For the motion:
First into the bear-pit, a super-smooth Muscovite with silvery hair and piercing blue eyes. Alexei Pushkov is both a professor of international relations and the presenter of Russian TV’s most popular current affairs show. He ran through a checklist of grievances. After 9/11 President Putin backed Bush even though most Russians wanted to remain neutral in the ‘war on terror’. US bases were established in central Asia; Russia approved UN backing for the invasion of Afghanistan; and Russian airspace was opened up during the Iraq war. So what was Russia’s reward? Putin got a trip to the Bush’s ranch in Crawford where he received ‘a nice barbecue and a Texan hat.’ Scant recompense. Meanwhile NATO continued to expand eastwards while the US set about ‘decoupling its nuclear security from Russia’s by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty.’ These acts of betrayal, argued Pushkov, weren’t just deceitful but misguided. The West needn’t suspect Russia of belligerence because ‘Russia hasn’t taken military action beyond its borders for 15 years.’ A powerful statistic backed up his argument. Russia’s annual military budget is $35bn. America’s is $525bn. He dismissed the current east-west tensions as ‘not a real cold war, a farcical cold war.’
For the opposition Edward Lucas used his rhetorical gifts to great effect. No one minded that his arguments were rooted in the Soviet past. He characterised modern Russia as the brutalised child of a repressive dictatorial regime. And he complained that Putin had recently called the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939 ‘legal’. Even worse, Putin has suggested that the Katin massacre (the slaughter of 20,000 Polish officers by the NKVD) was the work of the Nazis. This backtracking, said Lucas, is a classic Soviet tactic. ‘First the crime, then the lie.’ As for Russia’s current expansionism, it was financial rather than military. ‘You don’t need tanks when you’ve got banks.’ The audience loved his terse, punchy delivery.
The Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky changed the mood with a quiet, erudite and sophisticated speech. He accepted that there were ‘troubling absolutist tendencies in Russia’. But it was silly to worry too much. This was part of a natural cycle. In the early 90s the disintegrating Soviet Union had faced anarchy. ‘And between anarchy and dictatorship’ said Kaletsky, rather like an astrologer with a doctorate in politics, ‘the people will choose dictatorship every time.’ He added that the secession of the Ukraine and Belorussia had been ‘emotionally wrenching for Russians.’ And he invited us to see the EU and NATO from the Russians’ point of view. To them these institutions look like ‘the natural successor of eastward expansionism by Germany and France which has been going on since 12th century.’
The Russian academic, Dr Lilia Shevtsova, assured us that Russia is hugely friendly to the West. In 2000 Putin even suggested that his country might join NATO. ‘This was in an interview with David Frost. You remember David Frost? He worked for the BBC?’ she asked us, perfectly sincerely, and not quite understanding our laughter. Putin’s frustrated desire to join NATO was a grave and continuing cause of mistrust. Yet, she said, the West’s reluctance to upset the Kremlin has made the oligarchs contemptuous and arrogant. A vote for the motion, she said, would ‘help the Russian elite use the concept of you as an enemy to ensure their survival.’
The historian Norman Stone attempted to take some heat out of the debate. ‘This can’t really be a cold war because it’s not a clash of two systems.’ Our fears of Russia are overstated. ‘All that’s happening is that Russia is becoming an ordinary country.’ But it faces prejudice and inequality. Latvia has joined the EU but the EU has denied it the usual support for ethnic minorities. Why? ‘Because the chief minority in Latvia is Russian.’ Stone deplored the West’s approach to Russia and its ‘endless pinpricks, endless provocations. We shouldn’t do it.’
Ronald Asmus, once a special adviser to Bill Clinton, pointed out that America can’t afford a new cold war. ‘It’s the last thing we need.’ He said that Russia has invoked an ‘enemy at the gate’ in order to ‘justify what’s happening at home.’ He urged us not to retreat but to take pride. It was a ‘tremendous historic achievement to build a secure Europe with a more stable and peaceful border with Russia than has existed for centuries.’
Closing the debate Jonathan Freedland returned us to his first remark. ‘No one tonight has even mentioned Dmitri Medvedev.’ Startling. And quite true. Even more startling was the final vote which registered huge surge for the opposition.
Before the debate:
After the debate: