Mary Dejevsky

Why Russia’s diplomats should learn swimming-pool etiquette

In foreign policy, Russia thrashes about like a badly socialised swimmer

Why Russia’s diplomats should learn swimming-pool etiquette
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The first couple of evenings there was just me and a middle-aged couple swimming decorously up and down. On the third day it changed. There were three more people, spread out at the shallow end. You would not have thought that an extra three people in a decent-sized pool could have caused such irritation and havoc.

They contrived to occupy an inordinate amount of space and move around in a way that caused maximum disruption. Sometimes they swam widths; sometimes diagonals. They would stop and change direction without warning. Sometimes they floated with their toes under the rail, or disappeared under water and surfaced far too close for comfort. And when they swam, they swam splashily, in a clumsy, improvised way.

The two other length-swimmers generally left before I did. So then there were four of us; three of them and me. But somehow we still managed to annoy each other. Time and again I had to take evasive action. Yet they could see, could they not, that I was going up and down, up and down, at a steady clip? It wasn’t hard to figure out where I was going to be when. But somehow toes and elbows clashed.

There was another irritant, too. On a couple of evenings, despite the hotel being designated adults-only, they brought a baby along and passed her between them, discussing her name.

At this point, I should come clean and clarify that the three newcomers were Russians. I should also say, for fairness’ sake, that I heard no rude comments about me. They had eyes, and not in that way, only for each other — which was a part of the problem. For while it is no longer possible, as it was in Soviet times, to distinguish Russians by their attire or their hair dye, in the swimming-pools of Europe you can spot them from the furthest corner of the deep end, because they are so obviously in need of coaching in the more social aspects of pool culture.

And it occurred to me that their defective pool etiquette was a perfect metaphor for their behaviour towards the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia is self-taught in today’s diplomacy and badly needs to be socialised.

More than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians still find it difficult to share space. They may have lost one third of their territory when the Union republics split away, but they still have far more land than they can handle, so they try to give the impression that there are more of them than there are, shouting loudly and maximising the annoyance factor. They might want to discourage the Chinese from colonising the wastes of Siberia, or to keep the insurgents of the trans-Caucasus from encroaching on their traditional borderlands, or to maintain the pretence, for the benefit of their former republics, that their country is as big and as powerful as it once was. Whatever the reason, though, they are used to spreading human resources thinly — just as they did in the pool.

Their undisciplined thrashing about may be another aspect of the same attempt to maximise their presence. But it also reflects the fact that relatively few ordinary Russians had the benefit of proper swimming lessons. Holiday camps in the Crimea and family dachas by the country’s huge rivers were what passed for holidays in Soviet times and provided young Russians with their early water experience. Pools were reserved for the sporting or political elite. So few learned the breaststroke or crawl, and as adults they are stuck with ugly, improvised versions.

Something similar applies in diplomacy. The foreign ministry is one of the country’s institutions least affected, even now, by the collapse of communism. In Soviet times it was an elite branch of government, and the same applies now, with the children of diplomats and senior officials following their parents into what remains a privileged life. Privilege, though, does not automatically instil manners. Russian diplomats with the professional sheen of the current foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, still seem few and far between.

The lack of finesse in Russian diplomacy remains a big hindrance to its effectiveness because observance of the stylistic niceties is much prized in diplomatic circles. It lubricates the whole process, yet it is an aspect of the diplomatic lingua franca that post-Soviet Russia still has to learn.

Russian diplomacy, like Russian swimming, would benefit greatly from being more predictable, which is to say more disciplined. But if that is too much to ask, Russians could improve the way people respond to them by working on their awareness of -others. In the pool, just three Russians seemed blind to anyone else, and quite -unable to gauge where those of us ploughing up and down were headed, and when and where we would expect space to turn.

Time and again, something similar can be observed in Russian diplomacy. Moscow repeatedly fails to anticipate what others will do and so wastes opportunities to act in ways that might pre-empt or limit the damage to its interests. It then feels cornered and thrashes out without explaining why. Russians have been singularly bad not only at second-guessing what others will do, but at trying to find out by, for instance, asking — and trusting the answer. They complain of others’ bad faith, for instance, over the expansion of Nato after the end of the Cold War, but they don’t offer any of their own overtures, waiting instead to react. They often seem unaware of how other countries do things, or what the implications of other people’s clearly articulated policies might be.Putin may have offered to share intelligence after the Boston bomb, but he still describes the US as the ‘glavnyy protivnik’, the ‘main opponent’ in Russian. His stance on Syria is another prime example. The accusations that western countries level against Moscow for vetoing successive UN Security Council resolutions were obvious: the selfish desire to protect a longstanding alliance and arms contracts. But those accusations stuck because Russia signally failed to offer any alternative. It failed, too, to challenge the western interpretation of the right to protect — where it might have struck a chord with western voters wary of armed intervention. It continues to warn against any plans to arm the Syrian rebels but, instead of being praised, Russia finds itself blamed for being obstructive.

Of course, everyone is, to an extent, self-absorbed, especially big countries. But Russia has shrunk from being a very big country to being quite a big one, and has not fully adapted to the constraints. If Moscow applied more effort to noticing what others were doing and anticipating what they might do next, and if it allowed outsiders a better insight into its own thinking, while studying the rules and working on its style, it might find the waters of international diplomacy more welcoming than they currently are.