At time of writing, US President Donald Trump has just finished his first summit in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The summit itself produced no tangible outcome, other than the leaders of the two nuclear powers getting together to meet alone and then with staff. The earlier NATO meeting in Brussels had served the purposes of that alliance, by way of pledges from delinquent Europeans to increase their paltry defence budgets. This historic mission of NATO, per General Sir Hastings Ismay, assistant to Churchill and the first NATO Secretary General, is, "To keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out" albeit the Germans now keep themselves 'down' by effectively disarming.
The only real news came from the press conference, where Trump, as is his wont, denied the obvious Russian meddling in US elections, even when told by his own intelligence agencies, because of a fear that there be any question as to the legitimacy of his 2016 electoral victory. Trump’s bizarre obstinancy, which deserved, fully, the criticism that it received, was quickly outdone by the increasingly hysterical and broken, with cries of “treason” from the supposedly non-partisan media that cheered on the disastrous Obama defence sequester, the inane Hillary Clinton Russian Reset, and who ridiculed Mitt Romney for his observation in 2012 that Russia was the United States’ primary geopolitical foe.
One of the miracles of the Trump era is the conversion of formerly poncy American liberals into hawks, at least against Russia, something that did not occur during the Soviet era and which was unknown before 09 November 2016. Moreover, the fact that Trump remains the US President means that many neoconservatives remain on the brink of requiring institutionalisation.
In any event, as I often say, it is always good to keep a sense of perspective and see things as they really are. If Donald Trump or, indeed, Vladimir Putin, disappeared tomorrow, the Western relationship with Russia would still have many problems. It has always been a cardinal error of Western analysis of foreign (and especially Russian) policy to focus on personalities and ignore enduring cultural and historical drivers of statecraft. This is a particular failing among Anglophones, of which I am one. English speakers and Anglophone analysts are, too often, ignorant of their own geography and history, and how it drove and still determines their statecraft. The British were and remain an island and seafaring people, whose language, law, culture and customs spread by sea to North America, Australia and New Zealand. This bred both an aggressively commercial instinct, as well as habits of insularity and provincialism. Also, being island people with sea frontiers, Anglophones were liberated from the sort of messy and combative, “cheek-by-jowl”, Realpolitik, existence that has been the lot of continental European states, sharing land borders and rivers with historic enemies. Anglophones have the luxury of an idealism denied to those who must look at their enemy’s enemies for their friends. The Russian state, over centuries, has had many problems but a lack of a sense of history and geography is not one of them. In the case of Russia and the Russians, then, the following should always be born in mind:
A. The Russian Federation spans 11 time zones and contains 150 million people. Modern Russia sits central and atop what the British geopolitician Sir Halford Mackinder called, “the heartland” of Eurasia. While the Russian economy is, on a good day, only the size of that of Italy, or less than that of California, Russia has nuclear weapons, is a major military power and arms exporter, and has a historic capacity for war, spycraft, and subversion, both out of a sense of self-preservation against adversaries and to impose its will on weaker neighbours on the Russian periphery;
B. The Russians have their own language, culture and understanding of nationhood. The Russian nation dates back to Kievan Rus in 882AD and to the story of its ensuing Christianisation. This more than 1000 year old history well predates the colonisation of the Americas, let alone the United States, and pretty much all of the states of the European Union. Russians – whether governed by Grand Princes, Tsars, Commissars, or now a President – have a defined sense of self and of shared bonds together and their estrangement from others. Moreover, the religious dominance of the state-supported and directed Russian Orthodox Church had the effect of uniting the Russian people spiritual and political in a way that Western liberal secularists fail to comprehend or, if they do, generally despise it; and
C. In that past 1000 years, the Russian people have fought against and been invaded by – from all points of the compass rose – the Mongols, the Swedes, the Persians, the Turks, the French, and the Germans (twice). And then, during the Cold War, came the shambolic Soviet attempts to maintain an empire over old central European peoples who hated both Russia and especially the Soviets. The Soviets came close to a nuclear conflict with the United States during the Cuban Missile (1962) and the Yom Kippur War (1973), and had an actual shooting conflict with China over the Ussuri River border in 1969. That Russia has been attacked from all directions, regularly, in its history, breeds a fear of encirclement and invasion that is never far from the surface of Kremlin thinking.
Suffice to say, each and all of A-C leaves their imprint down the ages. There is nothing that anyone who is (or is not) Russian can do about them. These geopolitical realities ensure Russian statecraft follows certain repetitive directions, to retain Russian power, to deploy Russian force, and to avoid Russia’s perennial fears of invasion and encirclement. It is best, then, to bear these enduring and historic influences in mind when considering statecraft, especially that of a great power. The great British military historian, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, advised his readers, a devoted one of which was the future US President, John F. Kennedy, who would review Liddell Hart’s book, in the following terms:
Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes - so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil - nothing is so self-blinding.
This is wise advice. Pause and think of the view from Moscow (or Tehran or Beijing) before formulating a new strategy.
As it is, we in the broader West face numerous and intractable problems in dealing with Russia which make any attempt at improving relations almost doomed to fail.