Only a couple of weeks ago the traditionally anonymous sources in the Russian Foreign Ministry promised to roll back Moscow's cooperation with the United States on issues like Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. The reason for this was the decision by the State Department to introduce a visa ban against those functionaries of law enforcement agencies in Russia who are suspected of having had a hand in the tragic death of lawyer and accountant Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention in 2009, having allegedly uncovered corrupt schemes that policemen, tax inspectors and prosecutors used to defraud the company he worked for and get illegal tax rebates to the tune of $200 million. This raised a lot of criticism in the Russian blogosphere as well as probably in other media for putting the country's strategic interests on the line for a very dubious motive.
Today, the same sources are claiming that no cooperation with the United States will be suspended, but that Russia will instead compile its own list of personae non grata, who will be refused a Russian visa in case they ever decide to apply for one. Among those unlucky ones are possibly prosecutors and FBI agents involved in the cases of two Russians accused by the United States of illegal gun and drug trafficking. “The list will not be made public,” a Russian Foreign Ministry source told a couple of trusted hacks. It may not even exist, I hasten to add. This is a classic “clampdown.”
I wonder whether the Russian diplomats see the not so subtle irony of the fact that the Americans purport to ostracize those alleged to have murdered an innocent person, while the Russian list seems to ban from entering Russia those who investigate allegations of real crimes. But fine tuning is not modern Russian diplomacy's strong suit. And for good reasons.
I have worked as a diplomatic correspondent for a major Russian paper for several years and do not blame the diplomats. They are like that famous Wild West saloon piano player: doing the best they can in the circumstances. Any Ministry of Foreign Affairs in any country has to defend national interests and provide a continuity in spite of political changes. This is not the case in Russia.
The events of August 1991 marked a watershed in Russian history, the significance of which is still not fully assessed. Russia then has become to a large extent a completely new country, one that never existed before in such borders, with such ethnic and religious composition and, what is important, with such a political system. It is fair to say that 20 years on Russia is still a work in progress, trying to find its way from Soviet totalitarianism to becoming a normal nation state. Defining national interests for a transient entity that Russia is today is a difficult task, to say the least. With a political class that is largely unable and uninterested in formulating ideas that would take Russia forward, this becomes nearly impossible. When a society doesn't know what it wants to be and what values it is ready to adopt as its own, how can it figure out its foreign policy interests? Moreover, how can its diplomats defend something that is undefined?
This is one of the reasons Russia's external relations are so disproportionately dependent on domestic political developments – the struggle for the country's future impacts them very strongly. Another factor plays a role: apathy of the population, weak civil society and muzzled media leave the ruling class's decision-making pretty much unaccountable. Hence, Russian foreign policy frequently reflects not so much the interests of the country and society, but those of the bureaucracy that runs the country pretty much singlehandedly. This bureaucracy perceives the West as its main enemy because it knows: following Western models will soon divest it of the nearly unlimited powers it has over Russia. That's why Molotov-like pronouncements and demonstrative inflexibility remain the hallmarks of Russia's diplomacy.
This is the defensive reaction to the void that diplomats find where a clear set of priorities should be. However, Russia is not the Soviet Union and the world around us is not that of a “cold war” black-and-white starkness. So Moscow's hardline rhetoric for the most part remains just that – rhetoric. The story of the “Magnitsky List” is a good illustration to this fact.
However, there is a ray of light as well. Scaling down confrontation and admitting that engagement with America on Afghanistan on Iran is a priority is an example of rational and forward-looking thinking. Whoever admitted this and steered the Foreign Ministry towards a face-saving option had Russia's best long-term interests at heart. Which means they still can be discerned after all, even in the haze of post-Soviet ideological confusion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.