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Putin’s Resurrection

If he just had the ‘flu, why didn’t they say that he just had the ‘flu? We’d all have sent him get-well cards, and that would have been the end of it.

The lengthy and mysterious absence of Vladimir Putin ended on Monday, when the Russian president emerged in St. Petersburg to greet the visiting president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev. The only explanation he offered for his 11-day disappearance from public view was that “It would be boring without gossip.”

The rumour mill certainly went into overdrive during his absence. He had suffered a stroke. He was in Switzerland for the birth of his child with his alleged girlfriend, gymnast Alina Kabayeva. He’d had a face-lift, or maybe just another botox job. There had been a palace coup, perhaps connected in some way to the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last month.

All mere speculation, whose only useful function was to hold the ads apart. The Kremlin remains, as it was in Communist and Tsarist times, a place of perpetual intrigue, and Kremlinology is as imprecise a science as ever. There are clearly rival factions struggling to influence Putin’s decisions, but nobody can clearly say what they want or even who belongs to which one.

Why, for example, was Putin’s first action after his resurrection an order to put the Russian navy on full combat readiness in the Arctic, of all places? That’s a long way from Ukraine, which is the focus of the current confrontation between Russia and the Western powers. Is Putin opening up a new front, or just demonstrating his resolve? And if so, who is the demonstration aimed at? NATO? Some faction in the Kremlin? Both?

The problem with an opaque regime like Putin’s is the difficulty in reading its motives and intentions. Even democratic governments like that of the United States can be reckless and unpredictable – consider President George W. Bush’s decisions after 9/11 – but American policy is a miracle of transparency compared to the decision-making process in Moscow. The difference is stark, and it has serious effects in the real world.

At the moment, for example, there is a major debate underway in Washington (and in other NATO capitals as well) about whether Putin must now be seen as an “expansionist” leader who has to be stopped before he goes any farther. The debate strongly resembles the one about Soviet intentions after the Second World War, which ended in a Western decision that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power that had to be “contained”.

The debate back then drew heavily on analogies with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and the failure of the policy of “appeasement” – and the decision to surround the Soviet Union with alliances and military bases, right or wrong, led to an extremely dangerous 40-year Cold War.

Hitler has been dead for 70 years and the world is now a very different place, but here comes the same old debate again. If you argue in Washington today that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are not the first step in his plan for world conquest, but just a clumsy over-reaction to the overthrow of pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych by the rebels in Kiev a year ago, you can be sure that various people will accuse you of being an appeaser.

They don’t even understand what the “appeasement” policy actually involved. British defence spending, for example, more than doubled in the five years between Hitler’s rise to power and the decision to go to war with Hitler. They knew they might have to fight him in the end, but they used the time before they were ready to fight to see if he could be appeased by giving him back some of the territory Germany had lost after the First World War.

If it had worked, it would have been a lot cheaper than fighting a second world war. In the end it didn’t work, and so Britain and France went to war. But it is extremely unlikely that the NATO powers are in a similar situation now. For one thing, they never really disarmed after the end of the Cold War, so they don’t have to re-arm now even if Putin does turn out to have big plans.

If Putin really is planning on world conquest – or at least on recreating the old Soviet Union – then he has left it very late. Hitler started grabbing territory within a couple of years of coming to power. Apart from a little war with Georgia (which Georgia started), Putin has waited fifteen years to make his first move. If he does have a plan, it’s a very slow-moving one.

Besides, his strategists will be warning him that Russia could not hold up its end of a new Cold War for very long. Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and it is now a largely de-industrialised petro-state with a GDP comparable to Italy’s. He is probably just blundering around, trying desperately to save face after his humiliation in last year’s Ukrainian revolution.

Unfortunately, what goes on inside the Kremlin is so obscure that nobody can be sure of his ultimate intentions. That leaves a nice large space for the hawks in the West to play in, and they are taking full advantage of it. But Putin probably just had a bad case of ‘flu.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 11. (“Why…both”; and “They…plans”)

Murder in Moscow

“Every time I call (my mother),” said Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov recently, “she gives me a talking-to: ‘When will you stop being rude about Putin? He’ll kill you.’”

Now Nemtsov is dead: four bullets in the back as he was walking home in Moscow with his girlfriend on Friday night. The protest march against Putin and the war in Ukraine that he was planning to lead on Sunday became a memorial march instead.

So, two questions. Did President Vladimir Putin order the assassination? And if he didn’t, then who did, and why?

The hit was carried out with professional skill only three minutes’ walk from Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, in an area that is infested day and night by militia (police) on constant alert to break up demonstrations. You could put together a feature-length film with the footage from the countless CCTV cameras that tracked Nemtsov’s walk across the square and down to the bridge where he died.

It took accurate intelligence to know where Nemtsov would be on Friday night, and serious organisation and planning to carry out the killing in such a heavily policed area. That points to members of the military or security forces, though not necessarily to ones who were acting on official orders. Because the first thing to say about this murder is that it did not serve Putin’s purposes.

No doubt the Russian president disliked and despised Nemtsov, but neither he nor any other opposition leader posed any threat to Putin’s power. Thanks in large part to his seizure of Crimea and his military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Putin is currently enjoying an 85 percent approval rating with the Russian public. Why risk upsetting this happy relationship with the first public killing of a senior political figure in more than a decade?

It’s much more likely that the killing was carried out by serving or former soldiers or intelligence officers who took it upon themselves to eliminate an “anti-patriotic” politician who condemned “Putin’s War” in Ukraine. In the superheated atmosphere of nationalist paranoia that currently prevails in Russia, such people could easily imagine that they were doing just what Putin secretly wanted.

Putin is too clever to want that, and immediately condemned the killing as “vile and cynical.” It was a curious choice of words: “vile”, of course, but why “cynical”? The reason became clear when various senior regime members began hinting that the murder was a “provocation” by the Western intelligence services or even by Nemtsov’s own opposition colleagues, killing him to stimulate dissent and bring the Russian state into disrepute.

This murder will have no permanent impact either on Russia’s internal politics or on its relations with the rest of the world. The paranoid style is now so deeply entrenched in Russian politics that people who support Putin (i.e. most people) will either believe the nonsense about Nemtsov’s murder being a “provocation”, or be privately glad that Putin acts so decisively (as they imagine) to protect Russia from its myriad enemies.

As for the rest of the world (or at least the “western” part of the world), it has already written Putin off as a man you can do business with. The Russian leader is, in many Westerners’ eyes, an expansionist warlord who can only be contained by sanctions and threats. It may even take a new Cold War to stop him. Paranoia, alas, is a communicable disease.

The Western narrative that seeks to explain how, in less than a year, we have arrived at a point where the United States is contemplating supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine to kill Russian troops, has several large gaps. The first is that the revolution on the Maidan in Kiev last winter overthrew a legitimately elected Ukrainian president only a year before the next elections were due.

Putin initially accepted that outcome (with the elections moved up to only one month in the future), which was brokered by the European Union. In other words, he accepted the illegal overthrow of the pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, so long as free elections followed rapidly. Quite possibly because he thought Yanukovych’s supporters in the east might boost him back into the presidency again.

That same thought may also be why the revolutionaries in Kiev broke the deal and insisted on Yanukovych’s immediate removal from power. It was only then that Putin concluded that he was faced with a Western plot to whisk Ukraine into NATO and create a strategic and political threat on Russia’s southern frontier.

There was no such plot: NATO has not the slightest desire to assume responsibility for the defence of Ukraine. But there was a great deal of open Western rejoicing at Russia’s discomfiture, and Putin lost his customary cool and responded with the annexation of Crimea and then the encouragement of pro-Russian rebels in southeastern Ukraine.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton. “All great men are bad.” In that sense, Putin is a bad man, and more dangerous for being both paranoid and increasingly isolated. (His circle of advisers has dwindled to a handful of hawks.) But he is not planning to conquer even Ukraine, let alone the rest of the former Soviet empire, and he almost certainly did not order Nemtsov’s death.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Putin…enemies”)

No New Cold War

“The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some say that it has already begun,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union and the man who inadvertently administered a mercy killing to Communism in Europe. He’s 83 years old, he played a leading role in ending the last Cold War, and he’s practically a secular saint. Surely he knows what he’s talking about.

No he doesn’t. Not only has this new Cold War not begun already, but it’s hard to see how you could get it going even if you tried. The raw material for such an enterprise is simply unavailable. You can summon the ghosts of history all you want, but they are dead and they can’t hear you.

Gorbachev was speaking in Berlin, now once again the capital of a united Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even he would agree that it turned out to be, on balance, a Good Thing, but he is a great deal more ambivalent about the collapse of European Communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

His original goal, and his hope right down to the end in 1991, was to save Communism by reforming it, not to bury it. He also believed, or at least hoped, that if he could make Communist rule “democratic” and user-friendly, he could save the Soviet Union as well. But the Soviet Union was just the old Russian empire in new clothes.

Gorbachev was and is a romantic, and he undoubtedly agrees with his rather less cuddly successor as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” So of course he ends up defending Putin’s actions and blaming the United States and NATO for this alleged drift into a new Cold War.

It’s all nonsense. Nothing could have saved the old Soviet Union. It was the last of the European empires to fall, mainly because it was land-based rather than sea-based, but only half its population was Russian. When it finally dissolved, fifteen different nations emerged from the wreckage, and its collapse was no greater a loss to civilisation than the fall of the British or French empires.

And the main reason you can’t have a new Cold War is precisely because the  “evil empire” (as Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union) longer exists. There is only Russia, a largely de-industrialised country that is run by a kleptocratic elite and makes its living by exporting oil and gas.

Russia has only 140 million people (less than half the United States, less than a third of the European Union), and its armies are no longer based around Berlin and all through eastern Europe. They are 750 km (500 mi.) further east, guarding Russia’s own frontiers. They occasionally grab a bit of territory that isn’t covered by a NATO guarantee (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, Luhansk, Donestk), but they dare not go any further.

So you could get a really unpleasant NATO-Russian confrontation out of this for a while (although it hasn’t happened yet), but not a real Cold War in the old globe-spanning style. Russia just couldn’t hold up its end of it. As for World War Three, don’t worry. Putin cares a lot about saving face, but not that much.

Which leaves the question: who is to blame for this regrettable hostility between Russia and the Western powers? The West, in Gorbachev’s view. In fact, he had a whole list of complaints about Western threats, crimes and betrayals.

NATO broke its promise and let all the Eastern European countries that had been Soviet satellites during the Cold War join NATO. It let Kosovo declare its independence from Russia’s traditional friend, Serbia. It launched wars of “regime change” in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) that Moscow disapproved of. It even planned a missile defence system that allegedly threatened Russia’s nuclear deterrent (if you could believe that it would work).

Diddums. Yes, Russia has been invaded a lot in its history, but the license to be paranoid expires after fifty years. Of course the Eastern European countries all clamoured to join NATO; they’re still terrified of Russia. The Western great powers do lots of stupid stuff and some seriously bad stuff, and Russia has also done a fair amount of both in the past decade and a half under Putin.

The job of diplomats, and of leaders in particular, is to avoid the really stupid and dangerous stuff, and keep the rest to a minimum. Barack Obama has been quite good at that, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin used to be good at it, but is not so good now, perhaps because he has been in power too long. His military interventions in Ukraine have been alarmingly rash.

But nobody is going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. The Ukrainians were told years ago that they couldn’t shelter under NATO’s security blanket, and they have chosen to defy Moscow anyway. They may pay a high price for that, and the Western alliance’s relations with Russia may go into the deep freeze for the remainder of Putin’s reign. But it will be just a little local difficulty, not a huge event that defines an entire era.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 13. (“His original…clothes”; “So…much”; and “The job…rash”)

A Few Differences Between 1939 and Now

The Ukrainian army is in retreat on every front. Since Russian regular army units came to the aid of the hard-pressed pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces a week ago, the tide of battle has turned decisively.

The two big rebel-held cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, are no longer besieged by Ukrainian forces. Luhansk airport fell to a Russian tank attack on Monday, Donetsk airport will also be captured soon, and the port city of Mariupol, back under government control since May, may be in Russian hands by the weekend.

Meanwhile, those of us further from the scene are being bombarded with dodgy historical analogies. This week is the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so it’s a good time to see if these analogies really stand up to scrutiny.

The first analogy is that Russia’s long-ruling president, Vladimir Putin, is another Adolf Hitler, committed to expanding Russia’s borders back out to the old Soviet frontiers, or maybe even further. Stop him now or it will be harder and more expensive to stop him later on – and anybody who disagrees is an “appeaser”.

It’s true that Putin has long referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He recently called for immediate talks on the “statehood” of the southeastern Ukrainian provinces that have fallen partly into the hands of the pro-Russians rebels. This would mean the further dismantling of Ukraine, after the Russian annexation of Crimea last March.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which used to be part of the old Russian and Soviet empires, are terrified by the implications of Putin’s recent actions for their own independence (they also have Russian-speaking minorities). Even Kazakhstan, far to the east, is getting worried, as Putin says that it is “part of the larger Russian world…I am confident that’s the way things are going to be.”

There are echoes in Putin’s project of Hitler’s first priority after he took power in Germany in 1933, which was to recover all the German-speaking eastern territories that had been stripped away from the fatherland after the First World War. But Hitler’s second, bigger project was the destruction of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, which would have required a very big war (though he never intended to fight a “world war”).

Putin has no second project. He cannot embark on a Hitler-stye campaign of conquest, given Russia’s relatively modest economic and human resources. In any case the other former Soviet possessions in the west, the Baltic states, are already NATO members with solid defence guarantees.

Until the Ukrainian crisis blew up, Putin hadn’t even done much to regain the old Soviet frontiers during fifteen years in power. He’s still not talking about taking back the rest of Ukraine, so there’s no need to nip his plan for world conquest in the bud. He doesn’t have one.

This leads to the second big difference between 1939 and now. Back then Britain and France issued an unconditional guarantee that they would go to war if Hitler attacked Poland. Even though they actually had no military ability to help Poland, they felt they had to draw a line in the sand. Whereas NATO has not offered to defend Ukraine militarily no matter what Russia does: it is basically a local issue.

Those are the realities. Ukraine enjoys great sympathy in the West, but nobody will risk a nuclear war by committing NATO forces to save Donetsk and Luhansk. So if Kiev cannot stop the Russian/rebel offensive in the east, and there’s no foreign help coming, what should it do?

The first thing is to freeze the front lines by accepting a ceasefire – which seems still to be on offer. With every passing day Ukraine is losing more territory, and it won’t get it back for decades (if ever).

Russia will settle for a freeze, because Putin’s real goal, if he can no longer directly control the government in Kiev, is to paralyse the country by putting a cuckoo in the nest: creating a permanently dissenting, pro-Russian entity as part of the Ukrainian state. The way Ukraine can avoid that fate is by hardening the borders around the rebel-held territories as much and as fast as possible.

Let the rebels run  the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but DON’T integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And DON’T recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.

Leave the Russians the task of pouring huge, ongoing subsidies into what is really an immense open-air industrial museum, and concentrate instead on making an economic and political success of the rest of Ukraine – which would still have 90 percent of the population.

And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 6.  (“The two…weekend”; and “It’s true…be”)