I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the weird contradictions of current Western reporting is the fact that it simultaneously maintains that Russia is a) the chief worldwide spreader of anti-vaccination propaganda, and b) devilishly undermining the world by trying to persuade people of the merits of its Sputnik-V anti-covid vaccine. Those damn Russians – anti-vax and pro-vax all at the same time!
Britain has had 54 Prime Ministers. Tomorrow, it gets its 55th, and the 20th to have passed through the hallowed portals of The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor (though only the second to have been one of the ‘tugs’ – the gens togata or ‘gowned ones’, as the school’s intellectual elite, the King’s Scholars, are known). What can we expect from Boris Johnson? Will he save Britain from its current political chaos, or will he lead it further into the abyss? I can’t say that I know the answers, and my mind is somewhat divided. I can’t help but like and admire the guy. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if he’s really who one wants to run one’s country. A few memories help to explain why.
Boris combines brilliance and eccentricity in equal measure, as I witnessed in about 1986 when I stumbled across him one day in the Gladstone Room of the Oxford Union hosting a group of visitors from the Netherlands. Boris was clearly at a loss as to what to do with the Dutch, but on seeing me he summoned me over and launched into a hymn of praise to Eton’s founder, King Henry VI:
There are times when you think that the media in the English-speaking world can’t possible get any worse; that’s it’s finally plumbed the depths; that the ignorance and hysteria have become so great that it’s got to turn around soon. And then you read something which just makes you shake your head in despair, and ask. ‘Don’t these guys check anything? Don’t they know anything? Or do they just not care?’ We’re told to be endlessly on our guard about ‘fake news’ and disinformation flooding the internet from troll factories in St Petersburg and the editorial offices of RT, but are they really worse than the Daily Mail? Here’s today’s Mail on Sunday front page:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.