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

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.