one priority. And third, Kremlin leaders will always put Russia first (just as US presidents all vow to put America first). Putin will leave the stage eventually, but his successor – even if, as one can only hope, he is passionately dedicated to democracy and human rights – will not allow his country to be pushed around or threatened. Russia was well-disposed towards the West after it overthrew communism, but our failure to understand its concerns has pushed it into isolationism and aggression. It is not too late to reverse that process. Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether Donald Trump has the gumption, or sufficient sway over the Washington hawks, to go down that road.


Angus Roxburgh has studied Russia for over 45 years, and was Moscow correspondent for the BBC and Sunday Times. He worked as a media consultant to the Kremlin in 2006-9. His memoir, Moscow Calling, will be published in September.


Featured photo: An F-15 Eagle from the 12th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, flies next to a Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber Sept. 28 during a Russian exercise near the west coast of Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo). {Pd-USGov}