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Mutiny in the mountains

In Kashmir, a wave of peaceful mass protests against Indian rule has been put down with ferocity. Th

One afternoon in August this year, I left a magazine office near the East Village in New York after an interview, and made my way to Washington Square Park. It was there that I received a call I shall never forget. It was from my brother in Kashmir. “They have fired on the protesters,” he said. “Thirteen or fourteen people, and some say more, have been killed.”

A month later, on the flight home to Kashmir from Delhi, I gave up my attempts to read a news magazine as the pilot announced that we would be landing in Srinagar in a few minutes. I stared out of the window and somehow the joy of seeing Kashmir again reminded me of the melancholy of many departures, of how on every flight out of Kashmir I would stare out of the window as the plane took off, while below me there would be the receding houses growing smaller every moment, the paddies turning into neat green squares marked by their edges, the metalled roads connecting villages shrink ing into black lines, and in a few minutes Kashmir appearing as a pristine, serene bowl framed by snow-peaked mountains.

“Why do you Kashmiris have problems with India?” a policeman shouted at the artist

The day before, in Delhi, I had visited an exhibition of the work of a 20-year-old Kashmiri artist named Malik Sajad. Inside loops of sharp concertina wire, Malik had hung framed pictures of heavily militarised Kashmiri streets, with young unarmed protesters staring at soldiers. One of the cartoons depicted Gandhi being detained at a checkpost because he had forgotten his identity card.

An hour later, four bombs went off in central Delhi markets, killing 20 people. Indian Mujahedin, a jihadi group, sent emails to television channels and newspapers claiming responsibility for the attack as revenge against the 2002 Guj arat pogrom, in which Hindu extremist mobs had killed as many as 2,000 Muslims with support from the state government and police. The next day brought the news of the arrest of Malik Sajad, the cartoonist whose exhibition I had attended Shortly after the bombs exploded, Sajad had walked from the cultural centre to a nearby internet cafe where he was trying to email the daily cartoon to his editor at one of Kashmir's largest-selling English language newspapers, Greater Kashmir. The shopkeeper was suspicious of him and called the nearby office of the anti-terrorism wing of the Delhi Police. They arrived to drag Sajad by his neck across the road. A few hundred civilians gathered around to catch a glimpse of a supposed terrorist. "Why do you Kashmiris have problems with India?" a policeman shouted at the artist. Then they called the cultural centre, which confirmed who the young artist was and that he had been invited to exhibit his work in Delhi.

Arriving a few days later in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, Sajad spoke of his relief at finally being back at home. Once a beautiful medieval city known for its multi-storey wooden houses with latticework windows, exquisite Sufi shrines, ancient Hindu temples, and ornate houseboats on Dal Lake, Srinagar is now one of the world's most militarised cities. It has lost its nights to a decade and a half of curfews and de facto curfews. Srinagar now has empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. As I travel around Srinagar, I see a bridge, a clearing, or a nondescript building and know that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there. Yet whenever I return to my broken city, I always feel, like Malik, a sense of relief.

On the first Friday after I arrived home, the shops in Srinagar closed at noon. Lal Chowk, a crowded bazaar in the city centre, full of students, shoppers and soldiers, emptied eerily in a few minutes. A few blocks away, in the Maisuma area of Srinagar, Indian paramilitaries and police armed with automatic rifles and tear gas guns took positions in concrete bunkers and on street corners. A few thousand Kashmiris stood in Friday prayer along the half-mile row of modest brick houses and stores while police blocked the lanes joining Maisuma to the city centre, using loops of concertina wire.

After the prayers, Yasin Malik, a wiry man in his forties who lives in a decrepit mud and brick house, led the protest. In the winter of 1989, when a rebellion against Indian rule had broken out in Kashmir, Malik was then the 21-year-old commander of the armed group Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which sought independence from India. In the mid-Nineties, after pro-Pakistan, Islamist militant groups attacked the Kashmiri nationalist JKLF and took over the anti-India insurgency, Malik renounced violence and became a self-styled Gandhian. Now he was leading another protest, with young and old chanting: "We Want Freedom! Go India! Go!" The tense soldiers looked on in silence.

"You are late," a college friend who worked at a bank nearby said to me. "You should have been here earlier."

He was referring to the protests, which ran from mid-July to mid-September and in which hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris had come out on the streets to agitate for freedom from Indian rule. What was most startling was that the protests were peaceful. Not a single bullet was fired on the Indian soldiers, and because of this the Islamist militants who had been fighting Indian forces for much of the past decade had suddenly become irrelevant. Kashmir, it seemed, had made an overwhelming transition from insurgent violence to Gandhian, non-violent protest. The message was clear, even on the posters of a coalition of separatist groups: Us Qaum Ko Shamsher Ki Haajat Nahin Padti; Ho Jis Ke Jawanoon Ki Khudi Ho Surat-e-Faulaad (The Nation Whose Youth Are Awake Needs No Swords).

The Indian soldiers and police responded to these peaceful protests in the only way they knew - with violence. Between 11 August, when a senior separatist leader, Sheikh Aziz, was killed in northern Kashmir while leading a protest along the Jhelum Valley Road, and mid-September, the police opened fire on and killed as many as 50 protesters and injured more than 700 in scores of incidents in Srinagar, in the towns of Baramulla and Bandipora and in various villages.

Political discontent has simmered in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir since partition in 1947, when Hari Singh, the Hindu maharajah of the Muslim-majority state, joined India after a raid by tribals from Pakistan. The agreement of accession that Singh signed with India in October 1947 gave Kashmir much autonomy; India controlled only defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications. But, in later years, India began to erode Kashmir's autonomy by imprisoning popularly elected leaders and appointing quiescent puppet administrators who helped extend the jurisdiction of the Indian supreme court over Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over control of the old princely state of Kashmir. In 1987, the government in Indian-controlled Kashmir rigged a local election, after which Kashmiris lost the little faith they had in India and began a secessionist armed uprising with support from Pakistan. The Indian military presence in Kashmir rose to half a million and by the mid-Nineties jihadi outfits from Pakistan began to dominate the rebellion. Although violence has fallen in the past few years and the number of active militants has reduced to fewer than 500, according to the Kashmir police, peace talks between India and Pakistan have made little progress. The exception, in April 2005, was the symbolic opening of a bus service across the Line of Control, the de facto border which has divided the two parts of Kashmir between India and Pakistan since the first war over the state in 1947.

Since 1990, the conflict has claimed as many as 70,000 lives - mostly of Kashmiri civilians and militants, as well as Indian soldiers and policemen - but the lessening violence after 2003 and increasing tourist flows from India have created an impression that Kashmir has been "pacified". The protests of this summer destroyed any illusion of peace.

They were provoked by the transfer, in May, of 100 acres of land by the Kashmir government, led by India's ruling Congress Party, to a trust that manages a Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the mountains of southern Kashmir. The cave, discovered by a Muslim shepherd in the mid-19th century, is associated with Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and Hindus believe a phallic ice formation inside the cave is a manifestation of Shiva. The pilgrimage used to be a small affair of a few thousand pilgrims over a few weeks. Local Muslims provided the necessary support, setting up shops along the route, providing food supplies and helping to carry the old and weak on horsebacks into the high mountains. But from the mid-Nineties, India's emerging Hindu nationalists made strong efforts to turn the pilgrimage into a mega-event, an exercise in Hindu supremacy, using the presence of thousands of pilgrims as a sign of greater Indian control over Kashmir.

Many Kashmiri Muslims viewed the land transfer as a move towards Hindu hegemony, and in June thousands protested against it. The Kashmir government revoked the land transfer after five protesters had been shot. The Hindus in Jammu, the southern province of the state, then began counter protests; they attacked and burnt some houses owned by Muslims and blocked the only road connecting the Kashmir Valley with the Indian plains. Kashmiri apple growers, whose produce was rotting as the blockade stopped it from being transported to markets in Delhi, marched in protest to Pakistan. On 11 August, thousands of ordinary people joined the march on the Jhelum Valley Road, which connected Kashmir with the cities of Rawalpindi and Lahore before the partition of British India. That was when the Indian soldiers fired on the protesters, and my brother called me in New York.

The protests quickly transformed from being about a land dispute to being about freedom from Indian rule, and hundreds of marches followed, including a huge march on 22 August to the United Nations Observer Group office in Srinagar.

Most of the injured were brought to SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. There is a single poster on the walls of the casualty ward of a dignified old man with a beard and a Jinnah cap: Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the separatist leader, one of the first to be shot and killed by the Indian troops .

In a sanitised room at the hospital, I met Saleem Iqbal, a 41-year-old surgeon who heads the team of 30 doctors working on the casualty ward. Dr Iqbal, a soft-faced man with a black moustache, had been preparing his team for the worst since the latest wave of protests began. "I have worked here for 14 years and we expected the injured to be brought to the hospitals the moment the protests began. That is how it was in the early Nineties," he told me. At that time, when Kashmiris rebelled against Indian rule and millions came out on to the streets demanding freedom, Indian troops had opened fire, killing hundreds.

One of the doctors at the hospital told me that after the recent shootings he had “operated on 15 people but saved only five. I had to amputate the legs of young boys.” A few days after our meeting, I saw Dr Iqbal again at a fundraising event, where the Kashmiri middle class had gathered to raise money for ambulances and medicines for the injured who couldn’t afford them, including some of the boys whose legs had been amputated.

Not everyone was despondent. The recent protests have, for the first time since 1990, shifted Indian opinion on Kashmir. Many Indian writers, editors and journalists are beginning to discuss properly for the first time the possibility of an India without Kashmir. Vir Sanghvi, the celebrated former editor of India's major English daily, the Hindustan Times, wrote in the paper on 16 August: "I reckon we should hold a referendum in the Valley. Let the Kashmiris determine their own destiny. If they want to stay in India, they are welcome. But if they don't, then we have no moral right to force them to remain . . . It's time to think the unthinkable."

India traditionally described Muslim-majority Kashmir as an integral part of the nation, necessary to prove its claim to be a secular country in which Hindus and Muslims were equal citizens. But the claims of Indian plurality and secularism have been weakened by the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and especially by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat.

However, these recent debates among the Indian intellectual elite reminded me of the many afternoons I have spent with friends in Srinagar coffee shops talking about Kashmir and India. Most of us were sure that India would never leave Kashmir. But something is changing, on both sides.

Many more lives could have been lost through September if the Kashmiri separatist leaders had not called on people to suspend the protests during Ramadan; the Indian government responded by lifting the curfew. But the protests were set to resume in October and a coordination committee with representatives from various separatist groups called on people to march en masse to Lal Chowk on 6 October. No one knew how the Indian troops would respond to another march.

On that morning, I woke up to the sound of birds chirping on the mulberry and chinar trees in the backyard of my house in southern Srinagar. Outside, the streets were silent; there were groups of paramilitaries standing with guns and bamboo sticks near the neighbourhood bunker. I sat on the lawn reading the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which is an account of the difficulties and impossibilities of walking around your own landscape in the face of conflict and occupation. Later, in the afternoon, I managed to get a curfew pass and rode with a journalist friend to Lal Chowk. Indian paramilitaries and soldiers used thick loops of barbed wire and walls of iron sheets to block almost every lane leading there. Three boys played cricket in a narrow lane off the main square.

I watched as paramilitaries stopped a red SUV coming towards us. I saw the drained faces of two men inside; the legs of a dead woman wrapped in floral sheet jutted out of a window. They were taking her home from a Srinagar hospital. The SUV was allowed to pass after a few minutes, but it somehow reinforced the omnipresence of death. In my two-mile journey back home that evening, I was forced to produce my curfew pass and identity card at ten different checkpoints. Driving through the silent streets was a reminder of how efficient India's military control of Kashmir had become: a city of more than a million people had been turned into an open prison because its people had planned to go on a peaceful march for freedom. Police vans had been driving through various Srinagar neighbourhoods warning people that those who defied the curfew would be shot.

As many as 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the past 20 years of armed conflict in Kashmir. That October day, the people of Srinagar stayed home to save many more from being shot and killed. But they stared in defiance from open windows, as their armed Indian jailers passed by in military vehicles.

India has rejected even moderate demands to remove some of the half-million Indian forces from civilian areas or to restore some of Kashmir's lost autonomy. There are parliamentary elections in India next year, and the exaggerated fear, for now, is that any party that concedes ground on Kashmir will lose votes. This means that, for the coming months, Kashmiris will remain on edge, angry and protesting, dying in their ones and twos.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

Andre Carrilho
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Putin's revenge

Twenty-five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia is consumed by an insatiable desire for recognition as the equal of the USA.

President Trump meets President Putin. It’s the most eagerly awaited encounter in world politics. Will The Donald thaw the New Cold War? Or will he be trumped by “Vlad” – selling out the West, not to mention Ukraine and Syria?

The Donald v Vlad face-off comes at a sensitive moment for the Kremlin, 25 years after the demise of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991 and just before the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Were the heady hopes at the end of the Cold War about a new world order mere illusions? Was Mikhail Gorbachev an aberration? Or is Putin rowing against the tide of post-Cold War history? How did we end up in the mess we’re in today?

These are some of the questions that should be explored in Trump’s briefing book. He needs to get to grips with not only Putin, but also Russia.

 

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Today President George H W Bush’s slogan “new world order” sounds utopian; even more so the pundit Francis Fukuyama’s catchphrase “the end of history”. But we need to remember just how remarkable that moment in world affairs was. The big issues of the Cold War had been negotiated peacefully between international leaders. First, the reduction of superpower nuclear arsenals, agreed in the Washington treaty of 1987: this defused Cold War tensions and the fears of a possible third world war. Then the 1989 revolutions across eastern Europe, which had to be managed especially when national boundaries were at stake. Here the German case was acutely sensitive because the Iron Curtain had split the nation into two rival states. By the time Germany unified in October 1990, the map of Europe had been fundamentally redrawn.

All this was accomplished in a spirit of co-operation – very different from other big shifts in European history such as 1815, 1871, 1918 and 1945, when great change had come about through great wars. Amid such excitement, it wasn’t surprising that people spoke of a new dawn. This was exemplified by the unprecedented working partnership between the US and the USSR during the First Gulf War in the winter of 1990-91 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush and Gorbachev agreed that they shared a set of “democratic” and “universal” values, rooted in international law and in co-operation within the United Nations.

The new order of course assumed the continued existence of the Soviet Union. Despite the USSR’s growing economic and political problems, no one anticipated its free fall in the second half of 1991. First came the August coup, an attempt by a group of anti-Gorbachev communist hardliners to take control of the Union. Their failed putsch fatally undermined Gorbachev’s authority as Soviet leader and built up Boris Yeltsin as the democratic president of a Russian republic that was now bankrolling the USSR. Then followed the independence declarations of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and crucially Ukraine, which precipitated the complete unravelling of the Union. And so, on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev became history, and with him the whole Soviet era. It seemed like the final curtain on a drama that had opened in Petrograd in 1917. A grandiose project of forced modernisation and empire-building pursued at huge human and economic cost had imploded. The satellites in eastern Europe had gone their own way and so had the rimlands of historic Russia, from central Asia through Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. What remained was a rump state, the Russian Federation.

Despite all the rhetoric about a new world order, no new structures were created for Europe itself. Instead, over the next 15 years, the old Western institutions from the Cold War (the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union) were enlarged to embrace eastern Europe. By 2004, with the inclusion of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Nato and the EU reached the borders of Russia, less than 100 miles from St Petersburg.

Initially the West’s eastward expansion wasn’t a big problem. The Kremlin did not feel threatened by the EU because that was seen as a political-economic project. Nato had been repackaged in 1990 as a more political organisation. Indeed, four years later, Russia joined the alliance’s “Partnership for Peace”. And in 1997, when Nato announced its first enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Russia was invited to join the alliance’s new Permanent Joint Council. That same year, Russia became a member of the G8. In short, during the 1990s the consensual atmosphere of 1989-91 seemed to be maintained.

But Yeltsin failed to create a new Russia from the ruins of Soviet communism. Between 1989 and 1992, as the command economy disintegrated, inflation soared and national income fell by one-third – a crash as spectacular as those America and Germany had suffered in the early 1930s. The largest and fastest privatisation that the world had seen created a cohort of super-rich oligarchs. Crime and corruption became rampant, while millions of Russians were condemned to penury. “Everything was in a terrible, unbelievable mess,” Yeltsin’s adviser Yegor Gaidar later admitted. “It was like travelling in a jet and you go into the cockpit and you discover that there’s no one at the controls.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of political parties resulted in chaos. Yeltsin managed to hang on, thanks to increasingly autocratic rule. In October 1993, after several months of wrangling over the balance of power between executive and legislature, he used army tanks to shell the parliament building in Moscow and imposed a new constitution built around a strong presidency. This and a succession of contrived referendums kept him in power for the rest of the decade. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1999, an ill and exhausted Yeltsin orchestrated his own departure. Declaring that he would hand over to “a new generation” that “can do more and do it better” at the start of a new millennium, he said that he was conveying his powers to an acting president.

His designated successor was an apparently unassuming little man called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

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Who was Putin? Where had he come from? Most immediately he had been prime minister since August 1999 – the sixth man to serve as Yeltsin’s premier. Yet he had made his career as a discreet outsider, often underestimated by those around him. In fact, he was a long-serving KGB officer: he joined in 1975, at the age of 23, entering a culture that would define his persona and outlook.

Crucially, the Gorbachev era was almost a closed book to Putin: he never experienced the intoxicating passions of reform politics within the USSR – perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya – because he spent 1985 to 1990 as a case officer in Dresden in East Germany. To him, Gorbachev’s reforms signified destruction: an empire discarded and a country ruined. During the 1990s, as Putin rose through the ranks of the city administration of his home town St Petersburg and was then moved to Moscow, he witnessed the disastrous effects of chaotic privatisation, the erosion of Russia as a great power and the collapse of the national economy.

Out of the traumatic 1990s came Putin’s passion for a strong state. He spelled this out in a 5,000-word document entitled Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium, published on the Soviet government website on 29 December 1999. In it, he stated bluntly that the Bolshevik experiment had totally failed. “Communism and the power of the Soviets did not make Russia into a prosperous country,” he wrote. It had been “a road to a blind alley which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”.

Putin welcomed recent “positive changes”, especially the Russian people’s embrace of “supranational universal values” such as freedom of expression and travel, as well as “fundamental human rights and political liberties”. But he also highlighted traditional “Russian values”, especially patriotism – pride in “a nation capable of great achievements” – and “social solidarity”, which, he asserted, had “always prevailed over individualism”. He did not believe that Russia would become “a second edition of, say, the US or Britain, in which liberal values have deep historic traditions”. What he presented as “the new Russian idea” would be “an alloy or organic unification of universal general values with traditional Russian values which had stood the test of the times, including the test of the turbulent 20th century”.

Woven into Putin’s manifesto was a distinctive conception of his place in politics. He envisaged himself as a “statesman” in the Russian sense – meaning a builder and servant of the state, in a country where the state has always been seen as superior to society and the individual. He considered the true leader to be above mere electoral politics, occupying a more permanent position as the guardian of state interests. He looked back admiringly to the autocratic reformers of the late tsarist era – men such as Nicholas II’s prime minister Pyotr Stolypin – and had no time for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who had both been submerged by democracy and had undermined the state.

Above all, he believed that Russia had to resume its rightful historic place as a “great power”. He considered the vicissitudes of the 1990s an aberration that had to be overcome. Adapting one of Stolypin’s celebrated phrases, he liked to say that the people did not need “great upheavals”. They needed “a great Russia” – with a “strong state” as the “guarantor of order” and the “main driving force” of any durable change.

The “acting president” was elected in his own right in March 2000 and won re-election in 2004 for another four years. During the 2000s Putin concentrated on kick-starting the economy, bringing the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era under firm control and building monetary reserves, aided by rising prices for Russia’s oil and gas. This enabled the country to survive the financial crisis of 2008 and stood in marked contrast to a decade earlier, when the Asian crash of 1997-98 led Russia to default on its foreign debt and devalue the rouble. In rebuilding prosperity and pride, Putin earned the gratitude of millions of Russians, scarred by the poverty and humiliations of the Yeltsin era.

Showing himself off as a military strongman, he targeted Chechnya, which had claimed independence in 1991. Yeltsin had failed to tame the anarchic north Caucasus republic in the Chechen War of 1994-96; Putin imposed direct Russian rule brutally in the first year of his presidency, reducing the Chechen capital, Grozny, to rubble in 2000.

Increasingly secure at home, he began to reassert Russian power in the international arena. Initially, this did not involve confrontation with the West. He co-operated with the US in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, though he didn’t support the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, abstaining from the Bush-Blair mission of forceful regime change. In 2003-2004 he protested but ultimately accepted the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the accession of the Baltic states into Nato and the EU – even if the Kremlin regarded them as part of Russia’s “near abroad”. In 2007, however, Washington’s plans for a Nato missile defence “shield” in eastern Europe (deploying interceptor missiles and radar tracking systems), officially justified as protection against “rogue states” such as Iran, prompted Russia to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This was part of the fabric of co-operation woven in 1990-91. Nevertheless, foreign policy wasn’t Putin’s priority in his first stint as president.

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In 2008, after two terms in office, Putin was obliged under the constitution to step down from the presidency. Under a notorious job swap, however, he was elected as prime minister to the new (nominal) president, Dmitry Medvedev, who within months pushed through a law extending the term for future presidents from four to six years. Then, in September 2011, Putin announced that he would run for the presidency again.

For millions of Russians, this second job swap seemed a cynical power play. Putin won the election of March 2012, naturally – the Kremlin machine ensured that. Yet he gained only 64 per cent of the vote despite having no serious opposition. Rural areas run by local clans tied to him were easily manipulated, but in many big cities, including Moscow, he polled less than 50 per cent.

The 2012 election campaign was the moment when Putin’s conception of the statesman-strongman collided with the democratic expectations of Russia’s perestroika generation, now coming of age. It marked a crunch point in the history of post-Soviet Russia – a clash between different models of the country and its future. Ranged against Putin were those whom the opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, of the liberal People’s Freedom Party, called the new “mass middle class”, formed over the previous two decades. Taking to the streets in protest against the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” were managers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, IT specialists and the like. For these people, Putin had passed his sell-by date. After his announcement that he wanted another term in the Kremlin, images circulated on the internet of an aged Putin dissolving into the geriatric visage of Leonid Brezhnev – whose near-two decades in office symbolised the “era of stagnation” that Mikhail Gorbachev had swept aside.

Social media was transforming urban Russia. Between 2008 and 2012 internet penetration among the over-16s doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Russia had its own version of Facebook: VKontakte. The Kremlin’s alarm at the upsurge of virtual opposition and street protest was intensified by the Arab spring in 2011. Much international comment highlighted the role of a young “Facebook Generation” in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, fostering a “digital democracy” that toppled long-standing autocrats – supposedly financed and supported by Washington. Putin liked to claim that the protests in Russia had also been stirred up and/or funded by the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Little wonder that one of his priority projects after winning the 2012 election was refining a sophisticated system of internet surveillance known as Sorm, run from part of the old secret-police headquarters of Lenin’s Cheka and Stalin’s KGB in Lubyanka Square, Moscow. With that in mind, the oppositionist Ryzhkov declared that even though Russian society was now very mature and “European”, the regime was “still Chekist-Soviet”. This, he said, was the “main contradiction” in contemporary Russia.

The domestic protests and the Arab spring threatened Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s position in the world and consolidate its sphere of influence in the “near abroad”. He focused on a “Eurasian Union”, an idea first touted in the 1990s by some central Asian states, notably Kazakhstan, but picked up in earnest by Putin after 2011. Yet, for him, the crux of a viable Eurasian bloc lay in the west, not the east: in Ukraine, with 45 million people, a strong industrial base, and its critical geopolitical position. Putin didn’t just see Ukraine as Russia’s historic “borderland”. Celebrating Kievan Rus – the original east Slavic state of the 9th to 13th centuries – he insisted that Kyiv was “the mother of Russian cities”. Keeping Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence was a red-line issue for the Kremlin.

That line was crossed in February 2014. For a decade Ukraine – an ethnically fractured country (78 per cent Ukrainian; 17 per cent Russian) – had hovered between Russia and the West, depending on the latest change of leaders in this corruption-riddled state. In November 2013 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, stalled Ukraine’s long-discussed “association” agreement with the European Union. Thousands of pro-EU protesters surged into Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

In the face of repressive police measures, the mass demonstrations continued for three months and spread across the country, including the Crimea, where Russians were the majority, bringing Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia on 21 February 2014. The next day Putin began a campaign of retaliation, culminating in the forcible annexation of the Crimea, rubber-stamped by a referendum in which (officially) 96.77 per cent of the Crimean electorate voted to join Russia.

For the West, Putin had finally overstepped the mark, because the Crimea had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Putin claimed that the Russian inhabitants of the region were invoking the right to “self-determination”, just like the Germans during unification in 1990, or the Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 when seceding from Yugoslavia. But in the West, Russia’s military intervention in an independent state was condemned as a flagrant breach of international law. The US and the EU imposed political and economic sanctions against Russia, precipitating a financial crisis and a collapse of the stock market. By the spring of 2016 the rouble had fallen 50 per cent in two years. This was coupled with a halving of the price of oil, on which Russia’s economy depends. The country slid into recession, reversing the economic success of the president’s first stint in power.

Yet the slump does not appear to have damaged his domestic popularity severely. The state-controlled media whipped up patriotic fervour: Russia v the West. And Putin – the “History Man”, as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy dub him in their book Mr Putin – has deliberately constructed his own version of the recent past to justify his actions. Playing on the trauma and humiliation of the Soviet break-up, he appealed to national pride, touching the emotions of millions of Russians.

Putin has presented his intervention in the Crimea (and subsequently eastern Ukraine) as an assertion of Russia’s right as “an independent, active participant in international affairs”. In a major policy statement on 18 March 2014, he harked back to the era of “bipolarity” as a source of “stability”, arguing that America’s arrogant attempts after 1991 to create a “unipolar” world, exacerbated by Nato’s progressive enlargement, had pushed his country into a corner.

It was not just that Kyiv’s turn towards the EU threatened to detach Ukraine from Russia and its “Eurasian” sphere; talk about actually joining Nato raised the spectre of the Western military alliance being “right in our backyard” and on “our historic territory”. Putin conjured up the prospect of Nato warships entering the Black Sea and docking in Sevastopol, that “city of Russia’s military glory” – a “real threat to the whole of southern Russia”. Enough was enough, he declared: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”

***

 

To Western eyes the story looked very different. The enlargement of the EU and Nato was driven less from Brussels and Washington than by the desire of eastern European countries to escape from the clutches of “the Bear”. Putin had tolerated the loss from Russia’s “near abroad” of Warsaw Pact states from Poland to Bulgaria, but the Baltic states (former Russian imperial territory) were a very different matter. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had won their independence from the tsarist empire after the First World War, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War. For the Balts, 1991 therefore represented the rebirth of freedom and statehood; they saw membership of the institutional West – the European Union and Nato – as an essential guarantee of national security.

Nato has become a “four-letter word” for Russia and one can argue that, ideally, the “new world order” should have been based on new institutions. But in 1989-90 the persistence of Nato was essential to allay European fears, not least in the USSR, about a unified Germany at the heart of the continent. There was no discussion at this moment about Nato’s further extension beyond Germany, let alone a firm pledge that it would not. Contrary to Putin’s assertions, an expansionary blueprint did not exist.

Whatever the arguments about ­history, however, relations between Russia and the West are deadlocked. So are we in a “New Cold War”, as touted by the Russian government since Dmitry Medvedev’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2016? In fundamental ways: no. Russia and America are not engaged in an all-encompassing global power struggle, military, political, economic, cultural, ideological. The new Russia is essentially capitalist and fully integrated into the world economy, with a multitude of trade and financial links with the West.

Despite bellicose rhetoric at the top, Russian and US diplomats talk and work together behind the scenes, not least in the recent selection of a new UN secretary general, António Guterres. Above all, the language of “unipolarity” and “bipolarity” no longer reflects the reality of international affairs: a “multipolarity” of world powers, a profusion of “non-state actors” capable of terrorism and warfare, and potent transnational forces, notably mass migration – all of which are deeply destabilising. This is very different from the Cold War.

Amid this new world disorder, today’s Russian-American stand-off revolves around differing approaches to international relations. Putin’s policy is rooted in traditions of great-power politics: the control of territory and the assertion of state sovereignty, especially within what Russia regards as its historic sphere. By contrast, the United States, albeit erratically, has promoted humanitarian interventionism, pursued regime change and indulged in the rhetoric of global democracy, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

So, why the divergence? One can say that the West has failed to pay consistent attention to Russia’s sensitivities about its post-Soviet decline. Nor has it given due recognition to the reality of Russia as a great Eurasian power. On the other side, Putin has increasingly pulled his country out of the network of co-operative political forums and agreements forged with the West in the aftermath of the Cold War. He has also challenged the independence of small states on Russia’s periphery. Today, abandoning any vestiges of entente with America, Putin seems to believe that Russia can regain its great-power status only by distancing itself from the West and by overtly challenging the US in hot spots around the world. This is very different from the world imagined by Bush and Gorbachev and pursued to some degree by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Putin is undoing what he sees as a “democratic” peace, made to Russia’s geopolitical disadvantage in 1989-91.

Take Syria: Putin knew that Barack Obama had no stomach for wholesale military intervention on such a fragmented battleground, where few direct US interests are at stake. As an appalling human tragedy has unfolded, especially in Aleppo, Putin has exploited his free hand by despatching Russia’s sole (Brezhnev-era) aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters and building a Russian airbase near the key port of Latakia. US passivity has allowed him to establish a novel, if tenuous, military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and thereby to strengthen his position in the Middle East as a whole.

On the Baltics, Washington drew a firm line last summer: Nato’s Warsaw summit in July 2016 committed Alliance troops and aircraft to each of these states by way of a token but unequivocal act of deterrence. Putin responded by further beefing up the Russian short-range nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad. This tit-for-tat in the Baltic Sea area is likely to spiral.

In the standoff over Ukraine – where Russia has done nothing to end the fighting – the Americans have been content to let Angela Merkel take the lead in trying to broker a peace deal. While playing tough in the Baltic, she has kept open channels of communication with Putin over Ukraine. Significantly, the president has not spurned her offer to talk. The two can converse without interpreters, in German and in Russian; Merkel seems to be one of the few foreign leaders for whom Putin entertains a certain respect, if only because she recognises Russia’s need to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, all these various power plays reflect essentially conventional ways by which Putin seeks to unpick 1989-91. More significant is the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive avant-garde methods of combating the Western “bloc” of liberal democracies – by manipulating transnational financial and commercial ties, spinning the global media and steering policy discourse in target states. Russia can leverage its relative weakness if it cleverly exploits its post-Cold War immersion within the global capitalist system and Western popular culture as a kind of “Trojan Horse” .This is what Putin’s personal adviser Vladislav Surkov has termed “non-linear war”.

It is no secret that, in this vein, Moscow used cyber-power in an attempt to mould American opinion during the 2016 presidential election campaign. For all the media hype about hacked computer systems and leaked emails, the Kremlin’s information warfare is not that innovative. After all, the underlying concepts and most of the techniques were developed by the USSR (and equally by the United States) to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs during the Cold War. Let’s not forget that the young Mr Putin was schooled in KGB Dresden.

So, although we may not be back in the era of bipolarity, some of the new ways are also old ways. Under Putin, Russia seems to have resumed its historic quest for position against the West and its insatiable desire for recognition as America’s equal. Will it ever be possible to forge a stable “alloy” blending “universal” and “Russian” values? That would truly be a Russian revolution. l

Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics) and David Reynolds (Cambridge) are the co-editors of “Transcending the Cold War” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge