There will be few people reading this blog that will not have heard the expression ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. A truism perhaps in a family setting but not a maxim that international diplomats necessarily subscribe to. Therefore, there was some irritation when at the G20 meeting in St Petersburg – according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) at least – a spokesman for Mr Putin, the Russian President, remarked to the effect ‘Britain is just a small island; no one pays any attention to them’. As is the case in diplomatic circles, the remark was rapidly disowned, even though any damage it might cause had already been done when the BBC’s chief political correspondent, Nick Robinson, not the Russian media, chose to release it.
If Mr Robinson says that he heard the remark who can gain say him even if one cannot help but wonder how many throw away remarks a reporter hears in a working lifetime and how many they choose to report and why? However, as the context for this alleged remark was the start of the G20 meeting – where action against the Syrian regime was the divisive hot topic with UK taking a diametrically opposite view to Russia – the phraseology used may be indicative and instructive in respect of Russian geopolitical thinking and methodology. The ‘mine’s larger than yours’ basis for diplomacy, where virility and strength are lorded and weakness treated with contempt. In this case the recent voting down in the British Houses of Parliament of the Prime Minister’s motion condemning Assad of Syria for using Sarin gas on his own people not going unnoticed. The democratic aspects of the decision being largely lost on many Russian pundits, diplomats and politicians who, for whatever reason, cling to the belief that their friend and ally, President Assad, had nothing to gain from doing such a dastardly thing.