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By Luke Coffey,
The Telegraph, UK,
19 January 2017

Without America, Britain must lead in standing up to Tsar Putin`s new imperial Russia

On the campaign trail President-elect Donald Trump called into question the most sacrosanct principle of transatlantic security: that an attack on one is an attack on all. How this will translate into actual policy during his presidency remains to be seen, but many Nato members in Eastern Europe are rightfully alarmed.

During this era of uncertainty in transatlantic relations the UK has no choice but to lead if the US fails to do so. This will require a rethink in Britain`s defence posture, military spending, and its role in the region`s security.

When looking at Russia`s actions in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria or its militarisation of the Arctic we are often told by commentators that we are dealing with a "Soviet Russia" or that what we are seeing by Moscow is "Cold War behavior". This is a complete misunderstanding of the threat Russia poses to the West.

Today, we are dealing with an Imperial Russia - not a rehash of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin behaves more like a Tsar than a Soviet Premier. He is very much an imperial-style leader. Thanks to his constitutional gymnastics he has been either President or Prime Minister of Russia since 1999, and can remain in either one of these positions for the rest of his life.

So the West faces a 21st-century Russia with 19th century ambitions. Moscow`s goal today is not to spread an ideology of "workers of the world unite" as it was during the Cold War. The goal is to use all the tools of Russian power - military, economic, energy, diplomatic, and propaganda - to maximize Russia`s influence and advance its interests. The target is often our core values: the rule of law, equal rights, access to justice, right to information, media freedom, transparent elections, and good governance. In Ukraine this is done by military force. In Central Asia this is often done by economic means. And in the US it was done by meddling in the presidential election.

A quick comparison of Russia`s current actions with its imperial past draws many parallels. For example, Putin is spending billions of dollars (money which could be better used elsewhere) to open new bases and militarize the Arctic. In 1724, Peter the Great spent 1/6 of the Russian state budget on a scientific expedition to explore Russia`s Arctic region.

Or look at Russia`s actions in Syria. Today is not the first time Russian forces have fought in the Levant. In 1772, Russian forces under the leadership of Catherine the Great attacked various Syrian cities along the coastal Levant and even occupied Beirut for six months.

Of all of Russia`s Tsars, Putin has the most in common with Nicholas I, who ruled Russia between 1825 and 1855. Nicholas I`s reign was marked by crushing political dissent, a presiding over a decaying economy, fighting Islamic fundamentalists in the North Caucasus, territorial expansions in the South Caucasus, and a war in Crimea.

Doesn`t this sound familiar?

There is no country in Europe which knows how to deal with an imperial Russia better than the United Kingdom. The UK has literally hundreds of years of experience dealing with an imperial Russia. Perhaps it was the Victorian statesman and former Prime Minister Lord Palmerston who in the 1850`s best summed up Russia`s behavior:

"The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity."

Some things never change. How Russia was described by Palmerston then is exactly the same as the Russia we see today.

British leadership is needed more now than at any other time in Europe`s recent history. Until (or unless) the new Trump administration makes an unequivocal commitment to transatlantic community Britain will have to fill the security void left in Europe.

As with many of history`s autocracies, today it the Russian people who are the losers. Democratic freedoms are in retreat, corruption is endemic, and the future is bleak for most Russians. The same failings of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago are starting to reappear in Putin`s Russia today.

The drop in the price of oil and the economic sanctions over Ukraine only make worse Russia`s deep social problems. Its population growth is stagnating and alcoholism, drug addiction, HIV, and suicide are widespread.

Expressions of ultra-nationalism are on the rise, which fortify the Kremlin`s quest for a new sphere of influence. Added to this is the so-called compatriot policy which makes Moscow the self-designated protector of ethnic Russians no matter where in the world they might reside.

Whether it is over occupied Crimea or at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, Putin knows how to wave a flag. At least for now the average Russian sees national glory as a substitute for general wellbeing. But how long people will tolerate this misery is anyone`s guess and as patience begins to run thin at home you can bet that Putin will be looking abroad for more adventures as a distraction.

Just because there is a new US president does not mean that history, geography or geopolitics has changed in Europe. Trump will eventually learn, just as his two predecessors did, that Russia under Putin cannot be partner for the West. The question is at what cost to transatlantic security this lesson will be learned.

In the meantime Britain will need to hold the line essentially playing the role in European security today which the U.S. played during the Cold War. Britain can stand up to imperial Russia. It has done it before and it can do it again if the political will is there.

The UK cannot and should not shirk from this responsibility. The fate and stability of Europe might ultimately depend on it.

Luke Coffey is Director of the Foreign Policy Centre at the Heritage Foundation and a former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence.


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