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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Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman