Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Turkish armed forces shoot down a Russian plane on the Syrian border. What could be a more preposterous pretext for starting World War III? But Turkey is a NATO member, and Russia isn’t. NATO was built for a different time and a different place. In a new age, the conventional approach to NATO becomes dangerous.
One assumes that avoiding World War III is the top priority of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister since 2004. He looks worried enough, dealing with his country’s policy towards Ukraine or Turkey. His predecessor of precisely a century ago, Sergei Sazonov, was charged with avoiding World War I. Like his counterparts across Europe, Sazonov failed.
We can’t yet know whether today’s Sergei has his heart in the right place. But yesterday’s Sergei probably did. Dominic Lieven, the historian who has so brilliantly described the political elite of late imperial Russia, calls Sazonov ‘one of the kindest and most decent men to serve as Russian Foreign Minister’, ‘modest, friendly, and honest.’ He was — probably high praise from Professor Lieven — ‘no fool’.
Capable of suspending his instinctive Slavophilism when designing policy, Sazonov saw Constantinople, which Muscovite dreamers had long viewed as a Russian target, as irrelevant: what mattered was guaranteeing access for Russian trade through the narrow straits which Turkey controlled between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That required pragmatism and compromise.
But Sazonov struggled with the competing challenges of alliance building in the region. In 1911, Turkey and Italy were at war. In the diplomatic fog, the Russian ambassador to Constantinople saw a chance to build an historic, unconventional connection to the Ottoman Empire, but Sazonov and the Tsar disagreed. In the run-up to 1914, Russia failed to develop a clear strategy for dealing with its declining and anxious Ottoman rival.
This was partly because Sazonov suffered from a character flaw. According to Lieven, ‘Sazonov had a conventional mind not given to systematic or original thinking. He was very unlikely to question the assumptions of his class, nation, or era.’ Sazonov might have been on the side of the angels, but his policies did not make Russia more secure, as the coming of the Great War showed.
Perhaps Sergei Lavrov will move beyond his predecessor’s failures, and help craft a Russian policy towards its neighbours that enhances everyone’s security. That would take courageous unconventionality, and be worth a Nobel Peace Prize.
But risky conventionality is the norm in international relations. Take the response of European leaders to the crisis of which the downed Russian military jet (and the bombed Russian airliner over Egypt last month) are consequences. Dropping bombs on civilians has become the great power convention when dealing with the Middle East. Listen to the British Prime Minister in the House of Commons this week, reading out the latest chapter of the same old story. What could be more conventional than his speech and his policy?