IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Amartya Sen: The economic consequences of austerity

The judgements of our financial and political leaders are breathtakingly narrow. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen considers the alternatives.

On 5 June 1919, John Maynard Keynes wrote to the prime minister of Britain, David Lloyd George, “I ought to let you know that on Saturday I am slipping away from this scene of nightmare. I can do no more good here.” Thus ended Keynes’s role as the official representative of the British Treasury at the Paris Peace Conference. It liberated Keynes from complicity in the Treaty of Versailles (to be signed later that month), which he detested.

Why did Keynes dislike a treaty that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers (surely a good thing)?

Keynes was not, of course, complaining about the end of the world war, nor about the need for a treaty to end it, but about the terms of the treaty – and in particular the suffering and the economic turmoil forced on the defeated enemy, the Germans, through imposed austerity. Austerity is a subject of much contemporary interest in Europe – I would like to add the word ­“unfortunately” somewhere in the sentence. Actually, the book that Keynes wrote attacking the treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was very substantially about the economic consequences of “imposed austerity”. Germany had lost the battle already, and the treaty was about what the defeated enemy would be required to do, including what it should have to pay to the victors. The terms of this Carthaginian peace, as Keynes saw it (recollecting the Roman treatment of the ­defeated Carthage following the Punic wars), included the imposition of an unrealistically huge burden of reparation on Germany – a task that Germany could not carry out without ruining its economy. As the terms also had the effect of fostering animosity between the victors and the vanquished and, in addition, would economically do no good to the rest of Europe, Keynes had nothing but contempt for the decision of the victorious four (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) to demand something from Germany that was hurtful for the vanquished and unhelpful for all.

The high-minded moral rhetoric in favour of the harsh imposition of austerity on Germany that Keynes complained about came particularly from Lord Cunliffe and Lord Sumner, representing Britain on the Reparation Commission, whom Keynes liked to call “the Heavenly Twins”. In his ­parting letter to Lloyd George, Keynes added, “I leave the Twins to gloat over the devastation of Europe.” Grand rhetoric on the necessity of imposing austerity, to remove economic and moral impropriety in Greece and elsewhere, may come more frequently these days from Berlin itself, with the changed role of Germany in today’s world. But the unfavourable consequences that Keynes feared would follow from severe – and in his judgement unreasoned – imposition of austerity remain relevant today (with an altered geography of the morally upright discipliner and the errant to be disciplined).

Aside from Keynes’s fear of economic ruin of a country, in this case Germany, through the merciless scheduling of demanded payments, he also analysed the bad consequences on other countries in Europe of the economic collapse of one of their partners. The thesis of economic interdependence, which Keynes would pursue more fully later (including in his most famous book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, to be published in 1936), makes an early appearance in this book, in the context of his critique of the Versailles Treaty.

“An inefficient, unemployed, disorganised Europe faces us,” says Keynes, “torn by internal strife and international hate, fighting, starving, pillaging, and lying.” If some of these problems are visible in Europe today (as I believe to some extent they are), we have to ask: why is this so? After all, 2015 is not really anything like 1919, and yet why do the same words, taken quite out of context, look as if there is a fitting context for at least a part of them right now?

If austerity is as counterproductive as Keynes thought, how come it seems to deliver electoral victories, at least in Britain? Indeed, what truth is there in the explanatory statement in the Financial Times, aired shortly after the Conservative victory in the general election, and coming from a leading historian, Niall Ferguson (who, I should explain, is a close friend – our friendship seems to thrive on our persistent disagreement): “Labour should blame Keynes for their election defeat.”

If the point of view that Ferguson airs is basically right (and that reading is shared by several other commentators as well), the imposed austerity we are going through is not a useless nightmare (as Keynes’s analysis would make us believe), but more like a strenuous workout for a healthier future, as the champions of austerity have always claimed. And it is, in this view, a future that is beginning to unfold already in our time, at least in Britain, appreciated by grateful voters. Is that the real story now? And more generally, could “the Heavenly Twins” have been right all along?

 

***

 

There are many odd features of the experience of the world since the crisis of 2008, beginning in the United States. One of them is that what began as a clear failure of the market economy (particularly fed by misbehaving financial institutions) soon looked like a problem of the overstretched role of the state. The crisis, when it came, was seen – rightly, I believe – as a failure of the operation of the private financial institutions, and led to a huge demand for reinstating some of the state ­regulations, particularly of the financial markets, that had been gradually eliminated in the US economy through piecemeal eradication (beginning in the Reagan presidency but continuing through Democratic administrations). However, after the massive decline in 2008 of financial markets and of business confidence had been halted and to some extent reversed through the intervention of the state, especially through stimulating the economy, often paid for by heavy public borrowing, the state had large debts to deal with. The demand for a smaller government which had begun earlier, led by those who were sceptical of extensive public services and state provision, now became a loud chorus, with political leaders competing with each other in frightening people with the idea that the economy could not but collapse under the burden of public debt.

Similarly, at the international level, the global free fall following the 2008 crisis was largely halted by the move, under the visionary leadership of Gordon Brown, for a meeting of the governments of the newly formed G20 in April 2009 in London, each promising to do its best not to feed the downward spiral by domestic complicity. This turned a page in the history of the crisis successfully, but soon the story changed, with the governments being asked to get out of the way before they ruined healthy business activities.

Turning to the management of debts, suddenly the idea of austerity as a way out for the depressed and heavily indebted economies became the dominant priority of the financial leaders of Europe. Those with an interest in history could easily see in this a reminder of the days of the Great Depression of the 1930s when cutting public expenditure seemed like a solution, rather than a problem. This is, of course, where Keynes made his definitive contribution in his classic book, the General Theory, in 1936. Keynes ushered in the basic understanding that demand is important as a determinant of economic activity, and that expanding rather than cutting public expenditure may do a much better job of expanding employment and activity in an economy with unused capacity and idle labour. Austerity could do little, since a reduction of public expenditure adds to the inadequacy of private incomes and market demands, thereby tending to put even more people out of work. There is, of course, more to Keynes’s full theory than that, but the common-sense summary just presented is gist enough.

However, the financial leaders of Europe had a different reading – from Keynes and from a great many mainstream economists – of what was needed, and they were not going to budge from their understanding. As it is quite common these days to blame economists for failing to see the real world, I take this opportunity to note that very few professionally trained economists were persuaded by the direction in which those in charge of European finances decided to take Europe. The European debacle demonstrated, in effect, that you do not need economists to generate a holy mess: the financial sector can generate its own gory calamity with the greatest of elegance and ease. Further, if the policy of austerity deepened Europe’s economic problems, it did not help in the aimed objective of reducing the ratio of debt to GDP to any significant extent – in fact, sometimes quite the contrary. If things have started changing, over the past few years, even if quite slowly, it is mainly because Europe has now started to pursue a hybrid policy of somewhat weakened fiscal austerity with monetary expansion. If that is a half-hearted gesture towards Keynes, the results are half-hearted, too.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence in the history of the world that indicates that the most effective way of cutting deficits is to resist recession and to combine deficit reduction with rapid economic growth. The huge deficits after the Second World War were easily tamed with fast economic growth in the postwar years (I will come back to this issue later). Something similar happened during the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency of the United States, when Clinton began with a huge deficit and ended with none, thanks largely to rapid economic growth. Again, the much-praised reduction of the Swedish budget deficit during 1994-98 occurred in a period of fairly fast growth of GDP. Despite political deadlocks and a largely non-functional Congress, the United States has been much smarter than Europe, on this occasion, in making use of this central understanding. The ratio of deficit to GDP has fallen in the US thanks to economic growth, which – rather than austerity – is of course the well-tried way of achieving the desired result.

Had the policy leaders of Europe (adherents of a peculiarly narrow view of financial priority) allowed more public discussion, rather than taking unilateral decisions in secluded financial corridors – encouraging no public discussion – it is possible that the policy errors could have been prevented, through the standard procedures of deliberation, scrutiny and critique. It is remarkable that this has not happened in the continent that gave the world the basic ideas of institutional democracy. The big epistemic failure in missing the lessons of the past on revival, deficit reduction and economic growth is not only a matter of wrong turns taken by the financial leaders, including the European Central Bank, but also of the democratic deficit in Europe today. It is no consolation that most of the governments in the eurozone that deployed the strategy of austerity lost office in public elections that followed. Democracy should be about preventing mistakes through participatory deliberations, rather than about making heads roll after mistakes have been made. This is one of the reasons why John Stuart Mill saw democracy as “government by discussion” (a phrase coined, along Millian lines, by Walter Bagehot), and this demands discussion preceding public decisions, rather than following them.

 

***

 

How was it possible, it has to be asked, for the basic Keynesian insights and analyses to be so badly lost in the making of European economic policies that imposed austerity? Some of the dominant figures in the financial world have had a long-standing scepticism of the economic relations on which Keynes focused which is being emended only now, with reality checks being made in observations of the penalty of the neglect of Keynesian relations. The bold plan by the new president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, which we have every reason to welcome, to deliver a trillion euros of “quantitative easing” (not unlike expanding the money supply) – with decisive expansionary effect – is a result of that belated recognition which is slowly changing the European Central Bank: that expansion rather than contraction is what the economy needs.

If failing to understand some basic Keynes­ian relations is a part of the explanation of what happened, there was also another, and more subtle, story behind the confounded economics of austerity. There was an odd confusion in policy thinking between the real need for institutional reform in Europe and the imagined need for austerity – two quite different things. There can be little doubt that Europe has needed, for quite some time, many serious institutional reforms – from the avoidance of tax evasion and the fixing of more reasonable retiring ages to sensible working hours and the elimination of institutional rigidities, including those in the labour markets. But the real (and strong) case for institutional reform has to be distinguished from an imagined case for indiscriminate austerity, which does not do anything to change a ­system while hugely inflicting pain. Through the bundling of the two together as a kind of chemical compound, it became very difficult to advocate reform without simultaneously cutting public expenditure all around. And this did not serve the cause of reform at all.

This is a simple enough point, and it is surprising how difficult it has proved to be to get this across. I have to confess to humbling failure in making an impact on the policymakers through my efforts on this by addressing the European Commission, the IMF, the Bank for International Settlements, and joint meetings of the World Bank and the OECD, starting in the summer of 2009.

An analogy can help to make the point clearer: it is as if a person had asked for an antibiotic for his fever, and been given a mixed tablet with antibiotic and rat poison. You cannot have the antibiotic without also having the rat poison. We were in effect being told that if you want economic reform then you must also have, along with it, economic austerity, although there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the two must be put together as a chemical compound. For example, having sensible retiring ages, which many European countries do not (a much-needed institutional reform), is not similar to cutting severely the pensions on which the lives of the working poor may depend (a favourite of austeritarians). The compounding of the two – not least in the demands made on Greece – has made it much harder to pursue institutional reforms. And the shrinking of the Greek economy under the influence mainly of austerity has created the most unfavourable circumstances possible for bold institutional reforms.

Another counterproductive ­consequence of the policy of imposed austerity and the resulting joblessness, for Keynesian reasons, has been the loss of productive power – and over time the loss of skill as well – resulting from continued unemployment of the young. The rate of youth unemployment is astonishingly high in many European countries today; more than half the young people in Greece have never experienced having a job. The very process of the formation of human capability, on which Adam Smith put emphasis as the real engine of economic success and human progress, has been quite badly mishandled through the tying together of uncalled-for austerity (which no country really needed) with necessary reform (which many European countries did need).

More than 200 years ago, Adam Smith specified with much clarity in The Wealth of Nations how to judge the good functioning of a well-run economy. Good political economy, Smith argued, has to have “two distinct objects”: “first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the publick services”.

The father of modern economics, and the pioneering champion of the market system, did not have any doubt why the role of the state fits integrally into the demands of a good society. Public reasoning over generations has increasingly vindicated and supported Adam Smith’s broad vision. There are good reasons to think that it would have done the same today had open and informed public dialogue been given a proper chance, rather than being ruled out by the alleged superiority of the judgements of financial leaders, with their breathtakingly narrow view of human society and a basic lack of interest in the demands of a deliberative democracy.

 

***

 

It is certainly true that the policy of austerity has been advertised as the reason behind the comparative success of the British economy. This comparison is, however, with Europe, which has been in a bigger hole than Britain, with a more vigorous imposition of austerity, particularly in some countries (Greece is of course the extreme example of that – with the big shrinking of its economy, rather than having economic growth). The relatively positive growth in recent years does not make Britain’s overall experience of growth over the period of austerity particularly impressive, if we look beyond Europe. Not only is the price-adjusted GDP per capita in Britain today still lower than what it was before the crisis in 2008, but also, in the period of recovery from the low of 2009, GDP per capita has risen far more slowly in the UK than in the US and Japan (not to mention some of the faster-growing Asian economies).

Could the British voters, then, have missed the real story? That is possible, and I shall come to that possibility presently, but the voting figures do not quite bring out a groundswell of approval in favour of austerity. There is no question that Labour had a severely bad election, and has lost ground, not just in Scotland, and must rethink its priorities as well as strategies quite radically. But the parties forming the coalition government – the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – had support from more than 59 per cent of the total vote in the election before last in 2010 (that is, before they sprang the surprise of austerity on the British public); yet the coalition parties together have managed to get only around 45 per cent in this election – after the experience of austerity. Not quite a heady success for the vote-getting ability of austerity. The Tories did get a clear majority of seats on their own (and have good reason to celebrate that outcome), but this achievement came with only 37 per cent of the votes. The success here is just like that of the Hindutva-oriented BJP in India in the elections last year, when it got 31 per cent of the ballots cast but a substantial majority of parliamentary seats. Before we start getting our economic theories from the reading of election results, we have to scrutinise a bit more the message that comes through from the votes and the seats in the constituency-based electoral systems that the UK and, following it, India happen to have.

What is not in doubt, however, is that the general public in the UK, following the crisis of 2008, has become increasingly nervous about the size of the public debt and also about the ratio of public debt to GDP. What is overlooked here is that while a national debt may have many costs (and it is not paranoiac to keep tracking it), it is not quite like an individual person’s debt, which is owed to someone else (someone quite different). An internal national debt is mainly owed to another person in the same economy. Figures of seemingly large public debt may be handy enough to frighten a population with imagined stories of ruining the future generations, but the analysis of public debt demands more critical thinking than that, rather than drawing on a misleading analogy with private indebtedness.

There are two distinct issues here. First, even if we want to reduce public debt quickly, austerity is not a particularly effective way of achieving this (which the European and British experiences confirm). For that, we need economic growth; and austerity, as Keynes noted, is essentially anti-growth. Second, what is also important to note is that while panic may be easy to generate, the existence of panic does not show that there is reason for panic. No less importantly, the public has not always been scared stiff by the size of the public debt. The public debt-to-GDP ratio was very considerably larger in Britain in every year for two decades, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, than it has been at any time since the crisis of 2008. And yet there was no panic then (when Britain was confidently establishing the welfare state), in contrast to the confused anxiety, not to mention the orchestrated fear, that seems to run down the spine of the terrorised British today, making austerity look like a fitting response.

When Britain went for pioneering the welfare state and established the National Health Service, among other ways of expanding the public services, with Aneurin Bevan inaugurating the Park Hospital in Manchester on 5 July 1948, the ratio of debt to GDP was larger than 200 per cent, much more than twice what it has been at any point in recent years. Had the British public been as successfully frightened about the debt ratio in those days, the NHS would never have been born, and the great experiment of having a welfare state in Europe (from which the whole world from China, Korea and Singapore to Brazil and Mexico would learn) would not have found a foothold. A decade later, when Harold Macmillan, as a buoyant new prime minister, told the British people in July 1957 that they had “never had it so good”, the size of government debt was more than 120 per cent of GDP – immensely higher than the ratio of roughly 70 per cent in 2010 when Gordon Brown was accused of mortgaging Britain’s future by profligacy.

The scare was not there from the late 1940s through the 1960s, with Labour as well as Conservative governments in office, perhaps because the scarers were more scarce then. And armed with good public services and a flourishing market economy, Britain steadily reduced its debt-to-GDP ratio through economic growth, while establishing the welfare state and a huge array of new public services.

Public knowledge and understanding are indeed central to the ability of a democratic government to make good policies. The Economic Consequences of the Peace ends by pointing to the connection between epistemology and politics, and arguing that we can make a difference to the world only by (in Keynes’s words) “setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion”. The last sentence in the book affirmed his hope: “To the formation of the general opinion of the future I dedicate this book.” In that dedication, there is enlightenment as well as optimism, both of which we strongly need today.

This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by Amartya Sen at the Charleston Festival in Firle, East Sussex, on 23 May

Amartya Sen is professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard and won the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics. He is the inaugural winner of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize and the author of many books, including “The Idea of Justice” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Andre Carrilho
Show Hide image

Putin's revenge

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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