Magazine article The Spectator

Deep-End Diplomacy

Magazine article The Spectator

Deep-End Diplomacy

Article excerpt

In foreign policy, Russia thrashes about like a badly socialised swimmer

The first couple of evenings there was just me and a middle-aged couple swimming decorously up and down.

On the third day it changed. There were three more people, spread out at the shallow end.

You would not have thought that an extra three people in a decent-sized pool could have caused such irritation and havoc.

They contrived to occupy an inordinate amount of space and move around in a way that caused maximum disruption. Sometimes they swam widths; sometimes diagonals. They would stop and change direction without warning. Sometimes they floated with their toes under the rail, or disappeared under water and surfaced far too close for comfort. And when they swam, they swam splashily, in a clumsy, improvised way.

The two other length-swimmers generally left before I did. So then there were four of us; three of them and me. But somehow we still managed to annoy each other. Time and again I had to take evasive action. Yet they could see, could they not, that I was going up and down, up and down, at a steady clip? It wasn't hard to figure out where I was going to be when. But somehow toes and elbows clashed.

ing her name.

There was another irritant, too. On a couple of evenings, despite the hotel being designated adults-only, they brought a baby along and passed her between them, discussing her name. At this point, I should come clean and clarify that the three newcomers were Russians. I should also say, for fairness' sake, that I heard no rude comments about me. They had eyes, and not in that way, only for each other - which was a part of the problem.

For while it is no longer possible, as it was in Soviet times, to distinguish Russians by their attire or their hair dye, in the swimming pools of Europe you can spot them from the furthest corner of the deep end, because they are so obviously in need of coaching in the more social aspects of pool culture.

And it occurred to me that their defective pool etiquette was a perfect metaphor for their behaviour towards the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia is self-taught in today's diplomacy and badly needs to be socialised.

More than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians still find it difficult to share space. They may have lost one third of their territory when the Union republics split away, but they still have far more land than they can handle, so they try to give the impression that there are more of them than there are, shouting loudly and maximising the annoyance factor. They might want to discourage the Chinese from colonising the wastes of Siberia, or to keep the insurgents of the trans-Caucasus from encroaching on their traditional borderlands, or to maintain the pretence, for the benefit of their former republics, that their country is as big and as powerful as it once was. Whatever the reason, though, they are used to spreading human resources thinly - just as they did in the pool.

Their undisciplined thrashing about may be another aspect of the same attempt to maximise their presence. But it also reflects the fact that relatively few ordinary Russians had the benefit of proper swimming lessons.

Holiday camps in the Crimea and family dachas by the country's huge rivers were what passed for holidays in Soviet times and provided young Russians with their early water experience. Pools were reserved for the sporting or political elite. So few learned the breaststroke or crawl, and as adults they are stuck with ugly, improvised versions. …

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