Diplomacy can disguise the fact that human beings are at the centre of international politics, however powerful their public status

How much more pleasant it is, as long as you are not delayed by the wrong kind of snow, to travel by train rather than by car, certainly for long distances. On Friday I went by train from King’s Cross to Perth; it took six hours. In that time I managed to read much of Who Lost Russia? by former Reuter’s correspondent in Moscow, Peter Conradi.

Conradi discusses all the different features that led from seemingly promising East-West relations in 1990, when Andrei Kozyrev, the then Russian foreign minister, declared “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West”, to the current climate of mutual suspicion and delicate diplomatic relations under President Putin.

Conradi analyses the various facets of the slow decline in mutual friendship between Russia and the West since the late President Boris Yeltsin: the expansion of NATO among former communist countries; the problem of Ukraine, “almost equally divided between those who looked to Europe and those who looked to Russia”; Russia’s annexation of Crimea; the conflict in Syria and so on.

He finally answers the question posed by the title of his book by concluding that Putin lost Russia and quotes his key State of the Union Address in 2005 in which the President stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century”. Nonetheless, he records missed opportunities on the part of the West, as well as a misunderstanding of the deeper currents that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union: the sense of shame and disorientation felt by Russia as it saw its world power status slipping away; the poverty experienced by ordinary Russians during the years of financial disruption; the general sense that a strong man was needed to restore pride and impose social order and economic stability.

Among all the personalities described by Conradi in his book – Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin – I found Putin the most interesting. Conradi relates an anecdote when Bush and Putin first met in 2001 in Slovenia. Moving away from formal talk on disputed issues, Putin noted that Bush had played rugby at college. “Then it was Bush’s turn. As Putin, looking tense…launched into the first item on his presentation… Bush interrupted him to ask: “Is it true your mother gave you a cross that you had blessed in Jerusalem?” A look of shock came over Putin’s face as the interpreter delivered the line in Russian, but he recovered quickly as he recounted the story: his face and voice softening, he described how he had hung the cross in his dacha, which had subsequently caught fire. When the firefighters arrived, he told them it was all he cared about. Bush was struck by how Putin dramatically re-created the moment when the firefighter unfolded his hand to reveal the cross…[Bush] recalled feeling the tension draining from the room and noted the emotion in Putin’s voice.”

I quote this incident to note that diplomacy can disguise or forget the fact that human beings are at the centre of international politics, however powerful their public status. In contrast to the personality of Yeltsin, Putin is wary, careful, controlled, abstemious in drink, keen on physical fitness; a man for whom his childhood in a rat-infested tenement block in St Petersburg, as the son of a father wounded in what Russians still call the “Great Patriotic War”, and as a believing member of the Orthodox Church, are as important as his background in the KGB. It will be interesting to see how Putin’s and President Trump’s personalities find common ground – or not.