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SIR ANDREW WOOD
(former British Ambassador to Russia)
Sir Andrew, who was ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000, continues to advise several British companies (notably BP) on Russian affairs, and had just returned from Moscow.
Sir Andrew said his presentation would be critical, but British critics should have some sympathy with Russia’s dilemmas – Britain too had had to adapt to losing an empire. However, the Russian state was not clearly defined like the British state, and historically had sought to overcome this through a tradition of strong central rule. The legacy of history was powerful, and in some senses the Communist period had not been a complete aberration, although there had been obvious changes since, especially under Yeltsin. Under Putin, the trend had been toward more authoritarian rule – governors of provinces appointed instead of elected, parliament losing its independence, decision-making increasingly personalised.
If Putin stuck to the constitution, and did not run for a third term, his successor would have a “Putin problem”, since Putin was still only 52, and had very strong support. But Sir Andrew did not think the next president could be simply a front-man for Putin – he would have to be the real leader, and would face many serious issues, especially in economic policy. There had been almost a decade of strong economic growth, helped by strong oil and commodity prices, but also by responsible management of the budget under Putin. The standard of living had risen, and there had been some diversification. But the trade balance was shifting and likely to go into deficit.
Russians tended to believe that they had given the West a lot by withdrawing from Eastern Europe, giving independence to the former Soviet republics, and changing their political system. They felt they were owed something in return, in particular a right to dominate Ukraine and Georgia, and to reject the deployment of American missile defence systems in the Czech Republic.
We should be realistic in reacting to Russia, but there was no need to be hostile. At the same time, there was also no need to be nervous about standing up for our own beliefs. Ten years from now, things might have changed considerably – Putin’s successor was almost condemned to begin a process of relaxing the system.
Question and Answer Session
The Russian military used to have its own agenda, and was almost a state within a state. Is that still the case? The consolidation of Putin’s regime has involved the widespread appointment to senior possessions of people from the KGB and the GRU. These people tend to think that the West wishes Russia harm, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, and that Russia must be strong. But the armed forces remain in a parlous state, with much of their equipment in very poor condition. Parents go to great lengths to stop their children being called up for military service, and per year there are more suicides in the Russian army than US deaths in Iraq.
Surely the Russian political culture favours the idea of seeking victory over others, whereas in Europe nowadays there is a willingness to co-operate and share power. Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty illustrates the difference in attitude You are right about the different starting-points, but the attitude to other countries which you describe is out of line with the real situation of today’s Russia. For example, there is the energy problem. With the growth in the economy, Russia’s domestic energy consumption is growing fast, and she will not be able to produce enough both for her own needs and for the exports which she has to make to pay for her imports. This is not a problem she can solve in isolation. We should also remember that many Russians now travel abroad – there are some 400,000 in the UK, and many Russians send their children to British schools. This is changing attitudes.
Are you sure there will be a relaxation of the system after Putin, with so many ex-KGB people in high positions? There are two different Russias. The system is in fact rather fragile. It is still possible that Putin will stay on, but if he does, the system will become more fragile even while appearing stronger. I have yet to meet a Russian who believes that if Putin stands down, he could remain in control behind the scenes and then come back in 2012.
Are democratic structures completely ineffective at present? The press is not free. The legal system is quite reliable so long as political interests are not involved. The next parliamentary elections will be fixed – all the seats are now allocated according to party lists, and independents lack access to the media. People are cautious about what they say. Only about 10% of Russians believe that their vote can affect anything.
Why do leading Western politicians not cultivate their Russian counterparts as they did during the era of détente between the West and the Soviet Union? The context is different. The task then was to manage the Cold War.
How does the average Russian react to the wealthy elite? He thinks they’re all the same, including the politicians, though recognising that some of them have created effective companies.
Why does Moscow side with Belgrade over the future of Kosovo? I find it hard to make strategic sense of Russian foreign policy. There is a lot of talk about making Russia a great power again, but that is not a policy. I can only see the policy on Kosovo as gesture politics, perhaps aimed at strengthening Russia’s position in the UN Security Council.
What about the Russian Orthodox Church? There have been some great saints in Russia, including in the Orthodox Church, but I find it hard to respect as an institution. For example, a new church recently built in Moscow gives prominence outside to the double eagle rather than the cross.
What is the attitude to China? There is a mixture of fear and respect. Russians are racist in their attitudes. They resent the Chinese for being Asian and successful. They also have an irrational fear, stemming from Russia’s huge demographic problems, of Chinese hordes reversing Russia’s conquest of Siberia. But China is a good market and an important source of equipment.