New-found confidence: Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Paralympics closing ceremony last month. (Photo: Getty)
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Letter from Moscow: the mood turns nasty

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis a rampant chauvinism has been unleashed,  while sanctions on Russia have created the kind of atmosphere dictators love.

As we began our descent across southern Moscow, our plane skimmed just above the blocks that symbolise Soviet-era living, then banked west towards the airport, crossing mile upon mile of “town hauzy” and “kottedzhy” – the gaudy dwellings, replete with turrets and swimming pools and multiple garages, of Russia’s thriving middle classes. We used to call them “New Russians”, but that’s so Yeltsin-era. The people who have feathered their out-of-town nests under Vladimir Putin are a different breed – and there are hundreds of thousands of them. I asked a friend what kind of people lived here. Small entrepreneurs, he said . . . bankers, people from the oil and gas business and government officials: “With the bribes they take, they can live in real style!”

In theory, these are the kinds of people who would have much to lose if western sanctions against Russia were to shake the economy hard. But I doubt it would shake their faith in Putin, who gave them their loot and whose policies they love. I found myself at a barbecue last summer at one of these country piles. All the neighbours came round to meet the foreign guest. A thoroughly unpleasant experience it was, as they began by denouncing the pro-democracy protesters and the central Asians who clean Moscow’s streets, and ended by insisting that we British would never solve our problems until we throw out all our Muslims.

The sanctions announced by the US and EU so far are aimed at much bigger fish – men who own yachts and banks, not a measly five-bedroomed villa and a couple of BMWs. The idea (and one has to assume this has been thoroughly thought through) is to put pressure on Putin not via his natural constituents but his closest buddies: those he helped to become billionaires, with whom he served in the KGB and, in some cases, plotted the invasion of Crimea.

So far the sanctions have been laughed off. In truth, I cannot imagine them reining in whatever further plans Putin may have. The Kremlin, it should be remembered, tends to react to western pressure in what it likes to call an “asymmetric” – some might say perverse – fashion. Take the US “Magnitsky law”, which imposed visa bans and asset freezes on officials said to be involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblowing lawyer who uncovered large-scale fraud (committed by the same officials who then had him arrested and jailed). If this was intended to force the authorities finally to bring the officials to justice, then sadly nothing of the sort happened. The Kremlin’s asymmetric response was to drop all charges against the only officials being investigated, and to ban the adoption of Russian children by Americans. I would hazard a guess that Putin’s response to the west’s sanctions over Crimea will be something we had never thought of.

It seems to me that the sanctions have produced the kind of atmosphere that dictators love. The Soviet Union used to exploit western pressure to unite the nation against a perceived outside threat and now something similar is happening again. Alexey Pushkov, a TV presenter and Duma member whom I have known for many years, has said that the return of Crimea to Russia marked a quantitative leap in the nation’s self-awareness: “It is overcoming the inferiority complex that was forced on us for years both from within and without the country, when they tried to convince us that Russia was no use for anything other than to be dependent and subjugated, following the ‘real’ leaders of the modern world.”

You need broad shoulders to carry around a chip as big as that. The presenter of a television debate the other day summed up the new situation: “The world has changed. Russia is no longer going to take its orders from ‘HQ’.”

The question is, where will it end, this new-found Russian confidence? The concept of the Russian World (“Russkiy Mir”) has been gaining strength, especially since 2006, when Putin exhorted young people to “use this phrase more often”. Now there is a Russian World Foundation, which aims to promote Russian language and culture, as well as something more amorphous – a sense of “Russianness” and a community that covers the entire Russian-speaking world. That includes territory in Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Is that where Kremlin eyes are gazing?

It is only a small step from nationalism to chauvinism. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it is rampant – and it already ran deep in Russian veins. I recall hearing a very senior member of Putin’s circle (one of those whom foreign journalists describe as sophisticated and westernised) privately describing the Ukrainians as a nation of devious, untrustworthy crooks.

Aleksandr Dugin, one of the ideologists of the Eurasian movement, wrote this week that “mature Putinism” would be marked by the emergence of “Russia as a distinct civilisation, independent of Europe”, in which the “fifth column” of dissident voices (specifically the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy) would be “liquidated”.

The atmosphere is about as nasty as I have ever known it in Moscow. There is, of course, another Russia, westernised and outward-looking, that watches all of this with apprehension. Many people have moved on too far to contemplate a return to the isolationist days of the communist period.

Yet the likely beneficiary of recent events will be – who else? – Vladimir Putin, his popularity bolstered by each new western sanction. Do we really want to ensure he is with us for another ten years? 

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent and the author of “The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia” (I B Tauris, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.