Columns

We blew our chance to befriend Putin

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

You have the advantage over me. It may be that you are reading this now in your makeshift fallout shelter, hair falling out and bleeding from the gums as the nuclear winter descends. More likely you are saying, rather smugly, to your neighbour: ‘I knew he was taking the piss. He’s a right one, that Putin.’ Or perhaps Vlad’s forces are already in London, having swept through western Europe in about eight hours, the Germans for once outdoing the French with their alacrity to surrender. Well, that should see an end to Stonewall and the Tavistock Clinic, no? Every cloud, etc.

I would not wish to underestimate the threat posed by Russia, nor do I have any trust in or liking for its clever, suavely thuggish leader — even if Putin’s general position on those culture war issues is rather closer to that of the vast majority of ordinary people living west of the Elbe than is their own leadership elite’s. The bullying of Ukraine is a crime and we should stand up to it, just as we should have been rather more vociferous when he was bullying Georgia. But it is nonetheless the case that the tragedy of the current situation is one which we in the West have fostered, much as we have done for the past seven or eight hundred years.

We have behaved badly towards Russia both historically and recently, usually treating the vast country and its leaders with contempt and hostility, invading it from time to time, otherwise meddling perfidiously in its affairs and always refusing to allow the Russians what, periodically, they yearn for — to be accepted as part of the civilised western world. Both now, with Putin, and previously with the Soviet Union — and indeed all the way back to the time of the Kievan Rus — the Russian attitude towards the West is characterised here as ‘paranoid’. And so it has been, with very good cause.


Back in 2000, Putin repeatedly petitioned for Russia to be admitted to Nato, according to private conversations he had with the former head of the alliance and ex-Labour minister George Robertson, and again in interviews with the American filmmaker Oliver Stone. Putin was told that his country should ‘apply’ to join — there’s that contempt again — and he replied with the deliciously Putinesque response: ‘Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.’

He was not the first Russian leader to have made such overtures. Boris Yeltsin proposed Russian membership in 1991 and the year before Mikhail Gorbachev had ventured the possibility to the then US Secretary of State, James Baker, only to be told that it was merely a ‘dream’. Rather than grasp an opportunity which 30 years later would be to our enormous advantage in dealing with China and radical Islam, the suggestion was dismissed out of hand.

Instead, western countries sent to Moscow scores of free-market ‘consultants’ to oversee the privatisation and massed asset stripping of the formerly state-controlled Soviet industries which led directly to two catastrophic depressions, enormous unemployment and the creation of a semi-criminal or simply criminal oligarchic elite. No wonder that by the end of the 1990s the notion of ‘western democracy’ was viewed by the general population with scorn verging on loathing: a superpower reduced to impotence and penury. It is not difficult to see how the appetite for Vladimir Putin was fostered.

Remarkably, even the Soviet Union, during the most fraught early moments of the Cold War, had asked to be allowed to join Nato. A year after the death of Stalin and a few months after the sidelining of Malenkov, the USSR’s minister for foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, proposed that his country join an alliance for the collective security of Europe on the grounds that it would be of ‘cardinal importance for the promotion of universal peace’. Molotov’s biographer, Geoffrey Roberts, observed: ‘In May 1954 the western powers rejected the Soviet proposal to join Nato on grounds that the USSR’s membership of the organisation would be incompatible with its democratic and defensive aims. However, Moscow’s extensive and intensive campaign for European collective security continued until the Geneva Foreign Ministers Conference of October-November 1955.’ There was quite possibly geopolitical mischief in Molotov’s design, but the proposal was nonetheless meant in earnest and had the full backing of the premier, Nikita Khrushchev.

So at least four Russian leaders have implored the West to let them into this gilded club and each time they were contemptuously brushed off. But then this has been the history of Russia’s relations with the West. At various times throughout the past 800 years Russia has attempted to ingratiate itself with the West, most notably of course during the reign of Peter the Great, who even forced courtiers to shave off their Russian beards, wear European-style clothing and speak French in the hope that this might impress upon visiting westerners how civilised they were. But on every occasion the Russians have tried this cosying up they have been met with either pronounced sniggering or malevolent opportunism from the rest of Europe.

What usually follows is a period of revanchism, in which subsequent leaders retreat into the comparative comfort of Russia’s roots in Asia, its Slavicness, its difference to the West, out of dismay or pique. St Petersburg itself was renamed Petrograd in 1914 because the old name sounded too western and had the whiff of Germany about it. Vladimir Putin comes from the city and however autocratic and authoritarian his regime, he is — or was — someone who looked to the West: hence that tentative approach to joining Nato. What seems to be happening now is simply what has happened so many times before: Putin has given up the occidental ghost. He is looking east, to China, to ever greater autocracy and a cultural programme which once again sets Russia ideologically at odds with western Europe. We have had many chances to neutralise Russia’s potential threat. They have all been passed up.

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