“This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

The current standoff between Russia and NATO recalls the old black and white comedies of the prewar period typified by the film “Another Fine Mess”, where two comedians invariably found themselves at odds with a bad tempered character and came out the worst from the inevitable exchange of blows; as a result of which the instigator, the aggressive Oliver Hardy, would confront the baffled Stan Laurel with the accusation that it was all his fault. What was wrong with Hardy was clearly that he took action for emotional gratification before calculating the consequences and then, when the inevitable happened, he immediately blamed his partner.

In the days before public diplomacy differences could be settled behind closed doors. The problem we have now is that it is taking place in full view of the audience on all sides. Playing to the gallery takes over from pursuit of a working settlement of differences. Plutocratic democracies and populist dictatorships are at their worst at practising diplomacy. Another “fine” example is what happened in Moscow on Thursday when Foreign Minister Lavrov handed the Russian reply to an American response to demands for a solution.

It said that although the United States was not backing down on the expansion of NATO (to include Ukraine), Russia would continue negotiations. But it also contained within it the explicit threat that if the Americans did not meet Russian demands, Russia “would have to react” by “military-technical” means. The language of ultimata was described by one authoritative and rather smug Russian commentator on Britain’s Channel 4 television last night, approvingly, as “coercive diplomacy.”

This produced a predictable response. Less than an hour after returning to the embassy from Smolenskaya John Sullivan, the ambassador, whose number two is being expelled from Moscow in retaliation for the expulsion of his Russian counterpart in Washington DC, released the contents of the Lavrov’s reply to the world’s press.

Unfortunately the Biden administration’s lamentable and humiliating stampede from Kabul and its disastrous economic and social policies mean that it has at last found an issue where it could talk tough and find some solidarity if not popularity in Congress, where some Democrats are itching to impose yet more financial sanctions on Russia.

If President Putin were still listening to some of the best Americanists in the world – in Moscow – he might see that coercive diplomacy is accelerating a process that will ultimately damage Russian security even more than plans for the expansion of NATO, and that at home the worrying rate of inflation in Moscow which the head of the central bank is desperately trying to hold back through yet higher interest rates might in the end count for nothing in the face of American retaliation and at a time when the population’s living standards are at their lowest for more than a decade. And that it is what lies at the root of the problem.

Shakespeare had it right when Macbeth killed Banquo and ultimately found that seizing power did not guarantee he could hang on to it because he lacked legitimacy: the frustration was “to have but not to hold…” Within all this lurks what alarms Putin most. All of the changes which brought down the Soviet Union, that prompted national separatism and created a Georgia and Ukraine which will not tolerate the re-establishment of Russian hegemony, resulted from weaknesses that were internal to the régime; the fragility of the domestic system, its failed command economy, the falsity of its ideology, its vulnerability to collapse. In this sense the search for security from NATO is an attempt to keep the democratic infection as far from Russian borders as possible, once again in vain pursuit of security for the continuation of and bolstering of the foundations for authoritation rule; and this, no amount of domestic repression and military power will ever solve and this the West – particularly George Kennan once fully understood – must again understand.

And, while not conceding to the demands that arise from it, try to behave with a necesary sang froid. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation we find ourselves in, what we see now is not what one would call “diplomacy.”

Nezavisimaya gazeta, 18 February 2022.

17.02.2022 20:21:00

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 Геннадий Петров