Today I participated in a conference in Copenhagen to launch a book entitled ‘The New Cold War’, edited by Danish MP Marie Krarup and consisting of interviews she conducted with 17 experts about Russian-Western relations.
Marie opened the conference by saying that she hoped it would move discussion of Russia away from stereotypes and demonization. Next up was Danish defence minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen who set about dashing those hopes by stating that Russia had violated international rules and was challenging her neighbours by, for instance, flying military aircraft close to their borders. Mr Frederiksen called for a combination of deterrence and engagement, but ‘from a position of strength.’
I spoke straight after the defence minister. I made three main points:
1. People in the West need to have a better sense of proportion when discussing the Russian ‘threat’. In the Cold War we worried about invasion by massive Soviet forces. Now we worry about Russian Facebook accounts. It’s not the same.
2. We ought to treat many of the exaggerated claims made about Russia with a bit more caution.
3. We need to blame Russia less and think more about our own contributions to the current problems; we can’t, after all, change Russia, but we can change ourselves, so that is where we should begin.
Following me, General Karsten Moller, former Danish military attache in Moscow, argued for a ‘serious dialogue with Russia’, e.g. reviving arms control discussions. He called for a gradual easing of sanctions to test ‘Russia’s willingness’ to engage.
Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council spoke next. He said that current tensions were at worst a ‘Cold War lite’. Despite sanctions, trade was actually growing again, and Russia remained integrated into Europe in many respects. But unlike in the Cold War, there was a marked lack of respect on both sides for one another. This could be seen in the derogatory language used in both Russian and Western media. Kortunov proposed the development of a ‘hybrid political system’ with elements of the Cold War order (such as arms control) combined with new international regimes on matters such as culture, migration, and terrorism.
Former Danish foreign minister Uffe Elleman-Jensen then took the discussion in a more hostile direction, stating that ‘the recent situation is a result of Russia’s behaviour and can only improve if Russia changes its behaviour.’ The West had been weak, he claimed, and this had encouraged Russian aggression.
Finally, historian Bent Jensen noted that the current crisis was ‘artificial’ as neither the West nor Russia truly threatened the other, while both sides had common interests. Jensen explained that modern Russia was not at all like the Soviet Union, and was not bent on world domination, but would not change its policies as a result of Western pressure. Western ‘impudence and lack of understanding have been massive,’ said Jensen, noting that the West had to share the blame for the decline in relations.
Overall, the discussion was well balanced, causing one questioner to ask during the question and answer session why academic debates could be so reasonable but everything always went haywire once politicians got involved. This led onto discussion of the role of lobby groups, the media, public opinion and the like in determining policy.
Ukraine also came up during Q&A, as did recent legislation in Latvia restricting education in Russian. Andrei Kortunov produced perhaps the most memorable line of the day, saying that ‘Kiev wants its lost territory back, but not the people who live there.’
The last word in the conference went to me. Responding to a comment by Uffe Elleman-Jensen about Russian breaches of the ‘rules-based order’ in which the former foreign minister said ‘we need to follow the rules,’ I said, ‘Indeed, we need to follow the rules.’ A spontaneous round of applause ensued.