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Putin Russia into Perspective

Published 18 Jun 2024

On Tuesday 11 June, AIIA NSW welcomed Peter Tesch, former Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2016-2019) and later Defence Department Deputy Secretary, to contextualise Russia and Putin amidst the current Ukraine war.  He said he was presenting judgements and views formed over 40 years’ study of Russian language, history, culture, politics and from repeated visits and periods living and working in both the USSR and the Russian Federation.  Noting the Kremlin’s dismissal of foreign critics as “russophobes”, he countered that he was a “Kremlinophobe” and a “Russophile”, praising the warmth, resilience and humanity of the Russian people.

Tesch began by lamenting Australia’s atrophying “Russia literacy”, with only one university continuing to offer Russian studies as a major, and even that program facing potential closure.  Despite the increasing preoccupation with the “China Problem”, Australia should remember that Russia was a permanent member of the UN Security Council and hence an architect and guarantor of the system of international security which underpinned Australian security and prosperity.  Russia remained a key player in international politics and our region, including as a member of APEC and the G20.

Russia’s modern identity and ambitions were informed by four recurring historical themes outlined by Tesch: authoritarianism, spiritualism, exceptionalism (Russia’s sense of status and serving a greater divine purpose than lesser states), and convulsion (referring to a history of political upheaval, rebellion and revolution in the country and on its periphery).  Foremost among Russia’s desires was achieving parity with the USA, seeking ways to disrupt the international world order, and consequently undermine US hegemony and alliances.  Simultaneously, Putin was motivated by personal aspirations of pre-eminence amongst his expansionist predecessors, prominent amongst whom were Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great.  For Putin and many Russians, the collapse of the Soviet Union remained a bitter memory of tragedy and source of resentment, informing current aspirations to regain their once-great influence on the global stage.

These motivations had resulted in a “no-limits” friendship with China and in regular attempts to disrupt the international order, notably in the Ukraine war.  Tesch made the point that China relied on stability to exert influence from within the global system while Russia, for reasons difficult to comprehend, “has always sought security in the instability of others”.

Having already run the country for 24 years, Putin had just been “re-enthroned” for another six-year term and had good prospects of one more beyond that.  Tesch observed that this was equivalent to twelve Australian electoral cycles, underscoring the problem accountable governments like Australia’s faced in “managing”, rather than “solving”, long-term challenges.  Putin had perfected a highly personalised system of rule, playing competing clans and castes off against one another.  His selective interpretation of history allowed him to shape a national narrative that supported his agenda and captured the support of the Russian people.  Tesch was certain that official polls exaggerated Russians’ approval of their leader due to fear of consequences.  However, there was an instinctive distrust of outsiders in the country, a result of Russia’s tragic history.  Particularly beyond the main cities, life had become difficult for Russians since the dissolution of the USSR.  For rural communities, the West’s narrative of liberal democracy held no self-evident benefit.  Russians measured their daily challenges and difficulties with different yardsticks; improving “Russia literacy” in Australia was of central importance in comprehending Russia and how to encourage positive change over time while managing current threats and challenges.

Peter Tesch (top left) with AIIA NSW interns (clockwise) Jie Rui Lin, Adam Scislowski, Hattie Shand, Paris Fleury, Isabella Crowe and Jacob Barry

Tesch then tackled key myths perpetuated by the Kremin relating to the Ukraine conflict, foremost the notion that Russia was responding to NATO’s expansion eastward.  He highlighted that Russian officials, and Putin himself, had been unconcerned about NATO’s enlargement in the early 2000s.  They had taken a view that new states like Slovakia would drain NATO resources, while contributing little.  It was only after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 that NATO had increased its military preparedness.  Tesch also challenged the narrative of Russia aligning with the Global South against colonialism, citing the country’s own extensive imperialist history.

The growth in nationalist and right-wing populist sentiment, particularly in Europe, was of concern.  It reinforced Putin’s own instincts and undermined Western coherence and resilience.  Recalling his time as Ambassador to Germany, Tesch observed that then-Chancellor Angela Merkel had demonstrated clear-headedness and firmness in dealing with Putin, who clearly had respected her more than other European leaders.

Questions from the audience included discussion of the missile attack from Ukraine on Russia’s early warning system: given that this system was designed to warn Russia of an impending American missile attack, would its destruction increase the risk of nuclear war?  Tesch saw this as an exaggeration.  We should not lightly dismiss the Kremlin’s nuclear rhetoric, but that sabre had been rattled more than 50 times so far since Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine two years ago.  While willing to take bold action, Putin was generally a calculating and risk-averse figure.  It was possible he would test a nuclear weapon as a demonstration, but the military utility of such a move was far from clear.  It would attract even greater criticism and opposition, probably including from China, which would see it as a seriously destabilising move.

Asked about Russia’s Pacific ambitions Tesch said that, while Russia was keenly aware of the importance of its Pacific region and had performed increasingly complex joint military activities with China, its east was not currently a high priority for the Kremlin.  On Russia’s relationship with China, he noted a growing power imbalance, of which Russia was well aware.  Large parts of Russia’s east had been Chinese territory until 1860.  Russia had so far been careful not to capitulate to Chinese requests with strategic dimensions, such as selling arable land in Pacific Russia to China.

On the question of how another Trump presidency would affect Russia, Tesch replied that Trump’s narcissistic transactionalism would reinforce both Putin and Xi’s belief in great power exceptionalism and also signal to Putin that anything could be sold or bought for the right price.

In response to a question on Navalny’s legacy, Tesch replied that, while Navalny had not sought political power, his activity had prompted increasing Russian animosity towards governmental corruption.  But his persecution and death had demonstrated the ability of the Kremlin to splinter and smother isolated movements of opposition with ease.

Questioned on the perception of the West in Russia, Tesch argued that the historical Westerniser vs Slavophile debate had been complicated by censorship.  There were no safe outlets to express pro-Western views.  He argued that it was in the West’s interests to avoid being simplistically anti-Russia and instead to focus on engaging the Russian population with new narratives.

Report by Adam Scislowski, AIIA NSW intern


Peter Tesch (left) with AIIA NSW intern Adam Scislowski and president Ian Lincoln