It’s official now: regardless of the results of the still ongoing war in Ukraine, the era of 30 years of constructive Russian cooperation with the West is over. These words, published this week, belong to Mr Alexei Drobinin, the head of the foreign policy planning department of Russia’s foreign ministry.
He is right, but not right enough. We are witnessing the eclipse of a long era, when not just the diplomats, but our whole society first and foremost looked to the West, feared the West, envied the West, and wanted to be the West. The old question of “who are these Russians – Europeans, Asians or something in the middle?” has only two possible answers now, after the first one had been eliminated totally.
As usual, such things manifest themselves in many different and unexpected matters. Look at that famous case of a failed hijacking of Russian fighter planes in the war in Ukraine, the story that caused hoops of laughter all over the country.
According to official sources, that was a joint operation of Ukrainian and British intelligence. The idea was to bribe the Russian fighter pilots to land their Su-24, Su-34 or Tu-22M3 in Ukraine. Naturally, the pilots, when approached, notified the Russian counter-intelligence, which immediately started a counter-operation aimed at getting a lot of valuable information on Ukrainian radar and other data.
The mentioned hoops of laughter were been caused by the benefits offered for the hijack. "What??", the public was asking. They thought anybody would trade the career of a fighter pilot with field experience for 1 million dollars and citizenship of a European country like, maybe, Romania? Are they total idiots, or what?
Here you have to remember that there was a similar case in 1976 when Mr Victor Belenko hijacked a MiG25 to Japan, brand new and full of secret gadgets. I remember well our whispering to each other after that incident: Something is very wrong with good old Soviet Union if our air force officers trade their motherland for a small house in California… Then came the time of the so-called reforms of the 1990s, and again, there were cases of Russian officers defecting to the other side, not to mention the mass migration flows to Europe and the US.
The thing is, the Brits and the Ukrainians have missed the fact that the era had changed. Life in the West might have been a dream of an average Soviet citizen, witnessing the disintegration of the whole model of economy and life in the country. Extracting people from behind the Iron Curtain to the West was a powerful industry, claiming the best of Western intelligence talents. I still keep on my shelf several spy thrillers, written by John Gardner, a real good British author, where all that industry is been described most vividly. It has done its task, draining Russia’s intellectual resources and causing dismay among the ones who stayed.
But that’s old history now. A contemporary Russian looks down at the West with pity and derision these days, for hundreds of reasons. Writers like me try to coin formulas like “an obvious collapse of the whole Western system, emergence of a dysfunctional society”, etc. An ordinary man or woman prefers simply to weigh the benefits of migrating to the West in search of employment, compares it to possibilities at home, and stays.
All right, but there are extreme cases, like wars, for instance. How do such cases change public perception of benefits of living in the West against staying? We have yet another wonderful story here, that’s a story of a supposed Russian panic flight out of the country in early March, after the start of the war with Ukraine on 24 February.
Here, if you noticed, we are constantly balancing on a very thin line between patriotism, political dissent, cultural values – and migration for economic reasons. Anyway, the “March exodus” has initially been used by the hysterical Western propaganda to assert that the Russian public hates the war and is going West, like in good old times. A total of 3.88 million people left the country in the first three months of the year – is it not a disaster for Moscow?
Well, it isn’t, at least because there were eight million “exits” in the same period of the year 2020 when COVID-19 was still young and about 5 million in the last quarter of 2021. Not to mention the fact that there are always “entries”, meaning that people come and go all the time.
But then, there was that phenomenon of about 70 thousand IT specialists, literally switched off their jobs due to sanctions. It was them who were initially going anywhere, including the famous beaches of Goa, just to keep working. Does it mean that the IT tribe is absolutely pro-Western in a nation that, as an example, supports the government’s military operation in Ukraine by about 78-80 per cent? Well, if your business is in jeopardy, you may very well be unhappy.
But, in any case, those IT people who panicked and fled, are already back, or at least 80 per cent of them are. Does it mean that they don’t love the West anymore? Did they love it before? No, they simply got back to their own country.
The same thin line between migration and loving the West (or East) is obvious when you look at what happens to Ukraine. The official ideology of that nation is that Ukraine is the West (and definitely not Russia), and getting into the EU is the national goal. So about 4.3 million Ukrainians went West as refugees, when the war started, according to the UN. But then, about two million Ukrainians escaped to Russia. What exactly does that mean? And what should we think about caravans of them, daily crossing the line from the Ukrainian West to the areas, hold by the Russian troops – are these the people who have mentally divorced the EU, or are they just going East on business and will come back to their homes soon?
The author is a columnist for the Russian State agency website ria.ru, as well as for other publications.