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.

New-found confidence: Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Paralympics closing ceremony last month. (Photo: Getty)
New-found confidence: Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Paralympics closing ceremony last month. (Photo: Getty)

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)