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We are killing in the light of God

More than five million people have died in the war that has been raging in eastern Congo. And now, y

Late summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and soldiers wearing rain ponchos stand guard outside a base littered with the stumps of freshly cut trees. Under a plastic canopy sits the head of military operations, a short, thick-sideburned man wearing Sunday clothes: blue football shirt, three-quarter-length jeans and pristine white trainers. For more than a decade eastern Congo has been torn apart by conflict involving rebel groups, foreign armies and government troops, battling each other for control of territory and lucrative minerals.

But Major Abdoul and his men are here further because of a different war, one in which God is the inspiration and human beings are the bounty. For more than a year, the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from neighbouring Uganda has exported its unique brand of terror into the remote and vast district called Haut Uélé, killing or abducting thousands of Congolese villagers and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes.
I have come to find out why.

“Let me give you chapter one," Major Abdoul says.

The first time LRA fighters came to Congo was in late 2005, he explains. Their "chief" had been attacked at home in Uganda and in South Sudan and he wanted refuge. Major Abdoul was part of a Congolese government delegation that went to meet the chief's people in a place called Aba, close to the border with Sudan. They told the rebels they could stay in Congo if they agreed to disarm.

“They went back to their chief in the bush and he refused our request. A week later we discovered some of them had moved into one of our national parks, called Garamba."

Major Abdoul pauses to consider the walkie-talkie that crackles in his left hand.

There was more to tell, he says, a lot more. Chapters two, three, four and a conclusion.

But that would have to wait. "In Congo we respect Sunday," he says. "An off day."

In fact, the story has a prologue as well. In 1987 a former altar boy in his twenties named Joseph Kony - the man who would become the chief - left his village in northern Uganda with 11 other men to start a rebellion. The aim was to overthrow Yoweri Museveni, whose bush army had seized power the previous year from Tito Okello, from the same Acholi ethnic group as Kony. The rebels had few guns but then Kony's most potent weapon did not need bullets. The Holy Spirit, he believed, was guiding him. Fight beside me and pray hard, pray very hard, and no harm will come to you, he told his followers.

The Lord's Resistance Army, as they became known, proved adept in guerrilla warfare and soon grew in strength. Some of the fighters were believers both in Kony's spiritual powers and in the need to defend the Acholi people from further revenge attacks by Museveni's troops, who had chased thousands of former government soldiers back to the north. But kidnapping was the main form of recruitment, with boys and girls often the targets. One of the early victims was Lily Atong. The year was 1993 and she was ten years old. The rebels came to her hut one night and dragged her off into the darkness. She would come to know the chief.

Museveni tried to crush the rebels militarily but they knew the bush too well. Kony, who told his followers that he would one day rule the country according to the Ten Commandments, ordered retribution after each government offensive. The people of northern Uganda - the Acholis, his people - government sympathisers and ordinary villagers both, would suffer. Thousands of civilians were killed, some by young boys kidnapped from their classrooms only months before. Other victims carried a message on their faces. A padlock forced through a mouth. Lips sliced off. Ears and noses, too.

While Museveni was being hailed for bringing stability and economic growth to Uganda, the war in the north dragged on, largely un­noticed by the outside world. He tried to deny Kony food and cover, herding 1.8 million people in northern Uganda into camps for their own "protection". But the LRA was able to exist comfortably across the border in Sudan with the help of the government in Khartoum, which wanted to punish Museveni for supporting rebels fighting a civil war in South Sudan.

By 2004, the conflict was attracting more international attention, mainly because of the so-called Night Commuters. Each evening, as many as 40,000 children, women and elderly people would leave their villages to walk to the towns, where they slept in churches or schools or on the pavement. In the morning, they would return to their houses.

“How can we sleep at home?" Florence Adwar, a 48-year-old Night Commuter asked me in October 2004. "If we do, the rebels will attack us and take our children."

By then, 20,000 children had been kidnapped. Though many had returned home or been killed, several thousand remained in the bush as LRA fighters or commanders' wives. The war was about to enter a new phase.

Chapter two

Garamba National Park is a vast complex of grassland and thick bush in the remote northeastern reaches of Congo bordering Sudan. It attracts few visitors and offers ideal cover for a rebel army, something that did not go unnoticed by Kony's foes. Within a few months of the meeting between Major Abdoul's delegation and LRA representatives, the United Nations sanctioned a covert mission to kill Kony before he became too settled. A team of Guatemalan Special Forces operatives, trained in jungle warfare, entered Garamba in January 2006. Ten days later, at dawn, they came up against a band of hardened LRA fighters. Eight Guatemalans were killed, five injured. The mission was a disaster.

After this the rebels, feeling more secure, cleared patches of bush to build camps and plant crops. They used their AK-47s to hunt antelopes. "Back then they did not harass local people, only taking seeds from time to time," says Father Benoît Kinalegu, who runs the Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu, where Major Abdoul has his base, about 50 miles south-west of Garamba.

Indeed, it seemed that Kony might finally be prepared to end the war. In May 2006, he met a team of peace negotiators who had brought along with them a few journalists. Until then one of the few images that existed of Kony showed a wild-looking man in a T-shirt, with long dreadlocks. Now he had short hair and a military uniform. A BBC news clip of the interview shows him in good humour. He talked about being guided by spirits, about how he was a "man of peace". "I am a human being like you. I have eyes, a brain, and wear clothes, but they are saying we don't talk with people, we eat people, we are killers. That is not true. Why do you meet me if I am a killer?"

As peace efforts progressed, some of the dozens of wives that Kony had chosen from the ranks of kidnapped girls, and who had subsequently been freed, were convinced to join a delegation to help persuade him to end the war. One of them was Lily Atong, the girl who had been kidnapped in 1993. She had spent 12 years in the bush with the LRA, eight as Kony's wife. Before being captured by Ugandan troops in Sudan in 2005, she had borne him three children. The youngest child, whom Kony named George Bush, was still breastfeeding; Lily took him along on the peace journey to Congo.

They met Kony, but when the time came for them to depart with the rest of the delegation he refused to let them leave. Lily had been kidnapped for a second time, this time by the chief himself.

Kony's erratic behaviour was not the only obstacle to a peace settlement. Representing the LRA at the formal peace negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, was a team of Ugandans from the diaspora who were prone to infighting and making grandiose statements. None had been in the bush as a fighter; the team's one common interest with the rebels was a wish to see Museveni leave power. Then there was the issue of the war crimes charges raised by the International Criminal Court against Kony and four of his most senior commanders, including Dominic Ongwen, who had been kidnapped as a boy. Though many people in northern Uganda would have been happy to see the ICC charges dropped if it helped end the war, the arrest warrants remained in place during negotiations. Kony used them as an excuse to postpone signing a final deal. For three years, the rebels had mounted only sporadic attacks, but by the second half of 2008 it was clear that the peace process was over.

Chapter three

To reach Dungu, the main town in Congo's Haut Uélé district and the location of Major Abdoul's base, I hitched a ride with UN peacekeepers on a helicopter flying from Bunia, 200 miles south-east, close to the Ugandan border. Surrounded by thick bush, split by two large rivers and dotted with once-elegant colonial-era buildings, Dungu would have had a certain charm in happier times, perhaps even just a year earlier. But now thousands of internally displaced people had set up makeshift homes there. Congolese soldiers guarded the bridges to prevent further incursions by the LRA, which had already kidnapped dozens of civilians from the town.

One afternoon I took a motorbike to a village called Bamukandi, about four miles from the centre of town. A tall white missionary who was raking leaves next to a Catholic church bellowed, "Ferruccio!" when I introduced myself. Ferruccio Gobbi is a small, compact man with thinning silver hair who first came to Uganda from Italy in 1970, aged 28. Seated in a reception room, beneath a picture of Pope Benedict XVI, he told me his story.

On 17 September 2008, LRA units attacked several Congolese towns and villages, including Duru, where Father Ferruccio and one other Comboni missionary were based. The rebels began their raid at the primary school early in the afternoon, locking the doors and tying up the pupils. At the parish where the missionaries lived, a female LRA fighter ransacked Father Ferruccio's room, stealing clothes and burning personal items, including his passport. His arms were bound so tightly behind his back he feared they would break. The looting continued for hours. Houses were burned, market stalls razed. One of the fighters made a satellite phone call within earshot of Father Ferruccio's colleague, a Sudanese who understood Acholi. The rebel was taking instructions from Kony.

At 6pm that day, the two missionaries were forced into a line with dozens of villagers and marched past the hospital and the airstrip. As they were about to enter the bush, the rebel commander ordered that the missionaries be released. Father Ferruccio was trembling. The rebels had searched his trouser pockets but not his shirt pocket, where he had a list of nearly 50 LRA fighters whom he had helped to defect and return to Uganda since 2006. He also had photographs of the rebels on his camera, which had been taken. In the chapel was a diagram showing the LRA positions in Garamba. It had gone unnoticed.

“If they had seen any of that I'm sure I would have been killed," Father Ferruccio said.

The following morning, about 12 miles from Duru, the rebels released the elderly people they had kidnapped, keeping about 90 men, women and children, many of whom remain in the bush today. Father Ferruccio and his colleague hired a motorbike to take them across the border to Sudan.
I asked him why the rebels had targeted Duru.

“I think it was a revenge attack for helping with the defections," Father Ferruccio said. "But maybe they also wanted to clear a path to the Central African Republic for later." (In Uganda, another of Kony's wives told me that Kony had talked about a dream where the angels told him to start abducting Congolese because the local army had decided to hunt him down.)

My translator and driver, a young Congolese man named Brown, indicated that we needed to leave. It was after 5pm and he was nervous. “Oh, Papa, this is a very bad area," he said of Bamukandi, where there had been several recent LRA raids, as we mounted his motorbike. Brown took a shortcut and soon we were lost, bumping along a tiny footpath past abandoned huts, with the light fading. "I don't want to meet Kony," Brown said.

Chapter four

14 December 2008. A blanket of early-morning fog hung over Garamba National Park. Lily Atong was with Kony at Camp Kiswahili, his main base. At 7am he announced he'd had a vision that an attack was coming. He had correctly predicted many Ugandan strikes in the past, his followers knew. He was right again.

Uganda, South Sudan and Congo had agreed to work together to destroy the LRA, launching a military campaign called Operation Lightning Thunder. "We knew that Kony had no intention of stopping fighting," Major Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Uganda People's Defence Force, told me in his hilltop office at an army base in Kampala. "This is a man who has access to 50 women at a time. He has received state visits from regional leaders. Yet he is a peasant. What do you expect him to do? He cannot come home to be vice-president."

The United States, which had designated the LRA a terrorist group, eagerly backed the offensive, providing $1m towards logistics and help with intelligence. Norbert Mao, a former opposition MP from northern Uganda involved in the peace process, told me that the former US assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer had wanted to give "a Christmas present" to President Museveni in the final days of the Bush administration.
As the Ugandan helicopter gunships approached Garamba, Kony remained calm. "At first he told us to move to another place, and then he said we should stay and prepare him tea," Lily would later recall. "He said: 'The bullets will not kill anybody - let's have tea.'"

When the attack began, the rebels scattered into the bush. Fighter jets later continued the pounding. There were casualties - how many, nobody is sure - and the various LRA camps in Garamba were destroyed. But Kony, his top commanders, and many other rebels escaped unharmed. The following morning, the chief gathered his followers in the bush a few miles away from Camp Kiswahili. He reminded them it was God that sent him to earth to fight, so they should not fear.

“If I had signed the peace deal I would have been killed," he said. "If they were serious about peace they would not have done this."

The planners of Operation Lightning Thunder failed to consider the inevitable consequence of their mission - that Kony would take revenge on civilians, as he had done in Uganda. His response took just ten days. On 24 and 25 December, LRA units mounted simultaneous raids in and around three Congolese towns 160 miles apart, none of which had been given army protection. To ensure maximum casualties, the rebels waited for villagers to gather for church services or celebrations before striking.

What followed became known as the Christmas Massacres. Machetes, knives, hoes and clubs were used to kill nearly 500 people, in perhaps the biggest killing spree ever carried out by the rebels. Bullets were not wasted. In the villages of Mabando and Bama, mothers were forced to put their small children in grain mortars and pound them to death, according to Sister Ellen Yawala, who was in the town of Doruma, 100 miles north-west of Dungu, at the time of the attack there.

“Many of the dead had broken arms and legs," she told me one morning at a convent in Dungu. "Their arms tied behind them. You could tell by the look on their faces that they died in bad conditions. Some of the women were naked from the waist down."

The attacks continued into 2009. With Ugandan ground forces now in pursuit through the thick bush, Kony ordered his fighters to split into smaller groups. Some headed further west past Doruma towards the forests of the Central African Republic, some north in the direction of South Sudan, others deeper into Congo. Several of Kony's wives and children were sent off in a group with one of his senior security officers. Lily Atong was among them. She had her one-year-old baby, Sophia, Kony's child, on her back. Young George Bush was there too, carried by a boy.

The Ugandan army soon had their trail and launched an ambush. The young boy grabbed George Bush and fled into the bush. Lily followed. She evaded the soldiers but could not find the boy and her son. "We walked the whole day looking for him. Finally I said, 'God has a plan for me and for Bush.'"

The next Ugandan attack came swiftly. When a bullet grazed the face of another of Kony's wives, she and Lily surrendered. The Ugandan soldier who fired the shot apologised when he realised who they were. We know you were forced to become Kony's wives, he told them. We have come to rescue you.

Lily was flown to Sudan and then back to northern Uganda. When she was reunited with her two eldest children at an orphanage, they were overjoyed to see her. But they had a question - where was George Bush?

“Until today they ask about him," Lily told me. "'Have you heard about Bush?' I tell them, 'No.'"

Since coming home Lily has learned that she is expecting her fifth child by Kony. She recounted her story at a centre for formerly abducted women near Gulu in northern Uganda. When a woman first arrives there, the counsellors ask her to set a goal she wants to achieve before returning to normal life - learning how to bake bread, to use a sewing machine, to braid hair. One woman answered that she wanted to go a full month without having a nightmare. "It is the cannibalism that some of them were exposed to that disturbs them the most," a counsellor told me. "Being forced to stir body parts in a pot over a fire. How do you forget that?"

In the months after the airstrike, the Ugandan army said that it had rescued 300 kidnap victims. Most were not Ugandans but Congolese, Sudanese, or from the Central African Republic. They spoke a babel of languages.

The LRA's leadership remained ethnically Acholi but it was fast becoming a multinational rebel force. The rebels splintered into even smaller groups, comprising as few as four fighters, moving swiftly and silently on foot. They continued to prey on Congolese civilians, stealing food and items such as jerrycans, to be lashed together to build rafts to cross the region's web of rivers. Villagers disappeared into the bush with the raiders, forced to beat or even kill their colleagues who tried to run away.

With the Congolese army still deploying to the area, some towns established self-defence groups. But resistance and reasoning were usually futile, as 56-year-old Joseph Mbaramuke found out. After his village came under attack, he gathered his family and set off on foot for Dungu.

Several rebels ambushed them on the road. Mbaramuke pleaded with them not to take his children. They shot him in the side and left him for dead.
He told me this outside his flimsy hut in Dungu. His son, 16 years old and vacant-eyed, had returned from the bush two months earlier, following a fight with Ugandan soldiers. The rebels put the new recruits on the front line in the battle, the boy said, allowing the older fighters to escape.

By the time of my visit in August this year, at least 1,200 civilians had been killed by the LRA in Congo during the preceding 12 months, according to the UN; perhaps as many as in any single year during nearly two decades of war in northern Uganda. More than 2,000 people had been kidnapped or reported missing. In July there were 56 LRA attacks - an extraordinary number, even if most of the raids were small and some might be the work of local bandits. Fear of attack or abduction has caused hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes. Denied access to their fields, they are now hungry in a fertile region.

Aid workers are doing what they can, but it is not enough. Road travel is considered too dangerous. In most conflicts, humanitarian access can be negotiated with even the most hardline rebel groups. There are no lines of communication to the LRA.

To reach Faradje, a town on the eastern edge of Garamba National Park, I had to take another helicopter flight. Three children, two girls and a boy, were also on board. Each of them carried a new backpack and a bottle of water. Their flight passes stated: "Ex-abducted child". None showed emotion until we were about to land, when the boy, perhaps ten years old, broke into a smile. Their mothers ran on to the dirt airstrip towards the helicopter, arms raised.

A Congolese psychologist working for an aid group in Faradje told me that some of the kidnapped children were so tired from marching in the bush that they slept for two or three days consecutively when they first reached safety. For weeks afterwards, they would tread carefully, so as not to leave footprints. At night, around the fire, they ensured that there was no smoke. Lessons from the LRA are not easily unlearned.

Conclusion

Officially, Operation Lightning Thunder ended in March. But the hunt for Kony continues. While units such as those under Major Abdoul are in charge of security in northern Congo, Ugandan forces are doing most of the hunting for the rebels there. The Ugandans are also in South Sudan, where LRA attacks are causing great distress to the local people, and in the Central African Republic, where Kony is said to be hiding.

“Two weeks ago we had a visit from the commander of the special forces, who is also Museveni's son [Major Muhoozi Kainerugaba]," Norbert Mao, the northern Ugandan former MP, told me in mid-August. "I asked him where Kony was and he said, 'I don't know. He is off air.'"

But the rebels' continued ability to launch attacks, as well as reports of them using sophisticated weapons, suggest that Kony is talking to someone. The Sudanese government in Khartoum is the most likely party, most experts believe. With a referendum on independence due in South Sudan in 2011, President Omar el-Bashir, Kony's fellow fugitive from the International Criminal Court, has a motive for seeing the LRA spread instability there.

At his base in Dungu, Major Abdoul said it would not come to that, because the story of Kony's rebellion is fast coming to a close. "We are now just waiting for the big party when the LRA is defeated," he said.

His end is not the end.

Later the same day, a tiny five-seater charter plane airlifted victims of an LRA attack from a town called Bangadi to Dungu. The two men and a woman, all elderly, thin and poor, had been ambushed when they returned to their abandoned village in the hope of finding food. There were five rebels, including one female, all with dreadlocks, all dirty. Only the woman fighter could speak the local language. After the villagers had been beaten so severely on their legs that none was able to walk, she told them: "Don't cry."

When I listened to accounts of the attack, it seemed senseless. The villagers had little worth stealing, and posed no threat. Then I realised they carried a message in their stories, in their misery, in their shattered legbones.

We are still here.

Xan Rice is a New Statesman contributing writer. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

Andre Carrilho
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Putin's revenge

Twenty-five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia is consumed by an insatiable desire for recognition as the equal of the USA.

President Trump meets President Putin. It’s the most eagerly awaited encounter in world politics. Will The Donald thaw the New Cold War? Or will he be trumped by “Vlad” – selling out the West, not to mention Ukraine and Syria?

The Donald v Vlad face-off comes at a sensitive moment for the Kremlin, 25 years after the demise of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991 and just before the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Were the heady hopes at the end of the Cold War about a new world order mere illusions? Was Mikhail Gorbachev an aberration? Or is Putin rowing against the tide of post-Cold War history? How did we end up in the mess we’re in today?

These are some of the questions that should be explored in Trump’s briefing book. He needs to get to grips with not only Putin, but also Russia.

 

****

Today President George H W Bush’s slogan “new world order” sounds utopian; even more so the pundit Francis Fukuyama’s catchphrase “the end of history”. But we need to remember just how remarkable that moment in world affairs was. The big issues of the Cold War had been negotiated peacefully between international leaders. First, the reduction of superpower nuclear arsenals, agreed in the Washington treaty of 1987: this defused Cold War tensions and the fears of a possible third world war. Then the 1989 revolutions across eastern Europe, which had to be managed especially when national boundaries were at stake. Here the German case was acutely sensitive because the Iron Curtain had split the nation into two rival states. By the time Germany unified in October 1990, the map of Europe had been fundamentally redrawn.

All this was accomplished in a spirit of co-operation – very different from other big shifts in European history such as 1815, 1871, 1918 and 1945, when great change had come about through great wars. Amid such excitement, it wasn’t surprising that people spoke of a new dawn. This was exemplified by the unprecedented working partnership between the US and the USSR during the First Gulf War in the winter of 1990-91 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush and Gorbachev agreed that they shared a set of “democratic” and “universal” values, rooted in international law and in co-operation within the United Nations.

The new order of course assumed the continued existence of the Soviet Union. Despite the USSR’s growing economic and political problems, no one anticipated its free fall in the second half of 1991. First came the August coup, an attempt by a group of anti-Gorbachev communist hardliners to take control of the Union. Their failed putsch fatally undermined Gorbachev’s authority as Soviet leader and built up Boris Yeltsin as the democratic president of a Russian republic that was now bankrolling the USSR. Then followed the independence declarations of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and crucially Ukraine, which precipitated the complete unravelling of the Union. And so, on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev became history, and with him the whole Soviet era. It seemed like the final curtain on a drama that had opened in Petrograd in 1917. A grandiose project of forced modernisation and empire-building pursued at huge human and economic cost had imploded. The satellites in eastern Europe had gone their own way and so had the rimlands of historic Russia, from central Asia through Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. What remained was a rump state, the Russian Federation.

Despite all the rhetoric about a new world order, no new structures were created for Europe itself. Instead, over the next 15 years, the old Western institutions from the Cold War (the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union) were enlarged to embrace eastern Europe. By 2004, with the inclusion of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Nato and the EU reached the borders of Russia, less than 100 miles from St Petersburg.

Initially the West’s eastward expansion wasn’t a big problem. The Kremlin did not feel threatened by the EU because that was seen as a political-economic project. Nato had been repackaged in 1990 as a more political organisation. Indeed, four years later, Russia joined the alliance’s “Partnership for Peace”. And in 1997, when Nato announced its first enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Russia was invited to join the alliance’s new Permanent Joint Council. That same year, Russia became a member of the G8. In short, during the 1990s the consensual atmosphere of 1989-91 seemed to be maintained.

But Yeltsin failed to create a new Russia from the ruins of Soviet communism. Between 1989 and 1992, as the command economy disintegrated, inflation soared and national income fell by one-third – a crash as spectacular as those America and Germany had suffered in the early 1930s. The largest and fastest privatisation that the world had seen created a cohort of super-rich oligarchs. Crime and corruption became rampant, while millions of Russians were condemned to penury. “Everything was in a terrible, unbelievable mess,” Yeltsin’s adviser Yegor Gaidar later admitted. “It was like travelling in a jet and you go into the cockpit and you discover that there’s no one at the controls.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of political parties resulted in chaos. Yeltsin managed to hang on, thanks to increasingly autocratic rule. In October 1993, after several months of wrangling over the balance of power between executive and legislature, he used army tanks to shell the parliament building in Moscow and imposed a new constitution built around a strong presidency. This and a succession of contrived referendums kept him in power for the rest of the decade. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1999, an ill and exhausted Yeltsin orchestrated his own departure. Declaring that he would hand over to “a new generation” that “can do more and do it better” at the start of a new millennium, he said that he was conveying his powers to an acting president.

His designated successor was an apparently unassuming little man called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

***

Who was Putin? Where had he come from? Most immediately he had been prime minister since August 1999 – the sixth man to serve as Yeltsin’s premier. Yet he had made his career as a discreet outsider, often underestimated by those around him. In fact, he was a long-serving KGB officer: he joined in 1975, at the age of 23, entering a culture that would define his persona and outlook.

Crucially, the Gorbachev era was almost a closed book to Putin: he never experienced the intoxicating passions of reform politics within the USSR – perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya – because he spent 1985 to 1990 as a case officer in Dresden in East Germany. To him, Gorbachev’s reforms signified destruction: an empire discarded and a country ruined. During the 1990s, as Putin rose through the ranks of the city administration of his home town St Petersburg and was then moved to Moscow, he witnessed the disastrous effects of chaotic privatisation, the erosion of Russia as a great power and the collapse of the national economy.

Out of the traumatic 1990s came Putin’s passion for a strong state. He spelled this out in a 5,000-word document entitled Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium, published on the Soviet government website on 29 December 1999. In it, he stated bluntly that the Bolshevik experiment had totally failed. “Communism and the power of the Soviets did not make Russia into a prosperous country,” he wrote. It had been “a road to a blind alley which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”.

Putin welcomed recent “positive changes”, especially the Russian people’s embrace of “supranational universal values” such as freedom of expression and travel, as well as “fundamental human rights and political liberties”. But he also highlighted traditional “Russian values”, especially patriotism – pride in “a nation capable of great achievements” – and “social solidarity”, which, he asserted, had “always prevailed over individualism”. He did not believe that Russia would become “a second edition of, say, the US or Britain, in which liberal values have deep historic traditions”. What he presented as “the new Russian idea” would be “an alloy or organic unification of universal general values with traditional Russian values which had stood the test of the times, including the test of the turbulent 20th century”.

Woven into Putin’s manifesto was a distinctive conception of his place in politics. He envisaged himself as a “statesman” in the Russian sense – meaning a builder and servant of the state, in a country where the state has always been seen as superior to society and the individual. He considered the true leader to be above mere electoral politics, occupying a more permanent position as the guardian of state interests. He looked back admiringly to the autocratic reformers of the late tsarist era – men such as Nicholas II’s prime minister Pyotr Stolypin – and had no time for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who had both been submerged by democracy and had undermined the state.

Above all, he believed that Russia had to resume its rightful historic place as a “great power”. He considered the vicissitudes of the 1990s an aberration that had to be overcome. Adapting one of Stolypin’s celebrated phrases, he liked to say that the people did not need “great upheavals”. They needed “a great Russia” – with a “strong state” as the “guarantor of order” and the “main driving force” of any durable change.

The “acting president” was elected in his own right in March 2000 and won re-election in 2004 for another four years. During the 2000s Putin concentrated on kick-starting the economy, bringing the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era under firm control and building monetary reserves, aided by rising prices for Russia’s oil and gas. This enabled the country to survive the financial crisis of 2008 and stood in marked contrast to a decade earlier, when the Asian crash of 1997-98 led Russia to default on its foreign debt and devalue the rouble. In rebuilding prosperity and pride, Putin earned the gratitude of millions of Russians, scarred by the poverty and humiliations of the Yeltsin era.

Showing himself off as a military strongman, he targeted Chechnya, which had claimed independence in 1991. Yeltsin had failed to tame the anarchic north Caucasus republic in the Chechen War of 1994-96; Putin imposed direct Russian rule brutally in the first year of his presidency, reducing the Chechen capital, Grozny, to rubble in 2000.

Increasingly secure at home, he began to reassert Russian power in the international arena. Initially, this did not involve confrontation with the West. He co-operated with the US in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, though he didn’t support the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, abstaining from the Bush-Blair mission of forceful regime change. In 2003-2004 he protested but ultimately accepted the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the accession of the Baltic states into Nato and the EU – even if the Kremlin regarded them as part of Russia’s “near abroad”. In 2007, however, Washington’s plans for a Nato missile defence “shield” in eastern Europe (deploying interceptor missiles and radar tracking systems), officially justified as protection against “rogue states” such as Iran, prompted Russia to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This was part of the fabric of co-operation woven in 1990-91. Nevertheless, foreign policy wasn’t Putin’s priority in his first stint as president.

***


In 2008, after two terms in office, Putin was obliged under the constitution to step down from the presidency. Under a notorious job swap, however, he was elected as prime minister to the new (nominal) president, Dmitry Medvedev, who within months pushed through a law extending the term for future presidents from four to six years. Then, in September 2011, Putin announced that he would run for the presidency again.

For millions of Russians, this second job swap seemed a cynical power play. Putin won the election of March 2012, naturally – the Kremlin machine ensured that. Yet he gained only 64 per cent of the vote despite having no serious opposition. Rural areas run by local clans tied to him were easily manipulated, but in many big cities, including Moscow, he polled less than 50 per cent.

The 2012 election campaign was the moment when Putin’s conception of the statesman-strongman collided with the democratic expectations of Russia’s perestroika generation, now coming of age. It marked a crunch point in the history of post-Soviet Russia – a clash between different models of the country and its future. Ranged against Putin were those whom the opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, of the liberal People’s Freedom Party, called the new “mass middle class”, formed over the previous two decades. Taking to the streets in protest against the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” were managers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, IT specialists and the like. For these people, Putin had passed his sell-by date. After his announcement that he wanted another term in the Kremlin, images circulated on the internet of an aged Putin dissolving into the geriatric visage of Leonid Brezhnev – whose near-two decades in office symbolised the “era of stagnation” that Mikhail Gorbachev had swept aside.

Social media was transforming urban Russia. Between 2008 and 2012 internet penetration among the over-16s doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Russia had its own version of Facebook: VKontakte. The Kremlin’s alarm at the upsurge of virtual opposition and street protest was intensified by the Arab spring in 2011. Much international comment highlighted the role of a young “Facebook Generation” in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, fostering a “digital democracy” that toppled long-standing autocrats – supposedly financed and supported by Washington. Putin liked to claim that the protests in Russia had also been stirred up and/or funded by the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Little wonder that one of his priority projects after winning the 2012 election was refining a sophisticated system of internet surveillance known as Sorm, run from part of the old secret-police headquarters of Lenin’s Cheka and Stalin’s KGB in Lubyanka Square, Moscow. With that in mind, the oppositionist Ryzhkov declared that even though Russian society was now very mature and “European”, the regime was “still Chekist-Soviet”. This, he said, was the “main contradiction” in contemporary Russia.

The domestic protests and the Arab spring threatened Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s position in the world and consolidate its sphere of influence in the “near abroad”. He focused on a “Eurasian Union”, an idea first touted in the 1990s by some central Asian states, notably Kazakhstan, but picked up in earnest by Putin after 2011. Yet, for him, the crux of a viable Eurasian bloc lay in the west, not the east: in Ukraine, with 45 million people, a strong industrial base, and its critical geopolitical position. Putin didn’t just see Ukraine as Russia’s historic “borderland”. Celebrating Kievan Rus – the original east Slavic state of the 9th to 13th centuries – he insisted that Kyiv was “the mother of Russian cities”. Keeping Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence was a red-line issue for the Kremlin.

That line was crossed in February 2014. For a decade Ukraine – an ethnically fractured country (78 per cent Ukrainian; 17 per cent Russian) – had hovered between Russia and the West, depending on the latest change of leaders in this corruption-riddled state. In November 2013 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, stalled Ukraine’s long-discussed “association” agreement with the European Union. Thousands of pro-EU protesters surged into Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

In the face of repressive police measures, the mass demonstrations continued for three months and spread across the country, including the Crimea, where Russians were the majority, bringing Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia on 21 February 2014. The next day Putin began a campaign of retaliation, culminating in the forcible annexation of the Crimea, rubber-stamped by a referendum in which (officially) 96.77 per cent of the Crimean electorate voted to join Russia.

For the West, Putin had finally overstepped the mark, because the Crimea had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Putin claimed that the Russian inhabitants of the region were invoking the right to “self-determination”, just like the Germans during unification in 1990, or the Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 when seceding from Yugoslavia. But in the West, Russia’s military intervention in an independent state was condemned as a flagrant breach of international law. The US and the EU imposed political and economic sanctions against Russia, precipitating a financial crisis and a collapse of the stock market. By the spring of 2016 the rouble had fallen 50 per cent in two years. This was coupled with a halving of the price of oil, on which Russia’s economy depends. The country slid into recession, reversing the economic success of the president’s first stint in power.

Yet the slump does not appear to have damaged his domestic popularity severely. The state-controlled media whipped up patriotic fervour: Russia v the West. And Putin – the “History Man”, as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy dub him in their book Mr Putin – has deliberately constructed his own version of the recent past to justify his actions. Playing on the trauma and humiliation of the Soviet break-up, he appealed to national pride, touching the emotions of millions of Russians.

Putin has presented his intervention in the Crimea (and subsequently eastern Ukraine) as an assertion of Russia’s right as “an independent, active participant in international affairs”. In a major policy statement on 18 March 2014, he harked back to the era of “bipolarity” as a source of “stability”, arguing that America’s arrogant attempts after 1991 to create a “unipolar” world, exacerbated by Nato’s progressive enlargement, had pushed his country into a corner.

It was not just that Kyiv’s turn towards the EU threatened to detach Ukraine from Russia and its “Eurasian” sphere; talk about actually joining Nato raised the spectre of the Western military alliance being “right in our backyard” and on “our historic territory”. Putin conjured up the prospect of Nato warships entering the Black Sea and docking in Sevastopol, that “city of Russia’s military glory” – a “real threat to the whole of southern Russia”. Enough was enough, he declared: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”

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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