What to make of Alex Salmond’s qualified admiration for Vladimir Putin? The First Minister, interviewed for the forthcoming issue of GQ, declared he admires “certain aspects” of the Russian President’s record. Asked for his views on Putin, Salmond told Alastair Campbell that:
“Well, obviously, I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions, but I think Putin’s more effective than the press he gets I would have thought, and you can see why he carries support in Russia.
“[…] He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing. There are aspects of Russian constitutionality and the inter-mesh with business and politics that are obviously difficult to admire. Russians are fantastic people, incidentally, they are lovely people.”
There are many reasons why foreign policy will not have much, if any, impact on September’s referendum and not the least of them is that an independent Scotland will not have much in the way of a distinct foreign policy anyway. It will, doubtless, be able to do some good at the margin and be a “good global citizen” (whatever that means) and that is all very well and good. There is certainly nothing discreditable about such ambitions.
And yet and with all that being as it may there remains something interesting about Salmond’s contradictory instincts in the field of international affairs. As I have remarked before, the SNP’s instincts are to deny the United Kingdom – and the West more generally – the benefit of the doubt while extending that doubt to other less obviously free or fair countries especially if or when they become the “targets” of western action. If you think this sits a little uncomfortably with the party’s recent, suspiciously convenient, desire to join NATO you might well have a point.
Still, let it be noted that Salmond is obviously correct on at least one point: it is not difficult to see why Putin should be popular in Russia. Russian elections are neither wholly free nor fair but Putin would probably win even if he did not deal from a stacked deck. It is also probably true, as Salmond says, that Putin has “restored a substantial part of Russian pride” though less obviously true that, from a non-Russian perspective, this is necessarily a good thing.
Putin is a nationalist, of course, and so is Salmond. The First Minister won his narrow victory in 2007 in large part because he persuaded sufficient numbers of Scots that only the SNP could properly stand up for Scotland. The national interest, he promised, would determine his party’s decisions in government and it remains the case that plenty of voters who otherwise have little time for Salmond concede that he has consistently acted in pursuit and defence of what he considers, rightly or not, Scotland’s interests to be. His idea of the national interest may differ from yours but many voters who do not support the SNP can concede that Salmond’s idea of the national interest is plausibly honest.
So you can see why he might have an instinctive (if qualified) admiration for other leaders who can – with varying degrees of ruthlessness – be considered in similar light.
And yet – and here we discover an illuminating difference in standard – it remains the case that the SNP find Britain’s aspirations to “Great Power” status both ridiculous and distasteful. The UK clings to faded imperial “glory” and looks absurd. It should face reality and accept the world has changed. The world has moved on and so should Britain. Come in Colonel Blimp, your time was up long ago.
Fine. If that’s the sort of thing you like it’s the sort of thing you like. But Putin’s policy – both domestic and abroad – is designed to reassert Russia’s place as a Great Power. The collapse of the Soviet Union – that is, of Russia’s internal empire – was a calamity and if the USSR cannot be revived Russian pride can and Putin’s Eurasian Union, the next best thing to the USSR, will have to do what it can to compensate for that tragedy [sic].
In other words, British aspirations to play a modestly leading role in the world are absurd but Russian desires to revive faded imperial grandeur are not and, in fact, the kind of pride-boosting measures that demand a certain admiration.
This does not, of course, make Mr Salmond Mr Putin’s useful idiot (even though the Kremlin might well be one of the few foreign governments keen to see Scotland secede from the United Kingdom). But there is, as I say, a distinction between the SNP’s suspicion of the UK – and, naturally, the United States – and the relative pass it gives some other countries.
Doubtless the nationalists might say that this is because we expect better from our friends than we do from our opponents. There is something to this. But it is an argument that would be more impressive if there were more evidence that the nationalists appreciated that there is actually a difference between our friends and enemies. Or, indeed, that there are enemies at all. Hard power, as Vladimir Putin understands, still matters.
Salmond gave his GQ interview on March 14th, before the formal annexation of the Crimea but at a time when that annexation was plainly about to happen. “I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions” gives the First Minister some wiggle room but he is a sufficiently experienced politician to have known that it would have been sensible to be rather more explicit on this front.
Hypocrisy is an inescapable feature of foreign policy, especially (but not exclusively) when or if a country has aspirations to play a leading role in world events. We need not make a virtue of it but nor must we be ashamed of it. Purity – and sanctimony – is the preserve of those with no battalions.
Again, however, it is worth observing that if Salmond’s scepticism about the UK and the United States has sometimes seemed prescient this too comes at a price. A price measured in a certain naivete (I put it no more strongly than that) when measuring or judging the actions of less free, less decent nations.