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The fire next time

Every attempt to make banks more responsible has made them more reckless. Unless the sector is radic

As the financial chaos that began with the collapse of Northern Rock in 2007 enters its second year, the question is: where do we want to be? Are the banks, as the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling has said, to use public capital to restore the relatively free-and-easy commercial conditions of the latter part of 2007? Or should we, as both Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have suggested, try to use the 15 November meeting of the 20 chief industrial countries in Washington to establish a new era, like Bretton Woods in novelty if not character? With a new US president, in the person of Barack Obama, due to take office in January, the opportunity is for the taking.

Financial crises are like fireworks: they illuminate the sky even as they go pop. The disruptions of this autumn, the bank rescues, falling securities markets and currency turbulence, have revealed cracks and chips not merely in our financial system but in our general way of looking at the world. The expertise of the economists looks suddenly threadbare. As Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes's biographer, wrote in the Washington Post last month: "What is in even shorter supply than credit is an economic theory to explain why this financial tsunami occurred, and what its consequences might be. Over the past 30 years, economists have devoted great intellectual energy to proving that such disasters cannot happen."

Any new financial order for the world must tackle the three chief challenges of our age. The first is the privileges enjoyed by people in the banking and securities trade on a scale which would not have shamed the nobility of the ancien régime. The second is the perverse character of modern investment, by which financial surpluses generated by hard-working countries are channelled by the banks not to undeveloped nations that might turn them into prosperous future markets, but to the spoiled and elderly economies of western Europe and the United States, already awash with unproductive capital. The third is our most pressing engagement, which is to prevent further ravages to the natural environment and the general amenity of existence from the reckless combination of the previous two challenges.

The banking crisis that began in earnest with the failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings on 15 September, has lost its novelty as a public spectacle. As people turn back to their ordinary preoccupations, and to the prospect of President-elect Barack Obama, the bankers are lifting themselves up, dusting themselves down and preparing to do what they were doing before, only this time with £400bn of public money. However frightening the events of September and October, they were not frightening enough. As Eric Daniels, the chief executive of Lloyds TSB, put it: he did not expect the government, which has earmarked £17bn for a merged HBOS and Lloyds TSB, to "have an impact on our lending policies or conduct of business". At times our financiers sound like the Bourbon kings, who learned nothing and forgot nothing.

When the Bank of England cut the main rate of interest at which it lends to commercial banks on 6 November, by no less than 1.5 percentage points, the British banks must have thought Christmas had come early. When you can get your funds at an interest rate of 3 per cent and lend at 7 per cent, it is not hard to make money. With these windfall profits, the banks could soon rebuild their capital, repay the public loans and start making themselves lots of money.

The Chancellor and his team had other ideas. At a meeting at the Treasury on 7 November, senior commercial bankers were reminded, with the aid of some pertinent press cuttings, of just how unpopular they are. Now that the public owns Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, and is about to part-own Lloyds TSB, HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland, ministers can no longer be ignored. Even Barclays, which has gone to great effort to avoid taking the UK government's money, raising £5.8bn at higher rates and more unfavourable terms from reluctant investors in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, is faced with the same public distrust and political interference.

Losing your capital is like losing your trousers. It is a real humiliation, and one not to be soon repeated. The British banks will be forced by the government to advertise attractive mortgages and other loans, but they will only make these loans on good security, and it is security that is in short supply. In the market for private housing finance, I imagine we will revert to the conditions of the 1970s, when buyers were expected to provide a quarter or even a half of the purchase price. Northern Rock, which has been longest at this sort of retrenchment exercise, had already reduced its outstanding loans by 10 per cent by the middle of the summer. The Bank of England estimates that, even with the extra share capital underwritten by the government, the largest UK banks would need to reduce their books of loans by around one-sixth to revert to the normal or half-normal level of 2003.

Banks will also try to shrink their establishments, bloated beyond all reason during the boom years or, as in the case of bank branches, maintained out of idleness and sentiment. If Lloyds TSB manages to consummate its union with HBOS, it intends to cut £1.5bn per annum by 2011 in overheads, particularly wages, from the combined business. A rough calculation suggests this could means a reduction of 20,000 staff.

At the heart of banking is a suicidal strategy. Banks take money from the public or each other on call, skim it for their own reward and then lock the rest up in volatile, insecure and illiquid loans that at times they cannot redeem without public aid. Put another way, the assets of the banking system belong to the joint-stock banks, but their liabilities (as we have learned in the past two months) are always and only public liabilities. I guess that is what the Chancellor means when he talks of the "part-nationalisation" of the banking system.

It is a dilemma that goes back to the origin of joint-stock banking at the turn of the 18th century. Whereas private bankers staked their credit, reputations and fortunes on their decisions to lend or not to lend, the shareholders and managers of joint-stock banks carried no such responsibility. That is why, in Britain at least, it was not until the 1870s that joint-stock banks received the protection of limited liability. Until then, their shareholders were liable for losses to the extent not just of their shareholding but of their entire property.

All attempts to regulate the banks have made this prudential problem, as it is known, worse. The Bank of England, which like so many institutions has suddenly become obsessed with history during the crisis in the same way that other people "get" religion, published in its latest Financial Stability Report a chart showing the effect of regulation on the caution of American bankers. In the 1840s, American banks held on average one dollar in their own funds to two dollars of loans and other assets such as government bonds. That meant that half their money was not earning anything, but also that half their loans could go bad without causing loss to depositors.

With the Civil War and the passing of the National Bank Act in 1864, that proportion fell to 25 per cent. In 1913, the Federal Reserve was founded and the proportion fell to 18 per cent. Since then, the bankers have managed to get various classes of asset exempted, and the proportion has fallen to under 10 per cent. Each attempt to make the banks more safe has made them more reckless. According to the Financial Stability Report, before the crisis of this autumn the chief UK banks had £200bn of their own capital to support £6trn worth of lending, a proportion of one in 30. As the Bank notes in a sort of wonder at the majesty of financial phenomena: "Recent events have illustrated that banks can now incur losses much faster than they can recapitalise themselves in stressed market conditions."

By choking off lending, the banks have set in train a decline in general trading activity that looks to be worse than those of 1991, 1982 and, possibly, 1974. My suspicion is that the semi-orderly contraction in bank lending envisaged by the Bank of England will drop us off in roughly the same place as if the likes of HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland had been bankrupted. That, of course, can never be tested. Yet the result of the government rescue is to entrench a sort of banking nobility, endogamous and permanent, without responsibility and not subject to ordinary commercial law. It reinforces the vacuous and illiterate City culture of pecuniary display, cost-free philanthropy and nuisance travel. And it perpetuates banking practices whose eventual disintegration, ten or 15 years in the future, will make this crisis look routine.

So what is to be done with the banks? My own modest proposal, which has not many adherents, is to take away from joint-stock banks the privilege of limited liability which they abuse every moment of the day. That would certainly separate the sheep from the goats but would, perhaps, reduce the equity capital available to the banking system a little too sharply.

More realistically, now is the time for government authorities to begin slowly to peel back some of the other privileges, such as deposit insurance, that under the guise of protecting the public, merely protect the banker. What this means is that you and I will think for a moment before entrusting our money to a bank. We might ask for a balance sheet at the counter, the work of a few moments. We don't know how to read a balance sheet. The clerk will show us. The public, turned into infants by bank regulation, become adults again. Banks will be obliged by a discriminating public to carry more of their own capital. At Bradford & Bingley, the pretty woman in a green bowler becomes a plain man in a black one.

The second challenge, which arises from the imbalance of savings between west and east, is one that Keynes would have recognised even if, in his time, it was the US that had the money. The tendency of the west to borrow and spend and the east to save and lend is the shadow or phantom behind the banking crisis. China, Japan and the oil-exporting countries earned such colossal surpluses from their exports that they could find no other home for them than the indebted households and governments of the rich countries. In the case of the two Chinas, Japan, Russia and India, these hoarded surpluses exceed the entire resources of the International Monetary Fund, the institution set up at Bretton Woods to assist distressed countries needing access to foreign currency for their trade.

Meanwhile, the turmoil in the banking system has meant that entire countries - Iceland, Hungary, Pakistan and most of the poorer nations - can without warning lose all access to foreign currency to buy food for their populations. The answer is to increase the resources of the fund or some successor while recognising that the world has changed out of all recognition from 1944. The US is now a debtor, not a creditor, and the rich new powers of Asia need representation according to their wealth.

That leads to the final challenge of limiting the damage to the natural environment from the rapid expansion of trade and population in recent years. Even before the banks fell to bits, energy and grain markets, movements of people and climate patterns were frantically signalling that something was going awry with the worldwide commercial system.

At one level, the decline in business activity will be a blessing. Certain perverse projects, such as the expansion of the London airports, will not pay for themselves in the new world of tightened belts and shut wallets and must be delayed or even, God willing, abandoned. It is one of the bizarre features of our civilisation that money will do for its own preservation what we, for our own welfare, will not.

Here the conjunction of a new US administration and a disgraced business and financial Establishment is interesting, to put it mildly. If the investment, for example, necessary to limit or reduce carbon-dioxide emissions appeared to sceptics both uncertain and costly, the $3trn cost of cleaning up the current financial mess puts it into perspective. If some latter-day New Dealer is looking for counter-cyclical investment both to keep people in work and to raise public morale, the environment is by far the most promising field of activity. For example, the Detroit carmakers have jogged along for more than 80 years on a rich and combustive mixture of cheap gasoline and easy credit.

That era is now over, which is why the US motor industry is by almost every prudent measure utterly bust. There is no purpose in Barack Obama summoning from the tomb the corpse of Henry Ford. Any rescue operation in Detroit must take account of the new world of tighter credit and environmental standards and more costly motor spirit.

To concentrate merely on regulating the financial sector might buy stability for a year or two, but the weaknesses in energy and food supply and the degradation of the environment will not go away. The rainbow over the downtown skyscrapers will have but one meaning: no more water. The fire next time.

James Buchan is the author of "Frozen Desire: an Inquiry into the Meaning of Money" (1997). His latest novel, "The Gate of Air", is published by the MacLehose Press (14.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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.

***

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.

***


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