A Hole in One or an Own Goal? Double-Dealing in Russian Foreign Policy

Yesterday we learned from the Western media that the Russians had broken into the secret cryptographic systems of the German Foreign and Defence Ministries, probably in 2017, soon after Trump won the US presidential elections, within months of attacking the Democratic National Committee’s systems in the United States and only a year after the Russians had done the same to the German parliament. Are we to call this a hole in one (golf) or an own goal (football)?

It is striking that this bad news emerged when it did – very soon after Germany’s Foreign Minister Gabriel spoke out in Munich for easing sanctions on Russia and at the same time that another fading light of the SPD, Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries,  spoke out for the same to improve trade with Moscow. The SPD, since its former Chancellor Schroeder’s eyes lit up at the sight of Russian gas, has desperately hoped that a date with Moscow would turn into a more meaningful relationship. The disappointments have been many. Signs that Putin preferred to flirt with Trump were galling. And has Putin entirely given up on him? Clearly Berlin is at sixes and sevens. It has absolutely no clear idea how it should behave except to scorn Trump. And Moscow’s self-destructive behaviour as a suitor towards the targets of its inconstant affections does not help.

Inevitably the Russian press welcomes signs of enduring German indulgence while leaving the issue of Russian hacking in the long grass, entirely without comment (‘Germaniya vystupaet za uluchshenie otnoshenii s Rossiei’, Rossiiskaya gazeta, 1 March 2018.) Apparently the Germans should, unlike the American Congress, forgive and forget. Yet the damaging leakage from German intelligence about yet more Russian hacking indicates that not everyone in Berlin is entirely happy about Ms Zypries and Mr Gabriel’s noble stance for peace.

In Rossiiskaya gazeta President Putin  boasts about new Russian armaments – ‘Prezident RF: Boevye lazery uzhe postupayut na vooruzhenie voisk’, ‘Hachalas’ aktivnaya faza ispytanii novoi MBR ‘Sarmat’ ‘, ‘Rossiya v otvet na PRO sozdaet noveishie sistemy vooruzheniya’.  Yet the same newspaper simultaneously reports Putin bleating to the Security Council that the Americans are to spend more deterring the Russians in Europe – ‘Sovbez: Raskhody SShA na sderzhivanie agressii udivlyayut’ – and tells us that the President expresses his ‘surprise’!

Meanwhile Nezavisimaya gazeta relates today that Russia lost money from its sovereign wealth fund investing in Western securities last year and the Finance Minister Siluanov said in no uncertain terms to those who suppose Putin’s bullish remarks about armaments will lead to net new investment in defence: the cupboard is bare (‘Siluanov: Uvelichenie raskhodov byudgeta na oboronu ne predusmatrivaetsya’.)

As is the case with Foreign Minister Lavrov’s ever unconvincing calls for peace while bombing civilians for the bloody Assad régime, the display of tounge-in–cheek hypocrisy is usually a sign of utter confusion in trying to reconcile the impossible. Lavrov is a burnt-out case; a source of despair for the conscientious Russian diplomat and an easy target for the ambitious. No one believes him any more. Putin, however, is due for re-election. He could choose to leave a more constructive legacy. He is certainly in a position to do so. One wonders, however, if the President reads the Russian press, let alone his own statements, when judging the apparently puzzling  behaviour of his foreign adversaries who are actually reacting to his own baffling behaviour. Is there anyone in the Kremlin who understands how all this looks from the outside and has the courage to talk truth to power?