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How Iran went nuclear

David Patrikarakos tells the remarkable story of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, which beg

In the beginning there was the atom bomb and the world-changing destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the atom was also a renewable energy source that could lift countries into modernity. It had to be harnessed, not simply abandoned. In the gloom of the postwar period, the world looked to Washington for guidance on how to recalibrate the global order. This duly came with President Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace programme – the first non-proliferation initiative. Atoms for Peace gave countries the equipment to start their own peaceful programmes regulated by an international agency devoted to the job (it became the IAEA). Washington became the source of all nuclear materials, and it found a willing recipient in Iran.

Akbar Etemad is a nuclear physicist in his seventies, long-faced, short-tempered, and of immeasurable importance to Iran’s nuclear history. In 1965 he returned home from studying in Paris with many qualifications but no job. According to the press, a five-megawatt research reactor – a gift from Atoms for Peace – sat in Tehran University,and sat. A lack of expertise had forced work to stop and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was angry. Etemad came to the shah’s attention and completed the reactor in 1967. “It was no big deal,” he told me one morning over coffee in London. “The nuclear programme at this stage was almost non-existent.”

After Etemad completed the reactor, he left to work in higher education for a few years. But it was not his last contact with nuclear power. Following the 1973 oil boom the shah called him back: full steam ahead was the order. Etemad told him that the programme needed something hitherto missing: a plan. With a limitless budget and the royal blessing, he created the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) in 1974. He was also made deputy prime minister. From that point until the revolution of 1979 the two met at least once a week. “No matter what he was doing, he still found time to discuss the programme,” Ete­mad says. “It was so close to his heart.”

Why? Officially, oil. During the 1970s Iran was the third-largest oil producer in the world. It was a valued but finite commodity on which to base a nation’s wealth. The shah was clear on this dilemma: petroleum and gas were simply too valuable to burn for fuel. This is important. First articulated more than 40 years ago, it remains the official line on atomic power under the Islamic Republic today. It has economic cogency – domestic use of fossil fuels drastically affects foreign exchange earnings, as every barrel burned is a barrel not sold. From the beginning, nuclear energy was seen as the replacement. “It is a shame to burn the noble product [oil] to run factories and light houses,” wrote the shah in 1961. “We plan to get, as soon as possible, 23,000MW [megawatts] from nuclear power stations.”

There was also an unspoken reason. Glory. Like all dead kings, even successful ones, the shah is condemned to dramatic irony. Ever since Nader Shah returned to Tehran with a stolen Mughal throne in 1739, the Peacock Throne has symbolised the royal house of Persia. For Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, royal glory was foreign policy, and he was determined to make the metaphor a reality: the great tail feathers would unfurl in all their Pahlavi splendour and the world, or, at any rate, the region, would marvel at the display.

The shah had named his country “the Empire of Iran” and “modernisation” was the path to its imperial reinvigoration. To Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, modernisation signified westernisation – and the two were insuperable, as well as inseparable. The means was technology, and especially nuclear technology, the vanguard of modernity. He saw a world where Britain and the US had assumed leadership in nuclear power. Technology brought prestige; it was a laurel for the royal breast, but one that could only be pinned there by a western hand.

Etemad remembers all this. At a general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the late 1970s he was called on to vote and called his king for instructions: “His Majesty said, ‘You should vote as the developed countries do,’” Etemad says. “We had to act like a western country. This was the point of the programme – to bolster us rapidly into a developed country, to get into the western world.”

And he wanted to do it fast. Despite Etemad’s best efforts to build up an Iranian scientific base, the shah wanted to increase western links. In March 1974 France ratified an agreement for five reactors, with a further two to be built under licence from the US firm Westinghouse. That year Etemad also signed a contract for two water reactors from the West German firm KWU for a proposed plant at Bushehr, to supply electricity to the south-western city of Shiraz. In 1975, Iran also acquired a 10 per cent stake in Eurodif, a uranium-enrichment venture involving France, Belgium and Spain. As his father, Reza Pahlavi, had done with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the shah bound Iran to the west with commercial ties. This time the prize was not oil, but nuclear energy. Such is the nature of progress.

Ardeshir Zahedi, holding a pen in one hand and a tightly bound five-page document in the other, sat behind a desk at the Foreign Office in London between three civil servants who stood looking at him expectantly. It was 1 July 1968, Zahedi was foreign minister of Iran, and he had just signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). “It was a historic moment,” he says from his home in Montreux. “I telephoned His Majesty in Tehran and told him it was done. He was very pleased. We had signed it the day it opened for signature. He was determined to show that we were an honourable country.” As far back as 1968, the seeds of today’s impasse between Iran and the US and other western nations were sown. It’s there in all the details.

“We should never have signed it,” complains Etemad. “It was not a fair treaty. I never would have allowed it. Only small countries joined – Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, the Fiji Islands. The countries that actually had a chance of getting nuclear power – India, Pakistan, Israel – they stayed out. Only we signed.”

One evening in late 1976, Akbar Etemad was having an argument with the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had come to Tehran to promote a plan for US regional nuclear fuel centres in the Middle East, intended to reduce the need for other nations to develop their own sources. Etemad repeated the reasons for his refusal: national sovereignty, the right to pursue indigenous enrichment under the NPT, arguments that would reappear 30 years later. It didn’t seem to be working.

He tried a different tack. “I said, ‘Mr Kissinger, I’m going to talk to you now as a Harvard professor. Regardless of anything else, can you imagine Iran sitting around a table with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and agreeing on anything – let alone nuclear fuel?’ Kissinger leaned back in his chair; he thought, and he said: ‘You’re quite right, it is impossible.’”

Matters only got worse with the arrival of Jimmy Carter and the tightening of US exports of nuclear materials. “This man, Carter!” became shorthand for the new president. “The shah never really liked Democrats,” says Etemad. “He much preferred Nixon.”

And nuclear weapons? In public, the shah rejected them. “The idea that I want nuclear weapons is ridiculous; only a few silly fools believe it,” he said in 1976. As an NPT signatory, he could not say anything else. More pertinently, infrastructure was so basic that any bomb would have taken years. Until then, why rock the boat?

But self-interest played a part, too. In the years after 1973, as money, hubris and repression increased in equal measure, so did the shah’s need for a powerful military. By the end of the 1970s, Iran was what he wanted it to be: a Gulf superpower. “He always said we didn’t need nuclear weapons because of our military strength. Nuclear weapons might actually force others to go nuclear and wipe out our conventional arms advantage,” says Etemad. “But he also said if things ever changed – if our security was threatened – he would give the order. I’ve no doubt that were he here today he would say, ‘Go’; and I would.”

The Iranian psyche is cleaved, bloated with a sense of the country’s historical importance but scarred by the humiliations of the not-so-distant past. The division of Iran into spheres of influence by the British and the Russians during the Great Game, the overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadeq in a British and American coup in 1953, the constant meddling of foreign powers – all burned into the popular imagination. The shah believed he was a “western” ruler, but his story is that of modern Iran itself: the desire to escape from the “colonial” father and strike out in the world. His means was to imitate his western role models. The nuclear programme rested on this vision, an empyrean charge into modernity.

But a vision is just that. It will always contract in the face of reality. In the end, royal profligacy and repression – reality – were too much; and the people, radicalised by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, revolted. In the end, as the regime crumbled, it retreated on many of its policies, including the nuclear programme – now nothing more than the vulgar toy of a hated ruler.

In 1979 the revolution changed everything. Iran was tranformed from an autocratic and pro-western monarchy into an isolationist and populist Islamic republic under the clerical rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini brought a new day with a new system of government, and a deep mistrust of the international community. The new path lay not just in 7th-century Islamic history, but 19th- and 20th-century Iranian history. During the revolution crowds marched through the streets holding banners adorned with pictures of Mossadeq and denounced the shah as Washington’s puppet. Iran would no longer be “enslaved” by “imperial” powers, dependent neither on “the godless east nor the tyrannic [sic] blasphemous west”. And it would be self-sufficient.

With the nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic had inherited a symptom of Pahlavi excess. The new government, led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and desperate to distance itself from the shah’s unpopular measures, installed the excitable Fereydun Sahabi as head of the AEOI in April 1979. He immediately announced that the programme was seriously over budget. The Bushehr reactors in particular had almost doubled in cost to $7bn. They had also created “a consumer market for the industrial products of other countries”. Sahabi declared that a “vicious” reliance on foreign manpower would end.

In future, the programme would “enhance the country’s knowledge of nuclear energy with a view to achieving self-sufficiency”. But this was not enough. On 17 June 1980, officials confirmed the suspension of Bushehr, announcing on Iranian radio that “the construction of these reactors, started by the former regime on the basis of colonialist and imposed treaties . . . was a cause of greater dependence on imperialist countries”.

No longer a banner of Iranian internationalism, the nuclear programme was now viewed as the continuation of colonialism by other means. The atom was not merely too expensive, it was ideologically unclean. In late 1979 the government announced the unilateral abrogation of contracts with KWU and the French company Framatome. Naturally, this did little to improve the country’s foreign relations. Both sued.

Nuclear power is always a statement of identity. In rejecting the programme, the revolutionary government rejected what it symbolised politically: Pahlavi ambition. It rejected a particular form of statehood. The shah had been a western poodle. Now defiant and self-sufficient, the Islamic Republic had found a new means by which to make its way in the world.

But God, alas, does not supply electricity or pay wages, at least not directly. Power shortages and an idling AEOI made energy once again a high priority for the government. In early 1980 Sahabi was dismissed and Reza Amrollahi – a somewhat more reasonable man – replaced him. The decision was taken to start the programme again and, in early 1982, legal disputes with KWU reached a preliminary agreement at arbitration. Agreement with Framatome followed. Tehran was willing to reconcile and beginning to understand that theology wasn’t enough.

In June 1982, KWU agreed to complete at least one of the two reactors at Bushehr and the engineers returned to the site that year. Officially ideology still ruled, however, and the government justified this U-turn with the need for “native expertise”. Through rhetorical sleight, indigenous capability and self-reliance now justified not the abandonment of the programme, but its restart.

The moves came to nothing. KWU was reluctant to work on Bushehr while the Iran-Iraq War – which had begun in September 1980 – was still raging. In May 1984 it said that it would complete the project only when the war ended. The Iraqis had struck the Bushehr reactor, and were to do so a further seven times before the 1988 ceasefire. KWU declined repeated requests to resume construction of the plant, which lay dormant until the Russians signed an agreement in 1995 for its completion. Western co-operation had ended.

The Islamic Republic, however, had bigger problems. It had raised its flag with the disgraceful kidnapping of diplomats at the US embassy in Tehran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis – an act that alienated the onlooking world, including a United States desperate to keep the friendship of its Persian ally. Outraged, President Carter had imposed an array of economic and military sanctions on Iran as well as tacitly supporting Iraq in the war. After the decision to restart the nuclear programme, agreement had been sought not only with contractors but also the IAEA, which agreed to help with a proposed reactor at Isfahan’s nuclear technology centre. But US pressure forced it to back out. In response, Iran turned to the developing world for assistance – Pakistan, China and South America were the destinations. Iran was now doubly damned, first by its own revolutionary self and then by association.

The Islamic Republic was now poorer and weaker and, crucially, alone; it had more humiliation, more rage, and more God. Both the invasion by Iraq and the Iraqis’ subsequent use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers had been met with exuberant inactivity by the UN and the international community in general. In turn, all institutions were now seen as tools of the west. Khomeini had been right.

Cherchez l’Amérique – if there is one lesson from postwar international politics, it is this. Washington had been of central importance to the shah’s programme. It was to be so again, but for different reasons. Necessity had restarted nuclear power under the Islamic Republic. Pride was now to resurface. But it was an altered pride. However much the world “persecuted” Iran, it would not win. “Despite the problems resulting from America’s unfair victimisation of the Islamic Republic and the world’s blindness in the face of repeated violations by the Ba’athist regime,” said a sombre Amrollahi in 1987, “there have been remarkable improvements in the scientific and industrial fields in our country.”

The nuclear programme had become symbolic once more – this time not because it was something a developed, western country had because it was developed and western, but something a developing country had because it was palpably non-western and defiant. Like the soldiers on the Iraqi battlefields, the Iranian nuclear programme embodied a nation’s refusal to be cowed.

Officially, the Islamic Republic rejected nuclear weapons. It went further – it urged disarmament. For Iran’s representative to the UN in October 1986, nuclear weapons created a world where “each day the big powers become increasingly dominant at the expense of the oppressed nations”. They were synonymous with colonisation, the pri­meval impulse of strong against weak.

Iran, however, was also at odds with the world’s superpower and at war with Iraq, which, under Saddam Hussein, had been building its own nuclear capability until the 1981 Israeli attack on its nuclear reactor at Osirak. It had good reason to develop weapons and it is inconceivable that the mullahs did not consider the option.

But the programme was a shambles, the Bushehr reactors stood uncompleted, and the war was draining the country’s resources. There was simply no chance of getting them.

The truth was, as far as the world was concerned, it didn’t matter. In the mid-1980s the US urged a worldwide ban on the sale of nuclear materials to the Islamic Republic. In a declassified report of April 1984, the state department outlined its refusal to “consent to the transfer of US-origin nuclear equipment, material or technology to Iran”. But, in the very same document, it conceded that “the reactors at Bushehr . . . are not particularly well-suited for a weapons programme . . . we [also] have no evidence of Iranian construction of other facilities that would be necessary to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel”. The state department admitted that it was denying technology to a state that could not pose a genuine threat.

The US, scarred by the hostage crisis and later the Iran-Contra affair, now could not view Iran rationally. In 1984, a US senator from Ohio, John Glenn, called for a ban on the export of all nuclear materials to certain countries. With no evidence of wrongdoing, he merely invited all to “imagine a world in which the Ayatollah Khomeini can have nuclear weapons and we face . . . state-supported nuclear terrorism”.

To the Iranian people, fed by government propaganda, the US is denying them their “rights” in the best tradition of imperialism. They have come to see their programme as a totem of their country’s independence. In the words of the former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, the people are united in “wanting nuclear technology because the US says we can’t have it”. The Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric, by stirring the nationalist impulse, served only to push a young and vibrant population yearning for social freedom into the arms of a moribund regime fearful of its own country’s demographics. The Iranian people have become reluctant spear-carriers for a regime they dislike, based on theological ideals they distrust, herding them into a future they dread.

The Islamic Republic is a dismal and brutal regime, but it is not stupid. That much is clear from the past seven years. Compared to the meanderings of the western coalition, its diplomacy has been balletic. It has exploited differences between a hawkish Washington and a more conciliatory EU, played on its relationship with the Chinese and the Russians, and always expressed a willingness to negotiate – even if only as a stalling tactic. And all the while it has continued enriching. On 11 April 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced completion of the nuclear fuel cycle on a laboratory scale by successfully enriching uranium to a level suitable for civilian purposes (3.5 per cent). A year later Iran had enriched uranium on an industrial scale. It has mastered the fuel cycle.

As Iran continues onwards, tensions have increased, seemingly in line with Ahmadinejad’s unpredictability. The president has been a gift to those in Washington who urge military strikes. From the mercantile pragmatism of the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the eloquence of Mohammad Khatami, the variegated friezes of Iranian diplomacy have taken firm shape in the blacksmith’s son from Aradan. He is the hawk’s dream, with his lick of black hair, his beard and bewildering rhetoric.

Tehran has been dishonest about its programme. It has repeatedly hidden the scope and nature of its activities, and although it has not violated the NPT according to the letter of the law, its co-operation has been reactive not proactive, and consistently in bad faith. Yet it is its rhetoric more than anything else that has been used to support the notion that the Islamic Republic is a “rogue” nation. It continues to be seen as merely the sum of its words – and no state is more open to damaging quotation.

The north Tehran skyline is jagged with the steel cages of half-finished buildings. Frozen cranes dot the horizon, a dumbshow of overreaching. As with everything in modern Iran there are huge anomalies with the nuclear programme – the Bushehr reactor, when it comes online, after 30 years and billions of dollars, will supply only about 10 per cent of Iran’s electricity needs. In many ways, it is almost a parody of an efficient, financially viable programme. This strengthens the belief among many that it is a cover for weapons, but the truth is more complex – and more prosaic.

In 1989, reflecting on the Iran-Iraq War, Rafsanjani declared that “the world does not respect its own resolutions and closes its eyes to the violations and all the aggressions committed in the battlefield”. The lesson was stark: Iran could trust only Iran. “We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons,” he continued. The war is over. But as with Mossadeq, as with the Great Game, it is clear that Iran has internalised these feelings of abandonment and mistrust. Never again will foreigners dictate to Iran; never again will it accept restrictions on its behaviour – certainly not on its “legitimate right” to enrich uranium; never again will it be weak.

Iran faces practical dangers, too. The US has maintained a large military presence in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1991. Saudi Arabia and the UAE house numerous US bases, all within easy striking distance of Tehran. In 2001, for Operation Enduring Freedom, thousands of US troops gathered in Afghanistan on the country’s eastern border. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 removed a danger but led to yet more US troops massing, this time to the west. Now add the presence of US soldiers in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan: encirclement. There is a joke that has done the rounds in Tehran for some time. It goes like this: “There are just two countries in the world that have only the US as their neighbour: the other one is Canada.”

Surrounded by a self-declared enemy that has labelled it “evil” and supports “regime change”, what is Iran to do? It can never hope to compete with the US in conventional warfare – nuclear weapons might be the only credible alternative. In 2001, Iran, through back channels, helped the US in its war in Afghanistan, providing intelligence and offering to search for US pilots shot down over its airspace. The reward was a place in the “Axis of Evil”. Meanwhile, Pakistan harboured the Taliban for years only to be saluted by Colin Powell as an ally in the global War on Terror. Many in Tehran have concluded that the White House treats nuclear states differently.

But whether this will translate into a bomb is still uncertain. In December 2007, the US National Security Council produced its annual intelligence estimate, in which it judged with “high confidence” that Iran had halted any possible weapons programme in 2003. Even the paranoid US security Establishment believed that the nuclear programme was a puny target for the US. This dampened Washington’s appetite for military strikes, but not Tel Aviv’s. “Israel views Iran as an existential threat,” a senior Israeli diplomat told me recently. “We are certain Tehran wants the bomb – this cannot happen.”

But might any military action not be a cause for war? “Israel is already fighting a war with Iran through Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. We seek a diplomatic solution; we are not trigger-happy. But, I repeat, Iran cannot get the bomb.”

Iran now has a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. To enrich this to weapons-grade capability it has to run it through its existing centrifuges until the appropriate levels (about 93 per cent) are reached, though this is not easy. In 1989, Rafsanjani might have wished for a nuclear deterrent, but it was impossible. Iran does not yet have the bomb. The country does not want the international isolation that would follow its attainment, but it could be pushed: military attack would accelerate a weapons drive from Tehran.

The Bush administration believed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions were a barrier to dialogue. They shouldn’t have been. The nuclear stand-0ff is not the cause, but the effect of a wider problem, and it is a political one. Barack Obama has made détente with the Islamic Republic his most audacious hope yet. However, to deal with Iran, we must first understand it. The nuclear programme offers us this chance.

The nuclear programme is many things to Iran but most of all it is the expression of a nation seeking a place in the modern world. It is an irony, and a peculiarly Iranian one, that it pursues the one thing that may bring its total isolation from what it wants above all else: acceptance – but on its own terms.

For 30 years Iran and the US have danced together out of step, always joined, never in time. America’s hand was rebuffed by Iran in 1979. In turn, America rejected Iran’s overtures in the 1980s and 1990s. The disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad has disappointed the hopes of many for change, yet things may not be so clear-cut. Earlier in the year Ahmadinejad appeared eager to take credit for the diplomatic opening with Washington, to appear more flexible. The IAEA’s February report judged that Iran’s rate of uranium enrichment had slowed, a possible sign that Tehran was open to negotiation. And there is the chance, however remote, that a second-term president might have learned something from the mistakes of his first.

So far, Washington, in the aftermath of the election, has expressed only tentative unease about the events unfolding in Iran. What is clear is that the White House has abandoned the aggressive rhetoric of the recent past. It is waiting to see what happens in that most unreliable of arenas: Tehran’s streets. Only the US can solve the Iran problem; it alone has the requisite economic and political capital. The next move from either side will be critical.

The wit and wisdom of President Ahmadinejad

On economic policy
There is an honourable butcher in our neighbourhood who knows all the economic problems of the people. I get my economic information from him.

On the Holocaust
They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets.

On the 9/11 attacks
Could it be planned and executed without co-ordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration? Of course, this is just an educated guess.

On nuclear negotiations
Do you think you are dealing with a four-year-old child to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold from him?

On homosexuality
In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you we have it.

On Israel and Zionism
The Imam [Khomeini] said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.

On the Hollywood blockbuster 300
Today they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran’s image look savage.

On his rivals’ campaign tactics
Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler’s methods.

On humour
Let me tell a joke here. I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, or testing them, making them, politically they are backward, retarded.

On Barack Obama’s election victory
I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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.

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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.”

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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