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For Josep Borrell, Russia will remain a ‘mystery inside an enigma’

By Johanna Ross | February 9, 2021

It’s been a quotation cited repeatedly to describe the difficulties faced by western policy-makers towards Russia. Winston Churchill famously said the country was ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.  Back in 1939, when he broadcast this speech, just as Britain had declared war on Germany, Churchill said that he thought he had the ‘key’ to unlocking the secret of Russian foreign policy and that was, he said, ‘Russian national interest’.

I assume that Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who visited Moscow last Friday, is familiar with this quotation. And it seems that for him, Russia has remained something of a mystery. For upon his return to Brussels, after what his European colleagues have termed a ‘humiliating’ trip (they are now demanding his resignation), Borrell wrote a blog post outlining what was essentially his complete failure to engage with his Russian counterpart. “My meeting with Minister Lavrov highlighted that Europe and Russia are drifting apart”, he wrote in a piece published on Sunday evening. “It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe.”

What is surprising for the Russians, is the absolute inability of these European policy-makers to read and comprehend the Russian position. Western diplomats in this regard seem to be diplomatically autistic. And far from taking tips from Russian political analysts and think-tanks, they turn to the same pseudo ‘Russia-experts’ and western academics, the majority of whom churn out age-old anti-Russian rhetoric like a broken record. As Professor Stephen Cohen once told me:

‘The idea that we have to fight Russian disinformation is now very profitable in the US; everybody will give you money. And if you don’t have a particularly big brain, it’s a good way to pretend you’re an intellectual and get paid for it.’

As a consequence, we are sadly no further in unravelling the ‘mystery inside the enigma’.

Churchill was close to the truth when he said that ‘Russian national interest’ was a key factor in understanding Russia – but that’s hardly a secret. Every country acts according to its national interest. What is lacking, particularly at the moment from western policy makers, is the ability to treat Russia according to how they themselves expect to be treated. Like a naughty schoolboy, Russia and its leader are constantly being lectured on how to behave. The problem is, the ‘adults’ – in this case the West – are guilty of the same offences that Russia is being accused of. As Vladimir Putin noted during his speech at the Munich security conference in 2007:

‘Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.’

Unfortunately, nothing has changed, and the hypocrisy still stinks.

Borrell’s visit is also a classic example of Europeans saying one thing to Russia’s face and another behind its back. For the statements Borrell made after his return to Brussels, as Russian Foreign spokesperson Maria Zakharova remarked on Monday, do not correspond with comments he made when in Moscow. Zakharova expressed surprise at the diplomat’s negative summary of the trip and suggested that his colleagues had influenced him on arrival. But I would add that it is a regular occurrence that western politicians are two-faced when it comes to dialogue with Russia, and that they often place less emphasis on the value of verbal agreements. Take for example the promise of US Secretary of State James Baker to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev back in the 1980s that NATO would not expand eastward. For the Russians that assurance meant something, as it is frequently quoted by them to this day; for the Americans it clearly didn’t. Since then NATO has proceeded to encircle Russia to the east.

The reality is that Russia is not going to be dictated to on human rights and freedoms when they are currently being curtailed in the West. It’s not going to be told that opposition protesters are being mal-treated when demonstrators in the US and Europe are regularly manhandled by police. It’s not going to be bullied into releasing Alexei Navalny – a politician with a criminal conviction – when the US and Europe have their own political prisoners, the most famous being Julian Assange. And it’s not going to be harassed about press freedoms when the majority of the western mainstream corporate media play the role of government mouthpieces. Russia is a sovereign nation and won’t be told what to do.

For Borrell et al. this is a problem.  Therefore a stalemate has been reached in EU-Russian relations. Borrell seems resigned to the fact that there will be little improvement in relations in the near future.  This is unfortunate, because it is not something that Russia has wanted. Even as recently as last month, when speaking at the Davos Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin said that Europe and Russia were ‘practically one civilisation’. And yet there is a fundamental difference in mentality which proves impossible to overcome.

It is in Europe’s and the West’s interest, however, to try better to engage with Russia on a level playing field, without taking the moral high ground. Global security and stability are at stake. In addition, Europe currently depends on Russian gas, and will likely always be reliant to some degree on Russia’s vast expanse of natural resources. As renowned academic Andrei Tsygankov has aptly summarised in his book ‘Russia’s Foreign Policy’:

‘Russia is sufficiently big and powerful, and that limits Western ability to influence its developments. Vast territory, enormous natural resources and military capabilities, and a significant political and diplomatic weight in the world have allowed and will continue to allow Russians considerable room for foreign policy maneuvering. It is hard to believe that the West will ever possess enough power to fully determine the shape and direction of Russia’s developments.’

If only Josep Borrell had read this book before he went to Moscow…

Johanna Ross is a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

February 9, 2021 - Posted by | Russophobia | ,

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