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Closing Guantanamo

It is the most potent symbol of the abuses of the Bush era: Obama's swift decision to shut down Guan

Before the place closes, I might have a couple more opportunities to get down to Guantanamo Bay. Nothing very much has changed. Some of the ­soldiers have become disillusioned, knowing that their orders place them on the wrong side of history. They talk more, they try to make life a little easier on the prisoners. Their commanders have become more dogmatic, if that were possible, like terriers who refuse to give up a bone.

In a way, I am going to miss Guantanamo. It's an odd ­notion, but I've been there more than 20 times, more than six months in all. Sometimes, the true joy of tilting at windmills comes when there is an ogre in the White House. Now they are gone, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the entire Axis of Evil.

Only a few days ago, on 20 January, Americans welcomed in the new year with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president immediately demonstrated that he means business, taking a break between dances at his ten inaugural balls to start issuing executive orders. The first 24 hours saw four decrees: the closure of Guantanamo Bay (within a year), a review of US detention policies (including the closure of CIA "black sites"), a review of US "transfer" policies (the euphemism for extraordinary rendition), and an evaluation of what position the administration should take in the case of Ali al-Marri, the only person held in extrajudicial detention on US soil for more than seven years in the "war on terror". Obama did more for the rule of law in one day than George W Bush did in eight years.

However, while this may herald a new dawn, we are very far from the end of the day. If there is one lesson that must be learned from Bush's catalogue of mistakes it is that we should not go hanging up the "Mission Accomplished" banner in too much of a hurry. Bush made his infamous announcement on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, only 41 days after the invasion of Iraq. Almost six years later, it is sobering to note that more than 96 per cent of the US and coalition casualties came after Bush claimed that it was all over.

The battle for human rights is no more easily won. It is folly to think that Obama can sign four orders and fix an entire era of human rights abuses. A president, no matter how well-intentioned, can only achieve his goals if he has the necessary information and political support. In terms of information, Obama's limited sources have to be a concern. With each policy review that he has ordered, he has named the players who will issue the report: the attorney general, the secretary of defence, the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. For the most part, these are the very institutions that created the problem in the first place. Nowhere does this take into account those who have struggled for change. There are plenty of interest groups opposed to a close analysis of the recent past; others remain convinced that al-Qaeda presents a different paradigm to anything previously encountered, one where the rule of law must give way.

Closing Guantanamo Bay will be a challenge, not least in terms of determining what will be done with the 240 prisoners detained there. The first group is the easiest – the 140 or so prisoners who can just be repatriated. Ninety-seven are from Yemen, and they would be home already if only the Bush administration had talked to President Saleh.

The second group are refugees who need resettlement: there are around 60, most of whom were picked up in Pakistan for bounties. Here, Obama needs help from his allies to offer them sanctuary, and it is sad that the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced a few days ago that Britain felt it had done enough already. A country that played so integral a part in supporting the mess created by Bush might feel a greater obligation to clean it up.

Last, there is the group of prisoners who will be tried, perhaps 40 of them. President Obama has ordered that the Guantanamo military commissions be suspended. Now looms the struggle over the formulation of a process to replace them. Even liberals in the US are talking about a security court, a ­notion that would sound Orwellian were it not for the fact that Britain already has such a body - SIAC, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, with all its secrecy and its special advocates, all beyond the public eye.

Obama has also ordered the closure of CIA prisons. This is an interesting comment on his predecessor's candour, since Bush assured us in September 2006 that there were no more prisoners in CIA detention. Indeed, there is no definition of what a CIA prison is: none has ever been designated as such. The overwhelming majority (more than 99 per cent) of the, roughly, 20,000 prisoners still held in US custody, beyond the rule of law, have never been in a "CIA prison". Guantanamo is not a CIA prison. Bagram air base is not a CIA prison, yet the US military continues to hold 680 prisoners without any due process.

What we do know is that, while in US custody, prisoners disappear. Reprieve, together with other human rights organisations, drafted a report called Off the Recordwhich featured 39 people who have vanished in US custody. Only two have surfaced; 37 remain ghosts. The story of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi is an example of how the osmotic pressure of politics can result in prisoners being shuffled quietly off to a terrible fate. Al-Libi was seized in November 2001 and soon rendered by the CIA to Egypt, where torture elicited the "fact" that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league over weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Bush cited this as a reason to invade Iraq; the then secretary of state Colin Powell repeated it in the UN. When 14 "high-value detainees" appeared in Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, Ibn al-Libi was not among them; what he might say to a lawyer was just too embarrassing for the administration. So he was rendered to disappear in Libya, where Reprieve has now tracked him down. His story must be told - both to expose the consequences of torture and how Libya is being used to spare Bush's blushes.

Notwithstanding such important individual stories, the directive to close CIA prisons is only of passing relevance. There is also the question of the proxy prisons. The outsourcing of torture and imprisonment was one of the greatest horrors of the Bush years, and there are proxy prisons that have never been part of the public debate, including a particularly unpleasant one in Uzbekistan. Other countries – most notably Jordan and Egypt – continue to serve secret American interests.

It would also be unwise to assume that Obama's policy review is going to eliminate the practice of rendition. This was not a Bush brainchild; as far back as Ronald Reagan, suspects had been "snatched" - the preferred term - from abroad. There was enthusiasm for rendition during the Clinton era. Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism tsar to both Democrats and Republicans, relates an infamous story in his book Against All Enemies:

The first time I had proposed a snatch, in 1993, the White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, demanded a meeting with the president to explain how it violated international law. Clinton seemed to be siding with Cutler until Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting, having just flown overnight from South Africa. Clinton recapped the argument on both sides for Gore: Lloyd says this. Dick says that. Gore laughed and said, "That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass."

The euphemisms - "rendition to justice" is a favourite one, when someone is "snatched" and brought to face trial in the US - cannot disguise the fact that there is no legal distinction that sets it apart from kidnapping.

President Obama has ordered an end to torture, requiring that all interrogations abide by the Army Field Manual. Yet the ink was barely dry on his directive before talk of adding more coercive techniques to the manual began to surface even from within the Obama administration itself, possibly as a sop to right-wing critics. Obama also said nothing about accountability. With a wink and a nod, before his inauguration, there were signs that he had already come under pressure from both sides of the aisle not to look too carefully at the criminal practices of the Bush administration. Nobody in Congress seems to have the stomach for a bloody inquest, and I believe the Senate leadership have indicated that inquiries are not on their list of priorities. Obama's reticence is understandable enough. He is embarking on a daunting mission, and he must seek allies where he can find them. Digging up the skeletons of the past might have suited the Democrats in the run-up to the election, but if they want Republican co-operation now, the prospect is less appealing.

The setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure that the truth comes to light, both for the peace of mind of the victims and so that history can record the mistakes, would be one option open to the new president, and there is no legitimate argument against it. But such a commission will not easily be born. A systematic structure of secrecy - couched in national security terms - may be the most dangerous and long-lasting legacy of Bush and Tony Blair. I have a US security clearance, and while I obviously cannot reveal classified material, I can state without hesitation that the overwhelming majority of it would not remain hidden in a sane world.

Looking to the future, it is enormously exciting to have a US president who is so powerfully in favour of human rights. But it is unclear whether he could sustain his approach in the face of (for example) a further terror attack on US soil. Unfortunately we should not discount the possibility of such an attack. Al- Qaeda must realise that a decent president is a danger to their cause, just as Bush's policies provided the most effective recruiting sergeant to their banner that they could imagine.

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, see www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640

Road to closure

2002, January First group of 20 prisoners arrive at Guantanamo, deemed not entitled to habeas corpus.
President Bush rules that their standing as "enemy combatants" disqualifies them from PoW status
February Detainees go on hunger strike to protest the ban on turbans
2004, March UK prisoners dubbed the "Tipton Three" are released without charge
June Supreme Court rules that prisoners can use federal courts to challenge their imprisonment
July In response, the Pentagon creates special military commissions to determine detainees "enemy combatant" status
2005, May Riots erupt around the world after allegations of abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo
2006, June US Supreme Court rules that military commissions used to try prisoners are illegal and that the Geneva Conventions apply to detainees
2008, June Supreme Court rules that prisoners are entitled to habeas corpus
July Reports that US military based an interrogation class on study of Chinese torture techniques
July Guantanamo war crimes trial begins against Osama Bin Laden's former driver
2009, January Barack Obama announces Guantanamo to close within a year and suspends all ongoing military tribunals

Kate Ferguson

Inside guantanamo/Bisher Al-Rawi

was arrested in November 2002 during a business trip to the Gambia, along with a colleague. He was first taken to Bagram air base, then on to Guantanamo.

We were flown to Guantanamo shackled, cuffed, blindfolded. We had protectors on our ears. It was extremely uncomfortable. If you wanted to use the toilet, someone had to pull your trousers down for you. It was extremely degrading.
When we got there we were put in solitary confinement. To be thrown into a dimly lit cell, just a small box, life is really very alien. You feel hopeless, like this is your grave. We stayed in solitary confinement for a month, then went out into the general population [of the camp]. You were still in individual cells but you could see people. Really, the day was full of nothingness. It revolved around when they brought us food and the nothingness in between. The leisure time was a big thing - to be let outside - but even when you were there you were just by yourself in a fenced area, 10ft by 15ft. There really was no information about what was going on - there was just interrogation.
Something happened which made me realise it was a game to people. Before my lawyer had visited, he sent me a letter explaining I was not to take part in the tribunal process, because it was illegal. Before I received the letter, they came to us. We were told a couple of weeks before that we'd have a tribunal. We had to prepare our own defence - but without access to pen and paper.
Then the day after my tribunal I received my lawyer's letter saying not to take part. The letter had been postmarked two months before. That's when I knew they were not trying to do the right thing, and then I lost faith.

Inside Guantanamo/Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg was detained by Pakistani police and CIA officers in January 2002 while he was living in Islamabad.

I was never arrested, I was kidnapped at gunpoint. Nobody ever questioned me until I was handed over into custody. It happened because the US offered bounties of thousands of pounds for each person. There was no justice system, absolutely none. They didn't even pretend there was. You were simply in custody and that's it.
I was held for three years - 11 months in Bagram and two years, one month in Guantanamo. Most of my time was in solitary confinement - it was monotonous and dreary, with nothing to look forward to. There was no window in my cell, and it was impossible to take more than three steps in any direction. They had recreation three times a day in a caged area that was about three times the size of my cell. By the end, they had increased each time to an hour.
We welcome news of the closure - it's seven years too late, but it's better late than never. But we're still concerned about the ghost prisons, where conditions are even worse than in Guantanamo. Obama has said that he's going to shut Guantanamo but he's also said that he's going to increase the numbers of troops in Afghanistan. So there are likely to be more people imprisoned there. I'm particularly concerned because I was held in Bagram myself for almost a year, and I saw some people killed there.

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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.

 

****

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