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Leaving Afghanistan: is it finally time to be positive about this blighted nation?

The Afghan presidential election has been declared a success – but as the west finalises its pull-out, what the country's prospects?

There is seldom an excess of good news coming out of Afghanistan, but until the triumphant success of the presidential election on Saturday 5 April, optimism was in notably short supply among the Kabul-based foreign press corps. There were good reasons for this. As the election drew closer and the number of attacks by the Taliban increased, Kabul was particularly badly hit and institutions associated with foreigners or the foreign-backed government were targeted with remorseless precision. In January, a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, the Taverna du Liban, killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. The Serena Hotel was hit on 20 March, killing nine; and, in what could have been a bloodbath of about two dozen foreign (mostly American) aid workers and their children, an attack apparently aimed at a guest house followed on 28 March. The Independent Election Commission was attacked the following day, just two weeks after four of its staff had been kidnapped in the eastern Nangarhar Province. The interior ministry was hit by a suicide bomber on 2 April, killing six more.

In all, three foreign journalists have been shot in the past month alone: Nils Horner on 11 March and, on the day before the election, Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Many expats in Kabul fled, the government closed several restaurants and guest houses used by foreigners, and the foreign press corps seemed understandably and uncharacteristically rattled. Their reporting at times reflected that sense of panic.

The steady crescendo of attacks added to the growing sense of exhaustion with the apparently interminable conflict: 13 years after the west went in to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, to destroy al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the troops were now withdrawing with neither objective wholly achieved. What remained of al-Qaeda had moved to the Pakistani borderlands and elsewhere, while the Taliban now control swaths of rural southern Afghanistan. Casualties among Afghan regiments on the front lines are reaching levels that are said to be unsustainable: as many as 800 police and army are being killed every month and some regiments have lost 50 per cent of their fighting troops; a few in Helmand have desertion rates approaching a similar level.

If the Afghan troops were exhausted, their American backers increasingly seemed to have lost any remaining interest in the bloody complexities of the Afghan conflict that they had fought so long and with so little obvious gain. “No one is talking about Afghanistan in Washington any more,” says Mark Mazzetti, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times security correspondent based in the US capital. “There is deep fatigue in DC and across the US over America’s longest war. It is no longer high on anyone’s priorities and in addition the White House feels a deep animosity against Karzai.”

This all matters very much, because the western-installed government in Kabul relies almost entirely on western financial support: without sustained backing it can’t pay for elections, the army, the civil service, medical and educational facilities or tele­communications. If the funding stops, or is significantly reduced, the government is unlikely to be able to defend itself – just as happened to Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which fell to the mujahedin in 1992 after Mikhail Gorbachev cut off the money and the arms supply from the Soviet Union. “The changes which have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 may be irreversible,” says Barnett Rubin, who recently stepped down as an adviser to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But they are also unsustainable.”

There were many other fears – the stuttering economy, the increasing reliance of the economy on aid and narcotics, government corruption, the poorest and most illiterate population in Asia – but looming over them all was what one Afghan official described, mixing two English metaphors, as the white elephant in the room: Afghanistan’s age-old ethnic divisions, which many observers feared could be exacerbated fatally by an indecisive election outcome.

If no one succeeds in gaining a 50 per cent majority in the election (as seems likely) there will be a run-off on 28 May, and in all likelihood it will be between a Pashtun and a Tajik candidate. That could in turn put huge stress on the principal fault line that has divided the country ever since it assumed its modern borders under Dost Mohammad Khan from the late 1850s onwards.

Afghanistan has always been, like Lebanon, a country built less on any geographical or ethnic logic, and more on the contingencies of 19th-century imperial politics. Indeed, considering its ancient history, Afghanistan has had only a few hours of political unity. More often it has been “the places in between” – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours.

For much of its history its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival empires. Only very rarely have the parts come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right; and as the more gloomy commentators have pointed out, it need not take much to rip the country apart again and exacerbate tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures in Afghan society: the old rivalry between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes and the blood feuds within lineages. After all, Afghanistan briefly splintered in a patchwork of warlord-controlled ethnic fiefdoms in 1993-94, between the collapse of the mujahedin regime and the rise of the Taliban.

Just before this month’s election, some of the more perceptive observers noted that despite the bomb attacks there were huge queues forming to register voters across the country and excitement at the well-attended rallies; but still, caught up in the fear generated by the Taliban assault on Kabul, few predicted what was to come on election day. For, in just 12 hours on 5 April, the general mood changed from anxious and frightened to jubilant and triumphant. The scale of participation in the election was unprecedented – so vast, that all over the country ballots began to run out as early as midday.

More than a third of all Afghan provinces reported shortfalls, so unstoppable was the enthusiasm of the electorate. Despite heavy rain, nearly twice as many people – an extra two and a half million Afghans – voted in this presidential election as in the previous one in 2009: seven million out of a total electorate of 12 million. There were the odd attacks on remote polling stations and 1,200 complaints about fraud. But this was nothing compared to the mess that had been predicted, or the fraud that took place in 2009. For the first time in its history, Afghanistan was going to witness a relatively peaceful transfer of power by the ballot box in a remarkably unflawed election.

By the evening of 5 April, few could disagree that the political landscape had changed in a fundamental way. “Despite the cold and rainy weather and possible terrorist attack, our sisters and brothers nationwide took in this election and their participation is a step forward and it is a success for Afghanistan,” said a relieved President Karzai in a televised official statement.

Most excited of all were the Kabul elite, who had worried that all they had built up was about to disappear. “Huge huge day for Afghanistan,” tweeted the media mogul Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s biggest channel. “A historic event ends peacefully with millions casting their votes. A massive victory for our people . . . and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban . . . Politically, this is the beginning of the end for [them].”

One reason for the unprecedented turnout at election rallies and in the election itself was the exceptional quality of the presidential candidates. They are, by any standards, an unusually smart and talented group. According to all the opinion and exit polls, there are three front-runners among the eight candidates who have just stood for president. The most brilliant is Dr Ashraf Ghani, or, as he renamed himself for the election, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The new nomenclature is important: Afghanistan is still a semi-tribal society where clan and ethnic allegiance means a great deal and can bring in block votes from rural areas.

The Ahmadzai are one of the two leading clans of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe; their only rivals are the Hotaki Ghilzai, among whom the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is the clan elder. The Ghilzais as a whole are the rivals of the Durrani Pashtuns, whose two leading clans are the Popalzai and the Barakzai. Hamid Karzai is the chief of the Popalzai and his preferred successor – and Ashraf Ghani’s main rival for Pashtun votes – is Zalmai Rassoul, who is a Barakzai from the royal family. Behind the sophistication, sharp suits and cosmopolitan CVs of all three leading candidates for president lie the tribal blocks that have defined Afghan politics for a century and a half: Ahmadzai Ghilzai v Hotaki Ghilzai; Ghilzai Pashtuns v Durrani Pashtuns; Pashtuns v Tajiks.

According to the polls, at the time of writing, Ashraf Ghani leads the race; and there is little doubt that he is the best qualified of the three contenders. A PhD from Columbia University, former World Bank official, former chancellor of Kabul University and minister of finance, Ghani has a quick wit and a formidable brain. When I was researching my book on the first Afghan war, Return of a King, Ashraf was one of the first men I visited in Kabul and the hours I spent with him in his austerely beautiful library house, filled with books, good rugs and Nuristani furniture, were probably the most revelatory of any in the whole five-year research project.

Although his specialisation in history lies well down his list of interests, coming far behind anthropology and economics, in a two-hour tutorial he gave me a long list of all the principal Persian sources for the war, many of which he was able to take down from his own shelves.

On my subsequent trips to Kabul, Ghani sent round any other books or snippets he had found, always refusing any sort of payment. Yet the same straightforward frankness and lack of dissimulation that makes him such a generous host and dedicated scholar can also cause him to be irritable and irascible. When he disagreed with some remarks I had made at a lecture in Delhi last year, he steamed straight up to the podium at the end and told me I was talking “bullshit! Bullshit!”

A Farsi video of him describing the writer and Tory MP Rory Stewart as the “son of a donkey” is still doing the rounds in Kabul. It dates back to a feud Ghani embarked on a decade ago when he accused Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation of lifting furniture designs from those developed by his wife, the Begum Rula Ghani, a formi­dable figure in Kabul society and a force in her own right.

An old friend of Ghani’s told me he feared his temper almost as much as he admired his mind. “I’m very fond of him – he’s a smart guy,” he said, “but he can be super-temperamental and is capable of totally losing the plot. I can’t even count the number of times he has thrown me out of his house. I can understand how frustrated such a bright man must be by all the idiots in Kabul – but it does worry me. If he doesn’t have the right handlers if he gets to power, he is the sort of man who could easily order an execution in a fit of anger one evening, and deeply regret it when he calms down the following morning – by which time it will be too late.”

When Ghani first stood for election in 2009, he lost so badly that the media dismissed him almost as a joke candidate. But he learned from his campaigning errors and has worked hard to make himself more appealing. As he already had strong support among the new urban youth, he concentrated on winning over rural areas. As well as adding the tribal suffix to his name, he has made himself look more tribal and less of an urban technocrat: he has grown a rather elegant salt-and-pepper beard and in his campaign photographs is usually seen wearing a mountainous Ghilzai turban.

Ghani’s most controversial – and arguably cleverest – move was to form an alliance with the Uzbek warlord and alleged war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls huge vote banks in the north. In 2009 Ghani had denounced Dostum as “a known killer”. This time he offered him the chance to become vice-president. “We need to come to a politics of inclusion, not exclusion,” he explained to Christiane Amanpour of CNN. “We must have people in the system who fought each other; without bringing these elements to genuine reconciliation and peace, we will not move towards stability.”

Like Ghani, his Tajik/Pashtun rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah is fluent, sophisticated and intelligent; but he is a smoother, suaver, less academic figure than Ghani. Ghani wears immaculately pressed white shalwar kameez; Abdullah Abdullah prefers bespoke Savile Row suits. Ghani’s home is full of low Afghan wooden chairs; Abdullah has beautiful Italian furniture. He also owns an extremely rare and valuable collection of Company School paintings of life in Afghanistan by the Delhi artists brought to the country by the British Elphinstone mission from 1808 onwards. His most recent wife, a gifted young analyst, half his age, is described by those who have met her as “the Penélope Cruz of Kabul – only much more beautiful than Cruz”.

Of the three candidates, Abdullah is the most engaging company: witty, charming and irreverent. When I last paid him a visit, he expressed irritation that Tom Ford, the then creative director of Gucci, had declared Karzai to be “the chicest man on the planet”. “I liked what Tom Ford did at Gucci,” he said, brushing a speck of dust off his cuffs. “But I would dispute that judgement.”

Abdullah rose to power as the adviser to the Tajik war hero and “Lion of the Panj­shir”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and his house and election posters are covered with images of his former boss and hero. In the winter of 2000, a few months before Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda on 9 September 2001, Abdullah Abdullah was part of the secret meeting at which Massoud and the then almost unknown Hamid Karzai met on an island in the middle of the Oxus river to discuss how they could co-ordinate political action against Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

At the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, which followed the US defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, it was Abdullah and his Tajiks who supported Karzai for the post of provisional president. “Never before had someone from one part of the country asked someone from another part to rule in their stead,” Abdullah remembers. “It was a historic moment. I played my part. But I was very naive. I thought under his leadership we would build Afghanistan into a modern state, step by step. It was
doable, had we not missed so many opportunities. Many of those opportunities will not be repeated.

“For me, it is even more sad that I was part of this from the beginning. We had so much hope for a new start, and so many worries today. Now a new generation is looking
forward rather than looking to the past. But the great golden opportunity of 2001 will never be recovered.”

Abdullah was Karzai’s minister of foreign affairs from 2001 to 2005. They soon fell out and have had a difficult relationship ever since, especially after Abdullah withdrew from the 2009 election when it became clear that the polls were hugely rigged in Karzai’s favour. Abdullah chose not to take part in the run-off, citing his lack of faith in the ability of Karzai’s administration to hold a “fair and transparent” second round. “I have great respect for his father,” Abdullah told me, “but Hamid? Let’s just say he is one of the greatest actors that Afghanistan has ever produced.”

It was partly to thwart Abdullah that Karzai encouraged a third major candidate to stand. Zalmai Rassoul is a bespectacled former nephrologist who was chief of staff to his cousin Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, when he was exiled in Rome. Rassoul was fast-promoted by Karzai to be his minister of foreign affairs. A nephew of the great king Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) and a senior member of the royal family, which the Karzais have served faithfully for three generations, he is described by one of his friends as “a shy, moderate, blue-blooded, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking aristo”. He is widely said to be Karzai’s preferred choice as successor.

Rassoul is the oldest, greyest and least charismatic of the three presidential front-runners: on the two occasions I have met him – once at an audience in President’s Karzai’s office and the other at a dinner party thrown by the French ambassador – he was almost completely silent. On campaign, he reads prepared speeches and looks ill at ease having to kiss babies and perform all the usual idiocies of electioneering. Yet he is also said to be intelligent and urbane, an able administrator, and fluent in French, Italian and English, as well as most of the regional languages. It is also said he warms up slightly over a glass of cognac at the end of dinner.

The intelligence and polish of the candidates, and the enthusiasm with which Afghans have embraced them, are not the only reasons for the uncharacteristic optimism in Kabul. The election took place without accusations of large-scale rigging or any Taliban “spectaculars” to disrupt voting. This reflects the fact that security, though far from perfect, has not collapsed since Nato troops withdrew from front-line combat roles at the end of last year. For nearly a year, Nato has been doing almost none of the actual fighting in Afghanistan and its role has been limited to training; yet there has been no clear change in the battle lines between the government and the Taliban: security may have got worse in northern Helmand, where few from the government now venture at all, and also in Badakhshan; but to balance that it has improved notably in and around Kandahar. In July last year I travelled in complete safety to the Karzais’ home village of Karz, several miles outside Kandahar, a journey that would have been impossible a year earlier.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Afghanistan has changed beyond recognition since 2001. It is the fastest-urbanising country in Asia. Its cities have grown exponentially – Kabul alone has 20 times the population it had in 2001 – and people are travelling much more widely. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. Schools are opening everywhere, and while there is much that still needs to be done, literacy is growing fast. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few believe they can roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pashtun force, with few supporters north of Kabul.

Afghanistan’s regional relations are also a cause for some optimism. Karzai success­fully balanced the role of its important neighbours and manipulated India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, as well as the US and UK, to advance Afghanistan’s geopolitical and economic objectives. Just as the Ottoman empire survived for a century because none of the powers that surrounded it could allow any of their rivals to benefit from its collapse, so Afghanistan is likely to survive intact because a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interests of all of its neighbours.

The one anxiety is Pakistan, whose army has long been fixated on the idea that it cannot allow a pro-Indian government in Kabul and, because of that, has long turned a blind eye to the Taliban operating from bases in its territory. Nevertheless British diplomats in Islamabad take the view that the Pakistani army has changed its views and policy in the past couple of years and now fears internal jihadi instability more than it fears India.

Certainly Pakistan’s terrible self-crucifixion seems to be consuming the country at the moment, and there is hope that who­ever wins the election in Afghanistan may be able to improve relations and persuade Pakistan finally to crack down on the Quetta Shura and take out the Afghan Taliban bases within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

What then of Hamid Karzai? There were many predictions that he would never give up power without a fight, and would find some pretext to delay or rig the election. But Karzai is acutely aware of his pivotal role in his country’s history and has become much more concerned with his legacy than anything else. He lived up to all his promises to oversee a peaceful transition of power.

However much he may be disliked by US officials, he remains popular as a unifier in Afghanistan and he will be remembered as a historic figure.

At our last meeting, I was able to ask him about his rule and hopes for the future. It was Ramadan and we were sitting at the desk in his office, eating our way through a huge platter of Afghan fruit: melons, grapes, figs and mountains of tiny Afghan cherries. Due to the fast, most business in Kabul had come to a halt and Karzai, having more time on his hands than usual, had agreed to spend three evenings with me talking about Afghanistan’s future.

I asked him first if he had any regrets.

“No,” he said. “I think I’ve done well. I stood up to foreign powers. Which I would do again. I did my best with the neighbours. Which I would do again. I established good relations with India, China, Russia, the Arab world. Managed, against all odds, relations with the west.”

And what of his own future?

“I will stay here. I am building a place just over the wall, near the French embassy. I am looking forward to taking a few days off. To have my own time. To relax. So I can recuperate fully.”

You feel this has aged you?

“People tell me it has aged me a lot. Just today, during the prayers, a friend of mine told me I look like an old man.

“I do look like an old man. I look much older than 55.”

So what was he most looking forward to, leaving the prison of this palace?

“I don’t feel imprisoned – not at all. I feel responsible, not imprisoned. And when I no longer have this responsibility, I’ll be free like a bird to go around this lovely country. I will visit people, go to bazaars . . .”

Could he really do that?

“Security is a fact of life all over the world, not just Afghanistan. The US president has much more security than I do when he goes out on to the streets of America.”

Did he really think he could stay in Kabul safely?

“Why not? I am optimistic.”

Wasn’t it delusionally optimistic to be so hopeful? Didn’t he think civil war was a possibility?

“This idea is just part of the American psychological warfare against me,” he replied, launching into what is now an obsession of his: the ill-intentions of the US “Deep State” to weaken and fragment Afghanistan.

“They keep telling the Afghan people that if they are not here after 2014, Afghanistan will collapse, Afghanistan will go into civil war, and all that. It’s complete rubbish.”

And he thought the future was bright? Even with the Taliban controlling so much of the rural south? Even with the economy in such a bad way?

“I am very optimistic,” he repeated. “Let me be clear. As long as the west has nothing bad up its sleeve for this region, Afghanistan will do very well. Mark my words.”

Afghanistan has been through so much in the past 40 years – the 1973 coup d’état, the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the 1.5 million deaths and six million refugees in the decade of resistance that followed, the collapse of the mujahedin government and the civil war of 1992-96, the seven long years of Taliban medievalism and Arab Afghan/al-Qaeda encroachment, and most recently the 100,000 casualties of the past 13 years of fighting between Nato and the resurgent Taliban. In that war, the US alone has already spent more than $700bn, enough to build every living Afghan a luxury apartment serviced by world-class health and education facilities – and to throw in a top-of-the-range Land Cruiser for each and every citizen, too. Instead, at the end of this, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia, the joint most corrupt country in the world, boasting the highest illiteracy rate and worst medical and educational facilities outside a few war zones in sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take it several decades even to approach the living standards of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Against this background, it may seem mad to share Karzai’s optimism. Certainly, there are many reasons to hesitate to do so. Every Afghan I know well, however patri­otic they may be, has an exit strategy in place: a second passport, a secret bank account far away, a small apartment somewhere safe and relatively peaceful, just in case Kabul does go belly up.

Equally, there are a million things that could still go wrong: the withdrawal of US military and civilian aid; Indo-Pak rivalry leading to renewed support by Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy; or a growing Pashtun/Tajik fracture following a disputed election run-off in May.

But this month, for the first time in many years, it has been possible to suspend disbelief and to imagine a happy ending to this long and tragic tale. With foreign troops in Afghanistan, it was always possible for the Taliban to portray themselves as a legitimate, patriotic resistance movement fighting for freedom from foreign rule. With those foreign troops now either withdrawn, or locked up in their barracks, and with a free vote having taken place across the whole of Afghanistan, without systematic rigging, and with unprecedented public support and swaths of the population standing up to be counted as democrats, that legitimacy of resistance is now over. It is possible to hope that a new era of Afghan history might have just begun.

William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan” is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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