Russia And Regret: Lessons In Picking Your Partners In Politics
Seeking out reliable long term partners is a challenge: whether in business; politics; diplomacy — or espionage. The task is to identify those you can count on even as the world changes, and events do not turn out as foreseen. The west’s relations with Russia offer some valuable lessons.
Since the end of Communism in 1991, Russia has experienced more upheaval than many other countries. Twenty-five years ago this week, parts of central Moscow became a battlefield as supporters of the then President, Boris Yeltsin, exchanged fire with groups taking the side of the Soviet-era parliament in a constitutional crisis which became an armed confrontation.
Mr Yeltsin prevailed, but his erratic behaviour — including tales of un-presidential incidents of public drunkenness — continued to worry those western politicians who had placed such faith in him as the man who would stop Russia returning to its Marxist-Leninist past.
It is little wonder, then, that some western leaders were ready to welcome Mr Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, onto the world stage.
President George W. Bush famously said in 2001 that he found Mr Putin ‘straightforward and trustworthy’ and that he had been ‘able to get a sense of his soul’.
This was followed some years later by an invitation to Mr Putin to visit the United States. Part of the trip was spent as Mr Bush’s guest at the Bush family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
The British Prime Minister at the time of Mr Putin’s rise to power, Tony Blair, went a step further. Mr Blair visited Mr Putin before the Russian leader was even confirmed in his post as Russian President.
The visit took place earlier in the month — March 2000 — in which Mr Putin won the election that put him in the Kremlin’s top job (he had been acting President since Mr Yeltsin’s shock resignation on January 31st, 1999).
Now the former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Richard Dearlove, has admitted that there is ‘significant regret’ over the trip, which is seen as having helped Mr Putin’s rise to power.
Sir Richard was speaking at the Cliveden Literary Festival in England. He said that he had been approached at the time by a KGB officer seeking Britain’s help in boosting Mr Putin’s political profile, and that, after a ‘long discussion’ it was decided that Mr Blair should accept an invitation to attend a performance of the opera ‘War and Peace’ in St Petersburg.
Eighteen years on, relations between Russia and the west have long soured. President Trump’s meeting with Mr Putin in Helsinki in the summer may have passed off cordially enough. It also left Mr Trump facing widespread criticism.