From the Megaphone to the Microphone?
№4 2008 October/December

The story is told of a celebrated hypochondriac whose gravestone
read “I told you that I was ill!”

We are at a very difficult point. As I write, the world’s
financial system is in chaos. By the time this article is printed,
I trust the panic will be over; but the effects of the crisis will
be with us for years to come, and will affect us all. For the third
time in less than two decades, after 1991 and 2001, unexpected and
unpredicted events have burst upon us in a way that changes the

For years, we have been telling each other that today’s big
problems were global and transcended national boundaries; that we
had no rational choice but to tackle them together. Now we find
ourselves again in the midst of global tumult (with further huge
issues of nuclear proliferation, energy, climate change, water and
so on clearly visible on the horizon) – and our divisions remain.
Are we going to sink into the ground, still saying:  “I told
you we needed to work together”?

In August, the rift between Russia and the West, which had been
widening for five years, became a chasm. Decisions were taken and
policies made, in different capital cities, on a basis, not of
rationality and mature calculation, but of hot-headed emotion,
short-sightedness and ancient prejudice. There were serious and
dangerous miscalculations on all sides.

The result of a conflict which was both entirely avoidable and
also seemingly inevitable (or so it had come to appear over the
past few years) was that our divisions grew even wider. In his
speech in Evian in October, President Medvedev spoke of a “trend of
growing divisions in international relations,” of “the United
States’ desire to consolidate its global rule,” and of “NATO
bringing its military infrastructure right up to our borders… No
matter what we are told, it is only natural that we should see this
as action directed against us.” In the previous month he told the
Valdai Forum that Georgia’s “cynical and bloody attack under the
slogan of restoring constitutional order” had put “an end to the
last illusions about the current security system’s ability to
function reliably:” the world had changed, for him and for Russia,
much as it had changed for the United States on September 11,

At an emergency Summit in September, the EU’s leaders used
unprecedentedly strong language. They were “gravely concerned by
the open conflict which has broken out in Georgia, by the resulting
violence and by the disproportionate reaction of Russia… Military
action of this kind is not a solution and is not acceptable… The
European Council strongly condemns Russia’s unilateral decision to
recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That
decision is unacceptable…”  In the United States, Senator
McCain accused Russia of “stark international aggression;” his
rival Presidential candidate, Barack Obama, spoke of “the challenge
posed by an increasingly autocratic and bellicose Russia” and said
the conflict had “opened a huge divide between Russia and the
international community.”

Almost one year ago, I argued in Russia in Global Affairs (No.
1, 2008) that analogies with the Cold War could not be taken
seriously; that neither the leaders of Russia nor of the “West”
(however defined) sought a new confrontation; but that the trust
that had existed up to 2003 had evaporated and needed to be
rebuilt, step by step.

Is this still a tenable argument?

At a recent conference in Italy, I repeated my argument that the
West (let us say Russia’s partners in the G8 – the EU, the U.S.,
Japan and Canada) and Russia needed to find ways of resurrecting
the level of trust necessary for stability, security and
cooperation on major strategic issues. I was immediately challenged
by a Parliamentarian: how could anyone now speak of “trust”? Was
this not an absurd notion, with Russia and the West each accusing
the other of hostile intentions?

It was a fair point. In August there was no trust. There is no
point now in rehearsing the conflicting interpretations of the
conflict, and the barrage of accusations and counter-accusations:
there will never be a consensus on who bears the greatest
responsibility for this unnecessary war. But what is beyond dispute
is that confidence in our collective ability to manage European
security was severely shaken.

So what do I mean by a necessary level of trust? Clearly this
cannot at present mean “partnership.” In August it finally became
manifest to those who had failed to appreciate the point before
that partnership was off the agenda. But if we are to deal sensibly
with each other, we need predictability; we need an accurate
understanding of each other’s interests and intentions; and we need
the ability to communicate rationally.

These are the elements which need to be restored. With the
vastly freer and more normal interchange between Russia and the
West since 1991, one would have expected a more sophisticated level
of mutual understanding to develop. But a paradox of the past 17
years is that the gulf in understanding among policy-makers is, if
anything, wider than it was during the Cold War. Russian and
Western leaders view each other through the prisms of their own
systems. This leads inevitably to miscalculations – of which the
events in the Caucasus were the most serious of recent years,
though far from the first.

Trying to escape from these prisms, let me pose three questions
which are fundamental to our ability to deal sensibly with each
other: What does the Russian leadership want? What does the West
want? How might we reconcile our interests?

Of course, neither Russian nor Western opinion is monolithic.
There are extreme views on both sides, gleefully proclaiming a
mythical “new Cold War,” and if we allow them to control the debate
they risk turning the myth into a reality, much to the detriment of
all of our interests. As Boris Dolgin has put it, Russia’s
isolationists are close allies of Western supporters of
containment. Each feeds off the other. But I shall try to focus on
what appears to be the mainstream of educated opinion, leaving
propagandists to one side.


Some months ago, before the events in the Caucasus, I heard a
Russian expert say “We are strong again – but we don’t know what
it’s for.”

In a recent article for the “openDemocracy” internet journal,
Alexei Arbatov has posed the question: Will the August crisis be an
isolated episode in the post-Soviet space and in relations between
Russia and the West – or the “first swallow” of a new phase in the
disintegration of the Soviet empire – henceforth on the Yugoslav

President Medvedev has set out five guiding principles for
Russian foreign policy, but does Russia have a strategy?

I put this question to the President when he lunched with the
Valdai Club. He replied that “The aim of any foreign policy is to
ensure a good domestic life. Foreign policy is itself only a means
for achieving internal political goals… The foreign policy of any
state should be designed to ensure the stable development of its
economy, its social sphere and ensure normal standards of living
for its people.”

That is not an answer with which any reasonable person could
argue, but let me risk going a little further. Four objectives seem
to have been uppermost in Russia’s external policy of the past five
or so years.

The first is security.  Like any large
country or group of countries, Russia seeks to maintain the power
to deter attack or coercion. But, historically and to the present
day, Russia feels less secure about its boundaries than any other
major power. To the West and, especially, along its long Southern
and South-Eastern borders, Russia lacks natural frontiers and
logical definition; and worries about a lack of manpower,
exacerbated by demographic decline, necessary to populate and
defend vast border areas. So Russia tends not just to seek security
within its own borders, but remains attached to the historical idea
of a buffer zone: it wants to retain the ability to influence or
coerce neighboring states (most of which were within the Soviet
Union) and above all to prevent these states from forming close
alliances with other powers. The influence of such powers tends to
be seen as hostile, in a zero/sum sense.

The second objective is to assert independent
sovereignty. The policy elite has developed a concept of
sovereignty which claims exceptional status for Russia: along with
the United States, China and India, Russia is declared to be one of
a small group of global powers which enjoy fully independent
sovereignty. The aim of such powers is to enjoy unconstrained
freedom of action and to avoid domination by other powers. Russia
has claimed the right to act beyond its borders to protect “the
lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be” and to
give “special attention” to particular regions or a “zone” where it
asserts “privileged interests” (to quote President Medvedev, though
previous Russian governments have asserted the same interests,
going back to Foreign Minister Kozyrev in the early 1990s). The
leadership also demands that there should be no external
interference in Russia’s internal affairs, reserving the right to
make a very broad definition of “interference” (which has embraced
broadcasting, promotion of civil and political rights, religion,
charitable activities by non-governmental organizations and aspects
of cultural and educational interchange and of foreign
investment).  A narrative has been developed whereby the 1990s
is seen as a period of malign Western interference in a weakened
and humiliated Russia (whereas the West thought that it was trying
to assist the Russian people, support the Russian transition, and
forge a new partnership).

A third objective, closely linked to the
second, is to ensure, once again, global recognition of Russia’s
status as a major Power. Since the riches rolled in from oil five
years ago, the leadership has marched under a banner proclaiming
that Russia is strong again and can no longer be ignored or taken
for granted. They wish to be the strategic interlocutor of the
United States; an equal partner of China; a power with a full vote
in European issues and an Asian-Pacific power, as well; a senior
member of all international clubs; an actor in the Middle East; and
the patron of a network of “friendly” or client states.

The fourth discernible objective has been to
seek Russia’s full integration into the global economy. Russia
wants to be able to make use of its comparative economic
advantages, and to translate them into political influence. It
wishes to become much more than a “raw materials appendage” to the
West and China, and, by exploiting its human capital, to join the
ranks of the advanced economies.

Russia’s pursuit of these goals has been beset by a number of
contradictions. It wants to use economic strength and economic
development, entirely legitimately, to advance its position in the
world; but the lack of restructuring and investment has left the
economy dependent on a narrow base of hydrocarbons and other raw
materials. It wants to be a leading power within the status quo,
and puts international law and the strengthening of the
multilateral system at the head of its priorities; but has acted
outside international law in the Caucasus and elsewhere, and has
been reluctant to accept the rules, constraints and ethos of the
clubs it joins. Does the sanctity of international law (the
President’s first principle) take precedence over what he has
described as the “indisputable priority” of protecting the lives
and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they be? Moscow seems to
be divided between those who want to confront the West, and those
who believe that this would be hugely damaging for Russia’s
interests; and between those who wish to use economic blockades and
the threat of force against neighboring states, and others who
think a policy of attraction would be more productive than
coercion. The President declares that Russia wants “friendly ties
with Europe, the U.S. and other countries in the world;” but Moscow
gives the impression of looking out at a world full of adversaries
– a hostile United States; NATO and the EU joining in encroachment
on Russia’s interests; potentially treacherous post-Soviet states
with grievances; destabilizing forces to the South; and, looming as
a future threat from the East, the emergent Chinese superpower.
Some allies might be helpful: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela scarcely fits
the bill.

Given these contradictions, it is not surprising that the West
is confused and uncertain about Russia’s intentions – that the
element of predictability I mentioned earlier has been lost. The
appearance of Russian armor 20 kilometers from Tbilisi and aerial
attacks deep inside Georgia were manna to Western apostles of
containment and a new Cold War, just as Saakashvili’s bombardment
of Tskhinvali must have delighted their isolationist Russian
counterparts. General Ivashov regretted that the Russian forces had
not been allowed to take Tbilisi itself. The American neocon John
Bolton struggled to contain his glee when interviewed about Russian
recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Two of a kind: each
makes the other’s day. But neither offers a viable strategy for the
management of the world in the 21st century. Both represent failed


Russia has no less reason to feel confused about Western
objectives, although the Russian leadership is more adept at coping
with the confusion. Even to speak of “the West,” as Russians
invariably point out, begs the question: what is the West? How is
anyone to interpret the bizarre, Janus-faced decisions taken by
NATO at Bucharest, stalling the applications of Georgia and Ukraine
for Membership Action Plans while declaring the road to eventual
membership to be open? How can the United States have failed to
detect Saakashvili’s intentions and deter him from his idiotic
attack? As Fyodor Lukyanov has rightly pointed out in a recent
article (published on the internet in Polit.ru and openDemocracy),
the West appears to have no more of a long-term strategy than
Let me nevertheless suggest certain objectives around which Western
governments broadly coalesce.

The first, as with Russia, is security – the
security of their states and the collective security of NATO and
the European Union. The important point here is that the West does
not see a direct threat from Russia. We have this from no less an
authority than the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates
(speaking at a NATO meeting in London in September). The hierarchy
of threats to Western security is headed by proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism –
especially where they have the potential to overlap.

A second vital objective is to preserve peace,
stability and prosperity in Europe. This is why the conflict in the
Caucasus was not treated as a minor episode in a distant country,
but set alarm bells ringing. Like the wars in the Balkans, it was a
reminder that peace in Europe could not be taken for granted; and,
more ominously than in the Balkans (notwithstanding the Pristina
incident), it raised the possibility of a direct confrontation
between Russian and U.S. forces. It underlined the fact (not new to
the expert community, but hitherto unappreciated by Western public
opinion) that Russian and Western objectives are undeniably in
conflict in the shared neighborhood of post-Soviet states, where
the Russian concept of a buffer zone or “zone of influence” is
incompatible with the rights of sovereignty, self-determination and
freedom of choice promoted by the West.

A third objective is to advance or protect the
global interests of Western countries. In the Cold War, this
entailed bloc-to-bloc confrontation and frequently proxy wars with
the Soviet Union. We are now in an entirely different situation,
with many competitors and combinations; no inbuilt confrontation;
and, quite often, alignment of the interests of Russia and
different Western countries. Some of the sharpest competition has
been between Western countries.

Fourth, though no less important, is defense of
the rule of law and global order. But here there are manifest
differences, which the war in Iraq has highlighted, between Western
countries, and not just Western countries, about how this is to be

Many in the West would add a fifth objective – the promotion of
democratic values and human rights. While this may sound like
motherhood and apple pie, it leads to a critical debate about
methods and priorities. The moral case for removing Saddam Hussein,
who bore responsibility for mass murder and obscene torture, was
very strong; but the idea that Western-style democracy could be
imposed on Iraq was simplistic and fallacious. The inconsistency
and double standards of the Western approach are glaring: critical
of Russia and China (and much more so of, say, Burma and North
Korea), but, for reasons of Realpolitik, almost silent on countries
like Saudi Arabia.

How does this translate into policy toward Russia? Not very
clearly. The Bush Administration has veered like a drunken sailor
between trying to ignore Russia, seeking Russian help on specific
issues, and denouncing Russia. Its approach has lacked any
coherence or semblance of strategic vision. The European Union has
been no more coherent, because of its internal divisions. The
mainstream of EU countries does have a vision. It would like to
form a genuine partnership with Russia (but not a partnership at
the expense of others, whether the United States or former Soviet
and Warsaw Pact states), and to promote, over time, much closer
integration of Russia with Western and Central Europe. There would
be obvious benefits, in terms of peace and prosperity. However,
with partnership off the agenda and unattainable in at least this
generation, the EU is not clear what it wants. It needs to continue
to engage Russia; but also to restrain and deter what it sees as
aggressive and coercive approaches to neighboring countries,
including EU member states, and attempts to divide and manipulate
the European Union itself. It is confused about how to do this.


The means by which the Russian leadership has sought,
rhetorically, to reconcile its position with that of the West is a
curious one. Having long complained (and not without justification)
of Western double standards, the Kremlin appears now to have
adopted the “Bush Standard.” The language used by the Bush
Administration (and its supporters) has been tape-recorded and
played back. 8/8 is equated with 9/11 – a nation-changing moment
which creates a new mind-set and justifies extreme (and if
necessary unilateralist) measures. The opponent is depicted as a
mad dictator who, like Saddam and Milosevic, must be dragged before
a court to face charges of genocide (notwithstanding, in this case,
palpably thin evidence). Tony Blair is quoted: his arguments for
“humanitarian intervention” and his defense of standing alone when
you are convinced you are in the right. If Western nations choose
to recognize Kosovan independence without UN approval (albeit 9
years after the conflict and after lengthy, UN-supported
negotiations over status), Russia has the right to recognize
Abkhazia and South Ossetia (whose leader told the Valdai Club that
he wanted, not independent statehood for his tiny mountain
territory, but unification with North Ossetia within the Russian

The problem with the Bush Standard is that it has gone right out
of fashion. For reasons which need no elaboration (the single word
“Iraq” is sufficient), its authors – Cheney, Rumsfeld and a gaggle
of neo-cons – are utterly discredited even within their own
country. The Bush Administration will shortly slither ignominiously
into history, leaving the United States a much weaker country than
they found it. And the U.S.A., a country with a remarkable capacity
for regeneration, will have learned from this bitter experience and
will set out on a different course.
So this doesn’t seem like the best model to follow. We need a
better model.

We have the building blocks. There is no objective need for
confrontation. President Medvedev declared at Evian that “we are in
no way interested in confrontation.” It would be the avenue of last
resort, and would be expensive and damaging to all of our

We have a vital shared interest in the management of global
problems. And the crises in the Caucasus and the financial markets
have had the salutary effect of reminding us of our interdependency
and of our ability to cooperate when we are forced to do so.

We now need to draw the right lessons from these crises.

First, Russia and the West need to talk to each
other. Frankly. And not just during a crisis.

Second, in that spirit of frankness, we don’t
need to like each other in order to cooperate – but an atmosphere
of strident animosity makes talking much more difficult and risks
leading to the confrontation which both sides say they wish to
avoid. Many things have happened inside Russia which have tarnished
Russia’s reputation abroad and which stand in the way of
partnership. The West will continue to criticize such actions; but,
until such time as the Russian people themselves decide on a change
of course, Western governments will need to work with a system
which they may not like but cannot alter. Likewise
officially-encouraged animosity toward the West has built up to a
fever pitch in Russia, for a variety of reasons. Blaming an
external enemy is an old political gambit. Political leaders on
both sides need to be careful about playing to the nationalist and
xenophobic emotions of the domestic gallery, or they will risk
finding themselves boxed in by the forces they have unleashed.
Threatening language has become part of the problem.

Third, and most importantly, we must address
the heart of the problem. As has become increasingly apparent,
there is one strategic issue over which the objectives of Russia
and the West divide sharply, one fault-line between us. This is the
arc of mistrust, which stretches from the Baltic states through
Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova along the Black Sea to the Caucasus
and into Central Asia (with a risk that unilateral actions could
extend it further northwards into the Arctic). How this is handled
will, I believe, determine Russia’s relationship with the West for
many years to come.

The immediate task is to prevent the situation from getting
worse. We cannot afford a repetition of August. The ceasefire
arrangements in Georgia must be respected. Nothing should be done
elsewhere in the “arc” to create new tensions: no provocations,
reawakening of dormant conflicts, blockades, disruption of energy
supplies. Ukraine should be allowed to hold its elections without
outside interference. NATO should avoid repeating the mistake it
made in Bucharest. The enlargement of the European Union has been a
much more successful process than the enlargement of NATO, in part
because it has no military dimension, but also because the EU has
never been afraid of discussing it with the Russian government (the
talks before the last enlargement, including over Kaliningrad,
being a good example). NATO enlargement was mishandled from the
outset. Decisions were taken ad hoc, without a strategy or proper
calculation. Misleading signals were given to Moscow as far back as
1990. NATO should have built up its partnerships with Russia and
with prospective new members in parallel. It is not necessarily
wrong, per se, for NATO to enlarge; but the prime consideration
should be the stability and security of Europe. For now, talk of
possible membership for Georgia and Ukraine is premature as well as
irrelevant to the real security needs of both countries.

Much the same could be said of missile defense. This is an
unnecessary argument. In the spring of this year I was told by two
very senior representatives of the foreign policy establishment in
Moscow that, while Russia did not like or see the rationale for the
proposed installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, it could
live with them so long as inspection arrangements were agreed
whereby Russia could be assured they did not constitute a threat.
One must hope that the next U.S. Administration will review these
plans. If it goes ahead with the program, it would be wise to
address concerns expressed by Moscow, which are far from

However, we have to think beyond these immediate steps. If we
are to rebuild mutual understanding and predictability and pre-empt
future threats to European stability, we need to have serious and
structured discussions about the issues which divide us. We talk
about global issues in a variety of organizations, but when it
comes to European security, a long agenda has accumulated which we
have simply failed to discuss.

President Medvedev has issued a challenge to the West to discuss
European security. The initial Western reaction has been sceptical,
seeing this as a rather old-fashioned ploy to undermine NATO and
delink the United States from Europe (an impression enhanced by the
strident attacks, which he and his predecessor have made on U.S.
unilateralism). In my view, the West should take up Medvedev’s
challenge. We cannot expect a meaningful response from Washington
until the next Administration is up and running around the middle
of 2009. This gives the European Union and the European members of
NATO time to explore the idea and to formulate a position to put
both to Washington and to Moscow. First, they
should conclude that a structured negotiation – inevitably complex,
and probably lasting several years – is necessary, and that they
will devote resources to it. Second, they should
think about the format. All states of the OSCE area should be
represented equally: there can be no question of negotiating over
their heads. Organizations will also need to be represented, as
Medvedev has suggested. Third, they should look at Medvedev’s ideas
on content, and add to them. He has made some important points
about commitments to sovereignty, territorial integrity, the
inadmissibility of the use of force and dispute resolution
procedures. There is an obvious read-across here to events in the
Caucasus. No one sitting down with a blank sheet of paper would
have devised the international boundaries inherited by the 15
states of the former USSR. They were an accident of internal Soviet
administration (and in some cases the whims of Stalin and
Khrushchev) and not based on any ethnic, economic or strategic
principle; but any attempt to change them now, except by agreement,
would risk the dire consequences described by Arbatov in his
article. The “recognition” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia set an
extraordinarily dangerous precedent for attempts to change these
boundaries unilaterally and by force. Reaffirmation of the
inviolability of frontiers and of territorial integrity is critical
to future stability.

I accept that such a negotiation would be cumbersome, slow and
expensive. But the alternative is worse. We risk lurching from one
dispute to another in an atmosphere of deepening suspicion and
hostility, and again lining up as proxies in regional conflicts. It
would be far better to have Russia and Georgia voicing their
grievances across a table than fighting in South Ossetia; far
better for us all to be talking through microphones rather than

I end where I began. The world is in too bad a state for us to
indulge our prejudices and animosities. “The global system is
paralyzed on a scale that now surpasses 1929,” wrote the economist
Will Hutton on 12 October, “without collaboration and leadership,
we face disaster.” That does not just mean disaster for improvident
Western bankers. There has been no safe haven in this storm. Alexei
Kudrin said of Russia in the same week: “The abundance we have
experienced is drawing to a close. Our country’s oil and gas output
is likely to peak in 2008. We won’t see this much revenue again. In
that sense, we are crossing a historic boundary.” The weaknesses of
all of our economies have been brutally exposed. 
Protectionism and isolationism would make these ailments worse. The
need to pull together and act together has not been greater at any
point since the Second World War. Is it too much to hope that the
crisis will bring us all to our senses?