Russia and the US: friends at last?

The former rivals form a politically symbolic alliance over a shared problem: Afghanistan.

The ancient Chinese proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been a cornerstone of realist statecraft since the dawn of, well, realist statecraft. For example, Britain formed an alliance with its long-standing enemy, France, in order to counteract the Germans during the First World War. Responding to criticism of his Second World War allegiance to Stalin's Soviet Union, Winston Churchill claimed that "if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make positive reference to the devil in the House of Commons".

Comparatively, during the cold war, liberal-democratic states often formed alliances with non-communist dictators, such as Mobutu of Zaire. The Soviet Union provided financial assistance to a handful of anti-communist states to strengthen their cold war sphere of influence. The US supported the Afghan mujahedin during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

However, the principle alone may serve as a weak basis for alliance: after the break-up of the Soviet Union some of the mujahedin spawned the Taliban and turned against the United States.

Now, in a twist of fate, a partnership between Russia and the United States is materialising, based on this timeless principle.

Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that, like the Soviet Union 21 years earlier, Nato would not be able to beat the Taliban. The 79-year-old former president claimed that no feasible increase in troop numbers could ever improve the situation for the US, and that Afghanistan is at risk of turning into "another Vietnam".

It seems that the Russians, thus far passive observers of the war raging in their backyard, have decided to contribute their topographical expertise in the area. Ironically, both countries are said to be articulating the definition of the alliance at Nato's Lisbon Summit on 19 November. This has been received with speculative cries in the field of international relations, Foreign Policy dubbing it "Nato 3.0".

Despite the cessation of the cold war, Russia has not extended its hand to the US in this way before. Nonetheless, Russia has not necessarily offered a hand of friendship, and there is speculation that Moscow's concerns are solely interest-fuelled.

It has been widely reported that the Russians agreed to assist the Americans with their operations in Afghanistan because Russia has one of the worst heroin addiction rates in the world. Its two million heroin addicts consume 21 per cent of the world's supply, and Russia blames the severity of the problem on the US's failure to spray poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Last Friday, Moscow announced that a joint narcotics raid with US forces had destroyed four drug laboratories and one tonne of heroin.

This sudden change on the international playing field invites a host of fresh and important questions for foreign policy experts. If Russia and the US achieve their common goal, will the alliance between them survive? Do these former rivals share enough common ground to be considered friends? And what is the true nature of this politically significant alliance?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser