The "Putin Doctrine of muscular nationalism" makes Russia's relations with the West fraught. Photo: Getty
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Is a return to constructive relations between Russia and the West possible?

Russia may be destined to remain a source of instability and confrontation for as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.

Just when it looked as if tensions between Russia and the West couldn't get any worse, an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague is set to make a ruling on Monday that could have far-reaching consequences for relations with Moscow. It's the culmination of a decade long legal battle by the former majority shareholders of Yukos Oil to secure compensation for the expropriation of their assets by the Russian state in 2004. It is also the largest arbitration claim in history. If it loses, Russia could be out of pocket by as much as $100bn; a huge financial hit for any country, especially one flirting with recession and facing an escalating campaign of international sanctions.

Couldn't President Putin ignore a ruling against him and simply thumb his nose at the outside world like he has done on many occasions before? Not this time, because it turns out that the long arm of international law can be very long indeed. Russia may have renounced the Energy Charter Treaty on which the case is built, but it was legally bound by it at the time of the Yukos affair. Furthermore, the terms of the treaty allow any financial award against it to be enforced under the provisions of the New York Convention. If Russia refuses to pay up, its assets in any country that has ratified the convention could be seized to the full value of the award. This encompasses 148 countries, including the US, every member state of the EU and even China.

It is certainly possible that the ruling could go Russia's way. But legal observers point out that international tribunals have already considered the same evidence in two smaller cases and found against Russia on both occasions. Judges dislike contradicting their peers without compelling new evidence. If Monday's decision goes the same way, Putin faces a tricky dilemma that could profoundly alter the course of Russian policy for the remainder of his presidency.

The response that would fit most naturally with the new Putin Doctrine of muscular nationalism would be to reject the ruling and threaten economic retaliation against any country that allowed its enforcement under the New York Convention. Putin doesn't recognise a separation of judicial and political power, so he would be probably regard decisions by foreign courts to seize Russia property as essentially political acts. Russian politicians have already threatened to seize foreign assets in response to Western sanctions over Ukraine, so the idea is already out there.

The problem with this is that it would require a sharp re-direction of Russian economic strategy. Despite the rhetoric of 'sovereign democracy' - an ideology based on the rejection of foreign influence - Russia is deeply embedded in the global economy. It needs not only access to foreign trade, but also inflows of foreign capital and technology to modernise and thrive. The investment requirement for its dilapidated energy sector alone stands at $2.7 trillion over the next twenty years. Without this Russia faces the threat of a return to the kind of long-term stagnation that brought an end to the Soviet era.

A strategy based on economic autarky and a closed 'Russian world' isn't really viable. Russia doesn't have either the capital or the technology needed to build new infrastructure and open new energy production in the Arctic North. Besides, the Russian elite love their Swiss bank accounts and Park Lane apartments. An 'Asian pivot' and the friendly embrace of the BRICS might provide a degree of short-term diplomatic comfort, but Chinese money will always come with plenty of strings attached, especially since Beijing will sense Russia's desperation. In any case, China can't offer the technology Russia needs or the lifestyle options its oligarchs crave.

Putin understands this perfectly well. It is probably the only thing that has persuaded him to pull back from a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At some point he will need to convince foreign companies that Russia is a safe place to invest once again. With net capital outflows already running at $75bn in the last six months, he is clearly a long way from achieving that goal. The last thing he needs to do is demonstrate that Russia is a country where property rights have no standing by seizing foreign assets and completely abandoning the rule of law. The damage would take a generation to repair.

If Russia loses on Monday, the pragmatic move would be for the Kremlin to swallow its pride and find a way of settling the claim quietly. The Yukos affair was in many ways Putin's 'original sin'. It was the moment when it became clear that he was determined to centralise political power and dismantle any democratic or legal safeguards that stood in his way. Drawing a line under the affair might become a symbol of Russia's willingness to put relations on a more businesslike footing.

Admittedly, that seems unlikely given the acrimony over Ukraine. But it wouldn't be entirely out of character either. The early phase of Putin's leadership was based on pragmatic modernisation, constructive relations with the West and a desire to nurture Russia's economic recovery. The question is whether too much bad blood has now passed between Russia and the West to make a return to that approach possible. The answer will tell us whether Russia is destined to remain a source of instability and confrontation for as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.
 

David Clark is the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, and served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001. He is chair of the Russia Foundation.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.