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Soviet Union

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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”)

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”)

Georgia: Another Messiah

30 October 2013

Georgia: Another Messiah

By Gwynne Dyer

“My work here is done,” said the masked man, as he mounted his horse and rode away. But he didn’t go very far away.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia doesn’t actually wear a mask, but he is mysterious enough without one. It’s never been quite clear how he got so rich – his fortune is estimated at $6.4 billion, about a third of the entire country’s annual GDP – but the real puzzle is his motives and goals. Why did he bother to become prime minister at all if he was planning to quit after only one year?

He returned home only ten years ago, after twenty years in Moscow. He built a huge and spectacular mansion in the hills above Tbilisi, the capital, and began doing good by stealth. The small Transcaucasian republic was near economic collapse at the time, and he quietly subsidised beloved Georgian artists and actors who could not make ends meet.

At one point Ivanishvili even paid the salaries of state employees when the government could not, and it has recently emerged that he paid for the massive new cathedral that now adorns the city centre. He clearly disliked the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, but he shunned politics and mostly stayed out of sight on his secluded estate like a James Bond villain, stroking his tame zebras in lieu of the statutory evil cat.

Then, eighteen months ago, he formed a political party that quickly combined with others to form the Georgian Dream coalition. Last October it won a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections and Ivanishvili became prime minister. On Monday his candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, replaced Saakashvili as president and his triumph was complete. So now he is going to quit.

Two months ago Ivanishvili announced that he would retire as prime minister as soon as Margvelashvili was installed in the presidency. Some other member of the Georgian Dream coalition will take over as prime minister, while Ivanshvili devotes himself to “strengthening civil society in Georgia as a private citizen.” Georgians must not think of him as a messiah, he says.

There have certainly been too many messiahs in Georgia’s recent history. After the old Soviet Union broke up in 1991 the first president of independent Georgia was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident and ethnic nationalist who led the country into a civil war. Georgia lost control of the ethnic minority regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under his rule, and he ended up shooting himself when surrounded by hostile militia troops.

Next came Eduard Shevardnadze, an old Communist apparatchik (he spent six years as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister) who had once gained fame as an anti-corruption crusader. Back home, however, he presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. His inner circle wound up controlling about 70 percent of the country’s economy, while most ordinary Georgians continued to live in wretched poverty.

The last messiah was Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched the non-violent “Rose Revolution” and restored democracy to Georgia in 2003. But Saakashvili also started and lost a war against Russia over breakaway South Ossetia in 2008.

The Georgian economy more than doubled in size during his decade in power, but at least a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty and unemployment remains above 15 percent. When people protested about his policies, they were met with violence and repression – so when Ivanishvili gave them a plausible alternative, they flocked to his banner.

Ivanishvili has never offered a coherent plan for Georgia or even very distinctive policies; Georgians appear to have chosen him as the next messiah simply because he has a lot of money and seems to be generous with it. And it doesn’t bother them where it comes from.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in the chaotic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and like all the other “oligarchs” who emerged in Russia at that time the exact route he took on his rise to great wealth remains obscure. All of them did it by privatising former state companies or property into their own pockets at derisory prices, but just how they managed that is rarely explained, and would usually not bear close inspection.

Never mind all that. Ivanishvili is the only Georgian billionaire, and his wealth and wisdom will save us all. In Monday’s election, his presidential candidate got 62 percent of the vote, compared to only 22 percent for the candidate chosen by the last messiah. (Saakashvili could not run for president again himself, having served two full terms.)

Ivanishvili’s decision to retire from high political office himself is less quixotic than it seems. He’s not actually relinquishing power: with loyal placemen in both the presidency and the prime minister’s office – president-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili said that he would always listen to his “authoritative friend” – he can continue to dominate affairs without having to take any personal responsibility if things go wrong.

Money doesn’t talk; it gives commands. And it doesn’t really do democracy, either: Ivanishvili’s government has already begun arresting Saakashvili’s former ministers on various charges, and the ex-messiah himself can probably expect the same treatment once he leaves the presidency. Salvation for Georgia is still not at hand.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 12. (“There have…poverty”; and “Ivanishvili made…inspection”)

 

 

The Other Cuban Missile Crisis

17 October 2012

The Other Cuban Missile Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (16-28 October, 1962), so we’re going to hear a great deal about the weeks when the world almost died. But the past is a foreign country, a place where everything was in black-and-white and men still wore hats, so it’s just scary stories about a long-gone time. Or so it seems.

The outlines of the tale are well known. It was 17 years since the United States had used nuclear weapons on Japan, and the Soviet Union now had them, too. Lots of them: the American and Soviet arsenals included some 30,000 nuclear weapons, and not all of them were carried by bombers any more. Some were mounted on rockets that could reach their targets in the other country in half an hour.

Both Washington and Moscow therefore had some version of a “launch on warning” policy: if you think the other side’s missiles are inbound, launch your own missiles before you lose them. There couldn’t be a more hair-trigger situation than that, you might think – but then things got a lot worse.

At the start of the 1960s Moscow had gained a new Communist ally in Fidel Castro, but the United States kept talking about invading Cuba. So Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved some nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba to deter the United States from attacking the island. However, from Cuba the Soviet missiles would be only five minutes away from their American targets. That caused panic in Washington.

Early in October, 1962 the first Soviet SS-4 missiles arrived in Cuba, and American U-2 spy planes discovered them almost at once. President John F. Kennedy knew about them by 16 October, but he did not go on television and warn the American public of the risk of nuclear war until the 22nd.

He then declared a naval blockade of Cuba, saying that he would stop Soviet ships carrying further missiles from reaching Cuba by force if necessary. That would mean war, and probably nuclear war, but at least the blockade gave the Russians some time to think before the shooting started.

The Soviet leaders were now desperately looking for a way out of the crisis they had created. After a few harrowing days a deal was done: the Soviet SS-4 missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for a public promise by the United States not to invade Cuba. The crisis was officially over by 28 October, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. It was closest the world ever came to an all-out nuclear war.

Even so, they weren’t really scared enough. They thought that a couple of hundred million people would die in a “nuclear exchange”. At that time, nobody yet knew that detonating so many nuclear warheads would cause a “nuclear winter”: the dust and smoke put into the stratosphere by firestorms in a thousand stricken cities would have blocked out the sunlight for a year or more and resulted in a worldwide famine.

What almost nobody knew until very recently is that the crisis did not really end on 28 October. A new book by Sergo Mikoyan, “The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November”, reveals that it continued all the way through November.

US intelligence was unaware that along with the SS-4s, the Soviet Union had also sent more than a hundred shorter-range “tactical” nuclear missiles to Cuba. They weren’t mentioned in the Soviet-US agreement on withdrawing the SS-4s from Cuba, so technically Khrushchev had not promised to remove them.

Fidel Castro was in a rage about having been abandoned by his Soviet allies, so to mollify him, Khrushchev decided to let him keep the tactical missiles. It was crazy: giving Fidel Castro a hundred nuclear weapons was a recipe for a new and even bigger crisis in a year or two. Khrushchev’s deputy, Anastas Mikoyan, who was sent to Cuba to tell Castro the happy news, quickly realised that he must not have them.

The second half of the crisis, invisible to Americans, was Mikoyan’s month-long struggle to pry Castro’s fingers off the hundred tactical nuclear missiles. In the end, he only succeeded by telling Castro that an unpublished (and in fact non-existent) law forbade the transfer of Soviet nuclear weapons to a foreign country. In December, they were finally crated up and sent home.

So it all ended happily, in one sense – but the whole world could have ended instead. As Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary in 1962, said forty years later, “we were just plain lucky in October 1962 – and without that luck most of you would never have been born because the world would have been destroyed instantly or made unlivable in October 1962.”

Then he said the bit that applies to us. “Something like that could happen today, tomorrow, next year. It WILL happen at some point. That is why we must abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible.” They are still there, you know, and human beings still make mistakes.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Both…worse”; and “Even…famine”)