Weather makers

As storms break around Gordon Brown and David Cameron, politics is being shaped not by the party lea

On the evening before Gordon Brown's career-defining speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester, he met James Murdoch, the 35-year-old who is chief executive in Europe and Asia of his father Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, News Corporation, and whose position includes control of the British newspaper group News International. The two men talked for nearly an hour, discussing in particular the global financial crisis. It is unprecedented for Brown to have spent so long on anything other than refining his leader's speech on the night before he delivered it. That this meeting took place when it did and for the length it did confirms what many already suspected: James Murdoch has become the most powerful figure in the British media.

Before Tony Blair became leader, Labour politicians would complain about the deep-rooted Conservatism of the British press, and with good reason. In the Eighties, only the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the Guardian and the Observer supported Labour. The Mail and Telegraph titles were robust backers of the Conservatives, as were the Daily and Sunday Express. Murdoch's market-leading publications - the Sun, News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times - were Thatcher's cheerleaders. The Sun and News of the World continued to endorse John Major following his election victory in 1992, even as they chronicled the collapse of his fatigued and divided government. Winning the support of the Sun, in the run-up to the 1997 election, was a pivotal moment for new Labour, the culmination of a sustained campaign to woo Murdoch that began when Peter Mandelson became Labour's director of communication in 1985. This meant that a Labour administration could operate in a climate where the political weather wasn't being created by an overwhelmingly hostile press.

When Gordon Brown and his advisers first surveyed the media landscape after he became Prime Minister in June 2007, it was agreed that it was imperative they retain the support of the Murdoch titles. But there was also optimism in the Brown camp that a hostile Tory press could be neutralised. There was a feeling that old allies in the press, including the Guardian, edited by Alan Rusbridger, would embrace Brown after losing faith in Blair over the Iraq W.ar. The Guardian columnists Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland and Jackie Ashley were all trenchant supporters of Brown. The Daily Mail had been vitriolic in its criticism of new Labour and of Tony Blair personally, but Brown has long enjoyed good relations with its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre. Dacre, it is said, admires the Prime Minister's probity and moral convictions, if not his politics, and the decision to shelve the construction of several planned "super-casinos' delighted the Mail. The Daily Telegraph is broadly supportive of the Conservatives, but senior executives as well as commentators such as editor-at-large Jeff Randall and associate editor Simon Heffer are sceptical of David Cameron's social liberalism. The Sunday Telegraph is close to the Brown government; the political editor, Patrick Hennessy, is a friend of Ed Balls and he was given an exclusive interview by Brown on the eve of the Manchester conference.

Yet the tectonic plates have started to shift beneath Fleet Street. The Daily Mail leader columns still occasionally profess admiration for Brown while also fiercely denouncing his government elsewhere in the paper. Last month, the Mail also published a significant editorial in which David Cameron was acclaimed as a possible future Prime Minister. The Guardian has begun to take the Conservative revival more seriously, and Toynbee, Ashley and Freedland have turned against Brown; they now call weekly for his departure. That might explain why Brown made only a fleeting visit to the paper's late-night party in Manchester, choosing instead to spend half an hour at the rival Daily Telegraph party, where he chatted at length to its editor-in-chief, Will Lewis.

Over the summer, as the Tories built a 20-point lead in the opinion polls, the media became less sceptical of Cameron, choosing to focus instead on Brown's diminished popularity and party disunity. That became the central story around which every other political event was made to fit. In those circumstances, the Prime Minister's widely maligned press adviser, Damian McBride, deserves credit for ensuring that his employer did not receive harsher treatment from the press during his annus horribilis. McBride has been accused of briefing against members of the government, and some cabinet ministers are urging Brown to sack him, but there are some political correspondents who believe that without him the Prime Minister's position would be irrecoverable.

The Prime Minister does not have the same close relationship with James Murdoch as he does with his father. Rupert Murdoch - and his economic adviser Irwin Stelzer - respects Brown's intellect and knowledge of global economics. Last week's conversation between Brown and James Murdoch was an attempt to bring the two closer together. Sources close to the government say that Rupert Murdoch remains important to Brown internationally, pointing out that his experience and opinion is valued by other world leaders. They believe that if Murdoch told the White House that Brown was finished, he would wield far less global influence. As it is, Murdoch urges world leaders to seek the Prime Minister's advice, particularly on economic matters, which is one of the reasons Bush granted Brown a 90-minute audience in the Oval office during an unscheduled visit to Washington last week. "Murdoch's respect for Brown's understanding of the world economy is absolutely key to his ongoing respect for him," says one source. "Murdoch's critics might argue politicians are too quick to credit him with power he does not possess, but they will continue to court him as long as he remains influential on the world stage."

In an era when ideological differences between the two parties are less pronounced, personal relationships have more currency, and No 10 has worked hard to strengthen links with the press, although it is a source of frustration for some in Downing Street that Brown does not engage with members of the so-called commentariat, many of whom enjoyed regular access to Blair. The Prime Minister is, unlike his predecessor, unwilling to spend time having coffee with commentators such as Peter Riddell of the Times or Anne McElvoy of the London Evening Standard, not because he doesn't respect or like them, but because he thinks he has more important work in hand. Blair's good and open relations with newspaper commentators and opinion formers meant he could generally rely on supportive columns, even after a terrible week. Brown has not been so fortunate.

Relations with Fleet Street executives are more cordial. The Telegraph editor Will Lewis knew Brown well when he was a young Financial Times journalist and Brown was shadow trade and industry secretary. They subsequently drifted apart, but the respect remains mutual. The Prime Minister is also friendly with Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, and a fellow Scot.

Alliances with News International remain strong, thanks in large part to the work of Sarah Brown, who, in a brilliantly executed piece of political theatre, introduced her husband's main speech in Manchester. Sarah has been described as Gordon's "secret weapon", but those close to her point out that she has been carrying out an emissarial role for some time, effectively acting as an unofficial press attaché for her husband. She hosted a recent charity dinner in New York with the Sun's editor Rebekah Wade and Wendi Murdoch, Rupert's third wife. A plan to take Wade on the Prime Minister's plane to the United States was scrapped, but the Murdoch clan's close relationship with Sarah was much in evidence on the American trip. His daughter Elisabeth Murdoch, who runs her own TV production company, delivered a glowing tribute to the Prime Minister's wife at the function, which was attended by bankers, models and actresses. Wendi was seen at a private dinner at Soho House, in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, attended by Sarah the following night. Sarah also organised a trip with Paul Dacre to see Hamlet at Stratford, and she helped plan Rebekah Wade's 40th birthday party earlier this year. As befits a former professional public relations executive, Sarah has good relations with the editors of some of the bestselling, and most influential, women's lifestyle magazines.

Further evidence of the deep ties between the government and the Murdoch family were on display earlier this month at a party to celebrate Elisabeth Murdoch's 40th birthday, held at the country home in Oxfordshire she recently bought with her husband Matthew Freud. At the gathering, Rupert Murdoch read out a message from Gordon Brown apologising for his absence, explaining that he and Sarah were with "the other Liz" in Balmoral that weekend. Etiquette may have required the PM to visit the Queen, but there is little doubt which is the more powerful family. Other guests at the Murdoch party included Tony Blair, David Miliband, the Times editor James Harding and Will Lewis of the Daily Telegraph. David Cameron was there, too, but he is still largely on the outside, waiting in hope for an endorsement from Rupert Murdoch. That Cameron's director of com munications and planning, Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, is a member of Cameron's inner circle may help to change that. Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy, has wide influence, but he has few direct dealings with the press and, in any event, is living in California (his wife works for Google). James Murdoch's friendship with the shadow chancellor George Osborne, whose social liberalism is consistent with his own, may ultimately have more influence on the Murdochs' position - and, by implication, that of their British newspapers - on the Tories.

But are we at the end of an era? The next election may be the last at which national newspapers exert such a decisive influence over the way the country votes. Although newspapers still reflect the nation's mood, and help to shape it, sales figures suggest they are no longer as powerful as they once were. The combined circulation of daily newspapers (excluding the Daily Star) has fallen from 11.3 million to 9.68 million since the last general election; the decline since 1997 is even more pronounced. Those circulation figures obviously do not take account of the growing power and influence of newspaper websites, or the startling transformations media groups have made in their online operations in the past year, but no one doubts that the information industry is fragmenting.

Unlike in the US, where sites such as the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report often break stories followed by the national media, this country has not produced a truly influential online commentator with power to set the news agenda, though bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are read. They are both right-of-centre commentators, and it is notable that the left has been particularly slow to harness new technology, as Barack Obama has done so successfully in the US.

The internet has changed the news cycle, rendering front-page exclusives out of date long before they are read. Newspapers looked slow and flat-footed when they told readers last week that the US treasury secretary Hank Paulson had won support for his $700bn bailout deal hours after it was scuppered by Congress. Broadcasters, now regarded as more important than the press by No 10, still take their lead from Fleet Street, however. The BBC regularly follows Daily Mail scoops, although senior BBC sources say they uncover enough stories of their own and follow newspaper exclusives regardless of where they are published.

There is some disgruntlement at No 10 about new arrivals at the BBC, which is placing former Conservative supporters in executive roles, such as John Tate, the BBC's new director of policy and strategy, and hiring senior producers on flagship programmes in anticipation of a change in the government. Tate, who formerly ran the Opposition Policy Unit, co-wrote the 2005 Tory manifesto with Cameron. But a senior BBC News executive says the atmosphere of mutual distrust between the corporation and spin-doctors in both parties has been replaced by one of co-operation. When Cameron visited Georgia, the Tories were eager for the BBC to cover his press conference. But, instead, its camera crews and reporters were employed at the border, where Russian tanks were advancing. A polite conversation explaining that covering the conflict had to take priority was enough to assuage complaints, according to one BBC News executive, even if some programme editors tell a different story. Many describe Coulson as "a shouter" and claim he has tried to exert control over the questions Cameron is asked in interviews, though he ensured that the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson had unfettered access to the Tory leader for a Panorama special screened on Monday 29 September. There is no doubt that Coulson has professionalised the Conservatives' media operation. Senior Tories who seldom ventured into daytime TV studios now regularly appear on the GMTV sofa, for example.

With the rest of Fleet Street neatly divided along party lines, with the possible exception of Roger Alton's Independent and the Financial Times, the value of a Murdoch endorsement is magnified. Some observers believe it is inevitable that the Murdoch newspapers will ultimately support the Tories if they retain their poll lead as an election approaches, citing the old adage that Murdoch "only ever backs winners". But senior News International executives counter by saying that its four titles have never backed the same party, and a senior source at the Times insists he has little idea which party his paper, or the other titles, will come out for. Intriguingly, he adds that much will depend on who leads the Labour Party into the next election. If Brown is deposed, his successor may have to fight harder than the current Prime Minister to win Murdoch's backing.

In the meantime, the global financial crisis has provided Fleet Street with a dramatic new narrative, and boosted Brown's standing in the opinion polls. At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, some delegates muttered that the unprecedented turmoil in the markets might prove to be Brown's equivalent of the Falklands War: a crisis that offers an opportunity to reclaim lost credibility and restore his electoral appeal. Much has been written about the power of the Murdoch newspapers, and Rupert Murdoch's willingness to use his papers to promote and protect his commercial interests. But at a time of international emergency Murdoch is likely to support only those politicians whom he believes are best placed to deal with the crisis. Perhaps that is what Gordon Brown and James Murdoch were discussing last week.

James Robinson is media editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

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.

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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.

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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