The Russians yearn for respect in the same way as a street kid with a knife

By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 18/08/08):

Seldom since the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia has the west found itself in such a muddle as it is today about events in Georgia and South Ossetia. Among rightwingers, hawks are suddenly back in fashion, and not only in Washington. David Cameron wants Georgia admitted to Nato in quick time. Russian threats to Poland are compared to the Cuban missile confrontation.

In truth, of course, this remains a small crisis by comparison with those of the cold war, even if some of the principals, in Moscow as well as Washington, talk as if Stanley Kubrick was writing their lines. It is nonetheless a real one, because Moscow has shown its readiness to use force in its proclaimed sphere of influence.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, US policy in eastern Europe and beyond has sought to exploit Russian weakness to install pro-western regimes wherever fertile soil could be found. In Washington’s perception, this does not represent aggression or even unreasonable assertiveness, because its honourable objective is to replace tyranny and repression with democracy and freedom.

The Russians do not care sixpence about these fine things. They perceive only that American missiles are on their way into Poland and the Czech Republic, while Georgia is becoming a US puppet. A Russian academic living in the west inquired in my hearing a few weeks ago: «What would George Bush say if our government announced that it was installing an anti-missile system in Cuba?»

Even those of us who deplore US attempts to include Georgia and Ukraine in Nato should not lose sight of the fact that, if Moscow’s will prevails in the states around Russia’s borders, precious few human rights are likely to be available to their citizens. Thirty years ago many western Europeans were too ready to acquiesce in eastern Europe’s indefinite enslavement by the Soviet Union. In the name of «peaceful coexistence», it was deemed prudent to allow the Poles, Czechs, East Germans, Hungarians and so on to remain, often literally, behind barbed wire.

It was one of the happiest events of the past century when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the nations of eastern Europe became free. Granted the problems of Romania and Bulgaria, it is astonishing how successfully the other former Soviet satellites have embraced democracy and the European Union.

Many British people are so preoccupied with the relatively minor inconveniences imposed by the EU upon this country that they ignore its triumph in bringing peace and stability to many societies that had not known these things in living memory.

Yet Russian exceptionalism persists. It remains unlikely that, in the foreseeable future, it will want to join the EU or share its values. For almost half a century, Russia saw everything through the prism of its second world war experience and that of the cold war. Today its people are obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and their perceived loss of status in the world. Far from recognising this as the consequence of political and economic failure, most Russians from Putin downwards blame western malice and domestic traitors succumbing to western intrigues.

Moscow’s behaviour today should be seen not as a reflection of «oil arrogance», though this plays a part, but of neurosis about its own weakness and failure. The Russians yearn for respect, in the same fashion as any inner-city street kid with a knife. They will become willing to play with the west by western rules only if or when they no longer perceive those rules as disadvantaging themselves. Today they cannot compete on the EU’s terms, still less those of the US, so they make up their own.

It is unnecessary for the west silently to acquiesce in the Russians’ excesses, but it must tread cautiously in the face of their sensitivities. America must stop pretending that democracy is, of itself, the answer to all the world’s ills. Washington is already learning painful lessons about this in the Muslim world. Few people doubt that, even if Russian elections are flawed, Putin’s policies command overwhelming support among his own people.

While the west can offer political and economic encouragement to nations on Russia’s borders, it is folly to go further, seeking to include them in western security organisations, or bribe them to accept US military installations. Such policies merely provoke violent Russian virility displays, to which the west can make no effective response.

Edward Lucas, an impassioned hawk, wrote before the latest Georgian imbroglio: «The west is losing the new cold war, while hardly having noticed that it has started.» The Bush administration today talks of gallant little Georgia in 2008 as if it was gallant little Poland in 1939. As so often, it draws the wrong lesson from history. Britain and France had to fight Hitler. But in September 1939 both countries found themselves in the grotesque position of having offered security guarantees to Poland, while being incapable of doing anything practical to frustrate the German invasion.

It is several bridges too far today to pretend that the west can defend Georgia, or indeed Ukraine. The only sensible advice Washington and its allies can offer their governments is to rub along as best they can with the Russians, and avoid offering them military provocations.

Appeasement gained such a bad name in the 1930s that it is sometimes forgotten, especially by Washington’s neoconservatives, that it is often indispensable. It can be defined by more honourable names. Most of the world’s problems cannot be «solved», least of all by force of arms. They must be managed or endured, in the hope that better times will come, as they often do.

In a world which has seen within the past 20 years the peaceful transfer of power to the black majority in South Africa, as well as the peaceful collapse of the Soviet European empire, it seems absurdly pessimistic to suggest that current difficulties with Russia can be resolved only through confrontation.

American foreign policy is still cursed by post-cold war triumphalism, and aspirations to the «victory» of democracy and capitalist values, while that of Russia languishes under the stigma of defeat. These sensations inspire excessive hubris in both. If Barack Obama wins the US election, the highest hope of the rest of the world must be for a revival of traditional diplomacy, an understanding of the virtues of talking to everybody: the Iranians, the Syrians, Hamas – and the Russians. Successful diplomacy also requires recognition of banal principles of give-and-take, you-win-some-you-lose-some.

US policy towards Moscow for almost two decades has been based upon the assumption that since the Russians were losers, their wishes could be ignored or defied on every front. No useful business could result from such a posture. Putin conducts an ugly polity, and his Russia is not a place where even most successful Russians want to live. But the west will find it easier to coexist with this tormented, intransigent, melancholy and oil-rich neighbour when Russia feels comfortable with itself, not when its nose is rubbed in its long history of failure.