Saturday, March 7, 2015

How much expertise did we have in the past?

The latest report from the House of Lords European Union Committee, The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine, has, quite justifiably, had a great deal of media attention. I wish more of those reports did - they tend to be very well researched and clearly argued. This one caught the media's attention because it was dealing with political events that are unfolding in an urgent manner and because it, again justifiably, criticized very strongly, indeed, the government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Ministries of other EU member states and the EU itself, particularly the European External Action Service (EEAS). The immediate response from the FCO, which bleatingly tried to explain that nobody could have predicted anything merely proved that the report was accurate in its assessment of that institution.

There are various aspects to the report, which will need to be analyzed but, to start with, I should like to focus on something that has been repeated many times in the last few years as Russia morphed from a relatively friendly power (that was a long time ago) to an unfriendly and, more recently, completely hostile one: and that is that we, Britain as well as other EU member states no longer have the analytical capacity to understand what is going on there and to predict possible actions on that country's part.

In fact, Paragraph 62 states:
Sir Tony Brenton believed that UK diplomacy was "pretty good", but that it had "suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office." This had had a direct effect on the capacity of the FCO to respond to recent events. There was "quite lot of complaint in Whitehall after the annexation of Crimea that the Foreign Office had not been able to give the sort of advice that was needed at the time."
Speaking as someone who used to teach Russian at the FCO I find that particularly shocking. Does he really mean that there are no longer people in that hallowed institution who can speak and read Russian and/or Ukrainian?

Sir Tony Brenton KCMG is, incidentally,former British Ambassador to Russia and Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and Mr John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, and I should dearly love to know how good his Russian is or was but I may be biased as I do not think I ever taught him.

There is a deal of truth in the assumption that knowledge has disappeared but not totally. There have been many non-government institutions in the last few years whose analysts have produced useful papers, articles and even the odd book, which predicted various scenarios not too dissimilar from the one we are watching now. Why exactly were these papers etc not read by our boffins in the FCO or the EEAS?

We know that the BBC Russian Service has been eviscerated and that has deprived the country of much knowledge but also of the capacity to respond to Russian propaganda. Certainly, attention both in the FCO and the various security services veered away from Russia as another threat seemed more urgent though how anyone could think since the 2008 war in Georgia that Russia was not a problem on the international scene is beyond my capacity to understand.

What I want to look at is the myth because that is what it is, in my opinion, that in the past we had this astonishing network of people in academia, in the foreign and diplomatic service, in the media who really understood what was going on in the Soviet Union and the Communist countries, could predict certain scenarios and plan for them.

Sadly, this is not my recollection and when I point this out to those who complain about the present state of affairs, they often agree with me. What I remember is academics who, with very few exceptions, asserted that the difference between the Soviet system and a western-style democracy was one of degree rather than anything more fundamental. How many times did I read or hear the comment that people do turn up for various meetings and take part in them and that proves that there is a democratic process of a kind going on. These were people who held and continued to hold academic posts.

The FCO and its minions as well as the well paid academics failed to predict many things, starting with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (my father was one of the very few who insisted that the Soviet Union could not and would not allow the so-called Communism with a human face to survive) all the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it was becoming ever more probable as things disintegrated under Gorbachev's attempts to reinvigorate the system.

I am pleased to say that a highly regarded witness would probably agree with me, as is clear from Paragraph 57, which then goes on to suggest that things have got worse:
Mr Klaus recalled that there had been a historic asymmetry, whereby former communist countries "knew the West much more than you knew the East", and that this asymmetry remained. His Excellency Dr Revaz Gachechiladze, Georgian Ambassador to the UK, also noted that there was "not a good understanding of Russia in the West". Turning to recent events, Mr Lukyanov recalled that on the day of the Crimean referendum, when the question had already been announced, he continued to receive disbelieving calls from European diplomats saying: "'It cannot happen. It is just a bluff'." He warned us that with "this level of analysis, I am afraid that more surprises are to come, and not only from Russia." Dr Casier agreed that there was a "huge need for more knowledge about the local situation both in Russia and in the Eastern Partnership countries." This was where "we have to build much stronger analytical capacity." Dr Casier pointed out that President Yanukovych's decision not to sign the Association Agreement (AA) "had been the subject of speculation in the Ukrainian press long before he announced his decision, but took the EU by total surprise."
While I am not sure about that asymmetry former President Klaus talks about (the Communist countries got many things wrong as well) I certainly recall the willful blindness of the West.

Randomly, I recall arguments with young ambitious academics who insisted that the way forward was to make friends with various Soviet representatives here, listen to them in a friendly fashion and use their statements as material. Some of these had been students of the great Professor Leonard Schapiro and were openly exultant in the fact that they took a very different stance and attitude from his. (The fact that he knew what he was talking about did not bother them - the man was a back number and his students, who took that very different route, were taking over.)

I recall a very public spat (in the columns of the Times Literary Supplement, no less) with a very eminent Oxford academic whose name, for the moment and with gritted teeth, I am going to keep quiet who was arguing that the Communist system under Gorbachev was evolving  into something resembling an open, democratic society. One of my several arguments against that was that the Soviet Union was the only one of the more or less developed countries that refused to allow hostile critics into the country. Not so, argued my opponent, they do sometimes refuse entry to people who might have family connections in the present or the past but otherwise they are very open.

Of course, people with family connections may well speak the language well and can find their way around the place and the system without any official help, which may be the reason why they were not allowed in, a problem that did not bother the eminent academic in the slightest. Nor did he seem perturbed by the fact that he could research and study only carefully vetted material.

One more recollection. During my time of teaching Russian in the FCO one of my tasks was to help people who had been seconded to the Cabinet Office but were about to be sent to the USSR to revive their knowledge of the language. Although this was taking place in 1990 - 1991 there was no suggestion that anyone in the FCO was thinking about the possibility that the Soviet Union would not last.

In February 1991, as some readers will recall, John Major visited the Soviet Union and had meetings with President Gorbachev, Lithuania President Landsbergis but not Yeltsin who had, by this time "elected chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), in spite of the fact that Gorbachev personally pleaded with the Russian deputies not to select Yeltsin". In effect he was the President of Russia and as the Soviet Union was on its last legs, he was going to head the largest and most important of the successor states.

Why, I asked one of my students, fresh from his stint with the Cabinet Office, in our Russian discussion of politics and related matters, did Mr Major not meet Boris Yeltsin? I was told that there had been a great deal of heart searching in the FCO and it was decided by all those highly intelligent and knowledgeable experts that it would be better if there was no official meeting between the two.

As I wrote in my obituary of President Yeltsin on my erstwhile blogging home:
In March 1989 Yeltsin was elected to the Soviet Parliament and in 1990 he became Chairman of the Russian Parliament, the Republic’s effective President, the first one to be elected.

You would think that by this stage it would have become clear to the experts in the West that the Soviet Union was probably doomed. Not so but far from it. While many of us, interested in the country, realized this, the solid cohort of Foreign Office experts and academic sovietologists continued to extol Gorbachev as the country’s hope. Yeltsin was apparently dismissed from too many calculations even though he obviously represented the future with Gorbachev unable to keep up with him.
I rest my case.

The report is correct in that the situation is now probably worse than it was during the Cold War as, it would appear, that the skills the FCO and other institutions look for have little to do with knowledge, learning or analytical skills. It is also true that for years, far longer than was justified, there has been an official view that Russia was not really a problem and even if it was not quite as friendly as we thought it would be, it was not really all that unfriendly though the evidence was mounting. What I find hard to accept is the view of some wonderful past situation when this was all completely different.


  1. I cannot help but think of Mitt Romney’s remark, during the 2012 presidential election, about the Russian threat to American foreign policy, and how he was belittled by progressive Democrat liberals and by moderates in the GOP.

  2. Enjoyed reading this post very much, as every now and then I come across an article or watch a film about Russian history (most recently a re-viewing of Nicholas and Alexandra) and wish I knew more about the country. Can you recommend a volume or two (readily available) on Russian history for the complete novice, and perhaps a volume on contemporary Russian politics/events?

  3. Helen - I think it simply that as in so many other fields, the Government, and certainly the Executive only listens to the voices that chime with its world view.

    I would contend that in general we are governed substantially worse than we used to be and the decline of competence is inversely correlated to the growth in "competencies" (in the EU sense).

    I suspect that it is considered difficult enough to navigate the conflicting currents of EU/Party/Media without having to worry about Reality as well!

  4. At my place of employment there are a few Russian people who have decided to make this country there home, and have become citizens. Extrapolating (dangerous I know) that must mean there are possibly thousands of native Russian speakers living in this country, in fact possibly more so than at any time in our history. It would be ironic given this that the Government knowledge of Russia is poorer than ever before.

    I remember the good old days of Kremlinology, and the Kremlinologists, whatever happened to all of that?

  5. I remember the good old days of Kremlinology as well and the rubbish that produced, which is, partly, my point. Those who are alive are still around. The Oxford professor I had that public spat with is now a highly regarded professor emeritus.

    Like most historians I have to disagree with the idea that we are governed substantially worse than before. The merest look at past events would show it to be wrong. What we are is more governed - that is the problem. We notice how bad it all is because it all affects us so much more.

    Let me just repeat: I do not believe in the myth that there was so much more knowledge about Russia or the Soviet Union in the past. Evidence shows otherwise. It may have got worse and that is because of the official and mostly unofficial world view of the nineties that the Cold War was over and will be coming no more but neither academia nor the FCO was particularly clever about it all in the past.