Interview with Bobo Lo, author of Pushkin Prize 2016 shortlisted book 'Russia and the New World Disorder'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack

How did you become interested in Russia?

My father was a Chinese refugee who was caught up in the civil war and the war with Japan, and the first literature he read in translation were the nineteenth-century Russian classics. He communicated that interest to me, and I read them as a teenager. Growing up, every two years I would switch between living with my French mother in the UK and my father in Australia. I led a peripatetic life, doing an undergraduate degree at Oxford and then joining the Australian diplomatic service at 23. I was an Arabist initially, with a first posting in Damascus. Eventually I got back to what I had always wanted to do – Russia. I did a PhD in Soviet political economy at Melbourne University and then rejoined the foreign service, before working for think-tanks in Moscow and London – for the PIR Centre, the Carnegie Moscow Center, Chatham House, and the Centre for European Reform. But for most of the last 16 years, I’ve been a freelancer. I love the freedom!

Why did you want to write this book?

I had previously written two general books on Russian foreign policy: on Yeltsin’s in 2002 and Putin’s early on in 2003. In 2011, I thought it was time I had another look at Russia in the world and how Putin was managing: how much has changed, and how much remains constant. There is a new world disorder: it’s evident that we, Putin, everyone is conducting foreign policy against the backdrop of an increasingly turbulent, fluid international environment. The central question is how Russia is adapting – or not - to a world in which many of the old certainties have given way to new unclarities, with blurred boundaries and many blank spots.

How did you carry out your research?

I did a lot of interviews, reading and internal thinking. Foreign policy speeches can be useful as weather vanes but of course you have to be really careful in interpreting them. That’s the flaw in some of the academic work on Russia: researchers look at the national security strategy or the foreign policy concept and think that because it’s on paper, it necessarily reflects reality. I know a lot of Russians and speak to many other experts, including the Chinese. One of the advantages of writing for Chatham House is that it has study groups where you can discuss your drafts in detail with leading experts and receive constructive feedback on both substance and style. I come from a policy background and I don’t like to get too embroiled in theorisation. I try to write as I would speak, and in a way that is accessible and enjoyable to an educated lay-person.

What were your main conclusions?

I feel the western media’s view of Putin is often highly flawed. They see a figure in Ukraine or Syria conducting a dazzling tour de force: someone who is agile, decisive and running rings around hapless western leaders. True, Putin is very good at tactics and has scored a number of startling operational successes. But in many respects, Russia is in a weaker foreign policy position than when he came back to the Kremlin in 2012. He could be doing much better by exercising greater restraint, focusing more on substance, avoiding gratuitously offensive actions and taking a more flexible and far-sighted approach.

What explains Russia’s foreign policy approach?

There is a certain strategic culture that prizes geopolitical influence and military power as the supreme virtues. Economic prosperity is important, respect from others is nice, but ultimately it’s about whether you can project power effectively, whether you are a strong leader in the traditional sense – this is what is most important to Putin. Then there is the more recent, post-Soviet narrative that the west has always had it in for Russia, and that it does not respect its interests and status. The result of this mix of instincts, culture, and interests is a foreign policy that has three main goals: to facilitate an international environment that reinforces the stability of the Putin regime; to secure compliance for Russian interests in the post-Soviet neighbourhood; and to promote Russia as an independent centre of global power balancing between the US and China.

What is the Chinese perspective on Russia?

Russia is often seen from the viewpoint of the west. I try to bring a bit more of an Asian perspective. At a personal level, the Chinese respect Putin as a strong, decisive leader who can stick it to an arrogant west. But there is a fair bit of contempt for Russia too: as a politically stagnant system, as a country that has failed to modernise and is even demodernising, as an apathetic society and as a sometimes rash foreign policy actor. It’s quite a mixed view. The Chinese say nice things about Russia in public but they take advantage of it in energy, arms, and the Eurasian space. They are less interested in cooperation with Russia than in ensuring that it doesn’t get in the way of their interests. In this, they have learnt a lot from the Western experience with Moscow.

What are the lessons of the recent Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria?

Russia could have achieved much more in Ukraine with a softer approach: if it had let the Ukrainians mess things up by themselves, the Europeans would soon have lost interest and the Americans would have been distracted by other priorities. Russia has the capability to be a twenty-first century global power but not if it relies on traditional methods. In Syria, it can destabilise things and undermine the interests of other players. It is less clear whether it can make a major contribution to problem-solving, for example through the Vienna process. It will need to show that it can make a positive difference if it is to exert a lasting influence in regional and global affairs.

Are you optimistic for the future of Russian foreign policy?

Not for the next couple of years at least. Elections are coming up in Russia, which is not a good time to be flexible. And in the US, whoever gets in, we are set for an even rockier ride than today. The very idea of cooperation has become suspect in Moscow and Washington. The problems in Russia-western relations are deep rooted and not going away soon. Putin also has few attractive strategic options: China has not stepped into the breach left by the deterioration in relations with the West. And this increases the temptation for reckless behaviour - “tactical masterstrokes” to change the narrative. If Putin gets frustrated – say the Vienna process goes nowhere - he may re-escalate tensions in Ukraine. In the longer term, however, there is considerable scope for change in a world where there are so many free floating elements. Change can and does happen suddenly and unpredictably. And Russia’s own domestic and external circumstances may lead its rulers to re-evaluate their priorities and options – although we shouldn’t hold our breath!

What plans do you have for another book?

I’m working on a short book on the Russia-China relationship for the Lowy Institute and Penguin Australia. I will build on my 2008 book, Axis of Convenience, and argue that, despite recent appearances, theirs remains a somewhat cynical relationship of interests rather than a genuine strategic partnership or authoritarian alliance.