Pa­tience Rus­sia’s big­gest weapon

Taranaki Daily News - - Comment & Opinion - GER­ALD MCGHIE

The cur­rent hot-but­ton is­sue in West­ern re­la­tions with Rus­sia is the chem­i­cal weapons at­tack on for­mer Rus­sian spy Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter Yu­lia.

It has been stated by some com­men­ta­tors that the New Zealand Gov­ern­ment was miss­ing out on be­ing a ‘‘good diplo­matic part­ner that sup­ports in­ter­na­tional norms’’ when it did not join a num­ber of na­tions that have ex­pelled Rus­sian ‘‘spies’’ in re­tal­i­a­tion.

In fact, New Zealand has an out­stand­ing record on sup­port for such norms as demon­strated through its solid con­tri­bu­tion to the Al­lied cause in two world wars, as well as through its ac­tions as a re­spon­si­ble found­ing mem­ber of the United Na­tions. But we might also re­call that at the time of the 1985 sink­ing of the Rain­bow War­rior in Auck­land har­bour, New Zealand got lit­tle sup­port from West­ern part­ners for what was re­ferred to by the then New Zealand prime min­is­ter as an act of ter­ror­ism.

There is no doubt good rea­son why Rus­sia has such an am­biva­lent place in West­ern per­cep­tions. The au­thor­i­tar­ian, at times ab­so­lutist, style of gov­ern­ment rep­re­sents an an­tidemo­cratic regime which is re­jected by most West­ern coun­tries.

But it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that in one form or other Rus­sia has sur­vived for more than a thou­sand years and was, for part of that time, the largest ter­ri­to­rial power on the planet. It has twice res­cued Eu­rope from war­fare that threat­ened its West­ern neigh­bours’ civil­i­sa­tion. First, against Napoleon. Se­condly, against Hitler. To­day it re­mains a for­mi­da­ble power in the Eurasian con­text and will con­tinue to be so.

Rus­sia’s size and power does not mean that it lacks sig­nif­i­cant se­cu­rity con­cerns. First, over many hun­dreds of years prac­ti­cally any coun­try with a will to do so has in­vaded. From Poland to Swe­den to Lithua­nia and the still in­tensely re­mem­bered Mon­gol in­va­sion to, more re­cently, France and Ger­many. Why?

Clearly there are no re­ally for­mi­da­ble land or sea bar­ri­ers and in­vaders tra­di­tion­ally cover large tracts of ter­ri­tory very quickly. Even more, Rus­sia has vast nat­u­ral re­sources from fer­tile soils to huge min­eral wealth, in­clud­ing oil, nat­u­ral gas, iron ore, coal and pre­cious stones. These fac­tors com­bined to pro­duce a dom­i­nant theme: a cen­turies-old tra­di­tion of dis­trust of the out­side world on to which the Bol­she­viks grafted an im­pla­ca­ble rev­o­lu­tion­ary doc­trine of global sweep. As a for­mer KGB of­fi­cer, cur­rent leader Vladimir Putin is him­self a child of that doc­trine.

Af­ter Rus­sia’s colos­sal losses in World War II, Moscow worked as­sid­u­ously at pre­vent­ing a re­cur­rence of such a trau­matic event. As Stalin said when re­fer­ring to the War­saw Pact al­liance with Eastern Euro­pean coun­tries, ‘‘never again on Soviet soil’’. To Rus­sians the threat of in­va­sion is ever present. In­deed Moscow plan­ners re­gard the threat from the East as al­most as great as that from the West (that is Nato and thus the United States).

Since 1971 Rus­sia has main­tained a large naval base in the Syr­ian port of Tar­tus, now its only Mediter­ranean base. But the link be­tween Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and Putin, though not un­break­able, is more than a hasty ad hoc al­liance be­tween two au­thor­i­tar­ian, anti-West­ern na­tions. It has po­lit­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural roots.

Any West­ern ac­tion against Syria would need to take care­ful note of Moscow’s deep com­mit­ment to As­sad.

For many years, par­tic­u­larly in the 1970s and 80s, New ZealandSoviet re­la­tions could be char­ac­terised as tense.

But through it all trade con­tin­ued at a high level. The in­ter­est in se­cur­ing a free trade agree­ment (FTA) with Moscow sim­ply con­tin­ues that his­tor­i­cal link.

Nev­er­the­less the Bri­tish high com­mis­sioner is re­ported as sug­gest­ing that a New Zealand FTA with Rus­sia, fol­low­ing Welling­ton’s non-ex­pul­sion of ‘‘spies’’ af­ter the at­tack on the Skri­pals, could im­pact oth­ers with the Euro­pean Union and Britain.

That looks like a threat; oth­ers may call it lever­age – with a rather heavy hand. Or, it could be that New Zealand, clearly and sin­gu­larly a West­ern na­tion, would want to look at the sit­u­a­tion from the point of view of a coun­try in the South Pa­cific look­ing, just as Britain has over the cen­turies, to its own long-term in­ter­ests.

But what about deal­ing with Rus­sia? Es­sen­tially Rus­sia will en­gage with the West when it suits Rus­sian goals. The key is rec­i­proc­ity.

As a ma­jor sup­plier to West­ern Eu­rope of oil and nat­u­ral gas, Rus­sia can af­ford to yet again wait out the down­turn in re­la­tions.

Moscow also, no doubt, re­alises that there may be a cost if it does not live up to com­mit­ments made in the past to such ba­sic mat­ters as the in­tegrity of Eu­rope’s post-1945 borders, hu­man rights ini­tia­tives and the rule of law as the price for a wider, deeper co-oper­a­tion.

❚ Ger­ald McGhie is a for­mer am­bas­sador to the Soviet Union and Rus­sia.

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