Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Would you trust a KGB man? Condoleezza Rice was close to Sergei Ivanov when she was National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State during the presidency of George W. Bush. Ivanov was then the Russian Minister of Defence, though he had started his career in the security ‘organs’ and is now head of Putin’s presidential administration. Their connection was important during the aftermath of 9/11, not to mention subsequent crises, such as in Georgia in 2008.
‘Sergei was tough and somewhat suspicious of the United States, but he was dependable,’ wrote Rice in her memoirs. ‘He never told me that he would do something that he would not do.’ In a BBC documentary aired in 2012, the two are shown backstage at the Bolshoi, preferring to laugh and swap relaxed notes on foreign policy than watch the ballet. ‘Our channel remained the most important and discreet one between the White House and the Kremlin,’ Rice later wrote.
In an interview in today’s Financial Times, Sergei Ivanov makes the case for international calm. He’s tough, warning NATO off from stockpiling weapons near Russia’s borders, and calling for a resolution to the Ukraine crisis before ties with the ‘West’ can be normalized. He’s also diplomatic, making the most respectful of comments about the United States, ‘the leading country in the world’. And he argues against an imaginary gap between Russian and Europe, or Russia and the West:
‘If you recognize that the Russians are largely European by culture, by religion, by mentality — and that’s obviously so — if we talk about Europe, let’s talk about a large and common Europe, and not about a Europe with dividing lines.’
Sergei Ivanov has been a spy, diplomat and politician, so there are at least three reasons to treat his words with caution. But, like Condoleezza Rice, we should try to decode what he says. After all, his comments on Europe make sense. Just how should we define a set of ‘European’ institutions that reflexively exclude Russia and Turkey, that half of Greece thinks of as a mortal threat, and that Britain is voting on whether to leave?