Sergey Karaganov breaks into a broad smile when asked why his two-decades-old ideas about Moscow “protecting” Russian speakers abroad are suddenly the centre of his country’s foreign policy.
“Because almost everything I have said, happened,” Mr. Karaganov said in an interview in his high-ceilinged office in the historic Kitai-Gorod district of Moscow, a short walk from Red Square.
…It’s Vladimir Putin who has made defending the rights of Russian-speakers wherever they live into a foreign-policy principle for the Kremlin. But in setting this interventionist new course, the Russian President borrowed heavily from the ideas of Mr. Karaganov, whom Mr. Putin has frequently consulted regarding foreign affairs.
…In Mr. Karaganov’s telling, the doctrine that bears his name came about almost by accident. He was invited at the last minute to speak at a conference in 1992. With only a short time to prepare, he jotted down some ideas about how policy makers, rather than mourning the fact that millions of Russian speakers were left outside Russia’s borders when the Soviet Union dissolved, should see these people as assets – tools that could be used to retain Moscow’s influence over its former colonies.
They were often the wealthiest and best-educated citizens in their new countries, Mr. Karaganov argued. By protecting their rights to speak Russian in public, to watch Russian-language television and to have their children educated in Russian, Moscow would keep their loyalty and gain access to the economies and governments of their new states.
“We must be enterprising and take them under our control, in this way establishing a powerful political enclave that will be the foundation for our political influence,” reads an online transcript of the 1992 speech.
Read that, and the increasing insistence of the Latvian and Estonian governments that Estonian and Latvian should be the primary language of instruction in even their countries’ Russian schools makes sense beyond the obvious national need to ensure the survival of their languages, languages that are the principal repository of the cultures of two numerically small peoples that have had to struggle to survive in the face of centuries of foreign domination.
The interview has much within it to consider, not least Karaganov’s view that Ukraine should be a neutral country, neither in the EU or NATO, and his suggestion that the country’s constitution should be rearranged into a federal system on Bosnian lines (I discussed that option recently here)
Above all, note how the interview ends:
“We are in a pre-World War situation, but because of nuclear weapons we will not descend into it,” he says, pausing to thank the Soviet scientists who left modern Russia with its atomic deterrent. “But there could be a military, or a quasi-military, situation.”
Sanctions, Mr. Karaganov said, will not push Russia in the direction Western leaders are hoping.
“They show our Western colleagues don’t understand anything. They think Putin and his colleagues are out for money. They’re not. They’re out for power and pride.”
There are obvious reasons for Karaganov to talk down the impact of sanctions (although count me skeptical as to how effective sanctions will turn out to be) and there are obvious reasons to talk up a potential military threat (Karaganov knows his audience, particularly in Western Europe). But the real point that counts is his last. The Putin of a few years back was an essentially, if unprettily, pragmatic, figure primarily interested in the accumulation of wealth and power for himself and for his coterie, something that involved first the restoration of domestic stability and the development of a functioning economy (helped, of course by a high oil price) followed by a tightening of internal control. Foreign policy was, for the most part, theater, designed to rally support at home by conjuring up enemies or triumphs abroad. There was also plenty of room for maneuvers that had the effect of keeping the oil price high..
But priorities seem to have changed. Their cash safely in the till, the regime’s leaders are dreaming of greater things. To be fair, power has always been on their agenda, but the word ‘pride’ hints at something broader, something less rational, and something much less easy to deal with.