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Russia's Unfinished Business

18/07/2014 13:18 BST | Updated 16/09/2014 10:59 BST

"From time immemorial, Russia has been a colourfully exotic, and to some extent unknown, country to the world at large. This unknown quantity - representing one sixth of the earth's land surfaces - is accentuated by the dense fog of ignorance, suspicion and prejudice around it." So wrote my father, Ernest Newman, in the preface to his book "A Pictorial History of Russia", published in 1943.

Sadly, the fog still lingers 70 years on.

If we are to appreciate the forces at play in the Ukraine conflict, a nuanced understanding of three key moments in Russia's history is required. They represent what I like to call 'unfinished business' and offer an insight into a Russian mindset which, in the west especially, is often overlooked.

Since the Romanovs came to power in 1613 - and certainly since 1689, when the utterly ruthless but equally focused Peter the Great took Russia by the scruff of the neck and dragged her into European civilisation - Russia has seen herself as a top-table player. Building St Petersburg as a "Window to the West", this époque laid the foundations for a strong and lasting sense of national pride and identity for Russians, which is so often disregarded by western countries in their dealings with Russia.

Yet without appreciation of the country's patriotism it is impossible to interpret Putin's motivations in Ukraine today, or to sense the historical echoes which he sees himself as talking to. Rather than trying to grasp this, it is much easier for western commentators to simply write him off as just another narcissistic and kleptocratic dictator, acting out of self-interest and with impunity.

First is The Great Patriotic War. For everyday Russians, the event which we call The Second World War is largely a Russian war. With some clear exceptions, the close battle action took place on Russian soil, with the most hideous of losses suffered by Russians. It was Russia that lost some 24 million in the fight against European fascism, not America or Britain. In this light, American and Allied successes in the Desert, in France and in Italy are seen as somehow mopping up exercises. For Russians then and now, the Battles for Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad and Kursk were the real watershed in the great European conflict, events which enabled the subsequent successes of D-Day and of all that followed.

Second, it is surprising to see how many Russians still today regard Khrushchev as one of their True Greats. Russia saved the world from fascism, the line goes. And yet in April 1962, American pretty boy John F. Kennedy surrounds Russia with a bristle of Jupiter nuclear missiles on Turkish and Italian soil. Following classical balance of power thinking, Khrushchev initially responds by sending Russian nukes to Cuba, before backing down later. Russia is seen to have lost face and dented its national pride. The people largely understand it as a price worth paying to avoid WW3. But the episode also reinforces the ancient and almost congenital Russian fear of encirclement. It is a sentiment we in the west continue to ignore at our peril.

Third, and perhaps most definingly, is the Russian perception that at the intoxicating party of transition, above all in the period 1986-1993, Russia had a few drinks too many. And where were Russia's new friends then? Did they take her home and put her safely to bed, or did they pilfer her belongings and leave her in the gutter? While few Russians dispute the communist ideology had to go, the eventual dismantling of the Soviet Union is increasingly seen as orchestrated by the west for its own gain, adding a shameful chapter to the country's history in which the family silver was given away and Russia lost its seat at the top table of world affairs.

These events are etched in the collective Russian psyche. They make for a coherent narrative that goes a long way to explaining so-called Russian "intransigence" in the Ukrainian and other crises. Western leaders may protest Putin cannot be trusted, and perhaps understandably so. But the feeling is entirely shared in Moscow, and not without reason. If we want Russia to act as our friend, partner and ally, we must begin by recognising that in Russian eyes there is unfinished business here, lying just beneath the seam which Putin knows he can readily tap in to.