Riddle, Mystery and Enigma

After many years doing business in Russia, former foreign secretary Lord David Owen has a unique knowledge of relations between Russia and the West. Talking about his latest book on British and Russian history, he gives Fergus Byrne insights into the role that Britain has played in a changing relationship.

In the introduction to his recently updated book Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma: Two Hundred Years of British–Russian Relations, Lord David Owen expands on the title taken from the famous Churchill phrase that Russia is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” by explaining that Churchill suggested there was a “key” to understanding Russia. Churchill saw that key as “Russian National Interest”. Fast forward nearly seventy years to the story of how British American financier Bill Browder was targeted by Vladimir Putin’s administration to ban him from entering Russia and systematically relieve his company of its Russian business interests, Browder also quotes Churchill. He says Churchill’s observations are still correct, with one big proviso. Instead of the national interest guiding Russia’s actions, Browder says they are guided by money, “specifically the criminal acquisition of money by government officials.” Browder’s experience and the slick, thriller style that he has chosen to relate his story in his books Red Notice and Freezing Order may not deliver the heft of more academic offerings but they shine a light none the less. His efforts to bring into law the Magnitsky Act, allowing the US to withdraw visas and freeze assets of human rights offenders came about as a direct result of what he believed was a targeted murder of one of his Russian colleagues. Browder’s story shows just how dangerous it is to get on the wrong side of Putin.
With twenty years of experience doing business in Russia, Lord Owen also has personal familiarity with how ruthless Putin is. He eventually stopped doing business there in 2014 after Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine. But as chairman of Russian oil giant Yukos International, he saw first-hand what could happen when Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s first oligarchs and founder of Yukos was targeted by Putin’s administration and thrown in jail. ‘The action he took over Yukos and imprisonment of its chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, when I was Chairman of Yukos International, was indefensible’ he told me. ‘The process was corrupt and Yukos shareholders in effect had their share values stolen.’ What happened to Khodorkovsky under Putin was shocking and put a marker down for any other oligarchs that might have had a political opinion against Putin. But Lord Owen sees little hope of the rule of law changing anything. ‘There are ongoing international legal actions over the treatment of Yukos by the Russian government but I see little prospect of any serious financial compensation. No British or any government can do much to change the situation while Putin remains in control.’
So what has changed since Churchill first led Britain against the Bolsheviks and then allied with Russia against Hitler? How did we get to this? Understanding Russia, a country that has seen the collapse of communism and an inability to install stable democracy, is a challenge that has tested historians and politicians over many years, and will likely do so for many more years to come. To try to understand where Britain lies within such a complex history, Lord Owen’s latest book takes an interesting angle by concentrating specifically on relations between Britain and Russia over the last two hundred years.
Starting with the battle of Navarino in 1827, which took place on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece near where Lord Owen once had a home and where he kept a boat, he details what he considers one of the most famous battles in naval history. Britain, alongside France and Russia defeated the Ottoman fleet, paving the way for Greek independence. It was a great victory and an alliance with Russia that, undertaken by the then Prime Minister George Canning was later downplayed by the Duke of Wellington. Lord Owen was as horrified by Wellington’s attitude as were Britain’s then allies Russia and France. ‘Wellington was hopeless as a politician though a lucky General’ he says. ‘After the greatest victory under sail in October 1827 in the Battle of Navarino, when under the command of the British Admiral Codrington 27 British, French and Russian ships sunk all 65 ships of the Ottoman Fleet, Wellington described it as the “Untoward Event” though it was hailed by the people in London as a great victory and by the governments and people in Paris and Moscow! Wellington even apologised to the Ottoman rulers!’
Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma: Two Hundred Years of British–Russian Relations follows Britain’s relations with Russia and The Soviet Union through conflict in Afghanistan in The Great Game, to aligning with The Whites against the Bolsheviks and then Churchill’s agreement with Stalin against Hitler in the Second World War, right through the Cold War and our current relations with Russia. It is a roller coaster of strategic alliances that shows just how delicate—and strategic—the balance of diplomacy and politics can be. “In my own lifetime the relationship has gone from wartime allies to cyber adversaries with periods of deep mutual fear” he writes.
In his talk with historian and career soldier, John Dean, at Bridport Literary Festival in November, Lord Owen will expand on stories from the book and perhaps talk about how our shared history has brought us to where we are today. However, the questions that are on everyone’s lips are those relevant to the current conflict in Ukraine and Britain’s support for the defence of a country whose independence was recognised by Russia as recently as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
Military options are now very much in the hands of NATO and if there has been any benefit to the current conflict, it is signs of a cohesive attitude within the alliance that have surfaced since the invasion. Lord Owen believes NATO is the best military alliance in world history and sees no benefit to the idea put forward by those in Europe who would like to see it replaced with a new defensive alliance. He has also said that having American troops stationed in Europe since the end of the last war has stopped Russia from attacking Europe.
But military defence is not the only threat that needs to be taken into account. In updated chapters written for the paperback version of his book, Lord Owen discusses how Putin thought Hilary Clinton was working to deprive him of votes when he was standing for re-election in 2012 and how that may have been a factor in him interfering in the US election against her. If true, the interference was very successful. I asked him how we in the West can ‘reality check’ against this sort of interference in the future. He said it was ‘very difficult in a world of cyber warfare and where there are ever increasingly sophisticated techniques to manipulate the results. We need far greater protection against foreign interference in all democratic countries if we are to retain public support for our democracies.’
Although he believes that relations with Russia are worse now than they have ever been in the 200 years of history that his book covers, Lord Owen is not without hope. ‘Yes Russia can change back to the optimistic days when Yeltsin abolished the Communist party’ he told me. However that may be some time off.
Historically, commerce and trade are as much purveyors of peace as they are of war and if we are to avoid the decimation of a third world war or a drawn out battle with Putin’s generals punishing adversaries by targeting infrastructure away from the front lines, alliances will need to be made and cemented by pragmatic trade-offs. ‘It has never been easy to have normal business relations with Russia. Though under the Tsars it was better than the Communists’ he says. ‘Yet we traded with Russia throughout the Cold War. For a short time under Yeltsin when price controls were lifted it was possible to hope that a proper market economy was developing in Russia. But Yeltsin, by then a sick man, chose to support Putin rather than the Mayor of Moscow supported by Gazprom. He did so because he believed Putin was the strong man who would protect him and his family.’
With Putin’s KGB background Lord Owen sees a culture that is hard to change. He cites former KGB chief Yuri Andropov as a key influence on Putin, however, he sees elements of Putin’s behaviour that may cause him problems. ‘Andropov was for 15 years head of the KGB’ he explained. ‘Tough-minded, he was admired by Putin, but Putin seems to ignore that the key characteristic of Andropov, in marked contrast to Putin, was he had the admiration of Russians in or outside the KGB, because he was not personally corrupt.’
Lord Owen recalls periods of optimism between the West and Russia in the recent past and writes that what worried the US and its allies was “the divergence between Russian statements of principle and the reality of their behaviour. It appeared that Russia was simply paying lip service to global norms while continuing a campaign of disruption and destabilisation in what it regarded as its sphere of influence.”
Under the current Russian administration this is unlikely to change. Talk of regime change is often tempered by concern that there is no obvious better option. Therefore the question of how NATO deals with Ukraine’s application for membership and what Britain can do to influence Russia’s relationship with the West are open to discussion. I asked Lord Owen for his views on these questions and he said he would rather speak about them during his talk at BridLit. I imagine by the time this comes to print there may be many more questions and points for discussion.