Edward Lucas: Russia's Real Choice

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I recently teased a senior British official by saying that establishment believes that Vladimir Putin has merely, if regrettably, misperceived Russia's best interests. But eventually the Russian leader would come round, and realise that the West's way is the best way.

I thought my heavy sarcasm was unmistakable. But my lunch date nodded gravely and said that he thought that summed things up rather well.

The last real Marxists are in the West. They do not realise that they are following the muddle-headed 19th century German philosopher. But like him they elevate economics over other things that matter more. It would not be in Russia's economic interest to have a real confrontation with the West. Therefore it won't happen. After all, money is what really matters.

As a result, these neo-Marxists do not understand how dangerous the European security crisis is. They write off the war in Ukraine as a little local difficulty, sparked by misunderstanding and miscalculation. We just have to be patient. Sanctions and a low oil price will blunt the Kremlin's appetite for confrontation. Then we will do a deal with Russia. Everything will get back to normal.

So I was pleased to read an eloquent and unhappy piece in the London Guardian by Susan Richards, a distinguished British expert on Russia and editor of the OpenDemocracy Russia website, recording her experiences on a recent trip. The regime is «fixated on getting its empire back», she writes, and Russians are braced not for proxy wars and frozen conflicts, but for «all-out war against the West».

But like many Western commentators, Ms Richards thinks blame must lie on both sides. «Through a combination of triumphalism and ignorance» she writes, «we have played to Russia's ancient fears of exclusion and victimhood».

Actually, we didn't. The West did not treat Russia as an enemy. Russia behaved like one, and we are (slowly) waking up. Former captive nations rightly worried that the Kremlin would again one day menace them. We did not take those worries seriously enough (Ms Richards rightly berates Western countries for cutting back on their Russian-watching capabilities at the end of the Cold War). But we did let those countries into NATO (along with two legally binding deals with Russia, which Russia has now flouted).

Russia's real choice is between being a vassal of China or an ally of the West. The latter choice has been open since 1991, but it requires Russia to get over its imperial past, accept the European security order and to stop intimidating its neighbours. So far, the Kremlin does not want that. Instead, it has distracted public opinion from the failure of the kleptocratic regime to modernise Russia with a venomous anti-Western propaganda campaign.

Ms Richards says Russians are baffled by Western support for «ethnocracies» in Estonia and Latvia that «radically discriminate against their Russian subjects». It is not clear if she endorses such nonsense herself. But she provides some of her own: «Kiev really is the birthplace of the Russian nation. This matters, just as it still matters that America's founding fathers came from Britain.»

For that parallel to hold any water at all, America would have had to have colonised Britain and organised an enormous genocidal famine. The liberal left rightly decries imperialism when perpetrated by Western countries. They find it curiously hard to see Russia's relations with its neighbours through the same post-colonial lens. Indeed, like caricature imperialists, they find it hard to see these ex-colonies as real countries at all.

Ms Richards says we are in an «absurd and dangerous» situation. At least she is right on that.

British journalist Edward Lucas is the author of the internationally successful books «The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West» and «Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today». He is a senior vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).