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Probably the most tense panel discussion of the current International Press Institute conference came this afternoon, with former Soviet and Russian ambassador to the U.K. Anatoly Adamishin, The Economist's Russia and Eastern Europe correspondent Edward Lucas, and Indian international affairs scholar Brahma Chellaney discussing the question of whether a "new Cold War" was in the cards between Russia and the West.
It's a ridiculous question; obviously there's not going to be a new Cold War in any meaningful sense of the term. But the panel opened up much of the same vicious tension between Russia and the Euro-American bloc that one recognizes from Cold War days.
My takeaway is going to be hard to explain. Here's the deal: at Western-oriented international forums these days, the Russians tend to be isolated on foreign policy questions. They're attacked over their actions in Georgia. They're attacked over Putin's threats to dismember Ukraine if it joins NATO. They're attacked over the murders of journalists and over the re-sanctification of Stalin in history books.
All of these things are, indeed, bad. But I think we in the West ought, if we want to encourage Russians to join the Western consensus, to find better language for talking about these issues and to respect the degree to which one's viewpoint on international issues is determined by where you were born. The way we talk to Russians we encounter at international events is almost guaranteed to provoke a defensive, dismissive reaction.
One saw this at the panel discussion, the result of which was to leave one of the more progressive Russian voices around feeling angry and defensive. Adamishin is a very progressive guy who strongly desires a return to more genuine democratic freedoms in Russia, and wants the country to become more Western-oriented. The tensions opened up when the question of NATO expansion was raised. Adamishin said the expansion of NATO to Russia's neighbors was provocative, and was interfering with Russia's ability to pursue better relations with the West, to "reset" the relationship. Lucas disagreed: "A lot of people said back in the '90s, whatever we do, don't bring Baltics into NATO. Well thank goodness we did, because it pushed the zone of security East." Without NATO, the Baltic countries' disagreements with Russia would be the source of potential military conflict in Eastern Europe.
That pushed Adamishin into a corner. A young woman from Russia Today, the government-backed English-language TV channel, asked him a supporting question: "Do you think the negative image of Russia and fear of return of Cold War is a kind of a tool of politicians outside? Maybe having Russia as a potential enemy is easier than as a friend?"
Adamishin's reply was a bit confusing: "I don't like NATO, to tell the truth, and I will never like NATO. With all good objectives, it is a military alliance where the US plays the main role. If you're inside Russia, have to think twice when a military alliance comes to your borders...It is a military alliance who made war like in 1999 over Yugoslavia, and makes war like now in Afghanistan. I would be for Russia entering NATO, then let's speak of a joint effort ... We disagree just because we don't want to be out."
He continued: "I may assure you that our neighbors shouldn't be afraid we will drive them into our courtyard. The imperial project is too big and people in our government are too practical. But we don't like to see our neighbors in a military alliance where there is no place for Russia."
This sounded like a strange mix of wallflower resentment and historical mendacity. (What Westerner could be expected to share the implicit assumption that the interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan were wrong?) A Danish questioner then said the reply showed that NATO expansion had been exactly right, because Adamishin didn't accept the right of Russia's small neighbors to make their own decisions about which alliances to join. Lucas became vehement about Adamishin's contention in passing that the Baltic states had not fought for their freedom, that they had been "given" their freedom by Russia; he restated the obvious, that they had been conquered and subjected by the USSR and that they belonged as independent nations.
Adamishin's replies became increasingly long-winded as he sought to excuse his country's positions, even though he's a Putin opponent. I decided to ask Lucas, rather than Adamishin, a question: "Why do the Russians see it as being in their interests to have all these breakaway republics, in Georgia or Moldova or wherever? Regardless of who's at fault, why is it in Russian interests?" Lukas referred me to a YouTube video from December 2007 of Putin saying some strange things about Estonian independence, essentially saying that Estonia and other small Baltic states were just pocket change that was traded back and forth between Germany and Russia and that while their independence now was a settled issue, it was also a matter of historical chance. By the time Adamishin left he seemed to be fuming.
At dinner, I walked up to the Russia Today woman and asked about how she'd felt at the conference earlier. She didn't want to talk about it. "To be honest I felt somewhat uncomfortable," she said. "I try to avoid this kind of question in these settings. Of course I defend my country, I'm sure you would too in the same situation."
We spoke for a while longer, somewhat uncomfortably; I wound up getting along more easily with her colleague, a South African woman who reports from Israel for them. But they gave me the opportunity to bring the question back to that issue of being the only one in the room coming from one's country's perspective, while everyone else is ganging up against you. It's not a good feeling. And speaking as a Jew with a small amount of insight into the Israeli perspective, I can say something else: even if your country is wrong, encountering criticism of this sort from self-righteous Americans and Europeans doesn't make you more critical of your own country. It makes you defensive and resistant.
I think Russia has been wrong on a number of international issues over the past decade, and that the country's misguided foreign policies are to a large extent determined by its authoritarian internal policies. But I also think that for the purposes of encounters with Russian intelligentsia and analytical elites who might be persuaded to embrace their European heritage rather than trend the opposite way, we Westerners need to discover a language and an attitude that is less arrogant and less self-righteous, more open and persuasive. It's not doing anybody any good to make a 27-year-old editor at Russia Today feel like Americans and Europeans look down on her. It's just cementing her into the same kinds of resentments one can hear in Adamishin's statement: "We disagree just because we don't want to be out."