The West has to recognise that Russia has a legitimate interest in the security of its borders and that any further expansion of the membership of NATO cannot just be seen as a private matter for NATO member states and candidate countries seeking to join. Russia, for its part, must accept that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was not just an ideological event but was the end of Europe’s last empire, the Russian empire, writes Sir Malcolm Rifkind, foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom between 1992-1997.
Relations between Russia and NATO are poorer than they have been for many years but attempts in both Moscow and the West to suggest that we are experiencing a new Cold War are way off the mark
The Cold War that came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had been a global struggle between superpowers which greatly exceeded today’s conflicting perceptions between Russia and the West about national interests and spheres of influence.
Firstly, the Cold War was a conflict between two nuclear armed superpowers that could have initiated a Third World War with devastating consequences. Today’s disagreements are very serious but are not on that scale.
Secondly, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union struggled alone. The US had then, as it has now, the full weight of the NATO alliance as well as major allies in the Far East, in Latin America and the Middle East.
The Soviet Union, for its part, then controlled half of Europe, almost half of Germany and half of Berlin. It had ideological support not just in Cuba and North Korea but from tens of millions of Communist supporters and sympathisers throughout the world. Russia, today, is a state with great international influence but it does not have the power of the old Soviet Union.
Today there are still governing Communist Parties in China, Cuba and a handful of other states but none are running a Communist economy or society that Lenin or Stalin would have recognised. Capitalism, sometimes with certain national “characteristics”, rules the world.
But although any ideological differences are a pale shadow of what dominated the world in the 20th century national competition not only between Russia and the West but, increasingly, between China and the West poses military challenges and threats which bear many similarities to those of the Cold War.
Today, the military build-up of Russian armed forces near their border with Ukraine; the artificial crisis created on the Belarus-Polish border; the growing competition for dominance in the Black Sea and in cyberspace, are creating a dangerous risk of conflict.
In 2010 at a meeting with Leon Panetta, then Director of the CIA, I asked him what kept him awake at night. “A cyber Pearl Harbor” was his very prescient reply.
What can be done to ameliorate and soften the bitter antagonism that has developed between Moscow on the one hand and Washington, London, Paris and Berlin on the other?
The first and most important is the resumption of meaningful dialogue, not just at the very top of government, but also between senior military personnel and at every other level where there are risks and challenges to peace and where the avoidance of conflict is becoming more difficult.
In 1982, as a young deputy Foreign Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Government I visited Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary General of the United Nations. He expressed the view that meetings between Reagan and Andropov, or Schultz and Gromyko should be so regular, and so taken for granted, that they would not be treated as failures because agreement was not reached on a specific occasion. Such meetings should not be seen as sensitive or difficult; they should be taken as a matter of course.
I was also present in December 1984 when Margaret Thatcher had her first historic meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at her country “dacha” outside London.
When she said that she believed Gorbachev was a man “with whom we could do business” it was not because they had agreed with each other. She was still the “Iron Lady” and he was a leading member of the Soviet Communist Politburo.
The meeting was a success because they had each begun to understand the other’s point of view and, to some degree, they began to trust each other. Trust does not need to depend on agreement but it is essential if the search for meaningful compromises is to help resolve international crises.
In that case Thatcher shared her views with Reagan; he began a serious dialogue with Gorbachev and the end result, thanks to both of them and their senior advisors, was the end of the Cold War and a harmonious Europe with hardly a shot being fired.
I do not suggest that such a dialogue between Biden and Putin would produce an early breakthrough and an end to the current hostility. Biden is no Reagan and Putin is, certainly, no Gorbachev. But where leaders lead their followers follow.
Lavrov and Blinken should agree not just to meet, but to authorise a series of meetings over the months to come. Lavrov should hold similar bilateral meetings with his British, German and French counterparts. Their respective military colleagues should be authorised and encouraged to do the same.
I am not naïve. I am aware that the differences of national interest and perception that exist between Russia and the West are real and will be very difficult to resolve. It might take years, or longer, but there would be an immediate sigh of relief that the process had begun.
The West, for its part, has to recognise that Russia has a legitimate interest in the security of its borders and that any further expansion of the membership of NATO cannot just be seen as a private matter for NATO member states and candidate countries seeking to join.
Russia, for its part, must accept that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was not just an ideological event but was the end of Europe’s last empire, the Russian empire. The British, French, Spanish and other European empires had already disappeared never to return. Russia, and its President, must recognise that Ukraine, the Baltic States and other post-Soviet states are now truly independent and must enjoy the territorial integrity and sovereign independence that the rest of the United Nations enjoys.The future is not what it used to be! Moscow, Washington and other capitals must not be deterred by the current impasse. A previous one was broken in 1989 to the benefit of the world as a whole. However slowly it can, and must, happen again.