What is Vladimir Putin up to?

What Russia wants it gets if it can.

Vladimir Putin's contempt for the useless fools of the West who fawn upon him has again been revealed by the sentence given to three members of Pussy Riot last week. An appropriate and proportionate response might be to suspend Russia from the Council of Europe until they are free. This won't happen, as Tory MPs sit with Putin stooge MPs at the Council of Europe and despite hand wringing from a junior minister on the sentence, Cameron and Hague are refusing to criticise Putin.  

In 2008, Cameron flew to Tbilisi from his Aegean holiday to show solidarity with the people of Georgia after the Russian invasion and dismemberment of their country. Last week Putin admitted it was a pre-planned and pre-meditated military assault. At a press conference, Russian reporters were astonished to learn: “There was a plan, it's not a secret”.

Putin made the remarks in response to a TV documentary, The Day That Was Lost, in which Russian generals made outspoken and unprecedented criticisms of the then President, Dmitri Medvedev. The military men accused  Medvedev, who was then commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, of failing to act decisively in the crucial first few hours of the August 2008 conflict - a "tragic delay that cost so many lives" in their view. Putin, who was then prime minister, is portrayed in the film as the saviour of the situation - the man who "provided personal leadership" during the military operation. The then Chief of the General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, said that that until Putin "delivered a kick, everyone was afraid of something".
 
Now back as president and commander-in-chief Putin was not going to disavow his generals. “There was a plan, and within the framework of this plan that Russia acted. It was prepared by the General Staff at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. It was approved by me, agreed with me."
 
At a stroke the Kremlin line that the Georgian war was wholly the responsibility of Georgia's leader Mikheil Saakashvili was discarded. Until now Russia has always denied taking offensive action. So why has Putin suddenly revealed the truth?
Inside Russia the slapping down of the Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev taking a shot across the bows of his predecessor.

According to the Russian political analyst, Mikhail Rostovsky, the comments are evidence of a "war" being waged within the Putin-Medvedev double act, as Medvedev "actively struggles for the role of real co-ruler of the country".
 
As over Syria Putin may just be fed up with pretending he has any interest in working with the West. What Russia wants it gets if it can. Belarus and Ukraine are now firmly  in Moscow's orbit and the invasion of Georgia four years ago was a signal that Russia would not tolerate an independent western aligned state that
formerly was part of the Tsarist and Soviet imperiums.

Putin's remarks were also aimed at Tbilisi. Political tension is rising in Georgia in the run up to Parliamentary elections on 1 October where Saakashvili's ruling party faces a serious challenge. A Georgian oligarch whose fortunes come from business in Russia and whose net worth is about one third of Georgian GDP is backing a recently created party, Georgian Dream. There are plenty of reasons to challenge the personalized rule of Saakashvili but big money seeking to buy power is not attractive. Win or lose Georgia is entering a period of political instability. If the post election scenario is one of chaos and confrontation Russia could be tempted to restore order and stability. This fear is heightened by upcoming Russian military exercises in the Caucasus which also were prelude to the 2008 invasion.

President Obama's reset diplomacy with Russia has produced very little. British policy wavers. Mr Cameron greets Putin warmly at the Olympics and the Foreign Office refuses to implement a unanimous resolution of the House of Commons mandating action against Putin's functionaries connected with the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The Labour MP Kerry McCarthy attended the Pussy Riot show trial on which the British government was silent until the sentences provoked global outrage.
 
Next week British Conservatives will be at the Russian Embassy in London to launch a “Conservative Friends of Russia” group and William Hague has made clear that under his foreign policy trade  trumps human rights.

In two years' time the keen skier President Putin hopes the Sochi winter Olympics will boost Russia. They take place close to the Georgian region of Abkhazia now being turned into a major Russian military zone complete with missile bases. Putin's revelation that the invasion of Georgia was premeditated are not a good augur for a tension-free Winter Olympics in 2014.

Denis MacShane MP is a former FCO minister. Follow him on Twitter as @denismacshane
 

There is now a war being waged within the Putin-Medvedev double act. Photograph: Getty Images
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle