The West's Great Folly: Believing Old Empires Had Gone 'Progressive,' Too

Founded in 1549 by Ivan IV the Terrible as the Ambassadors College (Possolski Prikaz) and reorganized in 1720 by Peter I the Great as a Western-style Foreign Affairs College, the Russian service contributed as effectively as the military to the country’s steady aggrandizement. It did not vanish in 1917, but switched allegiance to the Soviet regime, much as the Ottoman service rallied to Kemal’s Republic, and helped it recover most of the tsars’ lands in just a few years.

And it did not wither in 1991 when the USSR unraveled. Instead, it embarked almost immediately, as the Russian Federation’s service, on again restoring Russia as a Great Power.

What makes the Russian foreign service so efficient?

First: its clarity of purpose.

The document known as The Will of Peter the Great that tersely lists Russia’s goals and tactics in foreign affairs may be a Polish or French forgery, but it is a fact that Russia, understanding its literal character -- a very wide country at the junction of Europe and Asia -- developed quite early an understanding for geopolitics and long-term strategies. The views quoted or alluded to in the Will -- national supremacy, claims to the Byzantine imperial heritage, multilateral ambitions in all parts of the world, a cold perception of power relations -- reflect its actual policies.

Second: its professional quality.

Russian diplomats, whether under the tsars or Stalin or Putin, have been well-educated, well-mannered, fluent in foreign languages, and experts in history and international law.

Nothing is more revealing in this respect than the History of Diplomacy, a three-volume summa written and published by a panel of Soviet historians in the 1940s at the height of Stalinist terror and ideological glaciation. Such a rich, no-nonsense essay, it has remained as popular in Western countries as it had in the USSR for many years. (The French translation I own was issued in 1953 by Librairie de Medicis, then a rather conservative publishing house specializing in politics and economics.)

Third: intelligence. The Russian foreign service has always been interlinked with the secret services.

In the 17th century, the foreign service was supplemented by a Secret Affairs College that was answerable to the tsar only. Similar arrangements were repeated in later eras, down to Soviet NKVD and KGB -- and, now, to present-day agencies.

The job of the secret services has been to monitor the diplomats’ activities, but also to do everything the diplomats could not do openly: to bribe officials in foreign countries, to recruit spies and informants, to build up contacts among dissenters, and -- most importantly -- to manipulate the public opinion.

Ironically, the Russians, while autocratic among themselves, have been acutely aware of the power of public opinion abroad, and ready to devote time and resources to win it over. Russian diplomats and secret agents started in the 18th century to bribe, influence, or even launch newspapers in Holland, England, and France. This practice was later extended to more countries and more media -- including, over the past fifteen years or so, the internet.

Catherine II paraded as an enlightened despot in order to enlist Western intellectuals, and largely succeeded. As did Stalin in the 20th century.

As does Putin today.

Another joint mission of diplomats and secret service agents has been to gather economic and technological intelligence to use economic issues as a leverage for political interests, be it the export of Russian raw materials or foreign investment in Russia. Eighteenth century Russia was eager to sell England the wood it needed for its navy in order to turn it into a dependent country. Today's Russia does the same by selling gas to Western Europe, Turkey, and the former Soviet republics.

Conversely, just like late 19th century Russia coupled a French-Russian strategic alliance against Germany with alluring loans that syphoned the French middle-class savings, the late 20th century Soviet Union coupled a French-Russian entente against America with a wide range of contracts for the French industry.

Fourth: Russia's long-term perspective.

Far-reaching retreats may be condoned for a while -- 1812, 1941, 1989-1991 -- but stand to be reversed. Schemes may be put aside for years, then resumed. Patronage or friendships, once established, may be left dormant for years, but are never relinquished.

It was sheer incompetence or sheer folly on the part of the Americans and Europeans to assume that Russia would gently agree in 1991 to withdraw to its original 17th century core, to countenance the redrawing of the Balkans by the West only in 1995-1999, or to forsake forever its networks and alliances in the Orient, including the Eastern Christian communities, Khomeinist Iran, and the rivaling twin Baathist brothers of Syria and Iraq.

Russia is now calling bluff, and may pocket a lot -- as long as a weak, historically ignorant, Russian-influenced president sits in the White House.