Ukraine crisis: ‘Catastrophic misreading’ of Russia is the result of a Foreign …

The report, published ahead of Monday’s anniversary of what in eastern Ukraine and Russia is deplored as the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president, and in most points West is lauded as a glorious popular revolution against a corrupt regime, finds many culprits. They include the UK’s lack of diplomatic engagement. There is also something they fail to mention.

This is the sharp divide that existed in the EU between those (mostly “new” Europeans) who saw the agreement with Ukraine as a prelude to eventual EU accession, and the rest, who saw it rather as a consolation prize for remaining outside. The extent to which the first group was able to make the running was not really understood until thousands of protesters were on the streets of Kyiv, waving EU flags and demanding a European future. It is not just Russia that was “catastrophically misread”, but Ukraine, too. 

One effort to explain such misunderstanding forms a recurrent theme of the report: the loss of specialist regional expertise, both in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and in foreign ministries across Europe. Lord Tugendhat, who chairs the EU Committee, elaborated, saying that it was “the lack of robust analytical capacity” that had “effectively led to the misreading of the mood in the run-up to the crisis”.

The same point was spelt out with characteristic verve by Rory Stewart MP, a former diplomat who knows a thing or two about the value of in-depth local knowledge, having walked across much of Afghanistan and central Asia. Not for the first time, he laid into the quality of Foreign Office expertise. “People have not been encouraged to devote their intellect and experience to asking hard questions about strategy,” he said. “We have not learned the lessons of our recent failures. Foreign Office reforms in 2000 reduced the emphasis on historical, linguistic and cultural expertise, and instead rewarded generic ‘management skills’.”

He could have gone back further. A Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report of 2012 questioned departmental restructuring in the 1990s that had favoured managerial skills over geographical and linguistic knowledge. A consequence was – according to senior diplomats – that managerialism, rather than diplomacy or expertise, was increasingly how departmental and institutional success was judged.

At this point, of course, there will be a clamour about “cuts”. And it is true that the Foreign Office has suffered more than almost any other government department financially, losing 30 per cent of its budget in the past five years alone. But the loss of specialist expertise is not primarily a result of cuts, and predates them by quite some years. It reflected conscious decisions about where money should be spent.. It was also about the nature of research and the way it should be done.  

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There was a rationale for such changes: management (and accounting) had probably been neglected in the Foreign Office, and the collapse of the Soviet Union was seized on as an opportunity to scale back not just the defence and intelligence effort, but the highly developed scrutiny of what in the FCO was now called the Former Soviet Union.

Reducing the emphasis on Russia and the former Soviet states, however, was not the only, or even the greatest, change affecting the research effort in the Foreign Office. From the late 1990s, the whole structure of research was altered, away from area expertise and languages towards functional research themes – such as climate change or terrorism.

It was now clear that linguistic and area skills took a poor second place to the subjects of the moment. Many of the research staff consequently sought new berths, where their specialist knowledge would be appreciated. They are now to be found scattered across NGOs, charities, think-tanks and business consultancies. 

There are times, it appears, when the Foreign Office now has to buy in skills from such organisations. But the research approach taken by charitable and business groups will necessarily differ from the one that Foreign Office research staff might take – more short-term, perhaps, and more narrowly focused. There may be more deciphering of graphs and spreadsheets than trying to gauge what makes one little slice of “abroad” tick.

Such knowledge is not about forecasting the future, despite what a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office tried defensively to suggest. Responding to the Lords report, she insisted that no one could have predicted the scale of the “unjustifiable and illegal” Russian intervention” (in Ukraine). Tellingly, a similar defence was offered when MPs criticised the depletion of Foreign Office research three years ago: even when it was at full strength, former diplomats said,  the research department had failed to foresee such cataclysms as either the Iranian revolution or the collapse of communism.

But research is not expected to be about prediction per se. It is rather about understanding the factors that contribute to behaviour and decisions. And that entails listening to what the other side is saying, about itself, in its own language. That the UK seems to find this so difficult – particularly, but not only, with Russia – is not, of course, down to inadequate Foreign Office research alone. It reflects a national attitude that finds foreign languages “too difficult” and treats area of expertise as a luxury. The price of such insularity should now be clear. With more understanding of Russia, we might not now be commemorating a year since the bloodshed in Kyiv or watching the death toll pass 5,000 in eastern Ukraine.

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