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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide