New dawn for the workers

Migrant cleaners at rich banks are today organising for a living wage. It's reminiscent of the 1889

Canary Wharf, London, 2004

The woman holding the leaflets clutches them tight against her duffel coat. At street level, Can ary Wharf is like a wind tunnel. The small group of activists in high-visibility bibs is dwarfed by the skyscraping headquarters of investment banks: Morgan Stanley, Lehman Broth ers, Barclays and tonight's target, HSBC. The activists are not supposed to be here; this is the new financial heart of London and even the public space is privately owned by the development company. They know they can be thrown off the street.

By day, Canary Wharf teems with men and women in suits; the average salary here is £60,000. During business hours, upwards of 80,000 people come and go, surrounded by glass, steel and sky, and the picturesque waterways that used to be London's main docks. By night, it is deserted, except for security guards, cleaners and this small group of Living Wage Campaign leafleters organised by the TGWU and the East London Community Organisation.

Those the leaflet is meant for arrive in small groups, by bus. They are the cleaners who sluice the toilets, dust the desks, swab the telephone mouthpieces with antiseptic wipes and empty brown apple cores from thousands of waste baskets. They are almost all migrants - not from the settled Caribbean and Asian communities of inner London, but from among the new arrivals: Somalis, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Kurds, Col ombians, Iraqis, Afghans, Bolivians, Cubans, Spanish and Portuguese. Benedita Gonçalves, a Portuguese cleaning supervisor at a major bank, describes the way the cleaners are treated by the office workers: "The cleaners clean the rubbish and we are like rubbish for them - apart from some who work at night and start to know us and sometimes say, 'Good evening.' For the rest, we are no one.We are rats, we come in the night."

Migrant cleaners always talk about being "looked through" by office workers who don't see them as people, let alone workmates. In most cases they work for subcontractors and are not part of the core workforce. Cleaners also say they are always the first to be accused of stealing if something goes missing, but their recurring problem is an absence of respect. "I started my battle in the first week I was there," says Bene dita, "because the management were horrible. They showed lack of respect to the employees. Everything you did was wrong. They sent people home for no reason - just because they didn't need them. Another thing is the shouting, calling names, saying, 'You are crap; you are no one.' Something like that happened with me and so I started my battle against them."

For Juan Rodriguez, the biggest issue is contracts, or the lack of them. He says when he started work as a cleaner at News International six years ago nobody knew what the official hours, wages or even status were. Now their employer, a cleaning contractor, has tried to get them to sign individual contracts but they have refused. "One hundred per cent," he says, "even the ones not in the union." For Juan, the problem is "respect and money" - respect first, but with the cleaners earning on average £200-£300 a week, money comes a close second. "Management harass the staff, blackmail the staff - and the worst thing is, which is very, very sad, people with no documents are afraid to make comments. Some of them are even against us - the ones who are afraid of the union."

Martin Wright, a black British cleaner at the Royal London Hospital, echoes the complaint. After three years of organising, he's managed to get the hourly pay raised from £5.50 to £7.50 an hour and the contract taken in-house so the cleaning managers have to answer to the hospital managers. But there are still problems: he's having to deal with constant tensions between workers from Nigeria, Ghana and Somalia. "Martin Luther King is my hero and I tell them we are all brothers and sisters; all our ancestors came from Africa." Juan and Benedita have both encountered similar conflicts. "Some people," says Juan, "because they come from a background where there is civil war, they still have in their mind just to kill! One guy working with us came into the room and said to another guy, 'If you were in my country I shoot you,' and we said (we were all shocked), 'What are you talking about?' And everybody in the room realised this guy, in his head, was still in the civil war."

When I ask them how they overcome these divisions, the word they all use is patience. "You have to be patient and very understanding with everybody," says Juan. "Try to learn from each one their background and then explain the difference between your country and their country." He says Africans are harder to organise than the rest, Latin Americans the easiest because they have a left-wing tradition. "One guy from Cuba thought he's gonna be shot for joining," says Benedita, laughing.

I ask Juan if he knows there was a major strike at News International, which publishes the Times and the Sun, and that it was a famous strike. "Long, long ago, way back, I heard that, yes," he says. His mouth drops open wide as I tell him the story of the year-long Wapping strike of 1986, when the power of the print unions was broken. In fact, it opens nearly as wide as my own mouth did back then when I saw a bunch of highly paid and supposedly "aristocratic" printers turn over a truck at the main gates and set it on fire. "This information you are telling me is very powerful information," he nods, still stunned. Up to now, this unassuming Spaniard with broken English has had no idea he is trying to organise a union in the very place the union movement suffered a symbolic and shattering defeat. The cleaners, by their own admission, know nothing about the history of east London; many are still struggling with the geography. But the organising team know the irony of what they're doing at Canary Wharf. Their union was born here; it grew by recruiting unskilled workers whom the unions at the time believed were too ignorant to be organised. And the strike that started it all began within yards of where the HSBC skyscraper stands today. It is small compensation to the activists, stamping their feet to keep warm as midnight approaches, but they are treading in the footsteps of Tom Mann.

London, 1889

Tom Mann has been blacklisted as an engineer and is so poor he's had to sell his violin; Victor Griffuelhes is a shoemaker trudging the lanes of southern France in search of work; Bill Haywood is a cowboy in Nevada; Eduardo Gilimón is wandering through the slums of Buenos Aires preaching the non-existence of God; James Connolly is an embittered British soldier in Ireland. The year is 1889 and working-class history is at a turning point. Between now and the outbreak of the First World War, the labour movement will go global, creating mass trade unions and popularising a new "union way of life". But the men who will make this happen are, in 1889, anonymous loners on the fringes of the workforce.

Over the next 20 years, their names will become well-known in the tabloid newspapers and police stations of the world. They will cross continents and oceans in pursuit of a twofold dream: trade unions for unskilled workers and inter national solidarity between them. The idea is known to history as syndicalism and is rough and ready, like the unplaned wood of the railway boxcars it is born in - and it will infuriate socialist intellectuals.

But why will it spread so fast? The answer lies in the giant transformation under way in business and politics in 1889. It can be summed up as the three Ms. Monopoly - the rise of heavy industry has created a few big companies which can swallow up the rest; these are companies with absolute power over suppliers, the workforce and even the politicians who are supposed to regulate them. Management - the generation of businessmen that will build the Eiffel Tower and the Titanic need scientific methods to run the workplace. They need control over it as well as harmony within it. They have started to think scientifically about ways to manage people at work. Militarism - the industrial powers are engaged in the scramble for colonies that will lead to war in 1914; everywhere nationalism is solidifying. Military face-offs and minor wars give warning of the storm ahead.

This is how globalisation looks the first time around; it is not the same as today's version. By 1889 a global system of trade, transport and exchangeable currencies has been created, making international solidarity between workers in different countries a practical question instead of just a high ideal. New Zealand wool makes shawls to keep the heads of British mill girls warm; Chinese migrants undercut the wages of white Dutchmen in the gold mines of South Africa; beef from Argentina ends up in the spaghetti of a Bolognese engineer. And there is mass migration. From Sydney to Seattle, workers are on the move, not just from the farm to the factory, but across land and sea. The footloose syndicalist agitators will always find an audience in the steerage class of ocean-going ships, or in the cattle trucks of trains.

Traditional trade unionism, born in a century of small strikes, small firms and local economics, cannot cope with this new world of giant things. Its power against monopoly is non-existent; scientific management is undermining its control over training and wage rates; and the vast mass of working people have no way into - indeed, see no point to - trade unions.

A small core of activists has struggled to keep alive the principles of anarchism and socialism but it's an uphill struggle. "Marxist ranters" pay fleeting visits to the Salford streets that had throbbed with republicanism at the time of Peterloo, but the reception is now hostile. Robert Roberts, who grew up there in this period, remembers: "We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen but not for long: the problem of the 'proletariat', they felt, had little to do with them."

The "class struggle", Roberts will recall acidly, is something that goes on within the working class: between the skilled, the semi-skilled, the unskilled, the unemployed and the irretrievably drunk. Sociologists are struck by this layer cake of misery, above all in that glittering central hub of global trade, the London docks. It is the mass strike there that will change everything.

It was the hot, late summer when trouble broke out. It was a pathetically irrelevant dispute over pay rates on a single ship. The men involved laid siege to the nearest union office they could find and pleaded for help. The man they found was Ben Tillett, and he sent for his mates Tom Mann and John Burns, both socialists who had been grumbling about union inactivity on the docks for months. Together they set about pull ing the whole of east London out on strike.

The docks had their own notorious class system: above the docker ranked the stevedore, who acted as a makeshift gangmaster. Better than the stevedore was the waterman - entitled to wear a ludicrous pink uniform while surviving on next to nothing. At the bottom of the pile were the women - little better than slaves. In normal times, you were lucky if you could persuade members of these urban castes to drink in the same pub together, but these were not normal times. Within a week, 30,000 dockers were joined on strike by an equal number from "allied trades".

There was a mass meeting every day, then the strikers would set off in an orderly procession around the banking district. The smart office workers of the Square Mile preferred their poor "deserving", and the dockers, with their liking for drink and violence, expected a hostile reception. So they staged tableaux and carried effigies to provide a visual sociology lesson. They carried effigies of a "docker's cat", which was thin, and a "boss's cat", which was fat; likewise the docker's child and the boss's child, both depicted by rag dolls on sticks. The watermen wore their pink uniforms. Tillett recalls collecting "pennies, sixpences and shillings from the clerks and City workers, who were touched perhaps to the point of sacrifice by the emblem of poverty and star vation carried in our procession". The Salvation Army - sternly anti-socialist but a potent force in its east London homeland - had no option but to support the strike. The Catholic Church also weighed in.

What tipped the balance was Australia. The powerful Australian unions used the issue of the London strike to inflame animosity against the English upper classes. By the end of the strike, a total of £30,000 - at least £2.7m in today's money - had been wired via the Australian dockers' union. Sixty thousand dockers were now joined on strike by another 60,000 of their drinking buddies and daughters from the rat- infested streets along the waterfront.

On 28 August, the strike committee issued a manifesto calling for a general strike across London - for the workers officially and purposefully to pull the plug on the "great machine". The call was withdrawn a day later for fear of losing public sympathy. A few days later, following the intervention of City bankers, shipowners and a Catholic cardinal, the dockers won. History records that they won the "docker's tanner"- sixpence an hour instead of five. But they had won much more. Burns wrote: "Labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything . . . Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors."

To the social reformer Beatrice Webb, the emergence of solidarity in the East End was "a new thought . . . modifying my generalisation on dock life". It dawned on a whole layer of middle class do-gooders that workers might not have to wait for betterment to be handed down through legislation and lectures. The same thought also dawned on tens of thousands of unskilled workers who rushed to join trade unions. The railway union grew from nothing to 65,000 in a year; the bricklayers' union doubled in size, the shoemakers' tripled; the miners formed a national federation. The movement was labelled New Unionism. Its aim was to draw the unskilled workers into industry-wide unions that would cut across the petty job descriptions that, in the strike, had been made to look irrelevant.

Paul Mason is business correspondent for BBC2's Newsnight. "Live Working or Die Fighting: how the working class went global" is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 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.

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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.”

***

 

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