Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
‘We have a joke in Russia — that when Russian men get together at work they talk about ladies,’ said Vladimir Putin after a session in the pub with Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007). ‘And when they meet outside the office with the ladies, they talk about work.’
In November 2000, with the Florida recount underway and the United States still poised in its choice between George Bush and Al Gore, Tony Blair travelled to Moscow for a good-natured meeting with the newish Russian president. Relations were sufficiently convivial for the two leaders to stage a photo opportunity in a Moscow bar, where they apparently talked high diplomacy.
Blair was forming a certain view of Russia, which would have wider implications.
In his memoirs, which were published in 2010, Blair contrasted early twenty-first-century Russia with the Soviet Union. The latter ‘had the wrong system of government and economy’, but ‘it was nevertheless a power; it was treated with respect, even feared. It counted.’ It was little wonder that Russians’ view of the world had recently been shot through with anxiety. Such was his starting point for engaging with President Putin, custodian of nearly half the world’s nuclear weapons, and who is ‘quintessentially a nationalist.’
Plainly, the warmth of their early discussions cooled. Why? ‘Vladimir later came to believe that the Americans did not give him his due place. Worse, he saw them as circling Russia with Western-supporting “democracies” who were going to be hostile to Russian interests.’
In the end, Blair drew a distinction between what drove his own (and also George Bush II’s) approach to foreign policy, and the way that Putin understood the diplomatic world. Blair and Bush were about liberal interventionism, the diplomacy of aggressive democracy-building. Putin, by contrast, was all about old-fashioned great-power politics.
What Tony Blair thinks matters. He was the most brilliantly gifted British politician of his generation or the next, uniquely capable of winning a hat trick of elections for the Labour Party. As a practitioner of foreign policy, he allowed Britain to punch far above its weight.
But which foreign policy outlook allows for the better glimpse of world peace: Blair’s idealism or Putin’s realism? There is a second – unrelated? – question: whether Blair’s sense of Russia’s diplomatic reality, not to mention his own diplomatic skills, might not have helped short-circuit the crisis in Ukraine.