Queen Elizabeth with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret: In 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that they "cannot have it both ways". Photo: Getty Images
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The royal soap opera

Malcolm Muggeridge's famous - and controversial - 1955 essay.

In 1955, the New Statesman published an essay by Malcolm Muggeridge, which caused an outcry from monarchist. We reprint it on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, with an introduction by Paul Johnson:

Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman from 1930-60,  came into my office one Monday morning, waving this article, and announced: “Malcolm has written an absolute crackerjack!” This was his highest term of praise. It was well judged in this case. No one had criticised the royal family for many years. Oddly enough, the article attracted little criticism when we first published it, exceptin the Beaverbrook press. NS readers, with few exceptions, loved it. Their verdict was: “About time.” Only when an expanded version was reproduced in America did the floodgates of fury open.

Malcolm was a little shaken by the virulence of the attacks on him. He was particularly taken aback by the royalist enthusiasm of the New York Times’s London correspondent, who complained to the committee of the Garrick Club. It responded by announcing that it would appoint an inquiry to investigate Malcolm’s behaviour. Not willing to appear before this body as a delinquent, Malcolm promptly resigned. He said to me later: “I was rather fond of the club and depriving myself of its pleasure appeared a punishment at the time. Later, however, when I gave up tobacco and alcohol as part of my endeavour to renounce the things of this world, not frequenting the Garrick Club bar was an immense convenience.”

Republishing the article today shows how far we have moved in Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, and what a lot she, and the royal family, have learned in the meantime. From his observation post in Elysium, Malcolm must be chuckling.

There probably are quite a lot of people – more than might be supposed – who, like myself, feel that another newspaper photograph of a member of the royal family will be more than they can bear. Even Princess Anne, a doubtless estimable child, becomes abhorrent by constant repetition. Already she has that curious characteristic gesture of limply holding up her hand to acknowledge applause. The Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh, Nanny Lightbody, Group Captain Townsend – the whole show is utterly out of hand, and there is much graver danger than might superficially appear that a strong reaction against it might be produced.

This attitude of adulatory curiosity towards the royal family is, of course, something quite new. Punch in the 19th century made full use, for instance, of the rich vein of satirical material provided by the Royal Dukes, and in our own time Max Beerbohm found the reigning mon­arch a natural subject, along with all the eminent, for caricature. All this was very healthy.

It presupposed a respect for the institution of monarchy, and a sense that incumbents were, like us all, mortal men and women. Let us beware lest, in adulating the incumbents, in insulating them from the normal hazards of public life, we jeopardise the institution. It is, of course, true that the present royal family are much more respectable than most of their Hanoverian ancestors, and therefore lend themselves less to satire. But to put them above laughter, above criticism, above the workaday world, is, ultimately, to dehumanise them and risk the monarchy dying of acute anaemia.

It may be argued that it is the general public who require this adulation of the royal family, and that the newspapers, magazines and the BBC, in catering for it, are merely meeting the public’s requirement in this, as they do in any other field. Undoubtedly it is true that a picture in colour of the Queen or Princess Margaret is a circulation-builder. Equally undoubtedly it is true that the unspeakable Crawfie, and all the other dredgers up of unconsidered trifles in the lives of members of the royal family, down to and including Godfrey Winn, provide popular features. It may even be true (though there is no way of proving this) that those portentous, unctuous BBC announcements, with “the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh” rolled off the tongue like a toastmaster at a particularly awesome Guildhall banquet, that even these are liked by listeners. Personally, I came to feel, during the recent royal tour, that it was better to sacrifice the news than endure them.

The fact remains that tedious adulation of the royal family is bad for them, for the public, and ultimately for the monarchical institution itself. Is there anything that can be done to check it? One step would be for the royal family to provide themselves with an efficient public relations set-up in place of the rather ludicrous courtiers who now function as such. This would enable information and photographs to be channelled out in a controlled, instead of haphazard, manner. It would also, if astutely conducted, check some of the worst abuses in the way of invasion of privacy and sheer impertinence. An experienced public relations operator knows how to distribute and withhold favours in such a manner as to maintain some measure of control over those with whom he deals. Also, he knows how to advise those on whose behalf he acts.

When, for instance, this Townsend business first started it would have been his duty to convince the royal family that it was essential to make some sort of statement at once, frankly explaining the situation. Otherwise, he would have urged, there was bound to be an orgy of vulgar and sentimental spe­culation which could not but, in the long run, damage the whole standing and status of everyone concerned. After all, if we are to accept that the Crown is useful constitutionally even though deprived of all real power, it must be maintained with some dignity. A Lord Chancellor who was constantly providing material for the commoner sort of magazine and newspaper feature would soon be considered unsuitable for his high office. Likewise, a Speaker of the House of Commons or a Lord Cham­berlain. How much more, then, is this true of the royal family?

Of course it is not their fault, though I suspect that they develop a taste for the publicity which, in theory, they find so repugnant. This is merely human. It applies in one form or another to everyone. Even a tiny television notoriety is liable to please, or at any rate excite, when all one’s conscious being finds it vulgar and odious. At the same time, the royal family ought to be properly advised on how to prevent themselves and their lives from becoming a sort of royal soap opera. They need far more of such advice, and far less of Cecil Beaton and Baron.

Nothing is more difficult than to maintain the prestige of an institution which is accorded the respect and accoutrements of power without the reality. The tendency for such an institution to peter out in pure fantasy is very great. It is like the king in chess. If he ventures into the middle of the board the game is lost. He has to be kept in the background and ringed round with pieces more powerful than himself. Indeed, in a sense it could be said that popularity is fatal to monarchy. The Russian monarchy was never so popular or treated to such scenes of insensate adulation as in 1914; and even for Farouk’s wedding the streets of Cairo were crammed with cheering Egyptians. Yet when, a few years later, the Tsar and his family were cruelly shot down in a cellar no one seemed to care much, and most, if not all, eyes were dry in Egypt when Farouk made off.

Extremes of public emotion are always socially dangerous. Cromwell remarked to Fairfax when they were riding through cheering crowds that the same people would have turned out as eagerly to see him hanged. It was the very fatuity of adulation and sycophancy to which King Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales, was subjected which made the reaction so much the greater when the soap opera took, from the point of view of those set in authority over us, an ugly turn. The whole question of the King’s relations with Mrs Simpson, that is to say, might have been handled sensibly if sense had prevailed before. You cannot, however, graft a Henry James denouement on to an Elinor Glyn novel.

The probability is, I suppose, that the mon­archy has become a kind of ersatz religion. Chesterton once remarked that when people cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, but in anything. Among other solaces, like Johnnie Ray and dreams of winning a football pool and Lollobrigida, is royalty. The people one sees staring through the railings of Buckingham Palace even when the Queen is not in residence are like forlorn worshippers at one of those shrines, whether Christian or Hindu or Buddhist, which depend on some obviously bogus miraculous happening. As a religion, monarchy has always been a failure; the god-king invariably gets eaten. Men can only remain sane by esteeming what is mortal for its mortality. I dare say what really drove the Gadarene swine mad was the thought that Group Captain Townsend was at the bottom of the cliff.

The normal middle-class attitude is to blame the press, and, heaven knows, it has excelled itself in vulgarity and sentimentality in dealing with the Townsend story. Yet the provocation has been very great. Has even the Foreign Office ever devised a more inept communiqué than the one about no statement of Princess Margaret’s future being contemplated at present? If the intention had been to give the story another shot in the arm no more effective device could have been adopted. I believe myself that the little daughter of Princess Margaret’s weekend host who told reporters that the Princess and the Group Captain had looked at all the Sunday papers and just loved them was speaking the truth. This sort of thing is expected of Rita Hayworth, but the application of film-star techniques to representatives of a monarchical institution is liable to have, in the long run, disastrous consequences. The film star soon passes into oblivion. She has her moment and then it is all over. And even her moment depends on being able to do superlatively well whatever the public expects of her. Members of the royal family are in an entirely different situation. Their role is to symbolise the unity of a nation; to provide an element of continuity in a necessarily changing society. This is history, not The Archers, and their affairs ought to be treated as such.

If there were a republican party, as in Joseph Chamberlain’s time, it might get quite a few recruits. A lot of the old arguments which pointed to the great advantages of a monarchical over an elective presidential system no longer apply. The simple fact is that the United States’ presidency today is a far more dignified institution than the British monarchy. It is accepted that the President must be “put over” by all the vast and diverse apparatus of mass communications. If the result lacks elegance, at least the impression created is of efficiency and forethought.

Just imagine if Princess Margaret and Group Captain Townsend, instead of being trailed about the country (which the procedure imposed on them actually encouraged, just as T E Lawrence’s avoidance of publicity necessarily brought reporters scurrying after him) and thereby, incidentally, occupying a great many police sorely needed elsewhere, had called a press conference and explained simply and in their own words just how matters stood. What a relief for us all! What a saving of acres of newsprint! The objection, no doubt, would be that such a press conference would be undignified. In fact, it wouldn’t be nearly as undig­nified as what has now happened. The royal family and their advisers have really got to make up their minds – do they want to be part of the mystique of the century of the common man or to be an institutional monarchy; to ride, as it were, in a glass coach or on bicycles; to provide the tabloids with a running serial or to live simply and unaffectedly among their subjects like the Dutch and Scandinavian royal families. What they cannot do is to have it both ways.

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman of 22 October 1955
Paul Johnson joined the staff of the New Statesman in 1955. He was editor from 1965-70

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

Andre Carrilho
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Putin's revenge

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

To Western eyes the story looked very different. The enlargement of the EU and Nato was driven less from Brussels and Washington than by the desire of eastern European countries to escape from the clutches of “the Bear”. Putin had tolerated the loss from Russia’s “near abroad” of Warsaw Pact states from Poland to Bulgaria, but the Baltic states (former Russian imperial territory) were a very different matter. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had won their independence from the tsarist empire after the First World War, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War. For the Balts, 1991 therefore represented the rebirth of freedom and statehood; they saw membership of the institutional West – the European Union and Nato – as an essential guarantee of national security.

Nato has become a “four-letter word” for Russia and one can argue that, ideally, the “new world order” should have been based on new institutions. But in 1989-90 the persistence of Nato was essential to allay European fears, not least in the USSR, about a unified Germany at the heart of the continent. There was no discussion at this moment about Nato’s further extension beyond Germany, let alone a firm pledge that it would not. Contrary to Putin’s assertions, an expansionary blueprint did not exist.

Whatever the arguments about ­history, however, relations between Russia and the West are deadlocked. So are we in a “New Cold War”, as touted by the Russian government since Dmitry Medvedev’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2016? In fundamental ways: no. Russia and America are not engaged in an all-encompassing global power struggle, military, political, economic, cultural, ideological. The new Russia is essentially capitalist and fully integrated into the world economy, with a multitude of trade and financial links with the West.

Despite bellicose rhetoric at the top, Russian and US diplomats talk and work together behind the scenes, not least in the recent selection of a new UN secretary general, António Guterres. Above all, the language of “unipolarity” and “bipolarity” no longer reflects the reality of international affairs: a “multipolarity” of world powers, a profusion of “non-state actors” capable of terrorism and warfare, and potent transnational forces, notably mass migration – all of which are deeply destabilising. This is very different from the Cold War.

Amid this new world disorder, today’s Russian-American stand-off revolves around differing approaches to international relations. Putin’s policy is rooted in traditions of great-power politics: the control of territory and the assertion of state sovereignty, especially within what Russia regards as its historic sphere. By contrast, the United States, albeit erratically, has promoted humanitarian interventionism, pursued regime change and indulged in the rhetoric of global democracy, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

So, why the divergence? One can say that the West has failed to pay consistent attention to Russia’s sensitivities about its post-Soviet decline. Nor has it given due recognition to the reality of Russia as a great Eurasian power. On the other side, Putin has increasingly pulled his country out of the network of co-operative political forums and agreements forged with the West in the aftermath of the Cold War. He has also challenged the independence of small states on Russia’s periphery. Today, abandoning any vestiges of entente with America, Putin seems to believe that Russia can regain its great-power status only by distancing itself from the West and by overtly challenging the US in hot spots around the world. This is very different from the world imagined by Bush and Gorbachev and pursued to some degree by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Putin is undoing what he sees as a “democratic” peace, made to Russia’s geopolitical disadvantage in 1989-91.

Take Syria: Putin knew that Barack Obama had no stomach for wholesale military intervention on such a fragmented battleground, where few direct US interests are at stake. As an appalling human tragedy has unfolded, especially in Aleppo, Putin has exploited his free hand by despatching Russia’s sole (Brezhnev-era) aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters and building a Russian airbase near the key port of Latakia. US passivity has allowed him to establish a novel, if tenuous, military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and thereby to strengthen his position in the Middle East as a whole.

On the Baltics, Washington drew a firm line last summer: Nato’s Warsaw summit in July 2016 committed Alliance troops and aircraft to each of these states by way of a token but unequivocal act of deterrence. Putin responded by further beefing up the Russian short-range nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad. This tit-for-tat in the Baltic Sea area is likely to spiral.

In the standoff over Ukraine – where Russia has done nothing to end the fighting – the Americans have been content to let Angela Merkel take the lead in trying to broker a peace deal. While playing tough in the Baltic, she has kept open channels of communication with Putin over Ukraine. Significantly, the president has not spurned her offer to talk. The two can converse without interpreters, in German and in Russian; Merkel seems to be one of the few foreign leaders for whom Putin entertains a certain respect, if only because she recognises Russia’s need to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, all these various power plays reflect essentially conventional ways by which Putin seeks to unpick 1989-91. More significant is the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive avant-garde methods of combating the Western “bloc” of liberal democracies – by manipulating transnational financial and commercial ties, spinning the global media and steering policy discourse in target states. Russia can leverage its relative weakness if it cleverly exploits its post-Cold War immersion within the global capitalist system and Western popular culture as a kind of “Trojan Horse” .This is what Putin’s personal adviser Vladislav Surkov has termed “non-linear war”.

It is no secret that, in this vein, Moscow used cyber-power in an attempt to mould American opinion during the 2016 presidential election campaign. For all the media hype about hacked computer systems and leaked emails, the Kremlin’s information warfare is not that innovative. After all, the underlying concepts and most of the techniques were developed by the USSR (and equally by the United States) to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs during the Cold War. Let’s not forget that the young Mr Putin was schooled in KGB Dresden.

So, although we may not be back in the era of bipolarity, some of the new ways are also old ways. Under Putin, Russia seems to have resumed its historic quest for position against the West and its insatiable desire for recognition as America’s equal. Will it ever be possible to forge a stable “alloy” blending “universal” and “Russian” values? That would truly be a Russian revolution. l

Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics) and David Reynolds (Cambridge) are the co-editors of “Transcending the Cold War” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge