Prominent Western commentator misrepresents essay by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov calling for dialogue to make it look threatening.
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Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently published a lengthy essay on international relations.
As is the Russian way it includes a lengthy historical introduction, discussing Russia’s history, emphasising the uniqueness of its culture, but also drawing attention to Russia’s interconnection to Europe and its role as part of European civilisation
It is the sort of essay which was once commonly written by European statesmen but which only Russian statesmen now seem able to write. The historically challenged leaders of today’s West are no longer capable of writing in this way.
The essay read fairly and objectively is a call for dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the West based on mutual respect and equality. As Lavrov himself puts it:
“We are not seeking confrontation with the United States, or the European Union, or NATO. On the contrary, Russia is open to the widest possible cooperation with its Western partners. We continue to believe that the best way to ensure the interests of the peoples living in Europe is to form a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union could be an integrating link between Europe and Asia Pacific.”
To see who actually stands in the way of such cooperation consider the recent article discussing this essay by Natalie Nougayrède, a strong advocate of humanitarian interventionism and someone who can be defined as being broadly on the “left-liberal” end of the Atlanticist spectrum.
Nougayrède is also an influential voice, writing for The Guardian and formerly the executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde - a newspaper that some still consider to be the most influential in Europe.
The sub-title of Nougayrède’s article makes what she is about all too clear.
She claims Lavrov’s essay shows that “Putin” (who else?) wants “a historic realignment in his favour”.
I searched Lavrov’s essay exhaustively to find anything that might suggest such a thing and found nothing. Nowhere in the essay does Lavrov say Russia (or “Putin”) seeks such a realignment. What the article calls for instead is something entirely different - a constructive dialogue between Russia and the West.
Nougayrède then goes on to make this quite extraordinary claim:
“Lavrov spells it out with clarity. What Russia wants is nothing short of fundamental change: a formal, treaty-based say on Europe’s political and security architecture.
Until Russia gets that, goes the message, there will be no stability on the continent. The key sentence in the article is this: “During the last two centuries, any attempt to unite Europe without Russia and against it has inevitably led to grim tragedies.”
The apparent meaning here is clear enough. Russia will destabilise Europe unless it is given a "treaty based say on Europe's political and security architecture".
That the words actually are ambiguous - they do not expressly accuse Russia of threatening to destabilise Europe - should be the first thing to warn us that not everything is as it seems.
Let us begin with the claimed quote from Lavrov. He did not say in what Nougayrède calls his “key sentence “During the last two centuries, any attempt to unite Europe without Russia and against it has inevitably led to grim tragedies.” What he actually said was
“During at least the past two centuries any attempts to unite Europe without Russia and against it have inevitably led to grim tragedies, the consequences of which were always overcome with the decisive participation of our country.”
Lavrov cites the "grim tragedies" : various wars in the Eighteenth Century intended to reverse the changes achieved by Peter the Great, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the Crimean War, and the First and Second World Wars.
Nowhere does Lavrov threaten Europe with destabilisation by Russia if Russia fails to get what it wants. He is simply pointing out the historical fact that each and every attempt to isolate Russia and drive it out of Europe has ended disastrously, and that it has fallen to Russia in each case to pick up the pieces.
As for Nougayrède’s claim that what Russia is seeking is a “formal, treaty-based say on Europe’s political and security architecture” - Lavrov nowhere says it. On the contrary, what he says is that Russia seeks “the widest possible cooperation with its Western partners” and is “not seeking confrontation with the United States, or the European Union, or NATO”.
Having misrepresented Lavrov in one place, Nougayrède then proceeds to misrepresent him in another:
“the centrepiece of Lavrov’s argument is that, after 1991, “we should have created a new foundation for European security”, and now is the time to do so – if the “systemic problems” that have arisen between Russia and the west are to be overcome.”
Here in fact is what Lavrov actually said
“We had a practical chance to mend Europe’s divide and implement the dream of a common European home, which many European thinkers and politicians, including President Charles de Gaulle of France, wholeheartedly embraced.
Russia was fully open to this option and advanced many proposals and initiatives in this connection.
Logically, we should have created a new foundation for European security by strengthening the military and political components of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Vladimir Putin said in a recent interview with the German newspaper Bild that German politician Egon Bahr proposed similar approaches.
Unfortunately, our Western partners chose differently. They opted to expand NATO eastward and to advance the geopolitical space they controlled closer to the Russian border.
This is the essence of the systemic problems that have soured Russia’s relations with the United States and the European Union.
It is notable that George Kennan, the architect of the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union, said in his winter years that the ratification of NATO expansion was “a tragic mistake.”
Whilst Lavrov regrets the West’s error in expanding NATO eastward - a view we now know was shared in the 1990s by the then US Defence Secretary William Perry and by many others - nowhere does he say he wants NATO destroyed or replaced by a new treaty based security system as Nougayrède’s says.
On the contrary Lavrov specifically rejects the charge of “revisionism” ie. the charge that Russia was to overthrow the existing international system:
“Western propaganda habitually accuses Russia of “revisionism,” and the alleged desire to destroy the established international system, as if it was us who bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 in violation of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, as if it was Russia that ignored international law by invading Iraq in 2003 and distorted UN Security Council resolutions by overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime by force in Libya in 2011. There are many examples.”
What Lavrov calls for instead is cooperation and dialogue.
“A reliable solution to the problems of the modern world can only be achieved through serious and honest cooperation between the leading states and their associations in order to address common challenges. Such an interaction should include all the colours of the modern world, and be based on its cultural and civilisational diversity, as well as reflect the interests of the international community’s key components.”
What Nougayrède has done is taken Lavrov’s offer of a dialogue and turned it on its head by transforming it into a threat by Russia to destabilise the whole of Europe unless it gets what it wants.
As to what it is that Russia supposedly wants, Nougayrède makes it easy from her article to guess even if she never quite spells it out - a new treaty based pan-European security system replacing NATO and ultimately controlled by Russia enabling Russia to dominate Europe and threaten it with its "expansionism"
That Russia has never made such a demand, which appears nowhere in Lavrov’s essay, does not bother Nougayrède.
Moreover in order to make her case Nougayrède uses the classic propagandist’s trick of using selective and truncated quotations, whose meaning she twists by taking them out of context.
Lavrov’s essay is actually interesting for reasons quite different to those Nougayrède imposes on it.
The essay seems to be at least in part written as a contribution to an internal debate within Russia’s political and foreign policy establishment about Russia’s future direction.
That is - or should be - a highly interesting fact in itself.
The essay seems to be addressed at least in part to those within the Russian political and foreign policy establishment who are drawn to Eurasianism and who have basically given up on the idea of cooperation with the West.
The essay has no truck with these views. Instead it makes the case of those conservatives within the Russian government who it is still just about possible to go on calling Westernisers, and who still seek want at least a measure of cooperation with the West. It does so by emphasising that Russia by culture, history and geography is a European country.
That this is at least one of the purposes of the article is shown by the way the essay treats Lev Gumilyov, the intellectual father-figure of the Eurasianists, who is held by some to have denied Russia’s European identity. The essay treats him politely but dismissively:
“We also know an alternative view offered by prominent historian and ethnologist Lev Gumilyov, who believed that the Mongolian invasion had prompted the emergence of a new Russian ethnos and that the Great Steppe had given us an additional impetus for development.”
Lavrov is very far from being the blindly obedient technocrat mindlessly carrying out Putin’s orders that Nougayrède makes him out to be. On the contrary he comes across in the essay as a loyal, patriotic and conservative Westerniser who is becoming increasingly alarmed by the growing influence of Eurasianist thinking within Russia’s government.
This is consistent with what we know of Lavrov. As Foreign Minister his interests seem to centre on the US, the Middle East and Europe - in other words on the West and its periphery. By contrast he visits China and Asia much less often.
All this of course is completely lost on Nougayrède, who is almost certainly incapable of understanding it.
That does not excuse the way she has treated Lavrov’s essay so as to turn his offer of dialogue and cooperation into a threat. The cynical way she has done this by twisting the meaning of his words moreover shows that she knows exactly what she is about.
That by misrepresenting an offer of cooperation from a Russian Westerniser Nougayrède is actually making the case of his Eurasianist critics is an irony that is almost certainly lost on her and on others in the West like her.
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