Kendall at an International Women's Day event in LondonForeign and Commonwealth Office/International Women's Day

I meet Bridget Kendall, the first woman to preside over Peterhouse, in an impeccably-decorated and stately Queen Anne manor. Wooden panelling painted a delicate blue is adorned with portraits of Kendall’s predecessors, who seem to consist of stern old men in white ruffs.

Kendall relates with satisfaction the comments overheard from a tour guide telling tourists that Peterhouse used to be a conservative college, but now has a “lady master”. Arriving in a plush living room, it occurs to me that these rather sedate surroundings must be quite a contrast for Kendall. As the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Kendall witnessed the collapse of the USSR and the tumultuous first years of modern Russia, including the failed 1991 August putsch.

Ask Kendall about Russia, and she responds with a soft-spokenness and fluency that hint at an understated authority. That’s understandable; Kendall has mingled with the most powerful figures in modern Russia, interviewing Vladimir Putin and maintaining a friendly acquaintance with Mikhail Gorbachev. At her retirement party, a farewell recording from the former leader of the USSR was played.

Those early years after the end of the Cold War, however, when Russia “saw the West as a partner and a facilitator”, as Kendall puts it, seem very distant now. Back in 2001 the recently-elected Vladimir Putin declared that he and George W. Bush saw “a very positive prospect for our relationship in the future”. 17 years into that future, and that prospect has evaporated. As Putin begins his fourth term in office, Russia’s relations with the West are at a post-Cold War nadir.

Putin's Cold War experiences have informed in him a deep suspicion of “protests from below”, and of dissidents, seen as “an arm of the West, [trying] to destroy Russia from within”

From the attacks on Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal to the annexation of Crimea, support for Assad in Syria and mounting evidence of interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Russia has committed a litany of alleged offences, each roundly condemned by the West. But, as Kendall explains, what appears to us as wanton aggression is simply seen as self-defence by the Russian government, or at least as nothing the West hasn’t done itself.

In his landmark 2007 Munich speech Putin checked off Russia’s resentments against the West: the “serious provocation” of the 2004 NATO expansion, the “disturb[ing]” installation of anti-missile defence systems in the EU and “unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions” by the US and her allies, above all the invasion of Iraq. That antagonism “seemed to just build in the years that followed”, says Kendall, with Western support for the Arab Spring taken as further evidence of its disrespect for the rule of law, which it accuses Russia of undermining.

The lesson Russia has taken is that the West is happy to push for regime change to serve its own interests, and now has Russia squarely in its sights. American politicians offered support for the 2011 Moscow street protests. The Russian authorities see NATO or even the CIA as complicit in the Colour Revolutions which ousted Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s.

According to the Russians, in the face of this “Western connivance” in foreign regimes, “they’re just standing up for democracy”. But to really grasp the Russian view of the West, Kendall stresses that you have to look to the man in charge: Putin.


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Kendall draws a comparison between Yuri Andropov, erstwhile leader of the USSR, and Putin. Both were KGB agents before rising to power, “schooled in national security”. Both witnessed violent uprisings against Soviet influence: Andropov in Hungary in 1956, Putin in East Germany in 1989. Putin was even “caught on the hop” by the fall of the Berlin wall—burning documents so hurriedly in the basement of the local KGB outpost that the house caught fire. It’s these Cold War experiences, this familiarity with the world of espionage, which have informed in Putin a deep suspicion of “protests from below”, and of dissidents, seen as “an arm of the West, [trying] to destroy Russia from within”.

The lesson of the Cold War is that aggression leads to "dangerous precipices"

In his struggle against the West, Putin seems to have got the upper hand. Assad, whom the USA have sworn to remove from power, is winning in Syria. Eastern Ukraine remains under Russian influence, and Crimea firmly under the Kremlin’s control. And of course, Donald Trump is busy undermining his own foreign policy establishment’s stance towards Russia. As Kendall says, this is all “very convenient” for Putin, both in projection of Russian power on the global stage, but also in terms of shoring up his domestic position. From the Russian perspective, the USA and its allies have been lecturing them for far too long on state morality; the exposure of Western hypocrisy, the collapse of America’s moral authority with the sordidness of the Trump presidency is a long-relished moment.

As to whether the actual policies of the USA towards Russia will change, Kendall is doubtful. Even after Trump’s election, new sanctions have been levied against Russia in response to the Skripal affair, which the President signed reluctantly, and the US has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. Nevertheless, Trump has proven useful at least insofar as he has played into the Russian narrative. His equivocation as to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election at the Helsinki Conference abets Russia's denial of its own aggressive actions, thereby giving it the moral high ground.

If there is to be a détente, Kendall suspects it will spring first from domestic change in Russia. “In the 1990s [Russia was a] society which was on the verge of becoming utterly dysfunctional” she notes; memories of hyperinflation and brutal recession, contrasting with the relative order and prosperity of today’s Russia, have buoyed Putin. With the recent slowdown in the economy, aggravated by harsh sanctions, Moscow has begun to feel the squeeze. In response, Putin has put forward an unpopular rise in the retirement age, which has seen his approval rating slip from 78% to 63%, a low for the decade. Nevertheless, 63% is an approval rating most leaders in the West would look at with envy, and Putin has weathered economic headwinds before. As Kendall notes, “People in the Russian opposition ten years ago said ‘we’ll just wait for the price of oil to come down.’” But the oil crash in 2014 did little to bolster anti-Putin forces. “Putin is pretty sensitive to the issues of pensions and food prices”, says Kendall, and indeed, Putin recently watered down the retirement age reforms in response to popular outcry.

But even if Putin is not going anywhere in the next few years, within the attitudes of ordinary Russians to the West lies the seeds of a rapprochement. “My own experience talking to ordinary Russians is that they’re not anti-Western at all. They see themselves as part of European culture. If they’re Russian Orthodox they see themselves as sharing a similar religious heritage.” Kendall contends that real hostility to the West is rare; just take the World Cup as an example. The event passed without any fan violence—if anything, English fans have been heartened by the warmth of their reception. Similarly, suggests Kendall, “Perhaps some Russians are surprised” that Western visitors are less objectionable than the Russian media makes out.

Although we must be careful not to become a “facilitator” of the Kremlin’s “intimidatory tactics”, the lesson of the Cold War, warns Kendall, is that aggression leads to “dangerous precipices”. 

“A part of the strategy should be people-to-people contact”—like we saw in the World Cup. The fundamental desire of those in the West, and in Russia, to get on with their neighbours, rather than to fight with them, is reason for hope. At some point old age will force Putin from office. This will be the pivotal moment. “I think it’s quite possible that whoever comes after him might tap into the Russian mood and think 'actually, what people would like is for us to improve relations with the West'—not make them worse.”