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Book Review

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War

By Peter Conradi One World, £18.99, 560 pages

You have to feel for Peter Conradi. No sooner has he published his book on Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West, and especially with the United States, than that relationship starts to really make the headlines, with accusations that Russia interfered in the US election, and that it has had a cosy and dodgy relationship with the new US President, Donal Trump

Wider afield, there are allegations of systematic internet interference by Russian elements in services in Sweden and Germany, and even more seriously legitimate fears by the Baltic States of Russia military interference.

Every day brings new and more serious revelations. But this doesn’t diminish the value this book. Far from it, and quite the opposite, for Conradi brilliantly, and fairly, describes how we came to this pass and how the relations became so bad. And how it needn’t have come to this. Indeed, he shows how the West, and especially the US, is much to blame for this rupture. He book is fast moving and utterly compelling and spans the decades revealingly.

Far from seizing the opportunity of creating a new and more stable order after the collapse of Communism and then of the Soviet Union itself, a resurgent United Staes insisted on the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, right up to Russia’s door, as well as going back on crucial arm treaties and even accelerating weapons placements, now that a broken Russia was no longer in a position to resist.

This was a big mistake, and such hubris has built up a long festering resentment in Russia at their humiliation and treatment by the West – so that today, in a confused and divided world, Russia is able with virtual impunity to simply take Crimea, intervene in the Ukraine, and meddle vengefully in European politics.

This deliberate downgrading of Russia was not only a mistake, it was a lost opportunity. As Conradi points out, there was a genuine chance to turn the existing Cold War face-off, and balance of power, into something new, and genuinely secure. I was at the UN General Assembly from 1990-93, and it was like a fresh start for the world. German unity had just been waved through by the Russians, and EU. But would the Russians be so cooperative now? Unlikely.

But the US soon saw itself as the world’s only superpower, and policeman, sorting out peace in Bosnia and elsewhere. After 9/11, however, and just one day’s terrorist attack, the US over reacted and pursued a path that has led to disaster. It invaded Iraq, the single greatest mistake of recent years, and also waded into Afghanistan even though the Russians were beaten out of there in the 1980s.

In fairness, the Russians, despite their humiliation, were still prepared to work with the US and supported these invasions, but grudgingly. They both had a common enemy in fighting radical Islam – Russia had fought two brutal wars against muslim Chechnya. However, Saddam Hussein was not radical Islam and his rash removal brought forth the jihadis, who have now spread into the entire region, especially Syria.

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Not having learned its lesson, the West then intervened in Libya (pictured above), removing Muammar Gaddafi and replacing him with gun law and chaos, and creating a launching pad for migration to Europe. Interestingly, this time it was the US and UK which led the way, but supported by US airpower. But it was how this ‘regime change’ was facilitated that enraged Russia. The US Security Council specifically endorsed Western intervention to protect the threatened civilians in Benghazi. But the complacent, arrogant British and French flipped it into an armed overthrow of the Libyan leader.

Interestingly, Conradi writes about divisions in the Russia leadership on this, with Medvedev, Putin‘s long time deputy, expressing support for the overthrow of Gaddafi before being over ruled in Moscow. But the spectre of the West, and US, going round the world militarily seeking ‘regime change’ was enough to enrage the Russians – and alarm them, give their own increasingly authoritarian system.

So when it came to Syria, a long time Russian ally with a Russia military post in Latakia, the Russians intervened to support Assad, especially as he was fighting Islamic militants, a point the Russians repeatedly made to the US and the world.

In this sense, one has sympathy for the Russia and even to an extent for Putin who inherited a divided and demoralised former Empire, and has impressively revived the Russian economy.

But in terms of the domestic politics, it is quite different, with an increasing clampdown on human rights and media and even the murder of opposition politicians and inquisitive journalists. But here too, the West’s isolation of Russia and humiliation of it in foreign policy terms might also be responsible allowing Putin to appeal to nationalists and demonise foreigners and their Russian allies.

One also sees the Russian case regarding their dwindling sphere of influence. Long standing Russian communities now find themselves isolated, and often discriminated against, in former Soviet countries.

But having increased the isolation of Russia, now it seems that the West is almost too forgiving of Russia behaviour, especially the incoming US administration. Certainly, Eastern Europeans countries are under no doubt about the threat and that they must be protected. But it is a matter of balancing this and building trust and, in this regard, our era has never required old style diplomatic skills so badly.

The Ukraine crisis is a textbook example. Conradi succintly describes how not only Ukraine overplayed its hand in seeking a closer alliance with Europe, but so did the the EU itself , which foolishly put Ukraine in a position where they had to chose either – and without even offering it EU membership. The Russians were enraged, there was an uprising – and the rest is recent history. 

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