JOHN McCARTHY. The West needs to talk about Russia.

The place Russia occupies in the political maelstrom in Washington, the recent sanctions bills in Congress and Putin’s cuts to the American diplomatic presence in Russia are driving the US’s relationship—and hence the West’s relationship—with Russia from bad to worse.  However, the following thoughts—from a Russia neophyte after a trip to Moscow and road journey to Archangel on the Arctic circle—are thrown into the mix, if only to colour reflections on what might, one day, make sense.

First, for an educated country which is militarily strong, Russia remains poor.  Outside central Moscow or St Petersburg, or more modest cities such as Petrozavodsk or Archangel, the urban backstreets of smaller towns are unpaved and the housing ramshackle—akin, say, to small towns in Chile or Argentina.  Russia’s GDP (measured conventionally and not in purchasing power parity) is not much more than Australia’s and a lot less than Spain’s.  Russia needs economic change.

Second, the West needs to be cognisant of the sheer strength of Russian nationalism.  This is manifest in many forms.  At one end of the spectrum, the Russian Orthodox Church is a force for such nationalism.  In the early years of this century, it canonised the last Romanovs (in part as a gesture to Russia’s imperial history) and it continues to accord the family reverence.  It’s ironic that in this same country there are also moves to revive Stalin’s legacy.  But, seen as reflections of and stimuli to Russian nationalism, these parallel developments are not perhaps so surprising.

Russia also shares America’s fascination with military re-enactments.  Exhibitions testifying to Russian heroism in war are ubiquitous.  Less nobly, the fashion of military camouflage fatigues as leisure wear is more pronounced in Russia than in even the shopping malls of the American South—a curious but telling association with militarism.

A third observation is that, while the cynicism of ordinary Russians towards their politicians and the system as a whole doesn’t spare Putin and his friends from blame for economic failure and corruption, Putin remains admired by most Russians for standing up to the West and for restoring Russian national self-respect.  That view is reflected in serious polling, including by the Pew Research Center.

That leads to a fourth point, which was well captured recently by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in an interview with the Financial Times.   Alexievich observed that what worried her more than Putin was the ‘collective Putin’ in Russia—a deep sense of wounded national pride and contempt for liberal values.  In 2015, she had described Russia as in a state of amnesia about its past.  Alexievich now saw things as getting worse: ‘But it’s not Putin … the initiative is coming from the grassroots.”

Travelling on from Russia to the US and Europe in the midst of the northern midsummer’s flurry of international meetings, one could not help but be struck by the fact that in the West we are fascinated by Putin—albeit from a variety of different perspectives.  Putin is rightly criticised by Western foreign policy and security establishments (particularly in the US and the UK) for being behind the involvement of Russian agencies in Western elections, Russian activities in Ukraine and Russian callousness in Syria.  Those on the right like him as a role model, and the old left like to see Western security establishments discomfited by him.

Putin is as tough as they come and unblushingly mendacious, but he is not a James Bond villain and is clever and on top of his brief.  On some issues, such as the adverse impact on Russia of Western triumphalism at the demise of the Soviet Union, he is a convincing advocate.  And he is a better politician than anyone in the West except Angela Merkel.

But we are focusing so much on Putin that we may be ignoring the deep chasm that is increasingly being opened between Russia—the people, not just the leadership—and the West.

Russia was hopeful that it could make progress with Trump, but was quickly disabused of that aspiration when the Russian issue started dominating Washington politics after the inauguration.  Moreover, as one widely respected Russian interlocutor argued in Moscow, the US is seen as suffering from its most serious political divide since the Civil War—a divide that would circumscribe its diplomatic capacity even if there were a serene political climate between Washington and Moscow.

Some argue that Russia is the bigger loser from current tensions.  It is suffering from lower energy prices and from sanctions.  It may have gained self-respect from its Ukraine and Syrian adventures, but at a cost when it needs the means to emerge from poverty.

But irrespective of Russia’s travails, the West is also losing:

  • NATO may be going through its most serious crisis since its inception. That’s due not just to Trump’s ineptitude and the circus in Washington but to different perceptions in Europe of how to handle Russia.
  • It is of no benefit to either the West or Russia that the impasse on nuclear issues, particularly the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, remains.
  • While Russia suffers from the cost of Ukraine, ongoing political uncertainty also saps confidence in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Any genuine solution to the Middle East wars will need Russian involvement.
  • And it is not in the Western interest that, notwithstanding their rivalries, China and Russia might make more common cause as both face challenges from the West.

There are some in the US, most of whom belong to a tough-minded but more constructive era in East–West relations, who argue for the return to a realistic and interest-driven approach in dealing with Russia.  This is a difficult time to engage on such a course.  But a continued impasse will harden attitudes.  It is in the West’s interest—as it is in Russia’s—to break the logjam as soon as there is a modicum of political space to allow a serious effort.


John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Indonesia, Japan and India.

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4 Responses to JOHN McCARTHY. The West needs to talk about Russia.

  1. Avatar michael lacey says:

    Russia is not without its problems and some of the things have been highlighted, a vast country speading across 12 time zones with extremes in climate invaded by large armies twice, a civil war of which the West meddled. A severe oppressive political machine that brought Russia from a third world backwater to an industrial powerhouse in 20 years.

    Interesting that the idea of Russian meddling was brought up in relation to the West and Ukraine! Funny how our memories of meddling only pertain to the Russians.

    The United States Meddling in 1996 Russian Elections in Support of Boris Yeltsin was not even hidden and in many ways led to the path of Putin. The United States meddling and instigation of a coup in Ukraine. The United States meddling in insighting unrest in Syria in 2011.

    In fact when has the United States not meddled in other peoples affairs whether directly or with colour coups. The neoconservative plan has all along been to break up and isolate Russia.

    We want to understand Russia better we could start by examining the neoconservative approach to geopolitics!

  2. Avatar Paul Frijters says:

    Hi John,

    I have gone a few rounds with Russia too, with my PhD on the wellbeing of the former soviet union during the transition and having recently traveled there. I agree that Russia should be a long-run ally of the West, possibly in the form of a mercenary army (we need one and Russian culture is still macho enough to provide one). Hard to see it happen though, given the deep wish of the Russian population to see its country as a major world power rather than the side-kick of one.

    Where I disagree is your assessment of the balance of power. Russia’s GDP last year was lower than that of Australia and its population is now less than 2% of the world compared to nearly 10% at the outbreak of WWI. Hence it is not a major power anymore, nor is there a realistic way for it to become one again (unless they let in half a billion migrants or so).

    Russia has also recently lost its best historical ally, Ukraine, in part due to its own leaders’ incompetence. Yes, Putin’s incompetence. Ukraine has been driven into the arms of the West, strengthening NATO and the EU, and seriously weakening Russia. The loss of Ukraine as an ally is Putin’s most important strategic legacy. I know our media does not make this point and our governments don’t crow about it. I suggest that is because it is more convenient for our own military establishments to depict Russia as a strong enemy than a weak state with incompetent leadership.

  3. Avatar Julian says:

    Thank you John for your perceptive overview of contemporary Russia.
    I have to admit that I am somewhat with Tony Kevin concerning your criticism of Putin and his policies – after all the bloke has a job to do, and it can’t be easy being an everyman to a fiercely nationalistic populace – but I guess that is the measure of the man as a politician.
    I appreciate and agree with your summary John of how the West is doing vis-a-vis Russia, and it is not doing well.
    In particular I note your reference to Sino-Soviet relations – which do appear to be getting stronger. Consider the following: “The rise of a more politically and militarily assertive Russia and an economically and institutionally ascendant China may be characterized as the two principal forces challenging the United States in global policymaking.” [1]

  4. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    I am pleased Pearls and Irritations has reproduced John McCarthy’s important essay in ‘The Strategist’ following his recent visit to Russia . There are parts of it – harsh critiques of Putin and his policies – that I disagree with , but the overall message is positive : on the need for the West to try to better understand and, I hope, talk with, Russia. I share that aspiration. It is good that someone of John McCarthy’s standing in the Australian foreign policy community says so.

    There are interesting observations of what McCarthy found and experienced in Russia. I hope he has the opportunity to return there again and see more. It is a country that grows on one, when one goes in with an open mind.

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