Cold war bogey

THE pundits are misty-eyed with nostalgia. Just when the so-called war on terror is looking passe, the old cold war is back. Four-hour waits at London-Heathrow airport and a handful of beards in the slammer are no match for Dr Strangelove, Checkpoint Charlie and George Smiley.

By Simon Jenkins

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Published: Fri 20 Jul 2007, 9:37 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

What is a fertiliser bomb against the awesome carapace of mutually assured destruction? For most people, foreign policy is a cliche. With the Russian bear behaving badly again, we can relax to default mode and flip diplomats like tiddlywinks.

The trouble is that the current mess in Anglo-Russian relations has absolutely nothing to do with the cold war. That was a titanic ideological struggle, a battle of utopias between forces armed with unprecedented destructive power. The "war" was constrained by the horror of that power until it was finally resolved by economic attrition. It was the greatest military gamble ever taken by mankind. It was terrifying and it is over, and any comparison with present conflicts is puerile.

Today's dispute is more a 19th-century trial of strength over resources and national pride. It has nothing like the cataclysmic potential of the cold war, but it is still dangerous because both sides are unpredictably led. The myriad tripwires and monolithic spheres of influence are no longer in place. Russia under Vladimir Putin is defeated, jumpy and thinks itself vulnerable. The US under George Bush thinks itself vulnerable, is jumpy and is about to be defeated. In such circumstances, mutual trust is hard to find, but finding it is a burden that must lie most on the more powerful player, and that is the West.

The diplomatic expulsions were necessary but petty. Russia is never going to extradite the man suspected of the London killing of Alexander Litvinenko, any more than Britain is going to extradite emigres such as Boris Berezovsky, despite accusations of a flagrant breach of his asylum terms not to promote rebellion back home. No, they are not the same, but in diplomacy nothing is. Russia is never going to approve the West's client statelet of Kosovo, any more than the West is going to curb its criticism of Russian repression in Chechnya. Russia will not lay aside oil and gas as weapons to terrorise former colonies on its western border, any more than the West is going to stop attacking Putin for suppressing free speech.

In other words, welcome back to old-fashioned diplomacy, to jabbing and feinting, threatening and bluffing, testing interest against influence. Gone are the platitudes of Tony Blair's crusader interventionism, "where in the end values and interests merge". That confused idealism led straight to the blood-soaked streets of Baghdad and the killing fields of Helmand. In its place comes Lord Salisbury's diplomacy, as "wise concession one moment, far-sighted persistence another, sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunders can shake". Above all, back comes the maxim, know your enemy, in this case understand Russia. Putin's revival of the oldest paranoia in his nation's history, of continental encirclement, was bound to follow defeat in the cold war. The US's breach of understandings reached in the 1990s between Russia and an enlarged Nato by proposing to locate military installations in Poland and the Czech Republic was as provocative and militarily useless as could be imagined. Russia's "retargeting" of its missiles and withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty were comparatively mild responses. It is not surprising that Putin should also counter with his energy weapon. Hence, his pipeline deal with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and Gazprom's partnership with France and Italy rather than the US or Britain.

Putin regards London, with some justice, as like pre-Castro Havana, an open city awash in the laundered loot of Yeltsin's privatisations, draining the new Russia of investment and talent and giving refuge to people he sees as tax-dodgers and thieves.

This he will have to lump, and perhaps make Moscow a less vulgar and dangerous place in which young Russians can make an honest rouble. But when someone in his apparat orders the killing of an emigre in a London restaurant, the British government cannot just ignore it.

Such low-key tit-for-tat 'bad relations' can presumably continue indefinitely, since it is hard to see how they might degenerate to military confrontation. Besides, there will soon be new rulers in Moscow and Washington, as there is a new and enigmatic one in London.

A surface hostility can be stable, if that is what the pride and prejudice of the parties require for their internal political status. Or it can be superseded by a realisation of some shared purpose.

Russia and the Western powers have an agenda of shared interests whose importance towers over these spats. It includes the containment of a nuclear Iran, impossible by any plausible military means.

This is achievable only by joint East-West diplomacy, which bad relations are impeding.

The agenda includes the sensible routing of the new oil and gas pipelines out of central Asia towards Europe and Africa. It is madness for this global resource to be aligned, at massive extra cost, so that Russia can control it.

The agenda also includes the confronting of Islamist militancy now seeping north from Bush's legacy, the "arc of instability" from the Middle East to Pakistan, and potentially heading deep into the former Soviet Union. Russia may gloat over American and British discomfiture in the region but it has no interest in a war of Kurdish independence, or the fall of the Pakistan government, or a rash of secessionist uprisings in the Caucasus. When America and Britain finally summon up the courage to withdraw troops from the region, both they and Russia, with 10 million resident Muslims, have a powerful interest in minimising the ensuing chaos.

Russia in the final year of Putin's regime is clearly going to be a troublesome, bullying country as its chauvinist president attempts to prepare the international ground for his successor.

He will thrive on western antagonism. When he goes too far, as over Litvinenko, he must be countered emphatically.

But 'post-communism' is a far cry from democracy, and will be so for decades.

The West has time on its side and a historical affinity with its old adversary. Pointlessly rubbing salt into Russia's wounds is not in its interest, and therefore makes no sense.

Guardian News & Media 2007

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