By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 21/07/08):
Oil companies enjoy approximately the same public approval rating as drug dealers and arms traders. Thus it is doubtful whether many people other than shareholders have been lying awake at night worrying about the outcome of BP’s current Moscow difficulties.
BP operates in Russia through TNK, a business half-owned by four oligarchs, who have embarked upon an orgy of harassment and litigation because they claim to dislike the manner in which BP’s appointed executives have been running the company. It is widely assumed the Russian tycoons are acting with Kremlin support or at least acquiescence, aiming to make life so tough for BP that it sells up and quits the country.
Moscow makes no secret of its desire to achieve complete mastery of the nation’s oil and gas. The oligarchs claim they are merely defending their rightful interests as shareholders. Yet their legal assault appears a charade, the latter-day equivalent of a 1930s show trial, designed to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy for a smash-and-grab operation.
For BP the stakes are high. The company’s share of TNK accounts for around 20% of its global oil assets. Western governments are watching apprehensively: first, because BP’s ejection must strengthen Moscow’s “petro-arrogance”; second, its defeat would strengthen the impression that Russian law is whatever the gang bosses running the country choose that it should be at any given moment; and finally, such an outcome would be bad news for world oil supplies. The Russians, like the Iranians and Venezuelans, are incapable of maximising discovery and extraction without input from the international oil giants.
Yet it seems likely that BP will lose its battle, because inside Russia the nationalist tide is running so strongly. One among many delusions guiding western foreign policy towards Putin’s nation (we may still call it that, even if Dmitry Medvedev is now nominally president) has been that if Russia were more democratic, it would be easier to live with.
In reality, whatever the shortcomings of Russian elections, there is no doubt that most Russians applaud nationalistic policies. A recent poll showed that 73% thought that Putin had led the country in the right direction, while well over half perceive the US in hostile terms. Resentment towards western wealth and success, which Russia still shows little sign of learning how to match, runs deep in the national psyche.
Even if Barack Obama becomes president, it is unlikely that Russia will become a friendly partner of the US. Hopes of close cooperation, which ran high in the 1990s, are dead. The highest aspiration must be to achieve a working relationship based upon mutual recognition of interests.
With extraordinary insouciance, the Bush administration has fuelled Russian paranoia about strategic encirclement. It has offered Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine, and plans to install elements of its anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. It will be hard for a new US government to retreat from these commitments, and even harder to forge an accord with Moscow, if the eastward push goes ahead.
The most egregious blunder of the Bush presidency has been its failure to understand that the brief period in the 1990s, when America seemed unchallengeable as the world’s only superpower, ended almost before it began. Raw military might has seldom in modern history proved as potent as economics. Globalism has transformed the strategic picture.
Russia and China, probably soon to be joined by India, represent major non-aligned powers, without whose acquiescence US policy objectives will continue to be frustrated. Russian and Chinese unhelpfulness about Zimbabwe and Iran represent mere early warnings of the embarrassment they will cause elsewhere, unless the west achieves accommodation with them.
Washington’s hard men, the likes of Vice-President Cheney, proclaim that it is intolerable to keep silent in the face of Russia’s descent into authoritarianism. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, has characterised Russia as one of the three major world threats to the US.
This seems a wild overstatement. There can be no return to the cold war. Even Russia’s new energy wealth will not render it capable of presenting a direct military challenge to the US. Rather, America and its allies need to decide how much they are willing to concede to Moscow, to dissuade it from lapsing into sullen negativism towards every western purpose.
Nobody suggests a policy of moral blindness towards Russian – or Chinese – abuses of human rights. But it seems essential to recognise that Russian autocracy possesses a high level of popular consent, and will continue to do so as long as living standards rise. It ill becomes the US to strike high moral postures about any regime, as long as America supports some of the nastiest dictators in central Asia in return for military basing rights.
Russian attitudes to the west for many decades have been driven by a craving for respect, an almost manic inferiority complex. The historian Orlando Figes has written: “Complex feelings of insecurity, of envy and resentment … define the Russian national consciousness.” Researching the second world war, I have read thousands of pages of Russian memoirs and contemporary narratives, which emphasise the nation’s conspiratorial vision.
In 1944, Stalin expressed to the Yugoslav partisan Milovan Djilas his admiration for the skill and ruthlessness with which Churchill had eliminated Poland’s exiled prime minister: “It was the English, they were the ones who killed General Sikorski in a plane and then neatly shot down the plane – no proof, no witnesses!” Though the allegation was nonsense, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Stalin believed it, because it is what he would have done himself.
Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, left behind a host of anecdotes illustrating purported western cunning and duplicity. I like his story of a fellow apparatchik marvelling about Franklin Roosevelt at the 1943 Tehran summit: “What a crook that man must be, to have won the presidency three times when he is paralysed!”
It seems likely that remarks in the same key are made in the Kremlin today, matching cynicism about other G8 leaders and countries. Most Russians believe that western rules and laws are made to suit western interests: unless Russians stand up for themselves ruthlessly, goes their argument, the west will roll over them – diplomatically and economically, if not militarily. The experience of the 1990s, when Russia was at its lowest ebb, powerfully reinforced this conviction.
Russia will only become a tolerable partner when its leaders cease to perceive diplomacy as a zero-sum game, in which anything that the west wants must threaten Russian interests. Such a change may come, but painfully slowly, even if a new US administration adopts wiser foreign policies.
Meanwhile, jungle rules prevail. It was not the 2006 London murder of Alexander Litvinenko that was shocking, but the Kremlin’s shameless indifference to it. The best that BP can probably expect from the current showdown is a market price for its stake in Russian oil. One of Stalin’s favourite boasts was: “We screwed the English!” That gleeful sensation is still fashionable in Moscow.