Patience Russia’s biggest weapon
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.