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Reflections on How the West Treated Europe's Biggest Democracy

© Sputnik / Maksim BlinovA view shows the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters, a Soviet era high-rise building on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and the skyscrapers of the Moscow International Business Centre, also known as "Moskva-City", during sunset in Moscow, Russia.
A view shows the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters, a Soviet era high-rise building on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and the skyscrapers of the Moscow International Business Centre, also known as Moskva-City, during sunset in Moscow, Russia. - Sputnik India, 1920, 05.03.2024
‘Where did you get this sheep?’ my grandson asked me today, holding a tiny toy taken off my shelf. Without hesitation, I responded, "In England." I purchased it exactly 24 years ago. If it were a real sheep, it would likely be dead by now.
Also, equally dead are the words that I heard in England that quarter of a century ago, namely: you, Russia, are the biggest democracy… Not in the world, of course. Only the biggest democracy in Europe. But, still, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to attend a Wilton Park conference in Sussex as one of the invitees. Wilton Park is an agency of the UK Foreign Office where diplomats from the United Kingdom gather to engage with various guests on a wide range of subjects. During this conference, the topic of discussion was a particularly difficult one.
The West had been caught off guard by Russia's response to the NATO-led war in former Yugoslavia in 1999. It became clear that the West was unable to find anyone of significance in Russia to justify the bombing of Belgrade. This led to a significant crisis between the Western powers and Russia, a nation that had been attempting to align itself more closely with the West just a couple of years earlier. The conference was meant to find a way to placate our public opinion and keep Russia among Europe’s and America’s friends.
It's worth noting that India was not among the West's friends at the time. It was under sanctions for the 1998 Pokhran nuclear test, while Moscow held a higher standing than Delhi in the eyes of the Western powers.
© Twitter/@NewsIADN11 May marks the 25th anniversary of National Technology Day
11 May marks the 25th anniversary of National Technology Day - Sputnik India, 1920, 05.03.2024
11 May marks the 25th anniversary of National Technology Day
Right now, the Wilton Park speeches of 2000 continue to echo in current relations between the West and the largest democracy in the world. Back then, We, the guests from Moscow, were reminded of our “imperfections”. Russia still faced challenges in dealing with Chechnya in the South, we needed to antagonize China when possible, and had lessons to learn from more "established democracies" in managing domestic affairs. Therefore, when it comes to us, Russia, we were supposed to align and integrate with NATO and follow the bloc’s lead, even if it meant grinning and bearing NATO’s ugly war against our brothers in Yugoslavia.
And we did, or at least we tried to. The grand objective of Moscow’s foreign policy at that time was to gradually cultivate equal and respectful relations with the West, while patiently conveying to our partners Russia’s views regarding Yugoslavia or any other matters.
So how did it go? Let’s take a look at Tucker Carlson's recent interview with President Vladimir Putin. During the dialogue, the Russian leader said:
‘Well, I became President in 2000. I thought: okay, the Yugoslav issue is over, but we should try to restore relations. Let's reopen the door that Russia had tried to go through. And moreover, I've said it publicly, I can reiterate. At a meeting here in the Kremlin with the outgoing President Bill Clinton, right here in the next room, I said to him, I asked him, “Bill, do you think if Russia asked to join NATO, do you think it would happen?” Suddenly he said: “You know, it's interesting, I think yes.” But in the evening, when we had dinner, he said, “You know, I've talked to my team, no-no, it's not possible now.” You can ask him, I think he will watch our interview, he'll confirm it. I wouldn't have said anything like that if it hadn't happened. Okay, well, it's impossible now. (…) You said I was bitter about the answer. No, it's not bitterness, it's just a statement of fact. We're not the bride and groom, bitterness, resentment, it's not about those kinds of matters in such circumstances. We just realised we weren't welcome there, that's all. Okay, fine.
But let's build relations in another manner, let's look for common ground elsewhere. Why we received such a negative response, you should ask your leader. I can only guess why: too big a country, with its own opinion and so on’.
Too big, and with its own opinion, eh? Now let’s take a look at a commentary I’ve recently encountered on Firstpost.com.
For me, it’s 2000 all over again, when I read this quote the about "the Western obsession with bullying and pressurising India to align with their flawed and short-sighted strategic objectives".
I also have the same feeling when reading passages like: "by which rational are the Western powers expecting India to support and animate their proposed anti-China front of democratic states if, at the same time, they are painstakingly eroding the foundations of trust with India by sabotaging its image and being persistent in bullying and sermonising New Delhi on democracy and human rights? What is the logic of this duplicitous behaviour of the US-led Western world where it wants India to be its key ally against China; however, at the same time, they leave no stone unturned in ruining the bilateral trust by a malicious anti-India propaganda war’"
And, finally, how about this: "If the West wants a meaningful and constructive engagement with India, then it can’t be purely transactional based on a myopic approach, duplicity and colonial baggage. The engagement has to be on an equal footing, emphasizing mutual trust, respect, understanding, and sincerity?"
Equal footing, right? This is precisely what Russia was trying to achieve in it relations with the West, almost a quarter of a century ago.
Returning to Wilton Park in 2000, the conference took an unexpected turn. Initially, there were numerous speeches from European attendees, telling us exactly how Russia was supposed to integrate into Europe, in spite of our many misgivings. However, the tone shifted when an American representative, Mr. Thomas Graham from the State Department, addressed the crowd. He warned that there could be significant changes in Washington's approach towards Moscow, particularly with the incoming administration of George W. Bush, Jr.
Graham noted that the Democrats were going all in to integrate Russia into the West, but the Republicans had different priorities. He pointed out that the GOP could relegate Russian affairs to a lower-tier official and Russia to secondary importance. This suggestion left the European audience stunned and silent, as they were well aware of the implications of Russia's geographic proximity as their neighbor. Conversely, the Russian attendees welcomed the news, feeling liberated to pursue their own agenda without external influence. Their relief was like saying ‘Thank God for that, now we are on our own’, with many expressing gratitude for the shift in focus.
And, as far as I'm concerned, being on our own isn’t that bad. So, in any case, that was a good historical lesson to remember.
Dmitry Kosyrev is a Russian writer, author of spy novels and short stories. He also did columns for the Pioneer and Firstpost.com
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