The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to keep other countries in the fold

Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowde

Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, in May 2012, Russia’s relations with the west have been fraught. He has become increasingly authoritarian, thwarted US diplomacy on Syria and claimed that he is defending the Judaeo-Christian values abandoned by western countries. But now Putin seems to be softening his approach. This may be because of Russia’s mounting economic problems, the opposition’s surprisingly strong showing in local elections, and the convergence with Washington over Syria’s chemical weapons.

A new-look Putin was on display at this year’s “Valdai Club”, a group of international think-tankers, academics and journalists that meets once a year in Russia. As we gathered by the shores of Lake Valdai in northern Russia, Putin and his senior ministers had a clear message: Russia’s political system is evolving.

For the final session, which was broadcast live on Russian TV, a relaxed and confident Putin sat on a panel with European grandees, including Romano Prodi and François Fillon. They urged him to listen to young Russian protesters and to take seriously “the responsibility to protect” Syrians. In the audience were opposition leaders who questioned Putin about electoral fraud and the imprisonment of activists. He replied calmly that Russia was “on the way to democracy” and reminded everyone that the recent mayoral elections in Moscow had been free and fair.

Given Putin’s track record, one should treat his words with scepticism. But an earlier session with one of his chief advisers had surprised us: “The trend for fair elections will be more pronounced; there will be more political competition in future . . .” The adviser counselled the opposition parties to focus on municipalities, hinting that it was too soon for them to win regional governorships or national elections. I asked opposition politicians what they made of all this. Vladimir Ryzhkov (a liberal) and Ilya Ponomarev (a leftist) told me that the Kremlin did have a new approach – though it could still use the courts to clobber anyone considered a threat.

One reason for this modest political opening may be the economic slowdown, which could spur unrest. Having grown at about 4 per cent a year for the previous three years, the economy may not achieve 2 per cent this year, despite a favourable oil price. Foreigners and Russians are investing less. Brain drain and capital flight continue. The technocrats running the economy know that politics is holding it back. One former minister told the Valdai Club that “the keys to improving the economy are independent courts and the protection of property”. Investment would suffer so long as the courts remained subject to the whim of the executive, he said.

Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowden and missile defence.

The reasons for the shift in tone are unclear. Russians worry a great deal about Islamist extremists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan and then infecting Russia’s Muslim regions with terrorism. They want the Americans to help to manage the situation in both war zones. Perhaps the Russians think they can be magnanimous to those who misread the Middle East: they always said the Arab spring would end in tears and that Arab countries could not be democratic, and they feel vindicated by events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

In truth, Putin’s entourage is still hostile, if not paranoid, towards the United States. I asked a minister if Nato remained a threat to Russia’s security. “Of course. Why else does it try to creep as close as possible to our borders?” he answered. “It has punished regimes it dislikes – Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya – without any regard to the UN Security Council.” He accused Nato of deceiving Russia by enlarging after promising it would not (this is partly true) and said that Russia could not be a friend of Nato unless it renounced further expansion.

Most Russians share this suspicion of Nato. They also believe that Nato wants to absorb Ukraine – even though that idea has little support in Kiev or the major western capitals. It is the EU that would like Ukraine to sign a free-trade agreement in Vilnius in November, alongside Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, as part of its “Eastern Partnership”. Putin wants to stop these countries signing, as they then could not join the Customs Union established in 2010 by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Putin hopes that the Customs Union will expand into much of the former Soviet Union and evolve into a more powerful “Eurasian Union”.

The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to prise countries away from the Eastern Partnership. In August, it blocked imports from Ukraine for several days, saying this was a “dress rehearsal” for the measures it would have to take if Kiev went with the EU. It told the Moldovans that they would have their gas cut off, their exports blocked and their migrant workers expelled from Russia. What the Russians told Armenia is unclear, but in September it decided to join the Customs Union rather than the Eastern Partnership. Armenia is a special case: it cannot cross Moscow, because only Russian troops prevent Azerbaijan from invading the disputed frontier region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Besides Armenia, Russia cannot count any near neighbour as a true friend. It has been slow to understand that “soft power” – the appeal of a country’s social, economic and political system, and of its behaviour – may achieve as much as brute force. Russia’s leaders appear to see the value of treating the opposition, and possibly the Americans, with a little more courtesy. They should try the same with their neighbours.

Charles Grant is the director of the Centre for European Reform

Vladimir Putin has shifted his tone - but the reason why is unclear. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war