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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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at