Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma
Two Hundred Years of British–Russian Relations
Distributed for Haus Publishing
Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma
Two Hundred Years of British–Russian Relations
With Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma, statesman and author David Owen tells the story of Britain’s relationship with Russia, which has been surprisingly underexplored. Through his characteristic insight and expertise, he depicts a relationship governed by principle as often as by suspicion, expediency, and necessity.
When the two nations formed a pragmatic alliance and fought together at the Battle of Navarino in Greece in 1827, it was overwhelmingly the work of the British prime minister, George Canning. His death brought about a drastic shift that would see the countries fighting on opposite sides in the Crimean War and jostling for power during the Great Game. It was not until the Russian Revolution of 1917 that another statesman had a defining impact on relations between Britain and Russia: Winston Churchill, who opposed Bolshevism yet never stopped advocating for diplomatic and military engagement with Russia. In the Second World War, he recognized early on the necessity of allying with the Soviets against the menace of Nazi Germany. Bringing us into the twenty-first century, Owen chronicles how both countries have responded to their geopolitical decline. Drawing on both imperial and Soviet history, he explains the unique nature of Putin’s autocracy and addresses Britain’s return to “blue water” diplomacy. Newly revised, this paperback edition features extended chapters on Putin’s Russia and the future of British–Russian relations after the Russo-Ukrainian War.
408 pages | 2 maps | 6 x 9 1/4
History: British and Irish History
Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations
"Having spent several years living in Russia and the FSU in the 1990s, my personal highlight is his depiction of the freewheeling, hopeful years under Boris Yeltsin, when the flame of democracy flickered, albeit not long enough for the rule of law to properly establish itself. Owen also had twenty years of commercial experience in Russia, between 2005 and 2015. And that is, above all, what makes this such an enjoyable read: he is writing as someone who has penetrated the steely veneer and experienced the turbulent soul of the real Russia, as a businessman, foreign secretary, and peace negotiator."
"David Owen was an unconventional politician and in his latest book, Riddle, Mystery and Enigma he takes an unconventional approach to history. . . . [This] is. . . personal essay on episodes in two centuries of Euro-Atlantic history, enlivened by frequent digressions and excursions into contemporary affairs."
"All my adult life, it seems, I have been learning from David Owen. His new book is the latest example, allying his striking qualities of independence of mind and originality with his solid body of knowledge."
Daniel Finkelstein, House of Lords
“Any book on Anglo-Russian relations by our finest living foreign secretary would be interesting enough, but one written with verve and insight by so fine an historian as Lord Owen marks a major publishing event. As well as understanding the distant past, Owen weaves in the near-past—such as his own protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary of 1956—and takes us up to the present day with the noble heroism of Alexei Navalny. Thoughtfulness, learning and sound judgement infuse every page.”
Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny
Table of Contents
1 George Canning and the Path to Navarino 9
2 The Untoward Event 45
3 British and Russian Relations with the Ottoman Empire,
4 W inston Churchill and the Russian Revolution 83
5 Churchill and Stalin: World War to Cold War 121
6 Face-Off in Europe 161
7 Russia on the Road to Reform 187
8 Yeltsin: A Free Spirit 221
9 Putin’s Russia 247
10 Britain, Russia, and the Wider World 285
‘A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ To many, this phrase still encapsulates the challenge posed by dealing with Russia (or, as it then was, the Soviet Union). The idea persists, particularly among those with little direct experience of the country or its people, that it is difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to understand; that it is a strange place with such a different outlook and customs that we cannot deal with it in the way we do other countries. There is no doubt that Russia can take time and effort to understand, much like any country, and particularly one so large and with such a rich history and cultural mix. Indeed, one respected commentator, the former British ambassador to Russia, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, recently went so far as to state bluntly that:
I set out to write this book from the perspective that we need to understand what Russia regards as its national interest, and what has shaped that national interest, if we are to build a relationship on firm foundations. This does not mean we have to accept every-thing we find, but we should be prepared for the likely reaction to any criticisms we make or opposition we present. This approach was at the outset, and is still today, the hallmark of NATO’s successful containment of Russia.
When thinking about how Russia has acted, or is likely to act, we must understand how the country’s collective experiences have influenced and continue to influence its leaders’ thought processes. Their analysis of any given situation may differ from ours, but that does not mean it is necessarily invalid or not genuinely held. There are many points of similarity and intersection in British and Russian history. Yet the reality of shared experiences and circumstances has often been very different. Both have been key actors in Europe and have controlled major empires, but Britain’s withdrawal from empire and recalibration of its influence was slower and more measured. Both have fought two world wars, but only Russia suffered invasion and occupation (including, let us not forget, in the First world war by British forces), with an almost unimaginable death toll in the Second world war. while Britain’s democracy has developed over many centuries and remains imperfect, Russia’s experience with democracy can barely be counted in decades. in highlighting these differences (and there are naturally many more), I am not apologising for the current Russian regime; I am simply pointing out that Russia’s path to where we find ourselves today has been in some areas very different from ours. But in other areas, Russia’s rich European culture – ballet, music, poetry, literature – is comparable to ours and presents an opportunity to establish some common ground before turning to any areas of dispute.
This book considers recent and not-so-recent history to explore the ups and downs of the relationship between Britain and Russia. In doing so, it demonstrates that this relationship need not be one of ever-increasing antagonism; rather, it can again grow in some areas into one of mutual benefit.
. . . .
I have examined in this book some of the key questions facing the two countries since this highly successful cooperation at Navarino nearly 200 years ago. What caused Britain and Russia to oppose each other in the Crimean war of 1853–6? Did Britain’s obsession with thwarting a Russian threat to India, which gave rise to the so-called Great Game, distort its approach to Russia? Could the British, French, and US governments have done more to immediately sustain the short-lived internationally recognised government in Petrograd from March to November 1917? Could the Second World War have been avoided if Britain, France, and Russia had come together in 1938? What can we learn from the way Britain dealt with the Soviet Union during the Cold war?
These are, of course, mere flashbacks; I make no attempt to document the whole history of British–Russian/Soviet relations. There are many others much better qualified than me to do that. Rather, this book captures a series of personal views on a relationship that has been deteriorating in recent years. There have been missed opportunities, and the relationship is now in a dangerously fragile situation. No one, surely, can believe it is safe for two nuclear-weapon states to confront each other without striving for a more ordered relationship. The history of Russia and the US already shows that, by accident, nuclear weapons have come very close to being used – far too close for comfort.
With this in mind, the key question I want to address is how Britain, through NATO, can set about building a deeper relationship with Russia, one that could help to better maintain a rules-based international system and for nuclear-weapons states to work together to address today’s pressing problems. We could just keep Russia at arm’s length, as many seem ready to contemplate. But a post-Brexit UK, rethinking its foreign policy priorities, has, I think, a responsibility to engage with Russia in a more committed way. More often than not, Britain’s approach to Russia will be similar to that of France, with whom we work closely on the UN Security Council. With Germany, we share the view that it is essential to keep the US committed with troops in Europe as part of NATO. But there will be times when an Anglo-Russian relationship of itself could be beneficial and valued by friendly allies.
It has never been a British tradition to opt out of dealing with major countries with whom we do not see eye to eye. We are used to taking a measured approach where necessary, not just with Russia but in all our key relationships. Though I acknowledge, from personal experience, that this is much easier said than done. The Callaghan government in 1977–9 put human rights in Russia and the then Warsaw Pact countries at the heart of the British government’s foreign policy, helped in many areas by being in sync with President Carter’s human rights policies worldwide, particularly in Africa. Yet I warned at the time that the price of advocating human rights was bound to be inconsistency in its application. That is a hard reality. To govern is to choose.
Over the past few decades, Britain’s foreign policy has become increasingly subject to major swings, where a more nuanced initial approach would have been more appropriate. With China, the Conservative government in 2015 threw itself head-first into developing a commercial relationship with little regard to how the new President Xi Jinping’s leadership was intent on building up its military strength at home and internationally. By 2021, China’s treatment of the Uighurs, its rapid erosion of limited democracy in Hong Kong, and its continued military expansionism worldwide have forced a major reappraisal both in Washington and London.
Britain also disengaged from top-level policymaking before, during, and after the Russo-Ukrainian war of 2014. with the conflict continuing, today’s policymakers need to re-engage through NATO, abandon the Minsk peace talks, and find a better forum in addition to more bilateral talks. Russia’s military presence in Ukraine has made further quantum shifts with a build-up of Russian land forces and additional warships in the Black Sea. With the re-engagement of Presidents Biden and Putin in talks together on 16 June 2021 in Geneva, we now need more discussions in a reinvigorated NATO–Russian Council. we are in serious danger of the US and the western allies in NATO failing to reach a coherent policy on this issue, and the risk of further Russian moves inadvertently – or indeed intentionally – escalating into a wider conflict are high.
Putin’s words sometimes shock people, as they are intended to. But one of those who has listened to them carefully over the years is Robert Service. He writes perceptively in Kremlin Winter about Putin, and he describes the Kremlin ruling group that he leads as having ‘a razor sharpness’ in their message and that ever since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, they have been ready to settle for ‘respect based on fear’. He continues:
We have to live with the world as it is before we can make it the world we might want it to be. There is scope for specifically targeting perpetrators of misdeeds where necessary rather than disengaging and punishing whole population.