The UC Interview Series: Dr Alex Pravda


Interviewer: Magda Leichtová, UC Research and Programme Manager

Interviewee: Alex Pravda

Alex Pravda is a Senior Advisor to the University Consortium, Senior Research Fellow in Russian and East European Studies at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. He is an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony ́s College, Oxford. Dr Pravda's research interests focus on Soviet and post-Soviet Russian foreign policy. He is currently writing a study on the transformation of Soviet foreign policy in the perestroika years. He has contributed chapters on that period to two volumes: The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume III (eds. Melvyn P.Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, 2010) and Imposing, Maintaining, and Tearing Open the Iron Curtain. The Cold War and East-Central Europe, 1945-1989 (eds. Mark Kramer and Vit Smetana, 2014).


Past Experiences: On Meetings with Soviets during the Cold War, Interactions with British Politicians, and NATO Expansion

Magda:           Good evening Alex, thank you for taking part in this initiative. Can we start with the beginning of your career? How did it develop and how did your beginnings influence your thinking and path?

Alex Pravda:      I suppose that my interest in Russia grew from my Czech background and my family’s interest in Russia and more actively from the events of 1968. Otherwise, I might have ended up doing research on 19th Century English history, which is what my supervisor at Balliol suggested. I did doctoral research on the role of workers in the 1968 reform movement in Czechoslovakia and then broadened out to look at the political role of workers and trade in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. My work on this and other aspects of Soviet and East European domestic politics underpins my appreciation of the importance of internal factors in foreign policy.

In my early career, I didn’t have a major research interest in foreign policy, even if anyone studying Eastern Europe had of course to take account of the Soviet factor. In the years of the so-called second Cold War (1979-1983), it was such a difficult situation accompanied by such a badly informed discussion that I felt strongly that it gave analysts who specialised in Soviet and East European domestic affairs a responsibility to try to increase the range and depth of understanding of our relations with Moscow.

I took part, with Margot Light and other colleagues, in small discussion groups for interested politicians and members of the public. We tried to explain how and why we thought relations had deteriorated since high détente and what one might think of doing. At that time nobody was thinking in terms of seismic shifts of the kind that we saw later. Most people thought there would be a generational shift in Soviet leadership, but no one seriously argued there would be a major transformational change in domestic let alone in foreign policy too.

Magda:             This leads neatly to my question about Chatham House. You were Head of the Soviet Foreign Policy Programme there during the exciting period of 1986-89. Did it bring new opportunities for cooperation and real dialogue?

When I went to Chatham House, the director was Admiral James Eberle. To all intents and purposes a typical Establishment figure, he was, in fact, open-minded about the Soviet Union. I’ve found this quite often to be the case with military professionals. They tend to understand each other on professional issues, and often think that politicians know little about defence. However tough-minded, they can generally get along with fellow professionals. One example from the 1970s and 1980s negotiations on arms is the good working relationship built between the US civilian negotiator Paul Nitze and his military Soviet counterpart Marshal Akhromeyev. In general, prolonged negotiations on technical issues, such as arms control have often involved positive socialization effects.

Admiral Eberle certainly listened attentively to his Soviet interlocutors. Every year Chatham House and IMEMO held an official British-Soviet roundtable. I remember Jim Eberle talking enthusiastically about a long taxi ride in London with Alexander Yakovlev, then the head of IMEMO. A highly intelligent man, Yakovlev really impressed Eberle. I also remember sitting in on a very interesting and professionally frank conversation with Eberle and Akhromeyev when the marshal visited London.

I was lucky to be at Chatham House at a time when it had a lot of interesting Soviet visitors such as Evgeny Primakov, who became the head of IMEMO after Yakovlev. A specialist on the Middle East, Primakov also came over in style as someone with intelligence experience: quietly sharp and full of anecdotes. And then there was this trio of impressively bright young specialists, somewhat older now but still turning out remarkably stimulating analysis: Alexey Arbatov, Sergey Karaganov and Andrey Kortunov. A lot of ideas were exchanged in excellent discussions. As nearly all was about the Russian side, I listened more than talked; this formed the basis for similar exchanges over later decades.

Magda:              So, you had access to these young Soviet thinkers and scholars who were able to discuss changes in their country with you. Can you recall how you and your colleagues perceived perestroika and the changes in the Eastern Europe at the time? We hear a lot that the fall of the Soviet Union was unexpected. Was it?

No one I knew expected the revolutionary changes and the collapse. I remember in particular an all-day seminar I took part in at Chequers in September 1983. Several British specialists on Soviet and East European affairs – including Archie Brown, Alec Nove, Ron Amann, and George Schopflin, – presented papers and discussed the situation in the region with Margaret Thatcher and key members of her Cabinet. I recall speaking about social and nationality issues and giving no real indication of an imminent sharp rise in serious problems, let alone the kind of upheavals that later occurred. People looked most critically at the economic side. There was a feeling though, because of the age of the senior leadership, that we were in for a generational change, and the key purpose of the meeting was to discuss what that would mean. Archie Brown drew attention to Gorbachev and made a persuasive case for the possibility of political reform of a democratising kind though nobody foresaw the degree of change that would eventually play out.

When it came to Eastern Europe, practically no one thought that things would change radically. We thought Poland would go dramatically up and down as it always had tended to do; Hungary would introduce clever reforms and get away with them; Czechoslovakia would tread cautiously, and so on. I remember going to Prague in late 1988 with members of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to which I was a specialist adviser. We had meetings with outstandingly unimpressive politicians. Informally we heard that those at the top had given up and didn’t want to know what was really going on; they just drank. There was a bleak atmosphere in the region, one of hopeless stagnation. We had the usual meetings with leading dissidents. I remember talking to Vaclav Havel in 1988 and when I asked about prospects for serious change, he said: ‘Not in my generation.’ But what became ever clearer at that time, from visiting Prague and other capitals, was how politically varied a region Eastern Europe was. In that sense it wasn’t, and had never really had been, a uniform political bloc.

Magda:              If all this was going further than the experts expected, how were British politicians doing? Were they able to keep up, or were they even interested in understanding the situation?

Alex Pravda:     Well, politicians are split not only into parties like Labour and Conservative, but they are also divided in mentalities, degrees of ability to absorb things and degrees of interest in foreign policy. I came into touch with quite a few politicians in those years and kept in touch with several of them. There were some senior ones with very set views, black-and-white mindsets. I do remember Mrs Thatcher at that Chequers seminar, after we had all explained our views on some of the different approaches and opinions one found in Moscow, saying to us, “Yes, but they are all communists, aren’t they?” This was her set view at the time and only through interaction with Gorbachev did she come to see that being a communist could mean a lot of things.

Alex Pravda

Magda:           That leads nicely to my next question: how easy was it to introduce these complex topics and developments to politicians, and what kind of stereotypes, if any, have you encountered?

Alex Pravda:     It was not always about stereotypes; as often it was a case of limited interest. What is crucial is how much politicians really want to understand, and how much they prefer to find confirmation for either their own stereotypes or for ‘politically convenient‘ images?

In the late 1980s Malcom Rifkind, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, was one of the few senior figures I came across who took a real interest in the Soviet and East European part of the equation. Most British politicians were quite happy with knowing what they already knew and didn’t want to know much more, because then it all became too complicated. I think this tendency has become more widespread and worse in recent years. Now we have ‘campaigners’ instead of politicians with any kind of long-term vision of domestic let alone foreign policy priorities.

Magda:              Moving forward in time, can you recall the atmosphere of the 1990s when the decision for NATO enlargement was taken? Now, there is a discussion about whether this was a good or bad decision, and how well it was implemented either way. Can you recall how you perceived the issue at the time?

Alex Pravda:      There was a divide then as there is now between people on the political side and those on the bureaucratic side. There was a lot of triumphalism around, but I don’t think that there was malign intent. The Warsaw Pact had collapsed in on itself, many Russians, including Gorbachev himself, were surprised by the collapse, especially its speed. They thought there was more underpinning the Pact because the Soviet Union had liberated Eastern Europe from the Nazis. I remember, even in my family which had fled Prague soon after the February 1948 Communist take-over, that there was a lot of sympathy for the Red Army, because without them it would have taken much longer to beat the Germans. NATO’s own survival and perceived success, contrasted with the dissolution of its rival organization, created a lot of bureaucratic momentum within NATO for the expansion that dominated the security scene of the 1990s.

I favoured an alternative: the CSCE (later the OSCE). There was a new Europe, with a united Germany. The Russians had been generous and/or over-optimistic and allowed East Germany join NATO without virtually any conditions on their part. Along with many of my colleagues, I thought: let’s be magnanimous and a bit imaginative because there was little or no real basis for continuing with NATO now that the Soviet Union had collapsed and the new states wanted to cooperate.

But, of course, even if the Americans would never fully admit it, NATO was also about controlling European security, and that was partly why they did not want to wrap it up. Some Europeans wanted to move on to new structures but Bush pressed Kohl and the others hard to go with an expanded NATO. Nevertheless, many specialists on Russia persisted in trying to argue the case for a new inclusive framework and said, ‘let’s go for the CSCE. It’s more viable in the long term as it already includes the new states and the Soviet Union, and it allows for security- building via civilian understanding and trust.’

Magda:             May I interrupt you here, as a curious East European: how did you envision this in practical terms? Building security via the OSCE sounds great, but then there are nuclear weapons and armies which need to be coordinated somehow and which need to share at least a bit of control and information within a common security framework. How could you link all this, practically speaking, so early after the end of the Cold War?

Alex Pravda:     Clearly there were tremendous practical problems with this approach because the CSCE was a very broad all-purpose organization. But the idea was, ‘let’s think of security in political terms, in peacekeeping terms and in territorial dispute terms. Let’s not think of security in Europe any longer only in terms of military conflicts, deterrence and arms races.’ That was the kind of thinking, the mental climate, in the early 1990s, among those who wanted to take advantage of the exceptional opportunity for major institutional change to build on the new strategic situation in Europe.

Historically, there are very few exceptional moments like the early 1990s. The end of World War II offered comparable, if far greater, opportunities to create new institutional structures. The post-World War II restructuring was of course given a great deal of thought before the war ended. So, when the war finished, there was a system design more or less ready to put into place. But no one in 1987-9 was really thinking about what we ought to do after the end of Cold War because they didn’t see the scale of change coming. And the few concepts improvised in 1990-1991 were largely overtaken by events.

At Helsinki in the 1970s they had tried to rethink security in Europe in what were at the time very progressive ways. That kind of thinking should have carried on into the post-Cold War era, because that was the point when real change could have occurred. But no one did enough of that kind of creative thinking. Well-intentioned people did not have any security plans apart from the basic continuity of NATO, whose huge bureaucratic power translated into tremendous staying power.

This was reinforced by what happened in Yugoslavia and especially around Kosovo. Yugoslavia was framed by the West in triumphalist mode: we are in charge, and European security is our responsibility. The Russians resented that, but they could do very little, given their dislocation and their lack of strategy.

That surprised me about Russia in the 1990s: how long it took for Moscow to get any serious foreign policy thinking going. I was there a good deal in the 1990s and there was a curious absence of interest in Russian circles about formulating any proper foreign policy strategy. There are some obvious explanations: the need to fire-fight continuing domestic crises and to maximise personal profit at home and abroad. Everyone in the political and corporate elites had plenty to do without thinking about what kind of national interests and foreign policy strategy they wanted for their country. As Foreign Minister, Primakov started doing that thinking in the late 1990s, though he was always a rather traditional foreign policy realist.

Magda:              Wasn’t it the case that, at the beginning, Russia did not have much of a choice? At the time only the West was able to offer any resources, financial first and foremost, but maybe Yeltsin early on really believed they could be partners with the US and govern the world together?

Alex Pravda:      Yeltsin wasn’t that interested in foreign policy. It was largely about domestic problems as far as he was concerned. The only time I met him was some years after his retirement when he visited Oxford. I had the impression, which came over forcefully when one met him in person, that he was a populist, a former communist regional boss who thought it was a disgrace that there was still so much poverty in Russia. He seemed to be genuinely concerned about improving the lives of the working class, but was too entangled with the corruption that infected everything, to do much in practice about social issues.  Yeltsin didn’t seriously engage in shaping foreign policy; he was rather hopeless at it. His main priorities here were financial, and in any case, he was preoccupied with getting a grip within Russia. It became a real jungle. Daily life in Moscow, as we experienced it on regular visits, seemed to be managed by gangs, run by groups who got hold of enough money to hire two or three gunmen and drive around in large expensive cars. To try and manage chaos was the immediate urgent priority of the government. The outside world was seen as a place where you could go to get help to try and tackle domestic problems.

Russia still had the material resources to project power had Moscow wished to do so: you don’t really need that many nuclear weapons for deterrence and that many divisions to assert power in your ‘near abroad’. In the Yugoslav context, they could have just said, ‘Stop. This is a mistake; we were misled, and we are not going to go along with this anymore’.


Current Issues: On British-Russia Relations, Big Pattern of Development and East European Perceptions of Russia

Magda:              In regard to UK-Russia relations, in one of your older texts you called UK-Soviet relations ‘thin’ in comparison to Soviet relations with (West) Germany or France. Some of the arguments you listed, such as the close proximity of British policies to American ones, the lack of dependence on energy resources from Russia, and the diminishing importance of London in Soviet eyes, sound familiar even today. On the other hand, there are some strong and unique features in Russia-UK relations. What is the place of Russia in today’s post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ strategy?

Alex Pravda:      Generally speaking, Britain has a weighty imperial legacy and some capacity to think big, out of proportion to its military and economic capabilities. Of course, it aspires to continue to be a strong junior partner to America. The UK looks set now to become even more of an Atlantic actor, in part because it has little real choice. Britain is also likely to become a more prominent security actor, because of its experience, knowledge and expert intelligence services. It seems that London is willing to spend a great deal of money, which it can ill afford, on this kind of national security project, on aircraft carriers and other prestige hardware.

The relationship the Russians have with us has long included an undercurrent of wary appreciation for a former imperial power. They have always thought that Britain is somewhat different from the other major European powers. Of course, they see the UK as serving American interests in Europe and in NATO. But they also think that because of our long history of taking a cynical global approach, from the East Indian Company onwards, that we will always consider doing deals on anything. This view has been confirmed many times in the last fifteen years or so, as London has become the most commercialized deal-making place for the Russian elites.

And now, with Brexit, we all know we are likely to end up going in a ‘Singapore direction’, meaning that regulations will be loosened, and anyone with lots of money will be welcomed. That also applies to the Russian rich; despite all the tensions between Moscow and London, and the sanctions, the financial establishment will still be open to their money.

Magda:             Still, do you think there may be a special place for Britain in Western sanctions regimes given its financial ties with Russia? There is a lot of Russian money in Britain. So, if we listen to the voices which say ‘go after their money’, Britain could be quite an important player.

Alex Pravda:      In what sense: by doing things or by not doing things? Politically, there is a very strong feeling that we have to show that we are tough, partly because of real values and also because of Britain image of itself as an inherently great power with a global role. But I suspect that when it comes to the risks of losing a great deal of money, in the midst of economic uncertainty, there will be efforts to minimize the negative boomerang effects of sanctions.

Amid all the flag and values waving, I am genuinely troubled by the lack of serious thinking on both sides of the Atlantic as to what we can do about Russia and our relations with Moscow. All too often this question is seen in either/or terms. I believe there is a middle ground between being hard-line and being what is called ‘soft’ on Russia: it is being effective in taking a line that stands a chance of furthering one’s priorities. When I see the pro-Navalny demonstrations and listen to those protesting, I much admire their courage in taking personal risks to assert their moral and political right to say, ‘this is not right’. But what can we in the West do that would be effective in producing overall benefits for the Russian people and for our relationship with Russia? We seem to have learned little from the past, even about what moves tend to be counterproductive –including in their effects on internal debates in Moscow-, let alone about the trickier issue of what moves tend to stand a chance of improving the situation.

Magda:            The periods which we’ve discussed the most, the late 1980s and 1990s, were very turbulent times. Something was always changing in the Soviet Union, or later Russia, often in a very dramatic way. Today, on the contrary, the discussion is about whether the regime is dynamic enough or whether it’s become stagnant and calcified. The times when all options were on the table seem to be gone for now. Many dilemmas have been decided for better or worse, many choices have been made. Is studying Russia still as interesting for you as it was twenty, thirty years ago?

Alex Pravda:      What increasingly intrigues me as I get older are the big trends and patterns in whatever cultural and political context they occur. I know Russia best, but I’d be equally interested to try and track how these large patterns work in Germany or Japan. The specific empirical setting now seems to me to matter less than I once thought it did. You have to pay careful and not just selective attention to empirical data but constantly be on the look-out for patterns. The similarities in complex patterns within regions as well as across cultures and over time seem more remarkable to me than it used to.

As far as Russian politics, both domestic and international, are concerned, I have perhaps shifted my thinking about linearity. I used to make too many assumptions about linearity: that things went steadily in a certain direction, particularly if it was one of which I approved. But sadly, things do change in what sometimes look like regressive directions. Yet, what we now might see as unmitigated regression in Russia has to be viewed as part of a much bigger picture. It might seem that some of the themes are coming back – authoritarianism, heavily top-down exercise of power but perhaps with different qualities. We tend to underestimate both the regression and the differences. That can lead to simplistic views: if it is a top-down system in which the siloviki seem dominant it is the same as Party-KGB rule in Soviet times. Yet the siloviki are organized in a different way, institutions operate differently, and the ruling elites are differently composed and connected.

Magda:              This is also what Dmitry Trenin says in his book, that we keep criticizing Russia for being authoritarian, but it is as democratic at it has ever been.

Alex Pravda:      I would not highlight democratic qualities but rather uneven efforts to hone a politics of technocratic authoritarian management. At lunchtime I sometimes watch Dozhd TV and listen to Ekho Moskvy. While both stations are careful in naming elite names, these publicly available channels are more openly critical than one would expect them to be in what seems a highly controlled political system. The Kremlin seems to think that they can do with such critical outlets as valves to release critical pressure and help gauge the political public’s views and sensitivities. Perhaps the Kremlin thinks – I hope it does – that if you suppress all critical voices, this will end in the rise of destructive, anti-system opposition on the streets. Economic problems will bring strikes, large protests and police violence that will in turn trigger more public outrage. In the past even Navalny appears to have been fed kompromat on occasion by members of the elite to get at enemies and he has used this to good effect in his broadcasts.

And Navalny is perhaps less dangerous for the regime as the main opposition rallying figure than a Communist, ethnic nationalist populist. What I think the Kremlin most fears and rightly so, is a skilful politician, who starts as a populist-minded local leader, operating within the system, gains regional popularity and organises a network of regions and towns which are and feel neglected; this would really put pressure on Moscow. If an alliance appeared of populist mayors and governors, the regime would find it hard to handle, especially if these populist leaders were also convinced that they were on a mission, as that would make them harder to buy off. That is why local elections - the next are scheduled for the autumn – are so heavily, though by no means always effectively, controlled. That is why of all of Navalny’s activities it was his tactical (smart) voting campaign that most troubled the Kremlin and perhaps lies behind the increasingly repressive measures against him and his organisation.

Magda:             You have Czech roots. While the Czech Republic has only recently emerged among the “trouble-makers”, the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe are often mentioned by Russia as the ones who block improvement in Russia-West or Russia-EU relations because they are, allegedly, not able to be pragmatic or neutral but are simply anti-Russian. What are your thoughts on this? And if this is the case, what could be done to overcome this impasse and who should make the first move?

Alex Pravda:      Well, both size and historical experiences help explain most of the basic East European attitudes to and feelings about Russia. For the Czechs, Russia was long a counterweight to Austria and Germany in the cultural sphere for sure, and there were also a lot of pro-socialist feelings within the population. Czechs don’t think about themselves as a great nation, which makes relations with Moscow easier. The relationship with Russia is not rooted in deep hostility, despite the serious scars left by 1968. And even after 1968, Czechs generally still come out as less hostile towards Russia than many other nations in the region.

If you look at Poland, it is perfectly understandable why they have such a visceral distrust of and even hostility to Russia. At the same time the Poles have long been resigned to this as they think they simply have to deal with unchanging Russian qualities. Russians have been extremely brutal towards Poland, but the Poles have probably already gone through their worst periods when they had to deal with the Germans on the other side, who historically presented as much of a problem as Russia. At least now they only have Russian hostility to contend with.

The Baltics are a very interesting case. For many post-Soviet years, the Russians did not really know what to do about the Baltic states. They perhaps thought they had sufficient security and economic leverage over them, especially over Estonia and Latvia with their large ethnic Russian minorities. Even since the Baltic states entered NATO, there still remain many things Russia could do to try and pressure them in both domestic and foreign policies. Even if Moscow initiated moves that would justify the triggering of Article V, they know they could do so in ways that would cause real dilemmas for NATO. Many in Moscow would privately admit that it is perfectly understandable and rational for the Baltic states to take anti-Russian positions. When we look at  East European – Russian relationships in practice, they are interestingly nuanced. Take the Russian-Polish relationship, for example. It often looks terrible at the public political level, but if you go below the surface, to the level of everyday business, Polish behaviour is often surprisingly pragmatic. Of course, shouting a lot in Europe about Russian threats not only reflects genuine fears; it is also a way for the Poles and the Balts to have a bigger voice in European policies. Their take on Russia is rightly taken seriously in Brussels: they live next door, and they know Russia as a hostile, dominant neighbour.

From a Brussels perspective, the EU has to balance national voices and interests across the bloc, on this as on every other issue. Moreover, when it comes to security questions, the EU’s opinion carries little weight: European security is really all about NATO. And within NATO, the Balts and the Poles are quite influential in US political circles and in Washington. Under the Biden administration, with its stronger Euro-Atlantic priorities, it will be probably more difficult to balance the various voices within the European side of NATO.

Magda:              Do you think there is anything Russia could or should do which might improve their relations with countries in Eastern Europe, in order to show some good will?

Alex Pravda:      Russia should be very careful and resist the temptation to interfere in East European domestic politics. Given nervousness about Russian meddling, most recently in Prague, Moscow would be well advised to take a demonstratively hands-off position on Czech politics. Non-interference in East European internal affairs can be depicted as one of mutual advantage – we don’t want anyone to meddle with our politics, so we set an example by resisting opportunities to interfere via cyber or more traditional cloak-and-dagger means. Moscow has tried to earn image credits from its export of Sputnik V, though it has done so rather clumsily and with mixed results. Another thing they could do which might have longer-term positive influence in Eastern Europe would be to be more active and subtle in their cultural outreach. The arts have always been taken seriously in the region, and many people there admire Russian culture. So, I think if Moscow concentrated on that in a less overtly political way than it does at present, this could help the Russian image.

But of course, the conduct of such policies along with many others is unlikely to be measured and effective. Domestic politics weigh heavily in Moscow’s external actions and it is tempting for Russia to take advantage of political division and financial opportunities in its ‘near abroad’. Moscow  gets engaged for a range of national and corporate interests and often sides with the wrong politicians who don’t do very well in the end, and that damages the Russian image still further.

Magda:             It seems there are plenty of ideas being entertained and analysed about what can or even should be done in Russia-West relations in academic and think-tank circles. There is a sufficient pool of ideas to draw upon, if needed, yet it seems there is no political will to use them. Can you see a way to change this dynamic and generate some good will, or at least a sense of urgency about fixing the problems?

Alex Pravda:      It is not really a matter of good will first and foremost. What I think we need to do is to spread good practice in terms of thinking about East-West relations, to diffuse what we do in the University Consortium: encourage people to spell out and question their own assumptions.

I’ve read a lot of material coming out of the Democratic side of the US political spectrum, and it is all too often the same old stuff, based on assumptions which nobody seems to want to examine: Russia is a villain, by definition it is malign and trying to undo the West; by definition we should see it as an adversary in what remains essentially a zero-sum game. We need to unpack these assumptions: why do you think that Russia is necessarily malign, in what ways and on what grounds?

Magda:              Sorry to interrupt, but Russia openly declares that it wants to weaken and undermine the power of the US or the West, it is part of the official line.

Alex Pravda:      Many Russian officials and politicians do proclaim the end of the hegemony of the US and the Collective West in what they see as a new era. They forcefully assert their right to be respected as a Great Power.  We have to unpack those statements. Why are they saying that? Why do they make these assumptions about us, about the United States being hostile and dangerous for Russia? Such unpacking has to happen on both sides. Why do the Russians keep thinking that everyone is out to get them, why do they think that everyone is and always has been out to put them down? And if we go beyond the usual references to Napoleon and Hitler, and even to Stalin and Soviet Russian imperial expansionism, a lot comes down to domestic insecurities and politics on their side and sometimes also on ours.

Russians often say that the West needs them as an enemy. In some cases, they are right, in some Western narratives the villain, played for years by the Soviet Union, was missed, even if China has now partially substituted for it. But China, so far, is a far better equipped and subtle international operator. Beijing has not only nuclear weapons but also a lot of economic leverage, so the picture is much more complicated: zero-sum, but also positive-sum in some ways at the same time. It is trickier to set up China as an enemy and treat it as such. With Russia, weak on economic interdependence and strong on cyberattacks and interference, it is all more straightforward. As a widely accepted enemy Russia provides a useful political device to unite disparate groups at both domestic as well as international level.

The first step forward may be to do what we do in the UC: spell out our own assumptions and unpack them in front of one other. Surprisingly, this process tends to help introspection and stimulate empathy, and one not necessarily accompanied by sympathy as is often mistakenly assumed. This is a process that has to happen on both sides, and both have to be ready to question their own assumptions. Assuming and thinking that the other side is prejudiced, blinkered and dogmatic, while your own is progressive, liberal, and always examining everything fairly, leads nowhere.

And the second step we can try to take is to go back to fundamentals: to ponder the big questions. For me, one of the big questions in political life is the one discussed in one of my favourite essays by Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, Weber makes a useful distinction about the ethics of ultimate ideals and the ethics of responsibility. Policy-makers would do well to follow the ethics of responsibility, and always think through the consequences of options, rather than base their choice always on the ethics of their ultimate ideals. There is no virtue in practice in automatically and relentlessly pursuing a particular cause, however worthy; politicians should always carefully think through the likely practical consequences of their strategies.

Message to the next generation:

Magda:             We also want you, our senior members, to send a message to the younger generation. Please feel free to formulate any message you wish, but I am interested in one particular aspect: is there something you know now that you wish you had known earlier? Perhaps there is something that you believe could have better informed your activities or better shaped your priorities?

Alex Pravda:      This goes back a bit to our discussion about big patterns and linearity. I think another lesson I’ve learned concerns interdisciplinarity: you should avoid restricting yourself to perspectives of just one discipline, typically the one in which you have been principally trained. You should try and explore possible insights from other disciplines, even if you know them less well. Of course, time and effort limitations complicate such efforts, but we should remind ourselves constantly that other disciplines may well have equally valid takes on any problem one is considering. Most of the greatest analytical challenges we will face in the future, like climate change, require completely interdisciplinary approaches.

Secondly, in terms of recommendations to the younger generation, I think that it has some major strengths compared to my generation. One is that its members are far more open to each other, not just because of greater technical connectivity, but through greater mental connectivity. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which UC fellows are far more open than their elders to saying, ‘Hey, that is an interesting and different point. I’ll really think about it.’ Social media connectivity facilitates this kind of productive exchange and they should really try to take advantage of that.

Finally, and we’ve touched indirectly on this several times today: pay more careful analytical attention to emotions as factors in international and domestic politics and policy-making. As academics, preoccupied with cognitive rationality, we need to pay more serious attention to emotional factors, not just as residuals, even if they are very difficult to handle analytically. We cannot measure them – nor can we measure ideas or beliefs – but they should not be considered mere peripheral irrationalities. Not everything that fails to fit into the mainline assumptions or methods of our disciplines is of secondary importance. How emotions and feelings inform and influence political choice is a critical factor to try and take fully into account, perhaps especially when trying to deal with relations between Russia and the West.