Australians seem unconcerned about the new sanctions the government seems set to impose on Russia. After the MH17 tragedy, that’s understandable. But sanctions could sour relations with Russia for decades to come. Truth is, they’ve never really been good.
Having played the leading role in defeating Napoleon, tsarist Russia immediately replaced France in the fears of our nineteenth-century forebears: batteries erected in the 1850s to deter a feared Russian invasion still line the headlands of many Australian cities.
Precisely because the imaginative path to ‘Russia as enemy’ in Western culture is so well trodden, we should beware of following it blindly.
In 1914, Russia began the ‘Great War’ as an ally. It ended it in revolution: technically a co-victor, in actuality vanquished by the Central Powers—and potentially a dangerous ideological foe. Unsure about Russia’s status, uncertain to whom to address an invitation, in 1919 the remaining Allies decided not to invite the country’s Bolshevik leaders to the Paris peace conference.
The result, as a British participant recorded, was confusion:
Everything inevitably leads up to Russia. Then there is a discursive discussion; it is agreed that the point at issue cannot be determined until the general policy towards Russia has been settled; having agreed on this, instead of settling it, they pass on to another subject.
When the Allies later intervened in the Russian Civil War (1918-22), an Australian contingent joined British operations against the Bolsheviks.
In 1945, Russia qua Soviet Union metamorphosed from fellow victor to existential foe. An aggressive, nuclear-armed USSR threatened liberal democracy. But, in George Kennan’s original conception of containment, understanding its ideological motivations and geopolitical objectives were considered as important as avoiding unnecessary confrontations.
Between 1989 and 1992, however, Russia’s status again became unclear. As Harvard’s Serhii Plokhy argues, Gorbachev’s reformed Soviet Union was, in the official White House narrative, co-victor with America in ‘defeating’ the madness of the Cold War. In reality, as glasnost and perestroika tore apart the structures that held it together, by 1991 the Soviet state was vanquished—broke, humiliated and in geopolitical free fall.
The White House toyed with a ‘Soviet Marshall Plan’, but ultimately rejected the idea as too expensive and politically unpopular in the 1992 election year.
The West threw a few bones to the democratic Russia that emerged from the wreckage—including G-8 membership and a NATO ‘Partnership for Peace’. But NATO’s eastward expansion in the 1990s and early 2000s made clear that it still saw Moscow as a potential foe.
To many Westerners, that’s the role that Russia has resumed with relish today. Ruled by a bare-chested, tiger-wrestling thug, increasingly illiberal and repressive, the Russia of Vladimir Putin seems bent on resurrecting a baptised form of the old Soviet empire. It’s a state as bizarre as it is sinister.
But even if Putin’s Russia is the neo-fascist gangster-state some describe, it’s fanciful to imagine that a vital interest in politics in Kiev was something that came over Moscow overnight: in four hundred years, no Russian government has found Ukraine peripheral to its interests, including Yeltsin’s and Gorbachev’s.
That ought to have been clear—in Brussels, Berlin, Washington and Canberra—before the EU offered Kiev its trade deal. To an extent that’s uncomfortable to admit, the West’s disregard for Russia’s centuries-old sensitivity about Ukraine sparked the crisis.
And if the West’s wrangle with Russia really stems from geopolitics, how likely is it that a legal remedy—sanctions—will solve what only a diplomatic démarche can?
The impasse could prove indefinitely damaging. Consider Cuba. For nearly sixty years, America’s embargo has sought to strangle the government of a de facto former colony it deems a threat, which came to power through a revolution it didn’t recognise and which a botched invasion later failed to dislodge.
Russia’s Ukraine calculus is as unlikely to change as America’s in Cuba: we should be thinking in decades rather than years about the consequences of sanctions.
In the meantime, how many issues demanding co-operation with Russia will be made impossible by the chill finger of sanctions? Syria and the related crisis in Iraq is an obvious example already.
Today it’s not true, if it was in 1919, that ‘everything inevitably leads up to Russia’. But certain important things do—not least among them the potential alliance arrangements of the twenty-first century.
Blind to Russia’s interests as a great power, will the West push Moscow into greater cooperation with, and reliance on, Beijing? Or will it avoid unnecessary provocations in the hope of preserving Russia as an independent pole in the international state system—and a handy counter-balance to an increasingly powerful China?
The sanctions Australia adopts in response to a crisis in Europe today could undermine the balance of power that underpins our security in Asia tomorrow. Russia doesn’t need to be our friend. But we risk giving it no other choice than to be China’s.
Matthew Dal Santo is a freelance writer and foreign affairs commentator based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Image courtesy of Flickr user Nicolas Janik.