Activists keep riot police at bay standing on makeshift barricades on the Maidan, Kyiv, in January. Photo: Espen Rasmussen/Panon
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Ukraine: Rebirth of a nation

Bullied and humiliated by Russia, seen as a strategic buffer by the US, Ukraine is riven by corruption and deeply divided. Can it rise and free itself?

The revolution in Ukraine and the celebration, grief and apprehension it has inspired mask a fundamental misunderstanding. The country has released itself from the larcenous grip of a bullying dictator and his venal friends – but Ukraine has been a surreally corrupt parliamentary democracy, run by a lineage of serially corrupt presidents, for 23 years. So why now? And it has risen up only to fall foul of yet another bully. But why President Putin’s wildly aggressive reaction? And will it snuff out the hopeful revolt begun in Kyiv? To answer those questions, we need to acknowledge that the events of the past three months in and around the bloody crucible of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv have been only secondarily about power – though Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea is about nothing else. And to explain that, we need to recognise that the nation of Ukraine has been misunderstood, not for months but for decades, possibly for centuries.

The historical source of the misunderstanding is the assumption that Ukraine was not a nation at all, but always a province, an administrative region, a westerly satrapy of an eastern empire whose ideology, language and aspirations were so uniform that you couldn’t get a papiros paper between Moscow, the boiler room of that ideology, and the country Russia called its “little brother”.

That attitude, expressed sometimes paternally, sometimes viciously in the tsarist period, and patronisingly and with violence throughout the Communist era – Stalin was the arch-exponent of “little brother” politics – conditioned generation upon generation of Ukrainians to see their lives in permanent thrall to an overlord. To some degree that is what Putin, a relic of that era, is still counting on to secure his ends, whatever precisely they turn out to be. In 1991 independence came: a largely romantic gesture, because romance or sentiment are all that is left when a country is reduced to folkloric subservience, as Ukraine was under communism. Afterwards Ukrainians’ historical sense of subordination, resignation and quietism persisted, as did Russia’s belief that, deep down, Ukraine was still its indivisible property. It persisted through four corrupt presidencies, increasingly weary but intact until last November, when the Maidan protests started. It was bred in the bone.

The justification for Ukraine’s sibling relationship with Russia, that Kievan Rus’ was the cradle of Russian nationhood (the Slavic population of this early-medieval state then migrated north to safer, forested regions under pressure from incursions by Turkic tribes), is a thousand years old. Later history nevertheless puts it into a less dominant perspective. Since the 12th century large parts of what is now Ukraine have been invaded or settled by Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles and Tatars and the territory has been gathered up by an array of rulers, from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Crimean Khans. In 1654, foreshadowing what some have already assumed will be the eventual outcome of events on the Maidan, the leader of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, then battling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, pledged loyalty to the tsar: three decades later, when peace was signed, Kyiv and the Cossack lands east of the Dnieper came under Russian rule and the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper went to Poland. For Peter the Great’s Russia, read Vladimir Putin’s; for Poland, the European Union.

When Ukraine finally emerged in 1991 as an independent state for the first time in 354 years, it was from a history of extraordinary stagnation. (Various messy proto-independent Ukrainian states were declared after the 1917 revolution but imploded rapidly.) Under the tsars, Ukrainian language, culture and national identity had been suppressed systematically: it was known simply as “the south-west”. In the early 1920s a Soviet experiment with a policy of Ukrainianisation gave the country fixed borders and a national identity but, as Nikita Khrushchev noted later, “For Stalin, peasants were scum,” and once collectivisation began the family relationship nosedived into domestic violence.

A measure of that violence is that today, three generations after the horror of four and a half million dead in the golodomor (famine) of 1932-33, my Ukrainian relations still instinctively cram their fridges with stale bread, refusing to throw it away. In the late 1930s Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia were nowhere deadlier than in Ukraine. From Russia’s little brother, it turned into Russia’s alternately petted and viciously battered wife, shrinking culturally to a folkloric backwater and politically to a servo-state with a handsome but vacuous Stalin-classical capital. The origins of revolt always lie in dormancy and one centralist decision, silently but deeply resented, may have been more instrumental in Ukrainians’ move towards independence than any other: the decision in 1970 to force on the country the construction of its first nuclear plant 140 kilometres north of Kyiv, at Chernobyl.

It would be insulting to say that Ukrainians have misunderstood themselves; but in the strange relationship dynamics of a horribly abused polity, it is possible – as in an abusive relationship – to become the thing you are treated as. The liberal west might have helped Ukraine to emancipate itself but instead has obstructed Ukrainians’ healthy self-view with its own misunderstandings and condescension. In August 1991 George Bush visited Kyiv to lecture listeners on the dangers of nationalism and separation. Subsequently the EU and US treated independent Ukraine with indifference, viewing it as just another newly open marketplace for everything from obsolete US hand-ploughs to mail-order brides. For years the English-speaking world has gone on calling it “the Ukraine” – the British Foreign Secretary did so last week – as if it were still a region of Russia, like the Urals or the north Caucasus.

Only when the 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and gas disputes with Russia in 2006 and 2009 kept dragging it on to the west’s foreign-policy radar did Brussels and Washington start to see its significance as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Yet even then they viewed it as no more than a commodity: a strategic chess piece, a prize of influence, a resource-rich target of western expansionism.

The result of this psychically toxic mixture of abuse, neglect, condescension and exploitation? The Ukrainian people, ethnic Ukrainians (78 per cent), ethnic Russians (17 per cent) and others, had a nation but did not – until 31 November last – start to have the confidence of nationhood.

In such an analysis, Crimea is no doubt a special case with its majority Russian population (58 per cent), but that figure has been shrinking for 50 years while the proportion of Crimeans who consider Ukraine their homeland has doubled to more than 70 per cent in the past five years. As a footnote, the 1897 census shows that, just over a century ago, the largest ethnic group in Crimea was the Tatars. So the Russian flags thrust aloft in Simferopol today are woven from thin stuff. Of more importance is Putin’s wrath at Russia having had to give up Crimea – its elegant strategic solution to Mediterranean influence, its Riviera – and rent floor space there after Ukraine separated itself, on paper at least, from the USSR.

What finally triggered Ukrainians’ confidence? President Yanukovych’s rejection of a trade and political associa­tion with the EU provides a part-answer; so do living costs and the vegetative state of the economy (Poland’s economy, slightly smaller than Ukraine’s in the early 1990s, is now more than twice its size). Yet political opportunism and vulnerability to threats from big brother Russia have been around for years, for as long as the economy has been a basket case. And the third element – corruption by the bucketload – has also been a constant of Ukrainian life for decades.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, examine what corruption means in Ukrainian terms. In the mid-1990s a friend living in Odessa asked me what I thought of his country’s prospects. I said it seemed to me that building on the foundations of the time – stagflation, ubiquitous mafia activity, dire infrastructure, astronomical fiscal crime – was like trying to fill a rusty bath full of holes. He shook his head. “It is worse,” he said. “We are an open house which is being looted while the people who live in it watch.”

Roads are another helpful metaphor. In more ways than one a journey in Ukraine can be long (the country is nearly twice as big as Germany), uncomfortable and dangerous. The standard of driving is appalling, though not quite as bad as in Russia: you are eight times more likely to die in a traffic accident in Ukraine than in the UK. The usual causes – speeding, drink-driving – are aggravated by another factor: many Ukrainians don’t pass a driving test but merely pay money to obtain a licence. The same principle applies to university places, jobs, planning decisions and judicial verdicts.

You will witness frequent fatal accidents on the roads and need to be alert for super-sized potholes, even on prestige projects such as the relatively new 480km Kyiv-Odessa highway. This is because it is common practice in public infrastructure projects for a contractor to tender for a specific quality of construction, spend a quarter or even an eighth of the value of the tender, and split the difference between himself and the minister in charge of the budget.

Similar rake-offs are practised across government. Farmers deliver their wheat to the ministry of agriculture for sale through official channels: the eventual sale price is roughly three and a half times what the farmer is paid, with most of the multiple going into ministers’ and officials’ pockets. If you fancy a secure job in a ministry there is an interview, but then you’ll also have to pay to be appointed: the going rate for a middle-ranking job is around $50,000 to the relevant minister. Family and friends will have to chip in to help.

One thing is not appalling on Ukraine’s roads and that is some of the cars. Automotive swank was part of Isaac Babel’s stories about Odessa gangsters in the 1920s – his young “king” Benya Krik drives “a red automobile with a music box for a horn playing the first march from the opera I Pagliacci” – and luxury cars were one of the first signs of business wealth in post-independence Ukraine. In Kyiv before the Maidan protests you’d have seen two-a-penny Porsches and Bentley Continentals. Maseratis and Ferrari Californias were common; for exclusivity, you had to move up a little, to a Lamborghini or a Rolls-Royce drophead coupé. The race, when “business” opportunities abound, is always to the swift. Cars are potent symbols in that realm: the wheels of fortune.

And, for two decades, business in post-Communist Ukraine has been synonymous with politics. Yanukovych’s kingmaker, the eastern oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club, the most expensive private flat in Britain and more wealth than anyone else in Ukraine – is reported by the BBC and Ukrainian Forbes magazine to have secured 31 per cent of all state tenders in January through his businesses (though Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr trumped him, obtaining 50 per cent of contracts in the same month). Akhmetov controlled 50 deputies in parliament, and his loyalists held six positions in cabinet.

But, having supplied the private Airbus to ferry his protégé to Moscow for the cabalistic meeting with Putin at which the infant EU deal was thrown out of the pram and replaced with a rowdy Russian pact – loud promises, some threats, little money so far – Akhmetov had a change of heart when snip­ers shot and killed protesters. After Putin’s forces occupied Crimea he issued a statement asserting that “the use of force and lawless actions from outside are unacceptable”.

Parliament’s change of heart was even more decided. It removed the president from office by 328 votes to zero; after his dismissal, his own Party of the Regions followed up with a statement declaring that “full responsibility [for the violence] rests with Yanukovych and his entourage”. Many of these deputies are the same ones who, little more than a month ago, passed draconian anti-protest laws that led to the first shootings of protesters.

Which brings us back to why the Maidan revolution began.

For years Ukrainians have known that their political class is among the most self-seeking anywhere in the world. Their tolerance can even be said to have been an inevitable part of the abusive relationship dynamics I mentioned. When holding legislative and executive office not only confers access to patronage and public funds as well as immunity from prosecution, but also allows leaders control of law enforcement and the courts, and none of this seems so different from the Communist system that preceded it, it’s a reasonable reaction for the ordinary, exhausted citizen to put his head down and get on with it. In many senses the system is a continuation of the old Communist way. From the 1970s onwards few Soviet officials privately believed in Marxism-Leninism, and when these ideology-less men took power in 1991 they had nothing but cynicism and venality to offer their citizens. The former Ukrainian prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko was recently released after eight years in detention in a Californian jail for embezzling at least $100m from United Energy Systems of Ukraine, the company that he set up with one Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych’s predecessor Leonid Kuchma negotiated an amnesty for himself over alleged illicit weapons sales to Iraq. Even the “honest man” of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, rapidly disgusted his people by enriching his family members.or years Ukrainians have known that their political class is among the most self-seeking anywhere in the world. Their tolerance can even be said to have been an inevitable part of the abusive relationship dynamics

The rot didn’t stop with cynicism, however. The combination of venality and freed markets brought with it wild lawlessness. Ukraine is a world leader in political “accidents”. The former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko apparently killed himself with two shots to the head; the transport minister Heorhiy Kirpa (in charge of the Kyiv-Odessa highway), supposedly shot himself in the sauna of his holiday home; the opposition politicians Vyacheslav Chornovyl, Anatoly Yermak and Oleksandr Yemets all swerved off the road or drove thoughtlessly into trucks.

It adds up. It adds up to the kind of amorality described by Yulia, the young woman in the viral protest video I am a Ukrainian. It adds up to the reaction of Volodymyr Parasiuk, the 26-year-old from Lviv who picked up the microphone on the Maidan and who, as protesters carried the open coffins of victims of the violence towards the stage, demanded that they reject the opposition’s EU-brokered deal with Yanukovych – which they did. (So decisive was Parasiuk’s speech that the opposition leader Vitali Klitschko apologised to him afterwards for having shaken hands with Yanukovych.) It adds up to the words of the anonymous female Maidaner, tweeted the day the new government of unity was to be announced: “We haven’t won yet. All the politicians in power during the last ten years must go.”

This is why the Maidan backlash began when it did. These protesters are a new generation, without their parents’ resignation, grown up, despite their government’s monstrosity, with something that passes for freedom – access to the internet, television, mobility, consumer goods. They have looked west, embraced a prospect of European ideals of fairness and justice just as we begin to become blasé about these, and erupted into revolt at their denial. They are protesting for themselves; they are, I think, also protesting for their families, for their parents and grandparents, and for their nation. It is not an intellectual reaction, nor a particularly political one. It is the final, unreflecting “Enough”.

Nationalists, ultra-nationalists and the motley crew of right-wing survivalist and anti-Semitic groups represented by Svoboda (“Freedom”), Right Sector and others all made themselves visible on the Maidan. But their prominence, like that of genuine separatists or Putin’s stooges in Crimea or Kharkiv, could – with tactful handling –have been diminished to the margins where, even in the most balanced societies, they will always exist. The nationalism of most Maidaners is that of the core of Ukrainians who, from the 18th century onwards, when Johann Gottfried von Herder, the pastor of nationalism, declared that their country would become the new Greece “for the blueness of its sky”, began to cultivate a sense of nation as a cultural, literary and social rebuttal of their suppressed status.

All this is now significantly more complicated by Putin’s invasion of Crimea. We should have foreseen it; the abusive partner never wants to let the other one go; or, put it another way, Putin’s very Soviet cynicism understands how little the west wants to take him on. But we can’t anticipate everything. There were suspicions, however, that he would act after the Olympics were done.

What we must now do in the Europe to whose values the new generation of Ukrainians aspires is, yes, be sympathetic bankers, tactful facilitators, members of a vigorous effort (bilateral, if Putin withdraws, which I don’t think he will) to aid the belated emergence of the independent nation that was created, but in name only, 23 years ago. What we must not do is fail to give strong support, and so embitter Ukraine’s new-found belief in European ideals. We must not, from neglect or pious realpolitik, act as we did previously and let it slip back into its old abusive relationship and subservience, subject to Putin’s violent but oddly fey muscle-flexing. That includes not allowing the Russian president to go a metre further towards occupying eastern Ukraine. Yet when the wind carries away the smoke, the task won’t be achieved by filling a power vacuum in Kyiv with a temporary government of national unity or with new elections featuring many of the same old candidates. The Maidaners know it. It is why they have said they will not leave, and that all the politicians of the past ten years must go.

I believe a majority of Ukrainians know that, too. They know that it’s a moral vacuum they need to get rid of in their country. That is the only vacuum that matters. Understand this, and you – concerned outsider, careful diplomat, pragmatic politician, deep-thinking strategist, denizens of all shades of eastern and western foreign policy – will understand what needs to happen next in the nation of Ukraine.

Julian Evans is a travel writer and biographer

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.

***


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