Special Report - Are we better off as laggards?

The Chancellor is obsessed with the productivity gap between Britain and other leading industrial na

As a sales pitch to woo those all-important inward investors to our shores, it was not one of Gordon Brown's best efforts. More Cassandra than Del Boy, he proclaimed: "Productivity levels in the US are 40 per cent higher than in Britain, and 20 per cent higher in Germany than here".

Worse, he didn't exactly keep quiet about this claim. Instead, alongside his Calvinist zeal for the "work ethic", Brown made the need for higher productivity into a mantra late last year. In November he launched a series of "productivity roadshows" and hosted confessional seminars at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury to spread the unhappy message. Rectifying Britain's laggardly performance will be a core theme of the March Budget.

But does Britain really need to pull its socks up as much as Brown says? Is there really still a huge productivity gap between us and our competitors, even after Thatcher's self-proclaimed "productivity miracle"?

Not everyone thinks so. Since Brown made this a big theme in his pre-Budget report last year - devoting 30 pages to it - a number of people have stepped forward to question his gloomy analysis. In a recent research paper, Lies, Damned Lies and Productivity Statistics, Graeme Leach, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, wrote: "Statistical deficiencies do not preclude the possibility that UK productivity levels are second only to the US. This seems unlikely, but is this caution merely the product of decades of doing Britain down in the media?"

Leach is not alone in questioning Brown's figures. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) have all produced papers doing so. The TUC report, Productivity and Partnership, for example, points out that the most recent studies of the productivity gap with the US offer estimates of between 7 and 40 per cent.

The basic squabble is over what kind of definition should be used. This may sound an arcane topic, suitable only for economic pointy-heads. But it matters because, as Leach says, "if the gap is more of a mirage, then the opportunity for a productivity miracle is undermined".

What exactly do we mean by productivity? Statistical definitions are a bit like balloon animals. You've either got your basic, crude shape - not very sophisticated. Or, with a bit of imagination and sleight of hand, you can turn your material into a far more impressive puppy.

And so it goes with productivity figures. The standard definition of productivity is output per worker. This is the figure the government uses. What this ignores, however, is exactly how many hours the worker was beavering away to produce those widgets. If, for example, it took one worker ten hours to produce a car, and another one five hours, the output would be the same, but it is easy to see that one worker was more productive than the other. Tweak the equation by sprinkling "hours worked" into it and the gap with the US magically shrinks from 40 to 20 per cent, because the average American worker puts in longer hours.

And with a bit more clever tweaking, such as that employed by Rachel Griffith and Helen Simpson of the IFS in their paper Productivity and the Role of Government, the gap shrinks to nearly zero. This is because they also factor in both the age of Britain's physical capital and its dodgy quality. Workers, it seems, can sometimes legitimately blame their tools for their poor productivity levels.

Why then does Brown persist in putting the worst possible spin on British performance? There are good and bad reasons for his doing so. Poor productivity offers a handy scapegoat for the recession now hitting manufacturing. Ministers were particularly keen last year to blame poor productivity rather than the high pound for the problems at Rover's Longbridge factory. Far better, too, to talk, as Peter Mandelson did, about linking potential government subsidy to assist the ailing factory to "productivity improvements", rather than convey the impression that the government was engaged in old-style bailouts to prop up inefficient industries.

Making an issue of poor productivity shows Brown in a macho light for focusing on a tough long-term agenda. "To caricature Brown, you could say, 'In my first Budget I solved the unemployment problem, in my second I dealt with work incentives and now, in my third, I will lick the productivity problem'," observes Peter Robinson, senior economist at the IPPR.

Highlighting a productivity problem helps to get the issue higher up the political agenda. Indeed, the Treasury itself implicitly acknowledges that the figure it cites is inflated. "We know and you know there are a number of ways of looking at this," said John Kingman, head of the Treasury's productivity panel, at an IFS conference last year. He added that the high figure acts as "a way of focusing minds on the need for further supply-side reform which seems to us to be desirable". The seminars and the roadshows all helped to "build a public perception that this was an important priority".

And so it should be. Although it is possible to explain away why Britain has worse levels of productivity (shorter average hours, or ageing equipment and so on) this does not mean that we should ignore Britain's relative decline. Higher productivity does matter because, as Brown puts it, it is the "key to the stronger economy - to higher growth, more jobs and opportunities, and better living standards for us all".

How do we get to this economic utopia? There are lots of different routes. Margaret Thatcher thought she had found one and talked boldly of a "productivity miracle" in the 1980s. And although Peter Mandelson has claimed that "productivity relative to our main competitors did not improve during the Tory years", there is a body of evidence that contradicts him. Britain did see a marked reduction in the productivity gap, particularly in manufacturing, after a time of slow productivity growth, and even some decline, during the 1970s.

"It is hard to say Britain didn't improve," says Nicholas Crafts, professor of economics at the London School of Economics. However, some of that improvement came at a price. "The revival in manufacturing productivity growth stemmed mostly from reductions in employment; output rose at only 1.2 per cent per year during 1979-89," wrote Crafts in Britain's Relative Economic Decline 1850-1995,published by the Social Market Foundation.

Despite these improvements, Britain's relative economic decline was stalled, not reversed. Worse, official estimates of manufacturing productivity growth suggest that since 1994 even this progress has stopped, with spartan growth since then. Adair Turner, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, argues: "The process of liberalising the economy in key ways, the productivity improvements in the privatised industries, labour market reforms and the relegitimisation of enterprise and business as key social values were all beneficial. So this government has to preserve them." But, he adds, "Thatcher's changes were probably a necessary but not sufficient condition for us to close the gap".

So what is still missing? For Turner there are two important elements. "Between 1979 and 1993 there were dramatic booms and busts. These are relevant to the productivity debate because in a more volatile macroeconomic environment it is more rational for businesses to focus on the short term."

The first way for Brown to help improve productivity, then, is to ensure that there is fiscal and monetary stability. "The more you strip out financial noise," argues Turner, "the more you can concentrate on the fundamentals." He suggests, however, that this stability may not be enough. "Does the pursuit of macroeconomic stability also require going into the euro? On balance I would say yes."

The second factor that Turner thinks significant is "the failure to grip the education system. We have a less skilled workforce compared with our major competitors. Therefore we need to focus on an education and skills agenda."

This kind of view, however, is dismissed by the McKinsey Global Institute, whose paper on British productivity helped jump-start the debate last year. It sees "low capital investment, poor skills and sub-scale operations" as merely secondary effects. Instead, McKinsey touts a neo-liberal agenda of ever more deregulation, arguing that the productivity gap is "the effect of regulations governing product markets and land use on competitive behaviour, investment and pricing".

Although this conclusion has been embraced by the Institute of Directors, there are not many others who subscribe to it. The Treasury's John Kingman says: "It [the McKinsey paper] was not something the government had commissioned and they have their own views. They are better on individual sectors than on the economy as a whole. They are more convincing at explaining the gap with the US instead of continental Europe."

The TUC has also duffed up McKinsey's findings. It points out that it is bizarre to say we are less productive than France and Germany because we are over-regulated. Those two economies, after all, are far more snarled up in red tape. The TUC argues that the real causes of poor performance are "under-investment, skill shortages and poor workplace relationships". While Britain was better at cost-cutting in the 1980s, Germany's higher labour productivity comes from a history of higher investments in human and physical capital.

The TUC is right to emphasise the need for higher levels of investment. However, its focus is still very much on improving manufacturing industry. Increasingly, experts recognise the crucial role of productivity in the service sector, which matters more than manufacturing, since the latter makes up only around a fifth of the overall economy.

Nicholas Crafts agrees that "we focus far too much on manufacturing. The lever for improving it is not necessarily the same as for services. It requires a different sort of human capital."

Mary O'Mahony, an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, is one of the few people who has attempted to quantify rigorously how Britain compares in this area. It's not all doom and gloom. Based on her data she found that, in sectors such as mining, utilities and construction, British labour is more productive than its French, German, American and Japanese counterparts. Overall, however, she concludes that "Britain does not generally enjoy a comparative labour productivity advantage in service sectors".

Figuring out ways to measure, or even boost, productivity in services is tough because what you mean by "output" is tricky. School class sizes are a good example of this. You could argue that the government's commitment to smaller classes, made in its five pre-election pledges, is a commitment to lower productivity in education because there will be more teachers ("input") to each child ("output"). But shouldn't "output" in education be measured by results? And, if so, which results: more exam passes, higher literacy levels, lower delinquency rates?

Or take retailing, in which France is far more productive than Britain. This is partly because there is more land available to build whopping big hypermarkets on the edges of towns. And they offer poorer service levels than British stores. There are no bag packers or people in unfashionable garb offering to show you where to find muesli. The French may be more productive in retailing, but are they really "better"?

A similar dilemma faces the hotel industry. Is a hotel "better" because guests have to make their own coffee and carry their own luggage? And again it is easier for a hotel to be more productive on a greenfield site than on an older one simply because you can design it so that, say, the kitchen is near to the dining room. Both France (which has the same population as Britain but twice the land) and America have a highly productive hotel sector, partly because they have the room for new edge-of-town development. One survey found that, for new hotels in Britain, the break-even occupancy rate was 80 per cent, compared with just 50 per cent in America.

Should we then rip up our planning laws as part of an effort to squeeze more productivity out of hotels? Most people would say not. But different issues are raised by efforts to forge industrial clusters, such as a mini-Silicon Valley in Cambridge. In this case, people like Adair Turner would argue that it may be worth compromising social welfare and allowing development to proceed in order to boost hi-tech productivity. What matters, Turner explains, is whether the industry is one which could have "a cumulative dynamic effect" on the rest of the economy.

The existence of these potential trade-offs suggests that the government needs to be careful about over-hyping the importance of higher productivity. A big part of the political problem is that long-run productivity performance can have nasty side-effects in the short term. There are often good reasons to prefer lower productivity. As Nicholas Crafts sees it, "productivity is a benchmark for performance, instead of an objective in itself ".

The additional danger is that, as Britain faces an economic downturn, efforts to get short-term productivity improvements are more likely to involve job losses or tougher conditions for workers - as they did at Rover's Longbridge plant - than expansionary investment to sustain economic development.

Speaking at the launch of the CBI's Fit for the Future campaign, Turner acknowledged this prognosis when he said "we need to improve more than productivity. If we simply improve productivity we will create a high unemployment economy."

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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.

 

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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