Show Hide image

Is France on the verge of another May '68?

Demonstrations and strikes, uproar in the universities and the emergence of a new anti-capitalist pa

I have been living full-time in Paris for the past four years and reporting from the city for nearly 20. I have, therefore, become accustomed to frequent street protests. But I have never seen anything quite like the anger that has been building up during demonstrations over the past few months against the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. The most recent of these was a protest I attended in Montparnasse on 14 May, which was led by hospital staff angry at proposed health service reforms.

The reforms are based on the so-called “Loi Bachelot” (Bachelot law), named after Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, the politician in Sarkozy’s government who devised the health reforms and is trying to push them through the National Assembly. It rests on the principle that managers will decide the level of medical care appropriate to a particular hospital. This proposal, long familiar as a fact of life to readers in the UK, has provoked a furious reaction from all sections of French society.

Yet, on the surface, all seems well when I arrive at the demonstration: as I park my bike, a line of black and Arab nurses dances a salsa past the Métro Duroc. They are accompanied by rappers, trade unionists, an anarchist jazz band and stern, bossy matrons and white-coated psychiatrists from La Pitié – the hospital where the young Sigmund Freud attended Charcot’s lectures in psychiatry. It is a surreal snapshot of 21st-century life on the Left Bank, and all suitably festive on a warm spring morning.

But you don’t have to scratch too hard to find real rage lurking beneath the surface – a rage that motivates most of these demonstrators. “We are sick of being told we have no control over our own lives,” Rachida Ahloulay, one of the dancing nurses, tells me. “It’s not just that the government is giving managers the power over medical staff,” she says, “but it means that we are degraded as citizens. And that is why France is on the edge of a serious rebellion. Anger is everywhere!”

This kind of rhetoric is being echoed all over France: in the universities, which are now permanently blockaded by staff and students; in the railway unions; among postal workers; and even in the prison service (warders recently began a series of strikes, which had never happened in France before). Little wonder that the mainstream journal Le Nouvel Observateur recently devoted an entire issue to what it called “The French Insurrection”, or that there is now serious talk in most sections of the media of a “New May ’68” – a reprise of the strikes and riots that brought France to its knees and almost felled the government of Charles de Gaulle more than 40 years ago.

The unlikely figurehead of this new popular revolt is Olivier Besancenot, a 35-year-old postman from the outskirts of Paris. Besancenot’s boyish good looks, fashionable clothes and fluently easy manner on television have made him the nation’s favourite revolutionary. Until February of this year, he was a leading figure in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (the LCR, or Revolutionary Communist League). In what is now looking like a very smart piece of PR, the LCR was then dissolved, re-emerging as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, or New Anti-Capitalist Party), a much broader coalition, formed with the aim of contesting the European parliamentary elections in early June.

Besancenot, who is now official spokesman for the NPA (there is no leader), commands a 60 per cent approval rating from French voters right across the political spectrum.

During the demonstration against the Loi Bachelot, I caught up with Omar Slaouti, a 42-year-old university professor of chemistry and long-standing colleague of Besancenot’s who is also the NPA’s candidate for the European elections for the Île de France region. Slaouti is slightly built, but has the streetwise slouch of the tough kid who grew up in the French suburbs. He also talks with a non-Parisian accent, which marks out his origins in the banlieue. I am told he is a big hit with the NPA girls.

I ask Slaouti whether a new May ’68 is really on the cards, or is it just hype? “In France now,” he says, “everything is worse than May ’68 in lots of ways – more unemployment, racial violence, real poverty, and so on. The French middle classes are poor, too – maybe the poorest in Europe. And that’s when things might change.”

This is the line that the NPA has been peddling ceaselessly, especially on television. It accounts for the party’s popularity with voters who would never normally associate with the extreme left. I spoke about this with Dr Bernard Granger, a professor of psychiatric medicine who is also the president of SCCAHP, the union of clinical heads and hospital assistants. This is a large, but historically moderate, grouping that has now sworn to bring the government down if the Loi Bachelot is passed.

“France is at a real crisis point,” Granger told me. “And the real issue is about control – who controls the daily lives of ordinary people. There is no issue more fundamental than health. Everybody knows if this law is passed, ordinary people will die.” This is the kind of grass-roots appeal that has kept the NPA’s bandwagon rolling across France.

It is likely that the NPA’s impact on the European elections will be statistically insignificant – the party is unlikely to garner more than 4.5 per cent of the vote; but as a cultural phenomenon its impact has been enormous. The NPA describes itself as being “from the street”: its celebrity supporters include the rapper JoeyStarr and the footballer Franck Ribéry (as well as the decidedly un-street Ken Loach). That accounts for why the NPA is the favoured political choice of more than 40 per cent of young people in France, the vast majority of them having shown no previous interest in Trotsky, but who now proudly declare their membership of Génération Olivier.

This has created problems for the parties of the left. The Parti Socialiste (PS), the biggest party on the left, is losing young voters to the NPA in large numbers, and fast. The next most important grouping on the left from an electoral point of view, the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), has tried to make headway in a coalition with the Greens called the Front de Gauche. Most young people are cynical about and bored by both parties.

“Who cares?” said Jocelyne, a Senegalese girl from the suburb of Montreuil. “It’s the same old faces – Ségolène [Royal] and her pals. They don’t care about us. They don’t know us.”

A few hours after the demonstration in Montparnasse, I watched a group of youngsters, most of them claiming allegiance to the NPA, barge their way into the entrance to the faculty building of Sciences Po on the rue de Saint-Simon, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Sciences Po is a grande école, a well-funded elite institution that has mainly stood apart from the strike action which has paralysed the rest of the higher education sector. “You rich bastards!” shout the students, under the banner of a red flag with the logo of the NPA. “Why don’t you fucking come out and join the revolution?”

The Sciences Po students, most of them in neat, preppy clothes, giggle nervously, and soon retreat behind a line of heavily armed police. Yet even here, in what has historically been a rather conservative institution, a faction of the NPA is exerting a growing influence, spreading pro­paganda, daubing the walls with situationist slogans and regularly disrupting classes.

I asked one of the militants at Sciences Po, “Frédéric” (he didn’t want to give me his real name), why he supports the NPA. “The NPA understand this generation better than anyone else,” he said. “They know that our degrees are worthless, that we have all been ripped off by capitalism, that we will never have proper jobs, that there is no future. They promise a different way, a real alternative.” What did that mean? “The NPA is a cultural revolution,” he said. “They are not afraid to challenge the basic principles of our society. That’s why they are exciting – they promise something real that we can make happen.”

Omar Slaouti echoed this. “What I find positive is that all of the energies, all of the anger in French society, are now flowing in the right direction, towards real change.” He said this to me as we walked down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, in the slipstream of the Bachelot demonstration. But was Slaouti seriously talking about revolution? “But of course. We are not scared of the word ‘revolution’ – that’s why young people love us. We are not afraid to say it. It’s the same in Greece, in Guadeloupe – everyone of the young generation can see that capitalism has failed and they are young enough to believe in an alternative.”

One thing is clear: the NPA may not change the world, but it is already changing French society. Government insiders now say that Nicolas Sarkozy has for the first time started to take an interest in history and, in particular, the history of the French Revolution. Given the incendiary climate on the streets of France, he might also do well to keep a weather eye on his own political future.

Andrew Hussey is the author of “Paris: the Secret History”, published by Penguin (£9.99)

Europe: the left of the left

Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste
(New Anti-Capitalist Party)
Country: France
Leader: Olivier Besancenot (official spokesman, pictured below)
In February 2009, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was formally disbanded and reborn as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, with the intention of fighting the European elections in June. Aiming to unite the disparate movements of the far left, the NPA already boasts more than 9,000 registered members, compared to the 3,200 of the LCR when it was dissolved. Its official spokesman, Olivier Besancenot – the party has no leader – scored an impressive 4 per cent of votes in his two presidential campaigns, and commands an approval rating of 60 per cent among French people of all political persuasions.

Die Linke (The Left)
Country: Germany
Leaders: Oskar Lafontaine and Lothar Bisky
Formed in 2007 after a merger between the Party of Democratic Socialism and the Labour and Social Justice Electoral Alternative, Die Linke is now the fourth-largest party in the Bundestag, with 53 seats. The party has more than 76,000 members, but its popularity has dipped recently, with opinion polls ahead of September’s federal elections putting support for it at roughly 10 per cent.

Socialist Party of the Netherlands
Leader: Agnes Kant
The SP arrived as a major political force when it won 25 seats in the 2006 general election – an increase of 16. It made further strides in the 2007 local elections, securing 54 provincial seats. With more than 50,000 members, the SP is now the third-largest party in the Netherlands.

SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left)
Country: Greece
Leader: Alekos Alavanos
Formed ahead of the 2004 general elections, SYRIZA caused a shock when it increased its vote by 120,000 in 2007. Its popularity peaked in 2008, when opinion polls put support at almost 20 per cent, taking it past Pasok, Greece’s established left-of-centre party. However, its stock has plummeted since then – recent polls indicate support may be as low as 5 per cent – allowing Pasok to reclaim ground.

Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc)
Country: Portugal
Leader: Francisco Louçã
Founded in 1999, the bloc is a coalition of left-wing parties and smaller organisations. Its share of the vote rose from 3 per cent in the 2002 general elections to 6.5 per cent in 2005, and with eight MPs it is the fifth-largest party in Portugal. The bloc is a founder member of the European Anti-Capitalist Left.

AKEL (Progressive Party of the Working People)
Country: Cyprus
Leader: Andros Kyprianou
Descended from the Communist Party of Cyprus, AKEL successfully modernised its policy and became the largest party on the island when it won 20 of 56 seats, and 35 per cent of the vote, in the 2001 general election. In the 2006 elections it won 18 seats. Its former general secretary Demetris Christofias is the current president of the republic.

Izquierda Anticapitalista
(Anti-Capitalist Left)
Country: Spain
Leader: Raúl Camargo (spokesman)
With the Spanish far left riven by infighting, the newly formed Izquierda Anticapitalista is following the example of its sister organisation the French NPA in contesting the European elections.

Red-Green Coalition
Country: Norway
Consisting of the Labour Party, Socialist Left Party and Centre Party, the “red-green” coalition was formed in opposition to the centre-right government and came to power four years ago. It has been called
the most left-wing government in Europe, having developed Norway’s welfare state and prevented the privatisation of state-owned companies.

Research by Neil Clark and Dominic Sullivan

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

Andre Carrilho
Show Hide image

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