Peter Conradi is the Foreign Editor of The Sunday Times. He has used his seven years as Moscow correspondent (1988-95) to inform his book Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War. In it he details how Russia went from a potential friend of the West in the early Yeltsin era to the menacing state that threatens the European order today.
In the first part of a wide-ranging interview, Conradi discusses Russia-West relations, the future of Ukraine, the attitude of the British press and Russian diplomacy in an age of US retrenchment.
Why did NATO choose to expand after the fall of the Soviet Union?
After the USSR collapsed there was clearly a problem about what to do with NATO, or more broadly, what to do with European security framework. There was certainly a feeling on the Russian side that they had disbanded the Warsaw Pact so expected the West to disband NATO and come up with some new security arrangement. The fact was that NATO perceived itself to have won so there was a reluctance to disband it.
As to whether it should have been expanded – well, if NATO didn’t expand, what happened to those countries, Poland, Hungary and so on, that were between Russia’s western border and NATO’s eastern border? What were they part of?
The real impetus for that first wave of NATO and EU expansion came from those countries – from Poles, Hungarians, Czechs… They looked back on the past decades and saw how their position made them vulnerable. While Russia was down they saw it as their golden opportunity to get away.
If the West had refused their entry, we would have effectively been telling [Eastern Europe] that it was still in the Russian sphere of influence, and giving Moscow a veto over its affairs. Ultimately, the West didn’t really come up with an alternative to NATO expansion, but by actually trying to move NATO into Ukraine, the West simply failed to understand that this was a step too far.
Is Ukraine doomed to be forever locked in Russia’s embrace? Can it be neutral?
I think it should be [neutral]. If you compare and contrast Ukraine with the Baltic States you can see that the country has taken longer to get out of the Russian, or Soviet, mind-set. Ukraine has obviously got huge problems and regardless of what happens, it’s still a very corrupt place. You could even portray the 2013 events as a battle between rival camps of oligarchs.
If you look back at election results in the period since 1992, you can see the country was evenly balanced – a pendulum swinging from one side to the other. After the Orange Revolution in 2004 we had pro-western Yushchenko and then it swung back to Yanukovych.
It’s a country of two halves. There are huge differences between the population in Lviv, which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and people in the Donbass. This balance was disrupted by the loss of Crimea; I think now Ukraine has become more Ukrainian. I think the Russians thought they would go in and cow the Ukrainians in 2014. They haven’t succeeded at all. If anything there is more of a sense of Ukrainian identity, particularly among the young. There’s also an old/young split, the latter look more towards Europe.
With the Russians still camped in the east of the country, Ukraine can’t join NATO. It would be useful if NATO were to say “we’re not permanently expanding, we’ve reached our outer limits; but we need to find a way of allowing Ukraine to act as a kind of a bridge.” The best-case scenario would be if Ukraine gets its act together, gets rid of corruption and becomes a model that Russia would want to emulate. But so far there haven’t been any signs that that might happen.
There was a lot of speculation in September that the Zapad operations might have been preparation for an invasion of the Baltics, similar to those which occurred in Georgia or Ukraine. Do you think the way these operations were portrayed by the western press was hysterical or do you think the military operations were deliberately provocative?
I think there was a degree of overreaction to it. You could say, “the Russians are carrying out manoeuvres within a few miles of NATO” to which the response is, “well actually they’re carrying out manoeuvres on their own territory and the reason it’s within a few miles of NATO is because NATO has advanced up to the Russian border.”
NATO carries out its war games; Russia does the same. These exercises happen and they will always be over-interpreted. A year ago there were numerous reports of Russian aircraft buzzing their western equivalents and vice versa. It’s a potentially dangerous situation as during the Cold War everyone knew where they stood – there were various mechanisms in place to avert disaster.
Now we are drifting back into a new Cold War but without those kinds of mechanisms, and there’s always the danger of an overreaction or a wrong interpretation. If we’re not careful missiles will start being launched.
The reassuring thing is that no one thinks Russia is about to invade Western Europe, as we were led to believe during the Cold War, and the Russians don’t believe that we’re trying to invade them, so we should at least be thankful for that.
Do you think the British press is Russophobic?
It’s quite interesting to contrast the way we in Britain relate to Russia with the way that the French or the Germans do. I think one huge factor was the murder of Litvinenko. The horrific nature of it, this enduring image of this very unfortunate guy having lost all his hair dying in a hospital bed. It’s an extraordinarily powerful picture and it really resonates. That really clouded our relations for quite a long time.
The Foreign secretary is wary of anything that is seen as “cosying up” to the Kremlin as he’d be accused of working with the guy that bears the responsibility for this killing. There are other cases too – Alexander Pereplichnyy died of that suspicious heart attack. Britain has become such a haven for rich Russians and for Russians opposed to the regime so this has clouded relations.
I think we as a country have quite an odd relationship with Russia and the media do reflect that. Maybe it’s the nature of the British media in general – we have a very black and white view of things. It’s Russia good or Russia bad. Perhaps we should be a little more nuanced.
Ever since Napoleon Britain and Russia have always ended up on the same side in major global conflicts – do you think Britain and Russia are natural allies?
The EU, come NATO, is a kind of solid bloc. If you look back at the 19th century and the events leading to WWI, you could have different alliances (Russia with Britain and France against Germany and Austria). The existence of the EU and NATO means that this isn’t possible insofar as all the EU countries are allied with each other.
You can see Russia trying to make inroads into that. They have a good relationship now with Orban in Hungary, who is potentially pro-Russian. They have also tried to make ground with far right parties, with Le Pen, the AfD, and countless other manoeuvrings in the Balkans.
If Britain leaves the EU could that change the dynamic? I think it’s unlikely, as we’d still remain in NATO. There’s a sense in which Western Europe, of which we’re a part, will continue to just hang together as a bloc.
Is there a new “Cold War” significance behind Saudi King Salman’s recent visit to Moscow?
The danger of Trump is that he’s leaving a void. One got that impression after he went to Saudi Arabia a few months ago; he seemed to go out of his way to praise the Saudis and it’s probably no coincidence that it was shortly after that they started picking on the Qataris. Despite that the Saudis are still interested in talking to Russia.
Putin may be demonised here and by people in America, but he is quite an attractive partner for a number of governments across the world. He’s someone that you can rely on – you know where you stand. If I were a leader and wondered what American policy was… Ultimately, it just depends on what Trump feels like when he wakes up that morning.
I’d look at Russia and think here’s a stable country, ruled by one guy who knows what he wants, isn’t going to make demands of me and will let me get on with it. It is an attractive model. Across the Middle East you see it working – relations are good with Egypt; the way he is courting Hafta in Libya is interesting. There’s also the rapprochement with Erdogan. That relationship not only survived the shooting down of the Russian plane, but has thrived.
When Russia went into Syria everyone said it was going be a graveyard for the Russian military, but they’ve done really well as far as their interests are concerned.
So do democrats make poor diplomats?
I don’t think you can generalise. The problem is not American democracy; the problem is Trump. Had Hillary won, the expectation is she would have taken much more of a hard-line stance towards Russia. She would have been tougher than Obama – almost a traditional republican in her attitude toward Russia.
Maybe that wouldn’t have raised false expectations and we’d be operating in a more stable environment. Everyone would know where they stand in a way that they don’t with Trump, that’s the problem. If a country has a government with a small majority, or a situation where the executive is controlled by one party and the legislative by another – that’s going to lead to turbulence. It’s all about whether you can deliver or not and maintain a coherent message.
The [Western] attempt to impose a model can be a problem, particularly if those attempts to impose a model are not applied consistently. As I put in the book there was resentment in the early 2000s when Bush had his freedom agenda. The West was beating Russia for not being democratic enough, but praising Kazakhstan, which was far less democratic. How often has the US criticised Saudi Arabia, if ever?
You leave yourself open to allegations of inconsistency and possible hypocrisy when you claim that you have something more than your state’s interests at heart. It’s those inconsistencies that Putin will exploit again and again.
Interview by Alex Marrow and Joe Barnes. Peter Conradi can be found on twitter @Peter_Conradi