Cold War Redux:
Vladimir Putin and the new geopolitics
By Chris Bambery
Last week we saw the British media issue dire warnings that the UK was at threat from a Russian flotilla which was sailing through the Straits of Dover en route to the Eastern Mediterranean for operations in Syria.
One tabloid ran a headline saying Russian guns were targeted on Dover. Reading the story it turned out they were talking about a sentry on board one warship armed with an AK47. Dover was not under threat.
All of this is set against a growing freeze on relationships between the US and its allies, and Russia. The debate on Syria in the House of Commons a few weeks ago made my hair stand on end with Tory MPs thinking it would be acceptable to shoot down Russian war planes operating over Aleppo in order to enforce a no-fly zone. No matter what position you take on Syrian civil war - mine is to want an end to all foreign intervention as a first step towards a possible solution - the idea of going to war with Russia is not very clever.
Just how badly things might fare is illustrated by the fact that all the Royal Navy could muster to shadow the Russian flotilla last week was one destroyer.
Clearly the US and the West don’t want Russia exerting itself in the Middle East. Clearly too they want Nato to continue to expand eastwards, this time into Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and his support for the rebels in East Ukraine have to be seen in the context of Nato's expansion along Russia’s Western and southern border, and, by the fact that a Nato member - Georgia - launched a war against Russia in 2008.
In the dying days of the old Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed to German re-unification in return for the promise Nato would not expand into the former Stalinist states.
You cannot understand the government of Vladimir Putin without understanding it is in many ways a reaction to that broken promise, to the way Russia felt slighted over the Nato occupation of Kosova in 1998/99, and both Putin and the Chinese government felt deceived after agreeing to a UN resolution allowing Nato to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
Moscow and Beijing abstained on that vote, rather than use their veto in the UN Security Council. Both believed they had been told the intervention would not be used to achieve regime change.
Putin has strived, despite very limited economic resources, to restore Russia as a world power. But internally he benefits simply from the fact he is not Boris Yeltsin. Aside from the fact he was re-elected on the basis of a rigged election in 1996, the Yeltsin years were socially and economically disastrous.
Yeltsin pushed through a rapid privatisation programme which effectively became a giveaway of state owned assets at knocked down prices to a small group of ex-members of the old Soviet elite who amassed huge fortunes. These are the people who became known as the “oligarchs”. Many, incidentally, now live in London.
Western capital has also benefitted from these changes. In one notorious case, a deal was signed with the EU to supply Russia with apples, despite these being more expensive than home grown ones. Corruption, a feature of the old system, went out of control. Unemployment and poverty grew massively, with life expectancy falling sharply. On the international stage the alcoholic Yeltsin was treated with derision.
When Yeltsin was eventually forced to resign in 1999, his successor was the ex-KGB man, Vladimir Putin.
Its worthy recalling that at the outset of Putin’s rule he was a strong supporter of the USA, one of the first to rally behind George W. Bush after 9/11, allowing Russian airspace and territory to be used to supply Nato forces in Afghanistan, and not complaining much about Nato expansion into the Baltic States.
But this was always combined with a determination that Russia should be treated with respect.
At home he went after a few of the most powerful oligarchs, creating a case against them for plunder and corruption was not difficult. This was not about expropriating the wealth of all the oligarchs but rather sending them a signal that if they wanted to keep their loot they must tow the Putin line.
For the US and its allies, Russia could not be a democracy because that required signing up to their economic and military agenda. Of course, there are limits to parliamentary democracy in Russia and clearly the 2011 election was manipulated to bolster the ruling party’s flagging vote. Yet Putin survived in part because the protests were too socially stratified, relying on young educated middle-class Muscovites.
Moreover, Western support for the protests was seen as a threat to Russian sovereignty. That last word is important to Putin, and to the West. He wants to uphold it; they want to waken it decisively.
And here is the sticking point. That is why Putin switched from backing the USA at the onset of the War on Terror to seeking ways of re-establishing Russia as independent, sovereign state.
In their usual ludicrous way the British media loves to portray him as a new Mussolini, or even Hitler. The latter is remarkably insensitive to the size of Russian losses in its war with Nazi Germany following Hitler’s June 1941 invasion.
Yet there is freedom of expression, and although the state-run media is 100 per cent pro-Putin, there is lively criticism and debate on the internet. The Yeltsin-founded constitution – lauded by the West at its inception - remains in place, and Moscow accepts the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
I am not trying to paint a glowing picture of burgeoning democracy, but in any global league table of rights, Russia would be in the top half, not that far behind many European states. It certainly isn’t Saudi Arabia.
Russia has, of course, waged a series of brutal wars in the Caucuses, but the West chooses to regard those as internal matters largely because they target jihadist groups. Its current intervention in Syria is costly and invokes memories of its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan. Russian power is very, very limited in comparison to America.
But what the West doesn’t seem to realise that coverage and commentary like we saw last week over the Russian flotilla sailing down the Channel is greeted with amusement and contempt by many Russians, and benefits Putin rather than harms him. Anti-capitalists could compile a far more serious critique of Putin, and he deserves that, but the way Russia is currently being painted is very dangerous and we should not collude with it.