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Is Google evil?

The online search giant is the internet’s greatest success story. But as ever more data is amassed,

Records of Broughton in Buckinghamshire date back to the Domesday Book, the first medieval census - a comprehensive account of hitherto uncollected personal information. Nearly a millennium later, the online search giant Google was in the former village (now a suburb of Milton Keynes) updating records for its online mapping tool, Street View. A little after 9am on a Wednesday morning, an unmarked black Vauxhall Astra was spotted with a camera on a metre-high pole. People didn't like that "it could see over their garden walls", recalls the local councillor John Bint.

“The car was parked here on the corner," explains Edward Butler-Ellis, a member of the local Neighbourhood Watch. "A crowd gathered around it, but [it was] not the barricade with pitchforks and so forth that [the media] were so intent on promoting. It was a perfectly civil discussion." By the time the police arrived, the car was gone. "The story escalated way beyond what we'd anticipated. We just wanted the chap to go away."

By Friday morning, the event had generated thousands of hits on Google News. "A lot of people didn't realise what was happening," Butler-Ellis says. "My gran had never heard of Google really. When I told her about the cameras, it made her blood boil. 'How dare these people come and take photographs of my house without asking me?' she said."

The controversy seemed to surprise Google; the firm has long and loudly professed its objective to gather user and other data in a quest “to organise the world's information". The company is so good at this that David Cameron wants to put it in charge of organising our medical records. Its products don't just use data, they help us find it - and we continue to ask for help. When we use its software, and with our permission, Google's "bots" follow us everywhere we go: as we search the internet, look up an address, reply to an email, make a purchase, chat with our friends online or walk about with our mobile phone. Though it does not recognise you as an individual, Google's software could soon track and store almost everything you want - and everything you do.

The Google story begins in 1996 with Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two young engineers newly enrolled in a PhD programme at Stanford University in California. The web was in its infancy; finding information online was as cumbersome as wading through the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and often far less decent. Brin and Page had an idea. They chose to look at links between websites instead of just site content, as other search services did. If you, say, searched for "coffee", the old search engines would give you the pages with the most mentions of "coffee". Google gave you the pages that had the most links to them from other sites. So you might get a page that mentioned "coffee" less often, but was deemed more authoritative by previous visitors.

Within a year, the pair had raised a million dollars to develop their project, but then faced the challenge of finding a way to make money out of it. Their solution - charge companies to advertise on specific searches, right next to the results.

The pair's innovation transformed Google into a new type of company that has defined the internet, one that organises information in order to make money from advertising, knowing what users want and telling them how to get it. That's why they needed the photos from Milton Keynes: for a service that, every day, shows millions of people how to get to where they want to go and what they want to find, along with-as part of the Google Maps service-a carefully targeted advert or two.

The model has put Google in conflict with privacy campaigners. Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, sees it less as a search or email company than an advertising company. "That's how they make all their money," he says. Certainly, Google's growth since 2000 has been about finding ways to advance beyond search ads, advertising against thousands of other web pages, including its own email service.

In each case, Google uses information we provide to serve us the right advertisements at the right time. Sometimes, as in Gmail (now Googlemail in the UK and Germany), it's the words we're reading that drive the advertisements: a friend writes that he's livid about a recent football loss, and you see an advert for football tickets. On our mobile devices, it's the GPS tracking that could enable Google to serve up location-based ads.

Hosein thinks Google is working hard to build privacy checks into its system; no human being ever reads your email or scans your searches. But the expansionist vision of Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, troubles him. There are 600 million internet-enabled mobile phones out there; that could give Google an even richer seam than search. Phones are very personal in the data they collect. As Schmidt told Maria Bartiromo in BusinessWeek last month: "If we know a fair amount about a person, with their permission, we can target a useful ad - you know, 'It's Eric. You had a hamburger yesterday, do you want pizza today? There's a pizza store on the right.' That kind of ad is likely worth a lot of money to an advertiser because it will generate a sale."

It could be worth a lot to Google, too, enabling it to expand its prowess beyond PCs. With nine billion searches on its pages a month, Google has a 65 per cent share of the US search market, according to the online data-tracker comScore. Its next largest competitor, the once-mighty Yahoo!, has just fallen below the 20 per cent mark. Here in the UK, Google's dominance is even more pronounced: another data-tracker, Hitwise, puts Google's share at 90 per cent, followed by a handful of competitors with less than 3 per cent each.

In other areas of advertising, such as banner ads on partner pages, no one player has a clear majority share yet. But data from Credit Suisse and Evercore Partners suggests that Google is poised to grasp one, showing the fastest growth in each category of advertising, as well as the largest single share (31 per cent) of all online advertising. In the UK, the situation is even more pronounced. As Nigel Gwilliam of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising puts it, "You can get figures for Google's total revenue in the UK from their financial statements [and] compare their total income to the total UK market. Certainly, the last time I looked, they were in their own right half the [online advertising] market. Search is traded as a dedicated marketplace, and within that they were almost the market."

Google's unparalleled popularity makes its targeting technology even more valuable to advertisers, because having more users delivering collective wisdom about what they find relevant increases the chances of a good advertising match. How much more valuable is hard to quantify, but Google took $21bn in advertising revenue last year, and managed to make a profit of almost $8bn. That represents 30 per cent growth since 2007 and a 40 per cent operating margin - an astonishing performance in any year, but especially during a global recession.

Though some of the protesters in Broughton might have been concerned that Google was out to make a profit from the images of their homes, there is nothing wrong, in legal terms, with it doing so - especially as, in this case, the photos were taken from a public street. On Google's home turf in the US, there are no privacy laws that specifically govern online user data, just a host of voluntary compliance guidelines. For the most part, these guidelines permit all forms of data collection, so long as companies don't lie to consumers about what is being recorded. The European Commission goes a little further: it bars companies in EU member states from holding personal data longer than their express business purpose requires. Google's express business purpose, Hosein notes, is to hold the data we provide in the online "cloud", where it may stay indefinitely. As Schmidt's vision of hamburger-hawking mobile phones reveals, Google is not apologetic about its business model.

Hosein is critical of what he sees as the failings of a legal order built on what companies say they will do, rather than explicit restrictions on what they can do, which means that they can only be penalised for breaking their own commitments - that is, for holding more data, for a longer period of time or for a different use, than they initially promised. The penalty a company faces for going against its word is a flat £5,000 in the UK; in the US, it's just a verbal slap on the wrist.

Yet data aggregation and targeted advertising - the practices that make Google so profitable, and so alarming to some - risk landing the company in a different sort of trouble: the quagmire of competition law. By being strategically so good at pursuing its founders' data-driven vision of the social good, might Google cross a legal line with its potential dominance in gathering and organising information? The question agitates the otherwise amiable Oliver Rickman, Google's UK spokesman. A casual post on the social networking site Twitter, requesting information from friends for this story, received a quick rebuttal from the company.

Rickman is not wrong to be worried. After all, antitrust law (as competition law is known across the Atlantic) succeeded in breaking up the world's largest oil company, Standard Oil, in 1911, and came close to victory against Microsoft a decade ago. That is why Google has invested in a top-of-the-line legal defence team, led by Dana Wagner, a young lawyer who cut his teeth at the US department of justice. Fresh from the older, greyer offices of federal regulators, Google's new recruit is fiercely committed to the company's mission and promises. He dismisses most anti­trust arguments as the cynicism of competitors, or those who haven't seen the digital light. "One of the reasons the internet has been so successful and such an engine for growth and innovation is that there hasn't been a lot of regulation," he says. "There is certainly a role for sensible antitrust law, but it should be kept to a minimum."

The law is broadly similar in the US and the EU. Structured to protect companies from one another as much as to protect consumers, competition provisions (or antitrust laws) bar dominant companies from abusing their position to destroy rivals or overcharge customers, and seek to prevent rising stars in an industry from using unfair practices - such as price manipulation, customer coercion, collusion with rivals or merger activity - to secure dominance. Mergers and acquisitions involving dominant players that reduce competition are particularly closely scrutinised, even if the company hasn't otherwise abused its position.

All these provisions, however, begin with market definition: what is the company really selling and to whom? And has it done anything specific and deliberate to block out - or buy out - the competition or to manipulate price to the customer? Google says it hasn't, insisting that its dominance in search and search-based advertising is a function of its superior products and technology. Indeed, the company has even set up a "Data Liberation Front", apparently to ensure consumers are not "locked in" to its products. They remain with Google by choice. Richard Liebeskind, a former justice department lawyer who now specialises in antitrust litigation, explains: "If you gain a monopoly by skill, foresight and industry, none of that violates the antitrust laws." Google being big may be scary, but it's not illegal.

Nonetheless, in 2007, when Google decided to buy another advertising firm - DoubleClick - rivals including Microsoft and Yahoo! were quick to condemn the deal, arguing that it gave Google an unfair monopoly. By a vote of four to one, the US Federal Trade Commission decided it did not. But Google was now being watched. When, in 2008, it tried to strike a partnership with Yahoo!, the US department of justice decided it would investigate. Google abandoned the deal. Wagner claims that many challengers are just envious of Google's search skills. After all, rivals - led by Microsoft - have pooled their funds to get their own team, a venture euphemistically named Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (ICOMP).

Momentum to challenge Google is building from smaller players, too, with different search technology. One firm, TradeComet.com, filed suit in February this year, alleging that Google had "terminated the voluntary course of dealing it had with SourceTool [TradeComet's affiliate] by manipulating its auctions so that SourceTool faced vastly higher prices to acquire search traffic, prices so high it was uneconomical for SourceTool to win auctions that it had routinely won prior to Google's exclusionary strategy". Google denies the allegations and is fighting them vigorously.

Wagner is unperturbed. "As a successful company, we expect scrutiny; we're not bothered by it," he says. Yet Christine Varney, newly appointed by President Obama to lead the antitrust division at the US justice department, has an eye on the company. "Microsoft are so last century," Varney is reported to have said before her appointment. "Google has a monopoly in online advertising."

Her first task will be to rule on the legality of a deal Google has struck with US copyright holders to digitise millions of old library books and make them available and searchable online. The endeavour is costing Google hundreds of millions of pounds and has won praise for its scope, but the deal includes clauses that could make it harder for anyone else to do the same. While publishers may offer similar agreements to other companies, they may not offer them better terms than Google now enjoys. In addition, in a quirk of the terms, Google obtained exclusive access to so-called orphan works - out-of-print books with expired copyrights where there is no copyright holder who can offer the books to other companies. The case goes to the heart of Google's core business model: acquiring access to, searching and then monetising data that is already out there. Like the gardens of Milton Keynes, what's valuable about the library to Google is finding out what users search for within it.

Predictably, Microsoft was the first to complain. David Wood of ICOMP says: "If antitrust law fails in this case, that means we need new regulations." The case for new regulations - or at least new case law - was previously made by Pamela Jones Harbour, the one US federal trade commissioner who dissented from the Double­Click judgment in December 2007. (The FTC, incidentally, couldn't find her opinion, and advised that we use Google to search for it.)

Google successfully argued that, because DoubleClick was a display ad firm specialising in flashy banners and Google's ads were mostly tied to keywords and came in text form, the two firms weren't really in the same business, and so Google would not gain a significant advantage in the market. Harbour's view had been that Google was in the business of "targeted online advertising", and any and all data that advertisers want would eventually be useful to it. She explained: "Search information, gathered by Google, combined with browsing information [information on what sites we visit], gathered by DoubleClick, will create a far richer source of data to enable highly targeted advertising."

In Harbour's view, expansion that brought Google new data could further its dominance in targeting adverts to what we say we want. Whether it is adding new books to search pages that users visit or new features to Gmail, Google is expanding its share in the only online market from which anyone has worked out how to make money: online user data.

Harbour was arguing that Google's expanding share of user data would give it an unassailable advantage in targeting online adverts. In doing so, she was making the link between privacy concerns about Google's control of personal information and competition concerns about Google's dominance in online advertising. As Harbour wrote in her dissent, "After all, why would Google pay billions of dollars for Double­Click out of the hands of competitors, if Google does not intend to combine the two firms' valuable datasets?"

At the time, Google insisted advertisers did not see it that way. Since then, the ground has shifted. As Wagner says: "Before, text-based search ads were like direct-response ads, where display ads were based on branding, but now people realise that there's a branding value to search ads and, as the technology improves, they do converge." Increasingly, Google uses the same insights about our preferences to target all internet advertising.

This is leading some lawyers to look back at Harbour's proposed remedies. In the case of Google and DoubleClick, she wrote, "The commission could have asked the parties to make binding commitments regarding their handling of data, and to memorialise those representations in a consent agreement." She suggested that the FTC adopt this standard as a "future approach to data mergers".

As Google's legal team points out, other companies such as Microsoft now see advertising based on user preferences as the main revenue source online and can seek to obtain, and monetise, user data, too. That hardly helps regulators and consumers who may want less, not more, surveillance. However, solving the problem is difficult: on the fast-changing web, predictions about what Google and its peers will do next are often shots in the dark. We know a whole lot less about their plans than they do about us.

Maha Atal is a business journalist in New York. Damian Kahya is a journalist based in London

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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