These labourers provide a cheap supply of ready manpower. Photograph: Getty Images
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Cheap, and far from free: The migrant army building Britain

Revealed: how job restrictions have left Romanian and Bulgarian construction workers underpaid and vulnerable to exploitation.

The men gather in the shadow of the Wickes hardware store, looking out for the odd jobs that keep them in the UK and for the police that periodically moves them along.
    
As day labourers on the margins of Britain’s sprawling construction sector, they provide a cheap supply of ready manpower, useful yet often unwelcome.

Their presence provokes frequent complaints from the residents of Seven Sisters, a north London neighbourhood where the cafés offer a greasy “builder’s breakfast” for less than five pounds.

With no offices or agencies supporting them, the day labourers crowd the pavement and advertise their trade through their attire – grubby tracksuits spattered with paint and plaster.

When potential clients pull up, they haggle over rates and hitch rides. When the police show up, they run.

Across the road on a sunny July morning, Jarek collects his groceries and stops for a chat with some friends.

“Illegal people,” is how he describes the 30 or so men waiting outside Wickes. Like them, Jarek is an immigrant. Unlike them, he comes from Poland and does not panic when he sees the police.

He too is a builder, but he does not do business on the pavement outside Wickes. Instead, he travels on a moped fitted with a toolbox, dispensing glossy flyers advertising “cheap and reliable contractor services” in ungrammatical English.

Jarek is one of around a million workers who moved to the UK as a result of the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe in 2004. The scale of the migration, most of it from Poland, prompted a backlash against the British politicians who had failed to anticipate it.

The day labourers are mostly Romanians and Bulgarians, and relative newcomers to the UK. They arrived after 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria – the so-called A2 countries – joined the EU.

Despite Jarek’s suspicions, the men’s presence in Britain, or indeed outside Wickes, is not in itself illegal.    

All that separates him from the newcomers is a web of restrictions, designed to deny A2 migrants the many advantages that helped Jarek and his compatriots establish themselves in the UK.

Free to stay but not free to work, the Romanians and Bulgarians fulfil a narrow function – meeting Britain’s need for underpaid and unprotected labour.

Nervous and suspicious

The construction sector accounts for more than 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP. It is the centrepiece of the government’s plan to revive the struggling economy, and the recipient of regular subsidies and stimuli.

Critics say the government’s restrictions on A2 workers have benefitted the construction sector by boosting the ranks of poorly paid and loosely regulated labourers. They accuse Britain of trying to build its way out of a double-dip recession by undercutting pay and conditions for other, relatively well-established, workers.

A Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) investigation shows that A2 workers are generally prepared to work for lower wages and in worse conditions than others in the construction industry. Many interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not wish to attract the attention of the authorities.

Unions and safety officials agree that the A2 workers’ immigration status has driven them into the highly casual end of the building trade, where procedures are more likely to be ignored and injuries and grievances are less likely to be reported.

The UK government justifies its restrictions, arguing that they have protected the British workforce by preventing another surge of immigration of the scale that brought Jarek to the country.

Statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions show that around 210,000 Romanians and Bulgarians have received a National Insurance (NI) number since their countries joined the EU five years ago. This figure offers a very rough indication of how many migrants from these countries may be working in Britain, without taking into account those working illegally and those who have since returned home.

By comparison, some 640,000 Poles have received NI numbers over the last five years, from the total of more than a million over the last decade.

Large construction guilds, meanwhile, insist that their members are bound by law to ensure working conditions are safe and fair. When the rules are broken, they say, the migrants are often complicit.

Some migrants interviewed by BIRN seemed to confirm this, saying they worked in the grey economy to avoid taxes. But as many are underpaid, the incentive for doing so is also greater.

If caught working illegally, the migrants face a fine of up to £1,000 pounds (about €1,300) and a possible prison term.

However, the day labourers in front of Wickes are in little danger of being busted, as they can always claim that they intend to declare any earnings.

Their nervousness around the police stems less from a genuine fear of prosecution than from a general suspicion of the state.

Facing severe restrictions in the job market, they have been funnelled towards a zone where there is no clear distinction between the lawful and unlawful, or between the exploitative and the cost-effective.

“The police have asked me for ID… Sometimes they say you can stay, sometimes they make you leave,’’ says a middle-aged day labourer from Bulgaria who gave his name as Neven. “I stay,’’ he adds. “What are the police going to do to me?’’

 

Numbers game

Upon arrival in the UK, all foreigners in search of work are expected to apply for an NI number.

The number is a prerequisite for anyone seeking legitimate long-term employment. It is effectively the code upon which the state builds each individual’s record of taxes, pensions and benefits.

When Jarek came to Britain in 2004, Poles like him had little difficulty acquiring an NI number. But by the time Neven migrated five years later, Romanians and Bulgarians were finding it harder to register.

A2 nationals are automatically allocated NI numbers only if they have travelled to Britain on a type of work permit that is issued with direct offers of employment.

However, these migrants are in a minority. Most Romanians and Bulgarians travel to the UK without work permits or any firm promise of employment.

Eager to start earning, they gravitate towards the construction and hospitality sectors, where they can eventually skirt the need for a work permit by registering as self-employed.

Migrants who fail to prove they are self-employed, and therefore fail to get an NI number, often end up on the margins of these sectors, getting paid cash-in-hand for casual jobs that require minimal paperwork.

Bulgarian and Romanian embassy officials in London told BIRN that their citizens were finding it harder to get an NI number, in some cases logging five unsuccessful attempts. Many of the day labourers outside the Wickes at Seven Sisters fit this category.

“No money, no job in Bulgaria,” said a 45-year-old migrant who did not give his name. He said he had twice applied for an NI number, and had been refused both times. He had not found work for two months and was living off his savings.

"Smaller sites, bigger risks"

Undocumented workers are more likely to be seriously injured on the job, according to trade unions and safety experts.

A young Romanian man, whose name has been withheld on the advice of his lawyer, told BIRN he had been electrocuted while operating a jackhammer at a site in London. “I don’t remember much,” he said. “There was smoke. My arm was burned.”

The man had been working in Britain without an NI number and had learned about the job from a friend. He says he was not asked to provide any documents or sign any contracts before starting work, and was paid cash-in-hand. Although he received some basic safety instructions, he says he had trouble following them because of his poor English.

Construction unions estimate that some 80 per cent of workplace accidents go unreported. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK watchdog that monitors safety in the workplace, does not keep any data recording the nationality of injured workers.

However, it acknowledges that migrant workers are more exposed to accidents and less likely to report them, even though they cannot be deported or penalised for doing so.

Richard Boland, the HSE’s head of operations for construction in southern England, says “the vulnerability that comes with having restrictions on when and where you can work” can drive builders to sites where the safety rules are not enforced.

HSE’s inspectors are now shifting their focus away from the large firms towards smaller sites because the latter, he says, are more likely to ignore standards and to employ relatively inexperienced migrant workers.

"Silent accidents"

Romanian and Bulgarian workers who manage to acquire an NI number still face curbs that did not trouble an earlier generation of immigrants from the EU.

Most jobs in construction are arranged through specialist employment agencies, which are typically small companies with a record for hiring from within a particular immigrant community.

These agencies act as subcontractors for bigger firms, delivering casual labour to large sites at short notice and handling much of the associated paperwork.

According to lawyers and labour experts, the A2 workers hired by such agencies are less likely to complain of dangerous conditions and low wages. Many fear being blacklisted in an economy where their options for employment are already circumscribed.

Remus Robu, a paralegal with UK law firm Levenes, often handles claims arising from accidents involving A2 workers. “Unfortunately, there are people who do lose their job when they file for compensation,” he said.

The Romanian owner of a small building company, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the existence of an informal blacklist for workers who were regarded as troublesome. But, he said, this was no different to the system of references shared by employers in other industries.

“Would you hire back somebody who had filed a claim against you?’’ he said.

The owner also told BIRN that he had persuaded a worker against reporting an accident that had led to a broken leg. He said he had paid the injured man a full wage throughout his time in recovery, and guaranteed him further employment when he was fit again.

“He agreed not to pursue a claim against me because I have a good relationship with my workers,” the owner said.

According to the HSE, any accident that leads to a broken leg has to be reported under UK law. If an employer is found to be at fault, lawyers say a worker can expect to receive between £6,000 and £36,000, depending on the severity of the injury.

Small construction firms are usually keen to avoid having claims brought against them, as these can hamper their ability to secure fresh contracts.

"Informal economy"

As well as discouraging complaints over conditions, employment agencies often pay A2 migrants a lower wage than other workers.

Many agencies deduct a form of commission from workers’ pay packets. In some cases, a payroll company – often linked to the agency – will charge an additional “admin” fee for processing salaries.

The A2 migrants have no safeguards against these cuts to their earnings. As self-employed workers, they are not eligible for the UK’s minimum wage, currently set at just over six pounds an hour.

Moreover, although technically expected to pay their own taxes, self-employed labourers are automatically taxed at source at a rate of 20 per cent, under a government scheme that applies to the construction sector alone.

The construction workers’ union, UCATT, has called for the scheme to be scrapped, saying it facilitates a form of bogus self-employment. Britain’s opposition Labour party also recently said it would review the scheme.

However, an official from the UK’s largest construction trade association said the workers in this category deserved no more sympathy than their employers for undermining their “legitimate competitors”.

“Both parties gain from effectively breaking the law and, as such, those A2s who collude in false self-employment cannot be portrayed as innocent victims,” says Peter O’ Connell, a policy manager with the Federation of Master Builders.

Stephen Ratcliffe, director of the UK Contractors Groups, a guild representing the country’s top construction firms, said criminal proceedings should be used against the “informal economy” where companies flout tax, employment and safety laws.

Both O’Connell and Ratcliffe stressed that the members of their organisations abide fully by the law.

The UK’s main trade body for employment agencies, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, declined to comment despite several requests from BIRN.

Given the ways in which working through employment agencies can eat into their earnings, many A2 workers decide to opt out of the system.

The day labourers outside the Wickes superstore in Seven Sisters include some who have an NI number but choose not to use it.

A Romanian man, who refused to give his name, says he has been in the UK for six years and regularly pays his taxes and contributions to the state.

But he supplements his official income by working cash-in-hand. “People hire me to paint their house. If they ask for an invoice, I can issue one. Otherwise, I don’t.”

“I’m done working with the agencies,” he adds. “They take too much of your money.”

Most of the men outside Wickes said they expected to earn around £50 (€60) a day. By comparison, a self-employed Romanian recruited legally through an employment agency for marshalling traffic at a building site, can expect to earn £80 (€100) per day. In other words, he will be paid only £30 (€40) more than the day labourers, out of which he must fund further tax and NI contributions.

Recruitment agencies say they pay the same wage, regardless of nationality. However, unions say that British and Polish workers can expect to be paid £9-10 per hour for jobs that will be offered to A2 workers for £5-6 per hour.

As they do not face any working restrictions, Polish and British workers are in a better position to negotiate their rates or simply take better jobs in other sectors. Romanians and Bulgarians are more likely to go with what they are offered, as they have fewer options on the job market.

"Good for business"

According to its critics, the current policy on A2 workers has created a system that deprives the state of tax revenues, undercuts British labour and leaves foreigners open to exploitation.

Labour MP Jim Sheridan has argued for tighter regulation of the employment agencies in the construction sector, along the lines of the licensing of agricultural gangmasters.

Others call for reducing self-employment in the sector by making construction firms hire more workers directly. However, this would also shift the burden for NI contributions – nearly 14 per cent of the wage bill – on to the employers.

UCATT convenor Dave Allen admits this is unlikely to happen, as it would leave the big firms with smaller budgets. “The government knows that if everybody was directly employed, the economy might suffer,” he says.

Bridget Anderson, deputy director and senior research fellow at Oxford University’s migration think-tank COMPAS, says the government should, at the very least, enforce the minimum wage regulations on all workers, British and foreign, self-employed or not.

She says the rhetoric about protecting British jobs was misleading: the curbs had undermined the established workforce while benefitting businesses by giving them a more pliant workforce.

“The more you focus on immigration control, the more you introduce transitional arrangements – the more you create a labour force that is actually more desirable for employers,” she said.

EU members cannot prevent the citizens of other member states from travelling to their countries for work. They can only impose “transitional controls” of the kind currently in place in the UK against Romanians and Bulgarians.

The UK is just one of several EU states that have imposed restrictions on A2 workers. Similar restrictions exist in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

By law, the curbs must be lifted by January 2014. However, a statement issued by the UK Border Agency last year confirmed it would apply similar “transitional restrictions” on all new EU member states to ensure that “migration benefits the UK and does not adversely impact our labour market’’.

The UK’s Border Agency, the immigration minister, and the Department for Work and Pensions all declined to be interviewed for this article.

Sorana Stanescu is a Bucharest-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. All photographs from Getty Images.

Sorana Stanescu is a Bucharest-based journalist.

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.

***


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