The seventh Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) was on Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 April. Listening to the speeches and chatting with various people during and after it, my first thoughts concern three related issues: the growing confidence of Russian policy; soft power; and shared concern about the increasing risks in global politics, together with deep differences about where those risks come from.
These are difficult times in relations between Russia and the West, to put it mildly. There are so many tough issues between them, from the Skripal nerve gas attack in Salisbury on 4 March to Ukraine and Crimea, from doubts about the future of arms control to warfare in Syria (though the latest escalation, with reports of a chemical warfare attack in Douma and the air raid on the T-4/Tiyas airbase, was yet to happen). In such times, we need more contact, not less, more dialogue not the rituals of confrontation.
I first attended the MCIS two years ago. Later that year, comparing it with two similar conferences in the international security calendar, I commented on the seeming increase in the self-confidence of Russian policy. At this year’s conference, that seems to have gone further; certainly the kind of deep insecurity that was on display at this year’s Munich Security Conference was absent here.
One impression several of the few Europeans present seemed to share was that Russian policy and its official representatives just seem to care less about the West than before. Listening to the speeches in the plenary sessions on the first morning, I noticed but one mention of President Trump. The US was primarily mentioned as a problem, the UK as an irritant and exclusively in the context of the Skripal nerve gas attack in Salisbury, the EU not at all. The focus of interest – where the real action lies – was to Russia’s East and South.
This does not quite fit with what you can see if you take a walk in the centre of Moscow– the visibility of Western brands in the shops, the cafés and the cars. Question: in how many Western capitals do you see well known Russian brands? Anecdotal evidence like this is of little weight but it does gesture at a closer linkage with the West and a greater degree of continuing economic semi-integration than the rhetoric on either side would usually lead you to believe. It is also redolent of the economic weakness that continues in the world’s 11th largest economy. The fast economic growth of 2000-2008 has gone. Falling oil prices and Western sanctions since 2014, adopted in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine, hit the economy hard. It picked up in 2017 but lags behind the EU and US.
The foreign policy confidence, nonetheless, feels real (I know how non-hard-evidence that remark is but there you go – I’m not claiming to do any more than pass on some impressions). Having been unable to achieve the integration with the West that seemed promised in the 1990s, Russia has reoriented to Asia. Its confidence reflects a narrative that quite a large audience inside and outside Russia finds persuasive. Projecting it is partly what the MCIS is for. The narrative is about Russia respecting international institutions and law, unlike US Presidents who routinely flout international law (think Iraq, think extraordinary rendition) and, of course, though barely naming him, unlike President Trump who openly disdains international institutions and agreements. It is about Russia being a responsible foreign policy actor who leads a major and successful anti-terror campaign, implicitly unlike another power that has led an unsuccessful one. It is about Russia spurning double standards, unlike I won’t say who, and recognising that there are no good terrorists or bad terrorists, just terrorists.
And one interesting thing about all this, is that Russia puts this narrative across with confidence and sometimes panache, without having the firm economic foundations of China. Or, indeed, of the US. In that sense, Russia is punching above its weight in international affairs.
In the speeches, in the conversations and in the background to the conversations, there was Novichok – the nerve agent used in the attack in Salisbury. The official Russian view treats the accusation of Russian responsibility and the expulsion of diplomats as a manufactured piece of theatre. At the Moscow conference, the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service called the attack “a grotesque provocation by British and US intelligence agencies.” Foreign Minister Lavrov followed up the next day by drawing on Alice in Wonderland for a jibe (at about 40 seconds in this clip) about the sentence coming before the verdict.
Responding to serious charges about use of a nerve agent with sarcasm and unsubstantiated counter claims does not, in my own view, reflect well on the Russian government. This is something that should be taken seriously. But it is hard to deny that Lavrov scored a point.
Circumstantial evidence does indeed suggest some degree of Russian responsibility. It is hard to disagree that the most likely explanations of what happened are, as UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a very precisely worded statement on 12 March, either that the Russian state did it or that it has at some point allowed the Novichok nerve agent to get into the hands of others. That does not mean other explanations are impossible and it does not mean the argument is closed. In that statement, the Prime Minister asked for patience so the investigation could continue and actions be taken on the basis of evidence, not speculation.
But consider what came next. Six days later she announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”. Presumably, therefore, additional evidence had emerged through scrupulous, forensic investigation?
Two more days later, on 20 March, Boris Johnson confirmed this in an interview with Deutsche Welle by saying that “the guy” at the Porton Down Defence Science and Technology Laboratory had assured him that the agent used in the attack came from Russia.
But two weeks later – after an additional 26 countries had also expelled Russian diplomats – we heard from the Chief Executive at Porton Down (was he Johnson’s “guy”?). He said they had not and could not confirm where the Novichok came from. In other words, while there may well be further evidence, not speculation, about the case, it did not come from Porton Down.
In the arid business of diplomatic tit-for-tat, Russia scored a point and sowed some doubt. That doubt does not only come from the UK Foreign Secretary over-stepping the limits of his brief. To my mind, by the way, he is visibly uncomfortable in the Deutsche Welle interview (at about 5 min 40 secs in the film of it). Was he really just winging it because of an insistent interviewer? But beyond Johnson, doubt is sown by the speed of the reaction. Why could the UK government not wait for the outcome of the investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which has now been initiated?
The probable answer to that lies in pressure within UK politics and media to act quickly. That pressure is a political reality but, especially in a case of such deep importance and potentially wide ramifications as this, it should not trump the principle of respect for the evidence and of continuing the investigation until the room for honest doubt has narrowed out of sight. A stronger government could act more slowly and therefore with more credibility.
It is noticeable in the list of countries that have lined up with the UK and expelled Russian diplomats, there is none from South America, Africa, the Middle East or Asia-Pacific except Australia. If the idea behind the expulsions was to isolate Russia internationally, it does not seem to be working. And that brings me to soft power.
I spoke in a session on this. It was a somewhat surrealistic experience as the Russian concept of soft power is essentially any foreign policy instrument that is not armed force. This is to portray soft power as diplomacy, sanctions, propaganda, psychological operations, subversion, cyber attacks and other means of coercing an adversary without firing a shot. My view is very different and closer to Joseph Nye’s version – the power of attraction and sympathy and, therefore, trust.
It is a kind of power that gets others to be inclined to take one side in the dispute before the issue has been defined or the arguments commenced. It is not coercive; therein lies its effectiveness. It overwhelms adversaries without needing to confront them. It makes political influence far-reaching and diplomacy straightforward. It grows from cultural production, economic resilience and reputation. It is about being attractive, a model worth copying, a player the others want to associate with.
There is therefore a paradox at the heart of it: far from being an instrument to pick up and use at will, soft power is at its most effective when no effort is made to use it.
The West has frittered away the soft power it once had. I didn’t have to come to Moscow to learn that but the conference has helped illustrate it. The Russian position on terrorism looks good to its domestic and international constituency partly because the US-led ‘war on terror’ has been a mess. Russia backs its bland claim that it has defeated terrorism in Syria, while the US failed in Iraq, by explaining that a big part of the reason is that Russia respected international law and supported the sovereign government in Syria. The contrast is with the US and its allies doing the opposite in Iraq, as well as Syria, and in Libya. Of course, it is not hard to critique the Russian advocacy of its and its allies’ actions in Syria but official western discourse is less convincing in the international arena than it wants to be because of the West’s own failings in the region.
Risks: the reassurance of shared anxiety
Throughout the conference there was a sense of risk. In the speeches, in the conversations and in the background to the conversations, we were all warning each other about what could go wrong. There are so many places and issues to be anxious about: the potential failure of arms control and the acceleration of a new arms race; Northeast Asia; the Middle East; terrorism; confrontation between Russia and the West in and around Europe. We competed for most worried vocabulary: a Cold War or an Ice War, distrust or hatred, mutual contempt or the clash of arrogant egos? Officials, officers, think-tank researchers, diplomats – more or less everyone I spoke to saw more or less the same dangers. They saw them from different angles, of course. They blamed them on different actions, governments and people. But there was a certain kind of reassurance in seeing that, at one level, at the most anxious level, there’s a common language.
More contact would probably reveal more areas of common ground including some common vocabulary about what can be done to start easing back from the rising dangers.