Malala recovering in hospital in the UK with her family. Photograph: Getty Images
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Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire

The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. But politicians there are less keen to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

On Wednesday 11 October, a group of schoolgirls marched through an affluent area of Kara - chi, holding banners and placards that read: “We are all Malala.” Residents of such areas seldom walk the streets, as they fear robbery or kidnap, so it was a striking move. From Lahore to Islamabad to Peshawar, similar scenes played out all over Pakistan. Both women and men held processions, candlelit vigils and public prayer sessions for Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old schoolgirl and activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban assassin who had boarded her school bus.

Malala came to public attention at the age of 11 when she began to write a blog for BBC Urdu.

It recounted what it was like living under the Taliban in the months after they took control of her native Swat Valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, in 2009. Written under the pseudonym “Gul Makai”, the blog described the child’s terror that her education would come to a halt. “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban,” the first blog began. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat . . . I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”

Both Malala and most of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that dominates Pakistan’s north western regions and who account for more than half of the population of Afghanistan. She was given her first name, which means “grief-stricken”, after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun warrior-woman. The Yousafzai, her tribe, are prominent in Swat, where her father, Ziauddin, runs a chain of schools. It was he, an educational activist, who put Malala’s name forward for the BBC blog after a producer approached him asking for suggestions.

The former princely state of Swat is a green oasis in the north-west of Pakistan previously popular with honeymooning couples. But from 2007 it became the victim of a sustained assault by the Taliban. After crossing over the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the militant group gradually moved down from the hills towards Swat. A military operation in 2007 failed to defeat the Islamist insurgents, and by 2009 they had gained control of as much as 80 per cent of the region. Following a period of tacit acquiescence by Islamabad, a second military offensive was mounted in May 2009, after which the army declared that the Taliban had been eliminated from Swat. After this, Malala appeared on national television to discuss the subject of girls’ education. She became a potent symbol of resistance against the Taliban and last year the Pakistani government honoured her for her activism with the country’s first National Peace Award for Youth.

Even after she was put on a Taliban hit list at the start of the year she was undeterred. “Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” Malala said on television. “I take my sandal and hit them on the face and say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. Education is our right, don’t take it from us.’ There is this quality in me – I’m ready for all situations. So even if (God let this not happen) they kill me, I’ll first say to them, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’”

On Tuesday 9 October, Malala was sitting on a school bus in her home city of Mingora, waiting to return home from morning lessons. A bearded man entered the bus and shot her at close range in the head and leg. (Two of Malala’s classmates were also injured.) She was given emergency treatment and taken to a hospital intensive-care unit in Peshawar, 105 miles from Mingora.

The extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack and warned that, if the girl survived, another attempt would be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” said a TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

Fifty clerics from the Sunni Ittehad Council, one of the country’s Islamist parties, responded by issuing a fatwa that condemned the shooting as “un-Islamic”. They said that US drone attacks were no excuse for the Taliban’s action and that Islam does not prohibit the education of women.

The bullet grazed Malala’s brain and lodged in her neck. After it was removed, she was flown on 15 October to England, with her condition still critical. On arrival, she was transferred to a specialist unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her treatment is being paid for by the government of Pakistan.  She is in a stable condition, even communicating by writing notes, but doctors have warned that she is “not out of the woods yet”, due to signs of infection.

****

In rural Pakistan, and especially in the areas of Taliban insurgency, a woman who defends her rights is taking a risk. On 5 July, a social worker and women’s activist, Farida Afridi, was shot dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as punishment for being an “agent of change” in the tribal areas. The incident passed without much notice.

One woman activist who agitated for change and lived to tell the tale is Mukhtar Mai, from a village in the Muzaffargarh District. In 2002 she was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council in an act of so-called honour revenge. Tradition dictates that a woman should commit suicide after a gang-rape, but Mukhtar refused and fought the case. Six of her rapists and attackers were sentenced to death for the crime but all were later acquitted by the courts. However, her struggles were reported widely in Pakistan and abroad, and she has become a prominent advocate for women’s rights.

I spoke to her on the phone from her home in Muzaffargarh, where she has opened a girls’ school and women’s crisis centre. “I feel so good about the public response to Malala,” she said, her voice firm. “She’s just a child and yet she’s fought for a nation. When they shot her, it was not just Malala who fielded the bullet; thousands of Malalas were wounded. Today it was her turn for the bullet; tomorrow it could be some other. It could be me. I pray for her.”

Mukhtar frequently receives death threats. “I get calls every couple of weeks. They ring on
three [different] telephone numbers and say obscene things and make threats,” she says. “I’ve passed the messages on to the police – not a thing is done.”

Her girls’ school was attacked by militants days before the Malala shooting. When the assailants did not find her there, they smashed the windows and beat up senior teachers. “There is always danger but the work I need to do is more important than my life. My life is in God’s hands.”

Like Malala, Mukhtar shows immense bravery, resilience and defiance. The failure of the state to provide protection for these women is symptomatic not only of a wider failure of criminal justice but of Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude to Islamic extremism.

****

Malala’s shooting was condemned by politicians from various parties. Billboards have been erected around Karachi by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) displaying a photograph of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, next to an image of Malala, with the slogan “Your daughters will keep fighting”. However, many doubt that these declarations of outrage will translate into further action.

“There is no clarity from the military and security establishment on whether they wish to take on these people and ensure that they respect the rule of law, or whether they wish to use them as allies,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “Until they resolve this contradiction, the Taliban and affiliated groups will seek to expand political and social space. The attack on Malala is an example of just that.”

The rallies held across the country were a moving testament to public support for Malala and what she stood for. But they were nothing compared to the state-backed protests against the anti Islamic Innocence of Muslims film that swept Pakistan’s major cities several weeks previously. Mainstream political parties can easily mobilise people in their tens of thousands but they are choosing not to, perhaps because they rely on Islamist groups for votes and backing in parliament.

Nowhere has the Pakistani state’s inconsistent attitudes to militancy been felt more acutely than in Swat. In February 2009, after the Taliban had taken control of the valleys and cities of the region, the PPP-led government signed a peace deal with the Taliban that gave them de facto control of the Malakand Division, an administrative area that contains Swat. The deal was made in the mistaken belief that this would stop them from trying to take more ground. The brief period of Taliban rule in Swat was nightmarish. Men were required to grow beards and women forced into wearing burqas. Those who did not comply were publicly lashed or beheaded. More than 400 of the 1,576 schools in Swat were closed, 70 per cent of them girls’ schools. The Taliban did not stop there. Buoyed by their tactical victory, they ventured deeper into Pakistan, launching audacious attacks. Eventually the army was forced to take action. The subsequent military campaign, from May to July 2009, resulted in the displacement of two million people. Although the army claimed to have dismantled Taliban networks, most of the commanders were not captured, and three years later the leading players remain at large.

In April 2009, before the army moved in, a YouTube video prompted outrage comparable with that of recent weeks. It shows a 17-yearold woman, in a burqa and lying face down on the floor, in the Swat town of Kabal. One man holds her down by the arms and head, a second holds down her legs, and a third, facing the camera, grimly lashes her as she screams for mercy. A crowd of men, largely silent, looks on. Much as with the Malala attack, the video was a reminder of the brutality of the Taliban insurgents, and it energised public opinion. In May 2009, the military moved to recapture the Swat District.

****

One recent afternoon, I visited a government school in central Karachi, a sprawling, rundown building that is facing demolition by the state. Young girls in uniform headscarves filled the playground, so that there was hardly any room to move. Open sewage ran through one section of the grounds and the roof of one of the buildings was open to the sky. Yet parents and residents of this low-income, largely Pashtun neighbourhood are fighting to keep the school open.

The fight to save the school is just one example of the premium placed on education across Pakistan – regardless of gender. “People will perhaps agree that the price of going to school is that their daughters cover their heads, because there is a political instinct to appease rather than to confront,” says Hasan from Human Rights Watch. “But it is another thing to say she will not go to school. That is something that urban Pakistan has no time for.”

The type of education on offer is not always ideal. Madrasas, or religious schools, are frequently incubators of militancy in the urban centres. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many preach a harsh version of Islam that is at odds with the forms that are established parts of the culture in south Asia. But the reasons for their influence are not always ideological. “If you find a poor male, who is out of a job, who is hungry, who can’t feed his family, he’s prey for being picked up and being turned into a militant,” says Najma Sadeque, a journalist and feminist activist. “Most send their children to madrasas because it’s a place where they can get free meals. It’s as basic as that. By not ensuring food security, not looking into economic and social problems, the government is just breeding more and more of this militancy.”

Although the main battleground of the Islamist insurgency is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the rest of the country is far from exempt. “Militancy and extremism run the length and breadth of Pakistan,” Hasan says. “That’s why it is so difficult to address, because it has permeated society. This is not a geographical thing. It’s a social landscape issue. That requires a series of remedial short-term, long-term and medium-term measures.”

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.

While the dominant mood remains one of disgust and outrage about what happened, several newspapers have questioned why so much attention is being given to Malala when hundreds of nameless women and children have been killed in US drone attacks. Others repeat the widespread theory that the Taliban are being funded by Washington as a ploy to keep Pakistan unstable. “It is not just a question of one little girl’s life. It is a question of the survival of the state,” Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told me. “The threat has to be addressed and names have to be named.”

Above all, the attack on Malala reiterated how much the Taliban hate educated and independent women. This virulent, visceral hatred is as much founded in tribal codes as it is the product of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, said that it was “condemnable” to justify the attack on Malala with talk of US drones and that her shooting should bring to an end all talk of negotiating with the TTP.

“The whole issue of good Taliban and bad Taliban is not valid because all Taliban are bad for women,” Haroon told me. “They have the same ideology, the same policies, the same patriarchal mindset. It doesn’t make any difference to us which type of Taliban. They are the same as far as women are concerned.”

There is fear in Pakistan. Many people do not travel without a chauffeur or an armed guard; others avoid going out on Fridays, when crowds amass around prayer time, in case of bomb attacks. But in spite of all this, women’s rights activists are refusing to be silenced. “The future is brighter,” Mukhtar Mai, the prominent advocate, says. “Women have found their voice. They use it in public to ask for their rights. You see now, even a child like Malala has the courage to speak out.

“There are dangers, but placed against the need to achieve something, to express yourself, the threat is diminished. The women here are fighting for release from their pain.”

Samira Shackle is a former NS staff writer now living and working in Karachi.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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