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John Besemeres’ reckless ignorance of Russia

Published on April 12 2015
Posted by: jeff

John Besemeres’ article “Ukraine conflict exposes Western weakness on Russia” published on the Lowy Institute for International Policy” internet site (10 April) shows a fundamental and reckless ignorance about Russia.


Besemeres writes that Russia “claims to be afraid of being encircled by hostile states, and to have been humiliated by the West’s supposedly triumphalist expansion into its backyard (its ‘sphere of privileged interests’). This is largely a propaganda myth; the Western expansion was a bit reluctant and apologetic, caused above all by the desperation of former Soviet vassals for protection from any Russian recidivism. Russia’s volatile opinion polls suggest, however, that after years of intense propaganda most of Putin’s subjects have come to believe the hostile encirclement narrative. Some who spend a lot of time talking to Russian officials and propagandists start to repeat these claims of encirclement and humiliation, and present them as their own superior insight into the Russian mind. They would do better to reflect on them more critically.”

Besemeres is right that “propaganda” has played a role in the “hostile encirclement narrative”, however that does not mean that there is not some basis for it nor that the “some” that he mentions have no insight into “the Russian mind”.

During the 7 years or so that I have spent in Russia since I first visited Moscow in 1991, I have often been reminded by quite ordinary people (not “Russian officials and propagandists”) about the Nazi invasion and, even occasionally about Napoleon.

The “Russian mind” clearly has this feeling of “never again” etched into it.

For example, on 25 February 2008, I wrote that that about 6 months earlier I was in a park in Pushkin on the outskirts of St. Petersburg when a 10-year old girl pointed out to me that “this is where the Germans were beaten”. Several days later, in the evening, I hailed down a private car to take me to Pushkin. The driver, a lawyer looking for a little extra money by acting as a taxi for me, volunteered the same point about the Germans.


I also covered some such issues in a 5 March 2001 (ie 14 years ago, Besemeres should note!) presentation to the Australian Institute of International Affairs (Sydney Branch) on the subject of “Missile Defence”.


It should be remembered that as a real event which affected a nation, the Nazi invasion is much more significant than Gallipoli in 1915 or the 9/11 attacks in the US; but look at how the ANZAC story has come to have meaning in Australia and the US has responded around the world to the terrorist attacks. The mind is not always totally logical and devoid of feelings.

Besemeres then asks: “Why, for example, has Germany never felt ‘threatened’ or ‘encircled’ by its inclusion in multilateral organisations of countries on its borders, set up to ‘keep it down’, and which include as members several countries which had secured territory from Germany in recent conflicts?”

Besemeres does not seem to appreciate that there is world of difference between the German and Russian situations.

The Marshal Plan saw a very large and generous amount of assistance to a totally beaten adversary which felt considerable guilt about Nazism. In Russia, however, the 1990s saw an incredible amount of stupid advice (see left hand side article) and little financial assistance which only seemed to worsen the Russian situation – and, as a result this led to some considerable bitterness amount many Russians who never felt guilt or total defeat.

For example, in 1992 I had dinner with a western journalist and Mikhail Leontyev in Moscow. I was then still chief economist of HSBC Australia and tried to tell him that his very free-market pro-western advice views were of the sort that would cause problems for Russia. Leontyev would have none of this in 1992, but now he is high-profile virulent critic of the West and a strong supporter of Putin.

Germany also provides some other lessons. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles contained conditions that were “caused above all by the desperation” of Germany’s neighbors “for protection” from any German “recidivism” (to paraphrase Besemeres on Russia and the Soviet vassals). But that apparent reasonableness did not mean that it was intelligent policy (which the makers of the Marshal Plan understood) any more than NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders was intelligent policy.

Besemeres then writes that despite “overwhelming advice from senior military figures and bipartisan support in Congress favoring arming Ukraine, the Administration continues after well over a year not to do so. Various arguments are heard, perhaps most often that arming Ukraine would only provoke a further escalation from Moscow and increase Ukraine’s suffering.”

Despite this last point, Besemeres seems to favour making it “abundantly plain to Putin that any further moves against Ukraine would lead to lethal military supplies to Kiev sufficient to nullify any advantage Russian-backed forces had gained”.

Good luck to Besemeres and other such proponents!

I watched Russian military vehicles streaming to Red Square for the 2014 May Day parade from my room in the Peking Hotel in Moscow and was very surprised by the sheet number of well-turned out fighting machines. I do not know about their modern capabilities, but it seems to me that the fire-power that Russia could commit to the Ukraine could only be “nullified” by wholesale destruction over a much wider area of Ukraine. Unless, of course, Besemeres suggests attacking such forces while they are still on Russian territory!

Besemeres is left with the possibility that “the only remaining option is to sit down and discuss the terms under which Putin can continue to rearrange the post-1990 security order in his favour. The rest of Ukraine, the largest country in continental Europe, is there for the further dismembering, as are Georgia and Moldova. Even the Baltic states, which are NATO and EU members, may not be immune.”

I agree that this is not a pretty picture, although I doubt that Putin really is as territorially ambitious as Besemeres assumes.

But, in his “more robust scenario”, apart from seemingly advocating “lethal military supplies to Kiev”, Besemeres suggests “full disclosure of the Putin entourage’s financial interests”.

Now, this is something that I agree with, and I cannot understand why it has not already happened. Is it because the City of London (and some financial players and politicians in a few other places) have something to hide or are afraid of losing business? Would these people rather see European war, with other people (possibly including soldiers from their own countries) getting killed?

Finally, Besemeres suggests that “the EU should also be sending a message to those dissenting members who would betray European values by overtly cheering for Putin, like Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and Czech President Zeman, that the gates of the main capitals of Europe would be closed to them till further notice.”

And, with this I also have no problem. However, to be consistent and to avoid Russians seeing blatant hypocrisy at work, the gates would also need to be closed to a few US politicians and officials.



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