Russo-British Discussions in the North Caucasus: Analyzing Current Events through History’s Lens

On May 20th, a group of three LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) history professors visited Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University, a prestigious educational institution in the Russian North Caucasus. The University hosted the final round of the Paulsen Fellowship Programme designed to bring promising Russian historians to British research venues. While it was not the primary goal of their visit, the guests took time out of their busy schedules to meet with faculty and graduate students. For the latter it was obviously a once in a lifetime chance to pick the brain of Dominic Lieven, a notable authority on Russian history and the politics of the post-Soviet space, author of six books including the epic Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (Yale University Press, 2001).

The discussion concerned an array of issues from the situation in Syria, great power politics in Central Asia and the Russian-British relationship. The audience of about 50 people included mostly teaching staff and graduate students from the School of International Studies and the School of Government both at PSLU. What fascinated most of the people present was the way Prof. Lieven and his colleagues Prof. Janet Hartley and Dr Paul Keenan addressed the audience’s questions, wrapping current developments into various historical contexts. For instance, when asked about the possible negative impact of British and Russian mass media rhetoric on the relations between London and Moscow he opined “The world collapsed into World War I partly because of the irresponsible behavior of both Russian and international media” – a precaution that public opinion-makers have to measure their messages with possible outcomes. On the much debated Syrian war the discussants agreed that the ongoing crisis could span the entire Greater Middle East as well as the Caucasus, therefore it needs to be addressed on the basis of common security interests by all players. They noted that with time the British stakes in the situation may rise: in case the Syrian chaos involves more parties and spills over to bordering regions, it may potentially have a negative impact on Pakistan, including possible disintegration. With highly probable immigration to the Great Britain to follow, British concerns would become more than real. So would those of Russia whose strategic southern flank – in the words of Winston Churchill “Russia’s soft belly” – would become more vulnerable. The status quo in Central Asia after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan was also a key issue discussed during the meeting. The traditional vision of struggle for influence in the region through the lens of great power politics is not quite accurate, Prof. Lieven believes. “The state that stays as far from this hot spot of the world as possible eventually gains more,” probably not the advice you get to hear a lot these days and certainly not the one that is typically accepted, taking into account the geopolitical and security consequences that would follow. When talking about geopolitics and the rise of Beijing in this context, the academics drew an interesting parallel between the challenge of integrating China into the world system today and integrating Germany after WWI. They opined that for obvious reasons in the case of China it is a much harder thing to do and expressed a fair amount of skepticism about its prospects. In conclusion the experts touched upon the current situation in the post-Soviet space. Prof. Lieven, an expert on the history of empires, said the break-up of the Soviet Union was rather smooth. Despite several military conflicts on its periphery lasting to this day, the disintegration of the biggest state on the world stage was in his opinion managed better than the same process in the British, Austrian, and let alone the Ottoman empires. On the whole, the event gave some food for academic thought and laid the ground for future joint research projects between Russian and British scholars whose interests in the region have an ages-long professional record.