Churchill's definition of Russia still rings true

SOMEWHERE in Central Europe, at a secret hideout, the chief executive of a huge oil company struggles against the maneuvers of Russian partners to depose him. At the headquarters of NATO in Brussels, a Russian diplomat lays out a plan to sideline the alliance set up decades earlier to contain and repulse Soviet power. Within the United Nations Security Council, a Russian envoy casts a veto backed by China to thwart Western diplomacy in Africa.

By Alan Cowell (Letter from London)

Published: Mon 4 Aug 2008, 9:45 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Famously, Winston Churchill defined Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma," and his words in 1939 spoke eloquently to the Western sense of Moscow as the "other" - an inscrutable and menacing land that plays by its own rules, usually to the detriment of those who choose more open regulations.

In the past few weeks, events at the TNK-BP oil company, at Nato and at the United Nations have all reaffirmed that sense of hostile otherness, albeit with some 21st-century qualities. If Churchill's description were to be recast for the present day, then Russia would still be a riddle and an enigma lodged, like the innermost core of a matryoshka nesting doll, in a diplomat's pinstripe folded round a pugilist's muscle and an oil baron's checkbook.

But Churchill's analysis was only part of a formula that seems as relevant now as it was then. Perhaps, he said, "there is a key" to the riddle of Russia, concluding, "That key is Russian national interest."

But the challenge for Westerners is not so much to discern Moscow's national interest as to devise policies to coexist with, or at least identify a coincidence of interests with, the oil-rich Russian assertiveness forged by Vladimir Putin and inherited virtually unchanged by his successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev.

The Kremlin has given the West little cause for reassurance.

In recent weeks, Russia and its tycoons have displayed their sense of nationalist interest with unmistakable clarity in a manner that suggests an inherently adversarial, if not downright hostile, attitude to Western governments, interests and companies.

Robert Dudley, the chief executive of TNK-BP, the joint venture between BP and wealthy Russian-connected shareholders, left Russia because of complications with his work visa. Those problems coincided mysteriously - and, for the Russian side, conveniently - with broader disputes about the company's investment policies and senior personnel appointments.

Since leaving, Dudley has been trying to run the company from somewhere outside Russia, even though his partners in the joint venture no longer recognise him as chief executive. BP accused them of enlisting state agencies to pursue their battle - a familiar combination of commercial and government forces in Russia's quest to restrict foreign influence in its oil industry.

At around the same time, Russia put forward a proposal to Nato for a new treaty that would subsume Nato and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe into a new security architecture designed by the Kremlin to reflect Russia's re-emergence as a power on the global stage. There were reports, too, that Russia planned to renationalise part of its huge grain exports, raising concerns that Moscow would add food to its armory of economic and diplomatic weapons alongside state-dominated gas, oil and arms exports.

As indicators of Russia's sense of national interest, those events sent out clear signals: after the chaos and decline of the Yeltsin era in the 1990s, the Kremlin was flexing economic and diplomatic muscle in pursuit of influence and wealth.

But there was an equally clear flip side, a mirror-image of the West's readiness to cast Moscow in the role of villain and spoiler.

From Russia's viewpoint, Nato has been a meddlesome force, extending influence within what used to be the Soviet fief, a sense of encroachment magnified by the US plan to station anti-missile defences in the Czech Republic and Poland.

That rankles with Moscow. Imperial memory is a powerful force, instilling a yearning for lost glories and an urge for new modes of influence, acknowledgment and respect.

It should surprise no one that, once the Kremlin made a strategic decision under Putin to reassert control over its own energy resources, outsiders would have a hard time navigating the oil and gas business that gives the Moscow elite control over such massive wealth and power.

There is a sense, too, that by projecting itself as a pole of opposition to Western plans, Moscow is offering itself as an alternate, a counterweight and an equal player, defining itself quite deliberately as the West's muscular opposite, as much the "other" as in 1939.

Sometimes that divide takes on the trappings of a redefined cold war. Moscow maintains as many secret agents in Britain as it did in the hey-day of Soviet intelligence-gathering, according to the British security services. After the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer, in London in 2006, Britain and Russia expelled four of each other's embassy personnel. Each side has accused the other of conducting unacceptable espionage.

On a more ominous scale, Putin himself compared the American plan for a missile shield in Eastern Europe to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and threatened to turn Russian missiles against new European targets.

But the power these days lies in pipelines, not warheads. Russia provides an increasingly significant proportion of Europe's natural gas supplies and controls the pipeline network that distributes it.

Europe is the prime market for Russia's gas, a fount not only of burgeoning revenue but also of vital technology and investment to broaden and develop Russia's economy. That should give the West some leverage: by instilling trepidation among potential western partners, Moscow jeopardises its access to the West's technology.

Yet, European divisions over dealings with Moscow leave the West vulnerable to the Kremlin's manipulation.

Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, was asked the other day what suggestions he would offer to companies planning to do business in Russia.

"My advice," he said, "would be: tread with caution."

International Herald Tribune

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