Culture notes: Russia wouldn’t do that!

Column by Catherine Fieschi – The World Today, Chatham House

As Russia’s war on Ukraine unfolds, Europe and more broadly ‘the West’ are in self-congratulatory mode. After years of polarization and populism across advanced economies, red lines abandoned and struggles to rally behind some of the most basic challenges such as climate change, the unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russia has focused minds. The declining West has found a purpose and a cause.

As many have pointed out, in a few short weeks Putin managed to do what nothing else – not even Covid – had done for the declining West. In the United States, President Biden has found a cause that, against all expectations, seems to work across partisan lines. In Europe, the slow, corrosive, post-Brexit nit-picking between the European Union and Britain has abated somewhat.

Perhaps most remarkably, under the weight of the drama on their doorstep the EU have been transformed: Germany has abruptly jettisoned decades of guilt-induced pacifism; Sweden and Finland have, in effect, ditched their long-held neutrality; Poland and Hungary are playing by the rules in terms of refugees; and the EU, this heavily procedural legal, commercial and administrative construct, seems to have found a voice as a power.

The EU is speaking as one on sanctions and as one on a geopolitical identity that only a few months ago seemed like no more than Emmanuel Macron’s Gaullist fantasy. In the space of a few weeks the bloc pulled together an energy plan that commits to cutting its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds by the end of the year. The momentum towards a renewables-based energy supply looks irreversible.

Yet, this has all emerged from what appeared to be a dialogue of the deaf between the EU and its allies. Whereas the Americans had been warning for months that an invasion of Ukraine by Russia was imminent, European capitals – including, most importantly, Kyiv – refused to believe it.

This is not about diplomatic efforts: even if both sides had shared the same conviction about the imminence of a Russian attack, diplomatic efforts would have continued. No, Americans and Europeans were looking at the same intelligence and drawing different conclusions.

There are a host of reasons: the fact that trust in the US was overshadowed by the painful memories of Iraq; the debacle of Afghanistan and the Aukus security alliance; that Britain’s support of US interpretations was attributed to its special relationship with Washington, rather than its special relationship with Moscow, and its closer intelligence monitoring of Russia post-Litvinenko and post-Skripal poisonings. Other explanations lie in the cultural and historical frames through which geopolitical relationships are interpreted.

Partly, there is the march of history. Europeans thought they were done with war on European soil. It was now unthinkable, but also unthought. And however numerous the signs since – Crimea and Syria to name but two – it was difficult to let go of the notion that that part of history had ended.

Even when Russia was the USSR, the ‘burden’ of depicting it as an enemy colossus tended to land on the US rather than Europe. For Europeans, Russia is a neighbour – a mercurial and mysterious one admittedly, but one with whom relationships run deep. Sometimes this translated into a debt of shame from the Second World War – the suffering inflicted on Russians in the battle of Stalingrad remains a live issue in Germany to this day.

But often, too, the relationship is one of deep ideological ties. In France and in Italy, respective communist parties laid the groundwork for relationships that began in the 1920s and lasted throughout the Cold War. Italy’s Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti had dual Italian and Soviet citizenship. He even had a Russian city named after him, Togliatti, where the French car firm Renault has its plant and employs 39,000 people. The willingness to talk to Moscow stretched across the party system. In the 1960s, Italy’s prime minister Giovanni Gronchi, of the Christian Democratic Party, was the first leader from the West to visit the Soviet Union.

A broadly similar version of this story also applies to France. The wish to manage a relationship with both Russia and the US has always been present but doesn’t necessarily make for dispassionate assessments. Even for the Nordics, the relationship to Russia is made up of obvious ambiguous closeness – from Finland’s Finlandization and their 1,340km shared border, to the shared border with Norway, via the Russo-Swedish war. These uneasy relationships are also characterized by ethnic proximity. The jump-starting of the EU as a power has also been notable for an unprecedented civic mobilization to welcome the millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine. Some have been quick to point out that their whiteness and Christian-ness had much too much to do with the generosity on display.

That may be the bitter, and no less accurate, side of this story. But it also highlights the fact that for Europeans the sense of recognition stretches well to the East and towards Russia. Perhaps even well into Russia, whose people, if not whose government, they recognize as neighbours.

This column by Catherine Fieschi first appeared in The World Today, Chatham House, 1 April 2022


Catherine Fieschi


Chatham House; The World Today

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