A letter to Boris

Dear Boris,

Our paths have crossed intermittently over the past four decades, at school and university, and then when you were editor of The Spectator. Congratulations on becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary! As Russia is my area of specialization, I hope that you won’t consider it presumptuous of me to offer you some advice on Anglo-Russian relations.

  1. Consult people other than the usual Russian ‘experts’. I know from previous encounters that you have an open mind. Consult widely. People like Bill Browder, Ed Lucas, Peter Pomerantsev, and Luke Harding dominate the discourse about Russia in the UK, but they present a very one sided, and rather exaggerated, view of Russia. Read instead what people such as Richard Sakwa and Mary Dejevsky are saying. They are far from being ‘Kremlin stooges’, and they will provide you with a far more nuanced picture.
  2. Remember that Russia is more than Vladimir Putin. There is a tendency to personify our issues with Russia, to make it out that everything we dislike is the fault of Vladimir Putin, and that if he were to leave office Russia would start acting very differently. This is incorrect. Russia is rather more democratic than people imagine, in the sense that government policy reflects public opinion reasonably well. If anything, in the realm of foreign policy, Putin is slightly more moderate than a lot of the Russian public. There is next to no pressure on him to act in a more friendly way towards the West. On the contrary, the main opposition parties – the Communists, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, and Just Russia – continually urge him to take a harder line. Putin doesn’t do so, because he has to seriously consider the costs and benefits of his actions, but you should not imagine that whoever succeeds him will be free to suddenly change policy in a pro-Western direction.
  3. The ‘Putin Regime’ is not about to collapse, and even if it does the ‘liberals’ will not come to power. Do not imagine that pressuring Russia through sanctions or any other mechanism will cause the ‘regime’ to fall apart and a liberal, pro-Western government to come to power. Not only does Putin remain very popular, but Russia is proving to be surprisingly resilient in the face of Western sanctions and low oil prices. After two years of recession, the economy is predicted to start growing again, the demographic situation is improving, and surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever before. A collapse of the current system of government is most unlikely. But even if, due to some massive unforeseeable shock, it does fall apart, do not think that those who call themselves the ‘liberal opposition’ will take power afterwards. They have almost no support among the Russian public; they are widely despised and you shouldn’t pay much attention to them. The ‘Putin regime’ is probably about as friendly a government as the West can expect to face for the immediate future.
  4. Don’t lecture Russians. Simply put, the majority of Russians, and certainly those who run the country, don’t think that you have the slightest moral right to lecture them about anything. If you denounce ‘aggression’ in Ukraine, they will simply point to your own support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq and for the bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya. From their point of view, you and the country you represent are guilty of more repeated aggressions than them. Moral posturing will only alienate Russians; it will help not you solve problems of mutual interest.
  5. Think about how Western actions look from Russia’s point of view. Remember that Russians have legitimate interests, and legitimate reasons for seeing things the way they do. For instance, you may think that British and NATO policies are purely defensive, but there are good reasons why Russians might view them differently. Take missile defence. You may imagine that it is defending Europe from Iran, but Russians simply don’t believe it, particularly in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal. NATO’s explanations make no sense to them at all. Similarly, NATO expansion and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine look very different from where the Russians stand.

I know, Boris, that you are an extremely intelligent chap. I know too that you want to do what is good for Britain. I wish you the very best in your term as Foreign Secretary.



24 thoughts on “A letter to Boris”

  1. So, you know the guy personally? What do you think about all that hatred on the liberal pro-EU side towards him? Feels like a mccarthyism-style smear campaign… Liar, racist, moron – and it’s so intense… To me he seems amicable and (in a pleasant way) less robotic than typical western politician. And a bit of a troll – I can relate to that…


  2. Which is the real Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson? The bumbling one-of-the-lads with the carefully tousled coiffure or the one revealed in the interview with Eddir Mair – “a nasty piece of work” according to Mair?


    1. I can’t say that I know him well enough to give accurate answers to you and Mao, but in my own contacts with him, he has always been very nice. As for the complaints that the Brexiters were lying – politicians of all stripes exaggerate for effect. I don’t see good evidence that the Leave side did so more than the Remain, which made all sorts of exaggerated claims of impending disaster if Britain was to vote to leave.


  3. Hi Paul – from a fellow Canadian, excellent letter. I wish you could also give Boris a history of Crimea and the true account of its accession to Russia. The facts are diametrically opposite to what EU/NATO/USA are purporting.


  4. Excellent advice. I hope he follows your suggestions! I’m American, but I live in Russia and from my experience living in a city where I’m the only Westerner in residence, your observations about how Russians think about things are exactly right. And, yes, Russians are living much better now than a few years back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Read your blog, about how you decided to come to Russia, to convert to Orthodox Christianity, about the life in small Russian town.

      Absolutely awesome! I’ll share the link to your blog to my friends.

      Good luck and best wishes in your new place in Russia!

      – Lyt (Russian born, raised and still residing)


    1. No-one thought it was at all surprising that President Suckassvili of Georgia had an American passport. And now he’s got a Ukrainian one too…


  5. So, I recently read “War with Russia”, which you have reviewed recently.

    I now have the following half serious idea of writing my own polemic:

    2020: Russia invades Hell.

    Basically, a gate to literal hell opens in Moscow, and Russia decides that a preemptive invasion is just the thing to do. It turns out that Hells Pitchfork centric armaments do not compare well to T-72-B3 tanks and well, all of these rivers of fire indicate some nifty hydrocarbon resources.

    John McCain proposes to send TOW missles to “moderate Daemons”.

    Various suspects opine that the devil was misunderstood, and that the bible is clearly not an objective source in this!

    Mr. Viatrovich categorically states that all negative sources on the Devil and on Demons are simply based on KGB/KNVD/CHECKA/OKHRANA psyops.

    Would anyone here want to read it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Different Ukrainists will tell you different things. Some (Taras Kuzio, Andrew Wilson etc), will tell you that the war in Donbass is primarily the fault of the Russians. Others (Volodymyr Ishchenko, Serhiy Kudelia etc) will tell you that the causes of the war lie primarily inside Ukraine. Compare, for instance, two recently published articles (unfortunately not open access): Wilson in the latest issue of Europe-Asia Studies (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ceas20/current) and Kudelia in Russian Politics and Law (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/mrup20/current).

      Kudelia writes: ‘The space for these events [the war in Donbass] was largely created by events inside Ukraine, which were not only outside the direct control of Moscow, but often ran counter to the interests of the Russian leadership. The first of these was the failure of Euromaidan activists to practice nonviolent methods of revolution … The second was the ‘show of force’ by the new Ukrainian government in an attempt to neutralize the separatist movement in Donbas. The third constituted Kyiv’s decision to actively involve members of nationalist groups in the fighting, and to provide Ukrainian military with ‘carte blanche’ to use indiscriminate weaponry in densely populated areas. … The result was the collapse of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities in the eyes of significant part of the local population’.


      1. Well, obviously they’ll say different things. The point is that there’s been an extraordinary amount of rubbish written on Ukraine by Russianists who lack the background knowledge and language skills, including people you praise such as Sakwa.

        You should quote the whole passage from Kudelia, by the way, which is more nuanced than you suggest: “From this perspective,
        the actions of the Russian leadership changed the trajectory of
        Ukraine’s peaceful development and created a spiral of violence,
        which quickly escalated into full-scale war. There is much
        evidence to support this view—from the lies and incitement of
        Russian TV propaganda to the “little green men” standing behind
        civilians in Crimea or the former Federal Security Service (FSB)
        officer at the head of the Donbas “people’s militia.” However, the
        Kremlin and Russian agents did not act in a vacuum. The space for
        these events was largely created by events inside Ukraine, which
        were not only outside the direct control of Moscow, but often ran
        counter to the interests of the Russian leadership.”

        He still acknowledges Russia’s role in the war.


  6. Having read Kudelia’s piece in more detail, I think it is very good. Many of his criticisms of the post-Maidan government in Kyiv are apt. However, I think that even on the basis of his own narrative, you can pick holes in the introduction you quote. One noticeable thing is that he skips from the violence on the Maidan (which he also acknowledges started with Ianukovych) to the war in Donbas; the annexation of Crimea is left out. This is odd, as later in the text he makes it clear that the Russian action on the peninsula shaped the perceptions of actors on both sides of the conflict: Strelkov hoped that “everything would be repeated as in Crimea” (p. 14) and Turchynov feared a “repetition of the Crimean scenario in eastern Ukraine” (p. 16); as Kudelia acknowledges, it was Strelkov’s appearance and desire to do another Crimea that marked “a sharp change in Kyiv’s strategy toward the self-proclaimed republics” (p. 14).

    This reveals the problem of the argument that Russia was only acting in the Donbas within the parameters created by the post-Maidan Ukrainian government: Kyiv was responding to Russian actions (real and imagined) no less than Moscow was reacting to Ukrainian developments. Indeed, Kudelia’s later statement almost seems to acknowledge this: “The lack of an intelligible reaction from the Ukrainian government and its apparent weakness against the backdrop of Russia’s resolution in Crimea created the conditions for the stage in which force was used” (p. 21).


    1. There’s a lot of interesting information in Wilson’s article, but I think there are problems. Showing that the lack of appeal of the historical narratives, for example, created to legitimise Novorossiia or the DNR/LNR does not in itself prove his claim that there was not enough baseline separatism to create armed conflict. Some of Wilsons historical points are also wrong: the Holodomor did not reset the ethnic composition of the Donbas. I also think, as in his book, he perhaps continues to rely too uncritically on sources that back up his view.

      Nevertheless, when comparing the two articles by Wilson and Kudelia, one thing should be stressed: the divergences reveal less a stark contrast between blaming Russia or blaming Ukrainians and more a difference in emphasis. Wilson acknowledges the presence of “baseline factors”, while Kudelia doesn’t deny Russia’s role. Moreover, Wilson pays special attention to *local* elites as the decisive factor alongside Russian intervention. I think that is a factor Kudleia overlooks, one good reason perhaps being that it is difficult to get good empirical information on the nature of elite activity. Nevertheless, by looking at Ukrainian elites, Wilson is explicitly not only blaming Russia.

      One further similarity is that both Wilson and Kudelia accord Strelkov’s intervention as a key moment, the difference being that Kudelia (rightly, I think) points more to the frictions between Strelkov and the Kremlin. I think here both authors ought to stress more that there are various forms of Russian intervention, some state-sanctioned, some not—but that this is a spectrum of difference not an absolute one, and it is not always clear where a particular act falls on the spectrum.

      Either way, the take away is this: you can read the works of these two Ukrainists and understand that the war in the Donbas is both a product of Russian and Ukrainian decisions. Kyiv has acted stupidly, undemocratically and, yes, at times, murderously, while Moscow has directly intervened in a neighbouring state to undermine its sovereignty and stability. Knowing that, for a policy maker like Johnson, the differences between Wilson and Kudelia are, literally, academic.


  7. The letter is a manifesto of Russian exceptionalism, mostly. It’s easily demonstrated if you revert it in an imaginative “open letter to Putin” where the author would be calling him to abandon his current confrontative policy against the West. It could go like this:

    1) Consult people other than the usual paranoics from FSB who see US-inspired conspiracy in every anti-Russian statement anywhere in the world.
    2) The ‘liberal regime’ is not going to collapse
    3) Don’t lecture Americans. Just copy and paste the rest of your argument here.
    4) Think how Russian actions look from Western point of view. Realise that the West has its legitimate interests in Eastern Europe which is composed of sovereign states who have right to their own foreign policy and join alliances as they wish. You may imagine that your declarations of Russia’s “peaceful policy” sound calming but Russia’s actions worked in exactly opposite direction and are the main reason why these countries actually desperately wanted to join NATO in the first place.

    Etc etc.


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