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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue