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by Jake Ramsamugh
On the 27th of March the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Peter Conradi, Foreign Editor at the Sunday Times and author of The King’s Speech: How one Man Saved the Monarchy. He was here to discuss the findings of his new book – Who Lost Russia? How the Word Entered a New Cold War.
Conradi had been a correspondent for Reuters in Russia during the collapse of Communism and witnessed the transition first-hand. The events of 2014 showed a very different Russia to the one he remembered. Its annexation of the Crimea and military intervention in Syria, inspired him to write his new book. While many politicians and the Western media acted with shock at Russia’s actions, Conradi claims that anyone who knew anything about Russia would not have been surprised by the recent foreign policy decisions of Russia. The warning signs were clear, but they were ignored.
Conradi stated that you have to go back to the end of the Cold War to fully understand this modern problem. In the age of Clinton the future looked positive. Clinton and Yeltsin had a visible friendship and whilst Yeltsin criticised the US publically, particularly over NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, in private, Yeltsin capitulated to US demands as Russia was in no fit state to offer any opposition. However this, Conradi stresses, was the main source of Russian anger. There was a failure of the West to give Russia a role in the international system, no one knew what role the new Russia should have. After a decade, Russians were getting angry and tired with the humiliation of losing the Cold War, and embarrassment of their premier, Yeltsin.
Seemingly out of the blue, Putin arose. He had the hopes of many Russians invested in him to rebuild their economy and prestige. He was well-liked among Western leaders, especially Italy’s Berlusconi and the UK’s Tony Blair. When Bush Jr was asked what he thought of Putin, he replied that he found him trustworthy and had looked into his eyes and “got a sense of his soul”. A statement that, Conradi remarked, he probably would later regret.
Was Putin playing the West the entire time? Conradi asks. Putin was the first to offer condolences to the US on 9/11 and pressured Central Asian countries to let NATO forces pass through on their way to Afghanistan. But the West had not given much back. The invasion of Iraq unseated a close Russia ally and Bush’s support of the Colour Revolutions in former Soviet states threatened Russia’s regional influence. Growing economic power bolstered Russian anger and at the Munich Security conference in 2007, Putin blasted the US, stating that the country had overstepped its boundaries in almost all areas. The relations finally crashed with the Georgian War. Obama’s administration attempted to pursue a RESET policy; however, the Arab Spring brought back Putin’s paranoia that the West was trying to destabilise all those who opposed it. If the early 2000s was about economic growth, it’s now about “Make Russia Great Again”, to use Conradi’s words. The intervention in Ukraine has blocked Western political expansion and secured the naval port in the Crimea. The intervention in Syria has reinserted Russia into Middle Eastern politics and its role as a major world player.
The latest American President to face Russia is Trump. He is the first American President to be so forthright in his praise for Russia’s leader. The pair have never actually met but Trump’s swipes at NATO and the EU play perfectly well into Putin’s agenda. Conradi is unsure whether Putin actually wanted Trump to win, he believes that the Russians just wanted to weaken Hilary Clinton’s position. So what is the Trump Administration’s Russian policy? Conradi suggests that they do not have one. So many posts in critical government departments have not been filled, especially in the State Department, that a coherent policy is not yet possible.
In his concluding remarks Conradi notes that Russia has not been cowed by sanctions and has continued its active foreign policy approach. Large anti-Putin demonstrations were held on 26th March, showing that there is discontent within Russia with the way the country is moving. However, Conradi believes that popular upheaval is not around the corner just yet. He finishes by saying that we will not be able to “get Russia back” until Western leaders realise that what we really have is a Russia problem, not just a Putin problem.