REVIEW: Tony Kevin (2019), Russia and the West: The Last Two Action-Packed Years, 2017–2019 (Canberra: Tony Kevin). ISBN: 9780987319029.

First published in Disarming Times, Vol. 45, №1, March 2020

It is remarkable how Cold War ideological influences have persisted so robustly and still shape the confined imaginations of Western political leaders, policy makers and security experts, even as the Cold War as we once knew it recedes historically. Those blinkered souls remain intellectually frozen in the wake of rapidly changing global developments, seemingly unable to grasp the fact that radical new thinking is urgently needed as the world teeters on the brink of climate catastrophe, nuclear weapons proliferation, grotesquely mounting human rights violations, and the raging of regional and global conflicts that were largely unimaginable prior to 1989. Nowhere is this more evident than in the West’s paranoid, confused and counterproductive relations with post-Soviet Russia.

In Australia, where Cold War imagining still rules the minds of far too many politicians, and way too many in the defence and foreign policy establishment, this is especially problematic. However, Tony Kevin is a welcome exception. As a former Australian diplomat in Moscow, and a widely read writer on Australian diplomacy and security policy, he brings a passionate intelligence to the huge problem of why relations between Russia and the West remain so tense and counterproductive for all sides.

In this self-published essay, Kevin rages against the West’s one-dimensional thinking. It is thinking, he states, that is replete with what he describes as “Russophobia”. This is a security policy pathology that distorts public opinion about Russia, inducing fear and loathing among the general public, while enabling vested interests to profit vastly from the production of all the grim paraphernalia of war in their infamous laboratories and factories that make up the West’s “military-industrial complex”.

Kevin offers an interesting counter-narrative to the West’s take on the Ukraine crisis, suggesting that the Poroshenko government is as much sinning as sinned against, despite its Western backers’ strong ideological, economic and military support. He writes that Poroshenko initiated what was effectively a civil war which is now at a stalemate. He draws attention to United Nations official observers who have reported that the Ukrainian army is still conducting random attacks and that the “ongoing war has affected 5.2 million people, leaving 3.5 million of them in need of relief, including 500,000 children.” This account contradicts much Western propaganda about the on-going sadness of the contemporary Ukraine situation.

Kevin is similarly unconvinced that the orthodox Western critique of Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria is as open and shut as its advocates would have us believe. Western (especially American) propaganda argues that by backing the Syrian regime, the Russians are complicit in some horrendous war crimes and crimes against humanity. This overlooks the fact that: “With Russian air and ground support, the tide of war turned [against ISIS}.” Nor is Kevin convinced that NATO’s movements of “ground forces and battlefield missiles up to the Baltic states’ borders with Russia”, as well as the deployment of American short-range, non-nuclear-armed anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and Romania have been based on sound security advice. Instead of “balancing” Russia, these moves have provoked it to respond aggressively.

Nor is Kevin convinced that Vladimir Putin is the monster that Western politicians and media make him out to be. He largely blames Democrat Party leaders in the USA whose bile has been directed at Putin because of his covert support for Trump and opposition to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. The Putin who appears from Kevin’s analysis seems no worse (and certainly no better) than any number of recalcitrant, mendacious, and ruthless political leaders around the world today.

Kevin draws on three personal and independent recent visits he has made to Russia, between 2015 and 2019. His descriptions of the Russian people he met while there — seeing them in the context of their cultural achievements and everyday comings and goings — is a timely reminder that Russian has bequeathed to world civilisation a rich heritage in art, music, architecture, philosophy and theology, and literature. He mourns the loss in the West of a sense of “the tragedy and grandeur and inspiration of Russian history.”

So what Tony Kevin is inviting us to do in this very interesting essay is to rethink our attitude to Russia today — to view it not through the conventionally confected lens of “Russophobia”, but to look at its beauty and historical sophistication, as well as its warts and all. There is something very noble in this desire on Kevin’s part and that part of his argument deserves considerable and sympathetic consideration. To approach contemporary Russia one-dimensionally will lead to an isolated, put-upon state victimised by punishing sanctions, threatened militarily — one that will be understandably increasingly resentful and vengeful.

It is therefore unfortunate that the essay wanders from this reasonable and important thesis into a distracting, overly-defensive argument that borders on paranoia. Kevin spends too much time and energy complaining about how his views about Russia, Putin and the West’s pathological “Russophobia” have become a target for political correctness and intellectual rejection by his contemporaries, especially in Australia. This leads him to some rather embarrassing hyperbole­ — for example: “We are now in the thick of a ruthless and mostly covert Anglo-American alliance information war against Russia. In this war, individuals who speak up publicly in the cause of détente with Russia will be discouraged from public discourse” (italics in the original). Meanwhile he spent more space than necessary in his slim volume quoting edited support from people who are sympathetic with his views. They appear to be on board with his claims about his being excluded from the small, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory circles of would-be opinion-makers that are characteristic of events such as the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. If this deliberate exclusion is true, it is outrageous; however, the irony is that he could — indeed should — be proud of his apparent rejection by such people.

So, in this essay, Tony Kevin has opened the door just a crack to a new way of observing and analysing contemporary Russia. Reading between its lines may help us open that door a bit more widely. In that respect, the essay is a most timely and interesting read.

Principal Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.