Bear shrug

Russia First
March 20, 1998

What price Nato's planned enlargement to the east? To the Russian view that major threats to Russia's security would emanate from the south and east, the Muslim world and China, there has been added the notion of a long-term threat from the West. It is this aversion, rejection or frustration that Peter Truscott explores in Russia First.

The author utilised his membership of the European Union delegation for relations with the Russian Federation to explore the views of "literally hundreds of politicians, business people, academics, military officers" and others from a "broad spectrum of Russian society". These exchanges, combined with substantial academic research, have persuaded him that "Russia First" has become "the dominant school of thought in modern Russia", a "bipartisan tenet of belief" embracing liberal democrats, communists and "national patriots". He defines "Russia First" as that school of thought replacing "structural and intellectual attachment to Western political and economic values and models" with "a more balanced view" of Russia's traditional and historical interests", Russians seeking "uniquely Russians solutions to internal and external conundrums".

If December 1995 can be identified with the demise of "full-blooded westernisation", the entrenchment of "Russia First" policies coincided with the presidential elections of July 1996. Truscott traces the decline and fall of westernisation through foreign and domestic policies, the reassertion of Russia's place in the world, the divergence of Russian security interests from those of the West. At home economic interests are pursued at the expense of foreign investment.

Russian criminality, coupled with a defective legal system, is a malign stimulus to "Russia First"'s exclusiveness, the former in particular not only prejudicing foreign investment but placing the lives of investors at risk. The law, such as it is, limps ineffectually behind organised crime and corruption; financial crime flourishes more luxuriantly than the proverbial green bay tree or its Russian equivalent.

The author admits the representation of "Russia First" as a "new school of thought" is controversial. It is arguably also less than wholly defensible. The issue of Russia's identity and its place in the world is far from new, as his own introductory chapter shows. Much of the text demonstrates that this new-found "Russia First" is more the embodiment of contrived and devious political manipulation, much less a "bi-partisan tenet of belief".

The degree of supposed conviction is everywhere accompanied with an eye on the electorate and electoral success. Even the most avid proponents of "Russia First" must guard against losing wider public support, above all against alienating younger Russian voters unwilling to become once again artificially estranged or distanced from the West. Nevertheless Truscott argues that "Russia First" is here to stay, "a political fact of life for the foreseeable future", an indispensable strategy for any presidential hopeful conscious of the evolving "Eurasian identity" of Russia.

Whether "breaking with the West" and exploiting its "Eurasian identity" leads Russia towards "more comfortable and familiar territory" is questionable, but in Russia First Truscott presents a cogent exposition, informed analysis and persuasive arguments in its favour. Whatever provides even a modicum of comfort for discomfited, disinherited Russians cannot be wholly bad either for them or for us.

John Erickson is emeritus professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

Russia First: Breaking with the West

Author - Peter Truscott
ISBN - 1 86064 199 7
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £24.50
Pages - 8

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