by Tony Kevin, from a talk given to ANU Business Students, 7 June
Two and a half years ago, in Jan-Feb 2016, I visited Russia for a month. The result was this published book, a literary travel memoir, Return to Moscow. I returned in January-February this year, 2018. I gave a public lecture in the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Russian History.
In the two years since I wrote my book, relations between Russia and the West have become worse. On the other hand, Russian relations with China, and with the whole vast Eurasian region bounded by China, Korea, Japan, the ASEAN countries, India and Pakistan, and westwards through Central Asia as far as Iran, Syria and Turkey, even with Israel, have correspondingly warmed and deepened.
For a country with a GNP allegedly similar in size to Australia’s, Russia is punching way above its economic weight in the world. I attribute this to the Russian people’s high intelligence, their national unity of purpose, and their efficient priority-setting in allocating their limited national wealth to what they see as most important. Little of Russia’s GNP goes to waste. Their national security, despite the loss of 25% of their territory and 49% of their population when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 – which Mr Putin has described as a geopolitical disaster – is now securely protected by Putin’s rebuilding of a credible second-strike nuclear weapons deterrent capability, that could respond to any actual or threatened surprise attack on Russia.
Also, the strategic and economic alliance with China is enormously strengthening both these great nations’ security and economic potential. They have each other’s back now.
China’s One Belt One Road initiative
China’s One Belt One Road vision is already transforming the whole Eurasian Heartland, including Russia. It is actually beginning to reshape the whole world economy, away from the historic Euro-Atlantic centred economy, to a diverse multipolar world economy.
Russia and China by virtue of their geography, size and resources, sit at the centre of this geopolitical transformation now just getting underway. The challenge for the Euro-Atlantic world, to which Australia belongs by history and alliance ties, is either to join in the building of this new world economic axis, or to stand aside and become increasingly marginalised from it.
It is going to be a very different multipolar world 10, 20, 30 years from now, with very different strategic power balances and world trading and investment patterns.
In some ways, we seem to be moving towards the world foreseen by British pre-WW1 strategic geographer Halford Mackinder in his classic 1904 book The Geographical Pivot of History , postulating a world in contest between the Eurasian continental Heartland and the Anglo-American maritime world.
Russia’s economy is growing steadily and living standards are improving in all parts of the country, the largest country by land area in the world. Population, at around 150 million, is at last beginning to grow again after the demographic disasters and collapse of national morale in the 1990s, the Yeltsin decade after the collapse of the Soviet system.
You will shortly see, as I did on my two recent visits, a country of high educational and cultural level, and high civility, ethical values and morale. This may surprise some of you.
You will also get a sense of the buoyant Football World Cup atmosphere. I don’t like to predict too much but I can predict this. Over the next few weeks, the spate of Western mainstream media articles hostile to the Russian hosting of the World Cup will rise to a crescendo. There will be stories alleging unsportsmanlike behaviour, unfinished stadiums and visitor facilities, tourist scams, and hostility of Russian people towards visiting football fans. None of this will be true. The Russian people will make their football visitors, players and spectators, very welcome. Any isolated acts of football hooliganism will be quickly brought under police control. The World Cup contest will be a happy experience for all.
Let me focus now on what has sadly become over the past few years my main area of expertise, the deteriorating political relationship between Russia and the Western alliance, built around NATO and the EU but also taking in Australia.
The prime movers of this hostility are the security and intelligence complexes in the US and the UK. Something similar, but not yet quite as bad, is happening now in China’s relations with the West. Again, the main cause is Western attitudes and behaviour towards China.
A key theme in my book is the contest between two Russian views of Russia’s place in the world, the Slavophile tendency versus the Westernising tendency. The giants of Russian literature, from Pushkin through Tolstoy and Turgenev and Dostoeyevsky and Anton Chekhov and Alexander Blok to Boris Pasternak, were at heart Slavophiles, believers in Russia’s unique destiny: that Russia is not just another European nation.
This continues to be Russia’s eternal existential debate – the question, who are we Russians? What is our specific role and responsibility in world history? I have tried in the central part of my book fairly to portray that debate, as it developed in Tsarist Russia and how it was transformed in the Soviet Communist period, and then again since the fall of Communism in 1991. I explore where the Yeltsin and Putin governments have sat in this debate.
It pains me to have to analyse, as the third section of my book on the West’s information warfare against Russia does, the negative and hostile role that the Western world, including Australia, now plays towards Russia. This third section offers my perspective as a former Australian diplomat who served in Soviet Russia 50 years ago, on how and why Russia-West relations have become so dysfunctional and dangerous in recent years.
How did such a hostile language and imagery mind-set form in the West since around 2008, of an inbuilt disdain for Russia? We are now living in a permanent default condition of Western information warfare against Russia.
In this escalating information war against Russia over the past ten years, words and images have been weaponised by the West, with the aim of discrediting, demoralising, and destabilising the Russian nation. This was at its height in the 1990s . Most of us did not realise this was happening, but Russia was at its lowest ebb. Women stopped having babies, there was widespread alcoholism among men, Russian people were emigrating,
England, always master of the dark arts of propaganda and disinformation, has played and continues to play a key role in this hidden war: London is egging on its senior partner Washington to ever more audacious lies and false claims against Russia. Only Trump offers some sort of resistance to this rampant Russophobia in Washington and London.
Under Putin, whose presidency began in 2001, Russia has been skilfully fighting back in its own defence, using adept official diplomacy, Internet channels and social media, while still trying to maintain basic norms of respect for facts and elementary good international manners.
Britain and the US have mostly abandoned those norms in recent years. Their diplomacy towards Russia now consists mostly of slanders, false-flag operations, threats and ultimatums. As Putin has put Russia back in its feet, these two key Western nations have become correspondingly more hostile to him and to Russia.
Since 2016, much has happened to set in stone the breakdown of working trust between Russia and the West. I thought things were bad then, but they are much worse now.
EU leaders have mostly, though sometimes reluctantly, followed Anglo-American Russophobic policy leads.
Only at military-to-military level, as in the Syrian War deconfliction arrangements, does some form of essential trust-based communication survive between the two militaries. The strategic balance is still very fragile.
how President Putin tries to speak to the West.
Putin has gone up twice on television in 2017 and 2018 against the smart and sexy American TV presenter Megyn Kelly. Don’t waste your time watching truncated American news versions. Watch the full-length Russian-filmed YouTube videos, to see how he deals with Megyn’s ‘gotcha’ questions politely, calmly and logically, but with occasional flashes of humour. Megyn tries desperately to stay on message, to stay hostile and confrontational, but Putin charmingly wins these amiable battles of wits. And we, the viewers, can learn a lot about his country’s priorities and concerns, if we choose to watch these entertaining interviews on YouTube.
A different kind of attraction – a bromance, actually – develops between Putin and Oliver Stone in the making of Stone’s 2017 ‘Putin Interviews’ documentary series. Stone does not try to play ‘gotcha’ with Putin. Over several conversations, the two men build a friendly relationship of mutual liking and respect. Putin opens up, and Stone learns why one should not joke with a Russian about Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove. For Russians, the certainty of mutual assured destruction under second strike nuclear deterrence is no joking matter at all. It is the real world they inhabit. It is the world they have learned to live in, under years of constant American military pressure around their borders since around 2002, after the tough disciplined Putin in 2001 replaced the alcoholic US- compliant Yeltsin.
Putin was determined to restore Russian pride, military and economic strength, and self-respect. He has never wavered from this goal through three American Presidents George W Bush, Obama and Trump.
Russians do not see their restored nuclear deterrent under Putin as some kind of video entertainment game: it is what they see as ultimately defending their sovereignty as a nation: their preparedness to start the Doomsday Clock ticking, if pressed by the West beyond their endurance limits. They have recently shown this during the ongoing war in Syria.
The message Stone tries to bring back to the West: that Russians are a deeply serious and truthful people, a brave people, and that Putin is the strong and able leader they are fortunate to have.
Stone returns to America, and goes on the popular liberal Stephen Colbert show to publicize his TV series and book. To watch this on YouTube is dispiriting. Stone tries to explain seriously to Colbert what he has learned from his hours conversing with Putin, on what interests the US and Russia might find they have in common, on how their relations might be improved to mutual benefit. He is met with disbelief and facetious sarcasm. The studio audience soon get into the spirit of Colbert’s game: they start to laugh mockingly with Colbert at everything Stone says. Later, mainstream American viewers express amazement and contempt for Stone’s ‘soft’ and ‘gullible’ approach to the ‘wily’ Putin.
The Washington Post sums it up thus: ‘Oliver Stone defended Vladimir Putin to Stephen Colbert. The audience laughed at him.’
This is the arrogant voice of American liberal Democratic opinion. This powerful segment of America – the liberal globalisers who support what they are most familiar with, an American-led rules-based world order – have by now almost entirely succumbed to obsessive Russophobic prejudice.
books that convey truth about Russia.
Almost every book published in the West about Russia and Putin is misleading, but the authors cannot see this. They come from within self-indoctrinated intellectual communities that – whether physically living in the West, or even in Western journalistic and diplomatic enclaves within Russia, it makes no difference really – have internalised group mindsets of hostile Western perceptions of Russia to the point where they cannot see outside this framework. Anti-Russian assertions of belief, repeated and exchanged often enough, become the alternative reality. As Goebbels understood.
Look at these examples of titles of a few well-regarded recent books about Russia:
- The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Steven Lee Myers, 2016
- Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped, by Garry Kasparov, 2016
- Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, 2015
- Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha, 2015
- Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism, by Marcel H Van Herpen, 2015
- The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen, 2013
Since at least 2008, perhaps earlier, the majority of Western commentators and writers on Russia have come to live in such a distorted mental world of their own imagining. They prefer to re-circulate their own Russian nightmare images – their own language of Russian politics – than to reckon with the reality of what is now a generally decent and serious, well-governed and well-mannered country. To these writers, Putin is simply a greedy criminal whose brutal kleptocratic regime threatens the peaceful world order.
For example: One of the leading Western journalists of this new Cold War, Luke Harding of the UK Guardian , cannot see how silly he sounds when he solemnly intones, after having been caught out in yet another evidence-free Russophobic claim:
Ah, but you must look at the whole context. You see, this is what they always do.
Most Western commentators writing about Russia today fall into this same ideological strait-jacket. They are the new Stalinists. Even when they think they are being objective and fair-minded about Russia, their superior and condescending stereotypes of Russia dull their brains and compromise their integrity.
John Le Carré understood the Cold War very well, the moral ambiguities and yet the humanity that persisted in citizens on both sides, even through the worst years. He never demonised Russia or Russians. To me one of his wisest books is The Russia House, written in 1989, the last years of Gorbachev’s rule.
Fred Schepisi’s film version made in 1990, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, is one of my favourite films.
Le Carre’s engaging anti-hero Barley Blair, and his Russian lover Katya who is played with heartrending warmth and sincerity by Michelle Pfeiffer, refuse to play the Cold War games demanded of them by the governments of their day. We can still today, 28 years later, learn much from reading or watching The Russia House, a charming fable in which love and human decency triumph over Cold War hatred and ruthlessness.
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is the indispensable novel of 20th century Russia, which truthfully represents Russia’s complex and tragic past hundred years, from Tsarism to Soviet Communism and prophesying contemporary Russia. . I visited Pasternak’s home at Peredelkino two years ago. I hope that my chapter on Pasternak, I think the best chapter in my book, captures him fairly.
He came from a cultured and comfortably-off intelligentsia family in Moscow. He made the fateful choice to stay in Russia with his brothers, when his parents and sisters emigrated after the Civil War ended. He never saw them again. His life was tragic and heroic. He confronted and triumphed over both the cruel Stalinist state, and the Anglo-American intelligence agencies which tried to use his great work as a tool to undermine the Soviet system.
Pasternak was intensely patriotic for Russia, his motherland. He never lost his faith that Russia after all its sufferings would grow into a decent humanist country and become an inspiration to the world. I think he would be unreservedly proud of Russia today.
These days one frequently comes across passionate and illogical Russophobia in Australia’s elite government, academic and mainstream media circles, the people who basically set the parameters of Australian policy towards Russia. I have recently been characterised unfavourably by a person from within this group as one of a number of ‘contrarians, Putinists and instant experts’ in Australia. I have also been described as ‘in love with Russia’. I actually take both these remarks as compliments.
What never seems to go away nowadays in our Anglo-American national security elite world is the presumption that Western conduct is generally proper, and Russian conduct is generally improper. I see evidence of such confirmation bias now again on display, acutely, in Western government and mainstream media handling of the Skripal Affair, and of the alleged Assad Government series of three chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held areas in Syria since 2012. People filter out the sources and information elements they want to believe, and ignore the rest as presumed ‘fake news’.
It is sad that a whole people and culture can be misrepresented in such ways. This must be countered, and I am doing my best to help counter it.
The Russian and Western narratives on both these events, the Skripal Affair and the Syria War, sharply conflict. In the end, one must make a choice – one cannot split the difference, or sit on the fence – and I have made my choice. To my mind, the Russian government’s positions on the Skripal Affair and the alleged series of three Syrian Government CW attacks on rebel-occupied areas in recent years fit best with the available public evidence. The Western governments’ positions on these events are false propaganda constructs, and I am no longer prepared to take them on trust.
On every issue in contention, Western governments and mainstream media simply refuse to consider – or even to report – evidence presented by Russia. Instead, they turn their backs, or they resort to angry anti-Russian rhetoric.
The Skripal affair
The Skripals Affair, the attack on Sergey and his daughter Yulia , allegedly with lethal quick-acting Novichok (A234) poison of Soviet Russian origin, in Salisbury on 4 March, initially seemed to offer to UK Prime Minister Theresa May a politically convenient Russophobe narrative. Its falsity has been progressively exposed by the accumulation of public facts ever since. It seems now that the Skripals were victims of an anti-Russian false-flag poisoning and narrative, designed to lay a Western public opinion foundation for the false-flag alleged CW attack in Syria in Douma a month later, which led to a US and allied aerial attack on Syria.
Whoever designed the bizarre Skripal operation went so far as to tamper with the Skripal biological samples that the UK government sent some weeks later to the UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for testing in OPCW’s own trusted Swiss laboratories. Theresa May had demanded a simple yes-or-no answer from OPCW: did the samples contain a Novichuk –type poison?
But the OPCW laboratory in Spiez actually did comprehensive professional sample testing and found inconvenient truths. The Skripal samples were found to contain traces of a strong temporary debilitating but non-lethal toxin called BZ, long in use by NATO, which produced the exact same symptoms as the lethal A234 Novichuk, but with recovery under good medical care expected after around 4 days. Which is what happened to Yulia.
The Spiez lab also found in the samples that OPCW was given by the UK government large freshly added concentrations of the lethal agent A234, in the Novichuk family, as well as decomposed residues of lethal A234 which had been added much earlier , soon after the samples were obtined from the Skripals. It would seem therefore that the OPCW safe chain of custody protocols had twice been seriously violated during the weeks the samples were in British government sole custody.
We only know about these sensational findings because Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov obtained them from a Spiez Lab or OPCW source, and deliberately leaked them publicly in Moscow on 14 April.
Britain, though caught red-handed, tried to deny the story, and still continues brazenly to reject or ignore it, supported by all its Western allies including Australia. At the OPCW Executive Council meeting on 18 April, every Western ambassador lined up to denounce Russia, in abusive language, for allegedly bringing the trusted OPCW inspection system into disrepute. The Council decided to suppress its own laboratory reports. The Secretariat offered an improbable cover story as to why BZ toxin had been found in samples. No explanation was offered at all for the presence of freshly added A234, in concentrations that would have certainly killed the Skripals outright if they had been exposed to it on 4 March.
A few days ago, a fully recovered Yulia Skripal appeared on Reuters television reading a prepared statement in Russian. She has said she looks forward to returning to her home country.
She clearly had not ingested Novichuk, A234. D-notices have been imposed on British media by the British Goverment, and Western mainstream media have fallen strangely silent on the Skripal story as it collapses under its own factual contradictions. I believe that more will come out on the Skripal story, because in the end truth does come out. I hope that both the Skripals, father and daughter, will sooner or later be able to return unharmed to their country, now that proof of Yulia’s life and her desire to return home has been publicly established.
So where do relations now stand between Russia and the West? Certainly worse that when my book was published, just 16 months ago. Putin and Lavrov and the charismatic Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova patiently state again and again their understanding of the truth of these matters, and the need for civil and business-like regular Russia-West dialogue based on mutual respect for national sovereignty, and simply on mutual good manners. Western governments’ manners towards Russia were much better during the Cold War than now.
Trump is unpredictable and irresolute. He seems most of the time to wish to be friends with Putin and Russia, but he seems powerless to defy the obsessively Russophobe lobby which effectively controls Washington. There is renewed talk now of a possible Putin-Trump summit meeting, but powerful elements of the Anglo-American strategic bureaucracy and mainstream media seem determined to derail it.
This is also the dominant message we hear in Australia from the ABC, Fairfax, The Australian, and The Guardian. The Anglo-American elite world seems to need an existential Russian enemy.
In conclusion, I urge you to read critically and widely, and to monitor reputable Russian official websites in their English versions – in particular, rt.com, the Russian global news and commentary equivalent of the BBC World Service; and the Russian Foreign Ministry website mid.ru; and the Russian Embassy websites in Washington, London and Canberra – and also trustworthy independent Western social media writers like the UK’s Craig Murray, Australia’s own Caitlin Johnstone, Vanessa Beeley on Syria, or even my own Facebook and Twitter pages, if you want to make up your own mind on what is really happening in this strange new world of Russia-West relations.
When our mainstream media will almost always distort, or simply not report at all, credible new disclosures of facts as just more pro-Russian propaganda or ‘fake news’, we must read more sources. We must question the anti-Russian stereotypes that are being served up to us. Repetition of lies does not make lies into truth.