A letter to Boris

by Paul Robinson, Irrussianality, July 16, 2016

Dear Boris,
Our paths have crossed intermittently over the past four decades, at school and university, and then when you were editor of The Spectator. Congratulations on becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary! As Russia is my area of specialization, I hope that you won’t consider it presumptuous of me to offer you some advice on Anglo-Russian relations.

  1. Consult people other than the usual Russian ‘experts’. I know from previous encounters that you have an open mind. Consult widely. People like Bill Browder, Ed Lucas, Peter Pomerantsev, and Luke Harding dominate the discourse about Russia in the UK, but they present a very one sided, and rather exaggerated, view of Russia. Read instead what people such as Richard Sakwa and Mary Dejevsky are saying. They are far from being ‘Kremlin stooges’, and they will provide you with a far more nuanced picture.
  2. Remember that Russia is more than Vladimir Putin. There is a tendency to personify our issues with Russia, to make it out that everything we dislike is the fault of Vladimir Putin, and that if he were to leave office Russia would start acting very differently. This is incorrect. Russia is rather more democratic than people imagine, in the sense that government policy reflects public opinion reasonably well. If anything, in the realm of foreign policy, Putin is slightly more moderate than a lot of the Russian public. There is next to no pressure on him to act in a more friendly way towards the West. On the contrary, the main opposition parties – the Communists, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, and Just Russia – continually urge him to take a harder line. Putin doesn’t do so, because he has to seriously consider the costs and benefits of his actions, but you should not imagine that whoever succeeds him will be free to suddenly change policy in a pro-Western direction.
  3. The ‘Putin Regime’ is not about to collapse, and even if it does the ‘liberals’ will not come to power. Do not imagine that pressuring Russia through sanctions or any other mechanism will cause the ‘regime’ to fall apart and a liberal, pro-Western government to come to power. Not only does Putin remain very popular, but Russia is proving to be surprisingly resilient in the face of Western sanctions and low oil prices. After two years of recession, the economy is predicted to start growing again, the demographic situation is improving, and surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever before. A collapse of the current system of government is most unlikely. But even if, due to some massive unforeseeable shock, it does fall apart, do not think that those who call themselves the ‘liberal opposition’ will take power afterwards. They have almost no support among the Russian public; they are widely despised and you shouldn’t pay much attention to them. The ‘Putin regime’ is probably about as friendly a government as the West can expect to face for the immediate future.
  4. Don’t lecture Russians. Simply put, the majority of Russians, and certainly those who run the country, don’t think that you have the slightest moral right to lecture them about anything. If you denounce ‘aggression’ in Ukraine, they will simply point to your own support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq and for the bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya. From their point of view, you and the country you represent are guilty of more repeated aggressions than them. Moral posturing will only alienate Russians; it will help not you solve problems of mutual interest.
  5. Think about how Western actions look from Russia’s point of view. Remember that Russians have legitimate interests, and legitimate reasons for seeing things the way they do. For instance, you may think that British and NATO policies are purely defensive, but there are good reasons why Russians might view them differently. Take missile defence. You may imagine that it is defending Europe from Iran, but Russians simply don’t believe it, particularly in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal. NATO’s explanations make no sense to them at all. Similarly, NATO expansion and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine look very different from where the Russians stand.

I know, Boris, that you are an extremely intelligent chap. I know too that you want to do what is good for Britain. I wish you the very best in your term as Foreign Secretary.

Paul Robinson is a professor at the University of Ottawa.  He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics.


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Jul 26, 2016 7:01 PM

Read instead what people such as Richard Sakwa and Mary Dejevsky are saying.

Why bother? Dumbass Dejevsky has leapt into print today to suggest that Putin was indeed behind the tapping of the Democratic Party in the USA, whilst simultaneously admitting she hasn’t the slightest scrap of evidence for this witless garbage.
Sometimes it seems that the only “journalists” at the Grauniad who aren’t being paid to write Russophobic trash would be the art correspondents.
No, wait!! Even lardy know-nothing Art Correspondent Jonathan Jones finds a way to attack the Russian leader:

Jul 27, 2016 1:49 PM
Reply to  reinertorheit

And with the inevitable reliability of an automaton without a single original idea in his head. Freedland launches into Putinphobia of exactly the same kind today:
They seek him here! They seek him there!
Remember – when the toilet roll runs out in your home, it was Putin who took the last sheet for himself. And this is the level of Graunalism today.

Brian Harry, Australia
Brian Harry, Australia
Jul 27, 2016 2:02 PM
Reply to  reinertorheit

“when the toilet roll runs out in your home, it was Putin who took the last sheet for himself”.
I hate it when that happens……………………..It’s enough to give you the ‘sheets’…………..

Jul 25, 2016 10:30 PM
Jul 24, 2016 10:17 AM

Really? Fatuous barking-mad Bufton Edward Lucas is considered an ‘expert’ on Russia? In what parallel universe would that be, then?
But then again, let’s look at who’s been advising British Foreign Secretaries on Russia of late?
Phillip Hammond – Jens Stoltenberg, John McCain, Peter Pommy Ranter
William Hague – Rocky IV, Biggles Flies Again, Red Dawn, Foggy Rasmussen, The Disney Channel
Rabid Dilettante – Mossad, Foggy Rasmussen, Tzipi Livni, Hambassador John Bolton, His Momma
So compared with the last three Adepts of Onan, Boris is not especially worse.

Jul 23, 2016 4:29 PM

Excellent letter
But I fear Boris is out of his depth in that role. After one meeting with kerry he started spouting Assad must go and the usual drivel.
And his boss Theresa May wants to is build an image to rival the grotesque Mrs Thatcher – what better way to do it than shout about Putin aggression – works for hillary!
And it helps distract from Brexit which it’s clear they don’t want to implement

Secret Agent
Secret Agent
Jul 24, 2016 2:26 AM
Reply to  Guest

If he met Kerry and started shouting Assad must go, perhaps it was to reveal that Kerry’s recent negotiations in Moscow were not conducted in good faith. I’m mean, really, talk about tipping your hand.

Jul 24, 2016 10:22 AM
Reply to  Guest

Don’t be too hard on Boris. He’s in the jolly old British FO tradition of clueless Eton tossers being given something important to cock up. He’ll be made Chancellor once they’ve knifed Hammond in the back – and Gove will be wheeled out, because after Education and the Home Office, Gove hasn’t had a chance to fail at the FO yet – and nothing is foolproof for a truly talented fool like Gove. I’m sure Israel will have a favoured candidate to replace Bozo soon.

Jul 23, 2016 12:19 PM

Dear Paul All would be well if we could just boot the USA out of NATO. Unfortunately, from the USA point of view, that is about as annoying to them as a concept as many of the things you have mentioned today are to the Russians. And it wouldn’t go down too well with Donald Tusk and the other pesky Poles, Romanians, Bulgars, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians either. ‘Tis a long time since Britain could control such a global venture, after all….. They do have this slightly eccentric way of doing things, though, courtesy of never having had 50 cities flattened by aerial Blitzkrieg like we in Europe suffered in 1940 etc. If some Cheeky Chinkies took out Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates in Seattle, we’d soon find out how tough they are, but that’s the sort of thing that got you expelled from Pop at Eton if you ever… Read more »

Brian Harry, Australia
Brian Harry, Australia
Jul 23, 2016 10:40 PM
Reply to  rtj1211