Waiting for Boris


Picture of Anna Matveeva
Anna Matveeva

Anna Matveeva is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and a member of the department’s Russia and Eurasia Security Research Group

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has postponed his visit to Moscow, and declared that he will not be “cosying up” to the Kremlin. The news is a source of disappointment for Moscow, which is interested in getting to know the ‘great Brexiteer’ and perhaps experiencing the ‘Boris effect’ on Anglo-Russian relations.

Links between the two countries are at a low point, and some emotional baggage needs to be cleared. Johnson offers the sense of fresh start. Accepting misunderstandings and hearing the Russian side of the story would be a graceful thing to do, and it would also allow the Russians to admit that they have not always been virtuous.

Russia’s current state will determine how it hears the message. Criticisms of Russia’s domestic policies, the treatment of its LGBT community and violations of human rights which have been usually brought up by the West will fall on deaf ears in Russia.

Many Russians believe that the West has lost the ability to lead by example. Its power to influence political transformation elsewhere, including in Russia, is diminished and invalidated. The Russian public observe Western politicians with their own problems that they failed to recognise as coming or cannot handle. So how can they lecture others?

But what of Russia’s much-publicised ability to influence Western domestic affairs? Well, it is much exaggerated. Americans did not elect Donald Trump as President of the United States because they watched Russia Today (just as the Bolshevik revolution, 100 years ago, was not the result of the Germans backing Lenin).

Western problems are not of Russia’s making ‒ even if Moscow can be accused of exploiting them

There is no evidence that Moscow was behind Brexit or benefitted from it. François Fillon, whose Welsh wife is reported to have enjoyed a windfall from public money, did not win the centre-right primary through electoral fraud orchestrated by the Kremlin. Marine Le Pen is not a Moscow puppet, but a response to the failure of the main parties in France. It was the Greek crisis that exposed divisions in the EU, while the response to Ukraine united it.

Established Western politicians are under pressure, but seeing a Russian hand everywhere is too much of a stretch. To Moscow, the accusations of ‘Russian interference’ appear inconsistent on two counts.

First, Western efforts to support Russia’s opponents were presented as ‘supporting democratisation’, while a hint of Russian payback made the West distressed.

Second, it attributes to Moscow the ability to project power well beyond the Kremlin’s wildest dreams. It appears that with fairly simple tools and a degree of luck Moscow has managed to achieve much more in a decade than the Soviet Union did in 70 years.

Western problems are not of Russia’s making (even if Moscow can be accused of exploiting them). Even if the alleged Russian hackers penetrated the US Democrats’ servers, it is clear that Hillary Clinton’s team had things to hide. The best response to a ‘Russian threat’ is not cyber-security, but ensuring that the actions are above-board.

The truth is that the West may be having its own ‘Orange revolution’ moment, ready to believe in outside manipulation as it struggles to come to terms with the shocking political outcomes delivered by their own societies. Similarly, Moscow saw no legitimate grounds for popular protests in Ukraine in 2004 and 2013, attributing them to external forces.

Rather than ascribing actions to foreign conspiracies, we need to acknowledge that the world has changed since 2014.The clocks cannot be turned back.

Boris Johnson has the chance to start a new chapter for the West and Russia

Russia will not give up Crimea. Sanctions produced a modest economic setback, but also fostered political consolidation and the development of alternative alliances. Ukraine is the thorniest issue, and the conflict there is a liability rather than an asset for Moscow.

Johnson will have to respond to Russian concerns: what is the strategy behind British assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces? How would London react if Kiev attempted a military solution in the separatist Donbas region ‒insist on a return to the Minsk peace process, or endorse the offensive?

Russian intervention in Syria is a fact. Russia’s army has turned out to be more capable than thought. And Moscow’s strategy is at least consistent: it backs a recognised government that is battling the forces of terrorism. It does it in messy and brutal ways, but the West does not offer a winning alternative, as expectations of a nearing victory in Iraq may be over-optimistic.

Russians have a different approach to conducting wars. They are brutal affairs when one inflicts and sustains casualties, but going all-in, they believe, shortens the period of destruction and brings fewer casualties. The rebuilding of physical infrastructure opens the road to peace faster than good governance programmes. The question Moscow has for Britain is what replaced former prime minister David Cameron’s mantra of “Assad must go”? Who is a friend and who is a foe in Syria?

Not wanting a Cold War, Russia braces itself for a Cold Peace ‒ mobilising the economy, military resources and ideas. Its assets are its core elite, who think sufficiently alike to make policymaking and execution easy, and its ability to combine quick reactions and strategic patience.

Vladimir Putin is not Napoleon. The Russian President’s ambitions are limited – for the West to recognise Russia as an independent player in world affairs, acknowledge its interests in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, such as through ending expansion of NATO and halting support for the domestic opposition.

Johnson – when he finally goes to Moscow – has the chance to start a new chapter for the West and Russia.

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