Labour's new civil war

All is not well within the Labour Party. David Miliband’s backers are regrouping. The Ballsites are

On Monday 27 September, David Miliband stood dead centre on the main stage at the Labour conference in Manchester. His back ramrod straight. Here was the Lost Leader. Master of none that he surveyed. But he had come to deliver an important message. We must unite, he said. We must come together. An end to the briefings. An end to the factions. An end to the cliques. His audience rose as one.

Fast forward 24 hours. The bars of Labour 2010 in Manchester are jammed with delegates dissecting another speech, the one made by the new leader, Ed Miliband. In the bar of the Midland hotel, a former Blairite cabinet minister shakes his head and says to me: "It's a disaster." A senior Brownite mutters into his mobile: "Anti-business, weak on crime, no message." Another Gordon Brown loyalist shrugs and says: "Doesn't matter. In two years we'll have him out and Yvette Cooper in."

Across town a senior frontbencher sits down to dinner with the editorial team of a Sunday newspaper. What's his view of the speech? "If Ed thinks I'm going to follow that crap about not banging up criminals, he's got another thing coming. Life should mean life, and I'm going to keep saying it." The journalists smile. Did he know, they tease, that when Andy Coulson heard Ed praise Ken Clarke on lenient sentencing, he punched the air.

In the Radisson hotel a member of the new leader's campaign team looks at me, bemused: "We keep reaching out to people. They just keep brushing us off. They don't want to know." On the other side of the bar another Ed supporter clenches his fist in triumph: "Fuck the Blairites. How many divisions have they got?"

No briefings. No factions. No cliques.

The Labour Party has entered a post-cold-war era. The two great Blairite and Brownite power blocks have fractured. Where once there was iron certainty, now there is only doubt. "People are confused," one MP tells me. "They're used to knowing who or what they're for and what they're against. Now all that's gone. To be ­honest, they're a bit rudderless."

The politicians. The activists. The spinners. The strategists. The thinkers. The policy wonks. The organisers. The gurus. The army and camp followers that make up the great Labour tribe are emerging, blinking, into a new dawn. Some are fearful, while others are hopeful. All recognise the landscape around them has changed.

“New Labour was about marshalling everyone into Tony Blair's big tent," says the Compass chair, Neal Lawson. "That's the old politics. The new pluralism is about acknowledging there are lots of little tents. How you build those tents into a strong, progressive community is the challenge."

It's a challenge that excites him. No wonder. Compass spent the years of Blair and Brown out in the cold. Now, as he puts it, "Ed Miliband is playing all of our greatest hits."

Not everyone is impressed by the tune. On the other side of the encampment sits Progress: centrist thinkers to some, Blairite outriders to others. "Our message to Compass is, 'Good luck'," says Progress's deputy director, Richard Angell. "Have a go. If Neal thinks his leftist, statist prospectus is the route back to power, good luck to him."

The old dividing lines may be becoming blurred. But they have not been erased. This is why Ed Miliband's team are monitoring, with a vigilance bordering on paranoia, the signals emanating from the shattered bunkers of the two old great powers. How are the grizzled Blairite and Brownite veterans adjusting to the new world order?

Among the former, there is a clear sense of preparing for a long game. "We have to be realistic," says one insider. "If David had won, he would have been constructing a ten-year strategy. Unless there's a miracle, we're not going to win the next election, certainly not with an overall majority. We need to plan on that basis."

The plan, given the rancour that ­existed between the Blairites and Ed Miliband during the leadership contest, is a surprising one. "We've got to reach out," says another senior Blairite. "We've got an opportunity to shape Ed. To mould his vision. Read his conference speech. The Compass left were claiming it ticked all their boxes. But if you actually read the words, rather than try to interpret them, you see a clear message. The heir to Blair, at least in the short term, is Ed Miliband."

These overtures have been welcomed by Ed Miliband's team. "Look at the leadership election," says one lieutenant. "Ed and David supporters represent more than 80 per cent of the party. That has got to be the basis on which we build the new progressive consensus. The realignment has to start from there."

Former Blairite advisers have been in discussion with Stuart Wood and Greg Beales, Ed Miliband's chief communications and policy aides, about assisting in the development of strategy. There have been "clear the air" talks with members of David Miliband's campaign team. "Take someone like [the shadow defence secretary] Jim Murphy," says a fellow shadow cabinet member who worked with Ed Miliband on the leadership contest.

"When we were doing ­liaison between the campaigns, he was vicious. Incredibly difficult to work with. But since the election he's been a different person. He's been making a conscious effort to build bridges."

Not all relations are so harmonious. A number of Blairite ministers, such as Hazel Blears, Ben Bradshaw and Pat McFadden, were offered shadow ministerial rolls but refused them. There are policy tensions, especially in areas such as law and order and deficit reduction. "It's all very nice reaching out," says one former Blairite minister, "but it can't just be a choice of either silence or division. You can't just say, 'I'm going to kill New Labour, but don't worry, I'll be personally nice to you.' If I articulate an alternative policy prospectus, I don't want to see that dismissed as an attempt to drag people back to the past."

But the greatest concerns within Ed Miliband's team focus on the Brownites. Or rather, the Ballsites. Definitions are important. The old Brownite faction fractured during the transition to No 10 and split further over the leadership election. Ex-Brownite supporters, such as Douglas Alexander, who worked for David Miliband, and the New Statesman's former owner Geoffrey Robinson, who endorsed him as his second preference, went in one ­direction. The former chief whip Nick Brown ­endorsed no one. Younger Brownites such as Tom Watson and Michael Dugher worked for Ed Balls but moved in behind Ed Miliband at a crucial moment in the contest. Balls himself steadfastedly refused to back either of the two front-runners. Keeping track of where these disparate groups are moving is a priority for Team Ed. "People like Tommy [Watson], Michael and Ian Austin are good guys," says one member of the shadow cabinet. "We think we can do business with them". But what of Balls and Cooper? "They're the past. They're history."

The animosity that exists between Ed Mili­band's team and Balls is raw and pal­pable. "Ed Miliband's team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette," says one Brownite insider. "They think they're going to come and try to kill him. And the reason they think that is ­because they will."

Ed Miliband's first shadow cabinet appointments brought this animosity into the open. The decision to withhold the shadow chancellor portfolio from both Balls and Cooper was seen as an act of war. "Stuart Wood was ringing round journalists desperately trying to find out how hard Ed and Yvette were briefing against the appointments," says one friend of the most powerful married couple in politics. "It was embarrassing. If you're going to shaft Ed and Yvette, do it. But don't complain when there's a reaction."

There was a strong reaction. "They're already organising," says one shadow minister. "Yvette has been contacting all the teams identifying one member to be her link person. The cover is she's doing it as part of the women's brief. But everyone knows she's building a base."

Another insider, who is respected by both the Miliband and Balls camps, is more circumspect. "Yes, there was briefing. Ed and Yvette were genuinely upset. But we're at the start of a complex process. Both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are having to radically reassess the nature of their relationship. That's going to take time. The danger is that good intentions are deliberately misinterpreted the wrong way. Both of them are up for a dialogue."

According to some members of Ed Miliband's team, the decision not to appoint Balls as shadow chancellor was political, not personal. They say he effectively talked himself out of the shadow chancellor role with his increasingly aggressive positioning on the deficit. "He just kept pushing it further and further," says one insider. "We didn't have any choice."

But they reject suggestions that the current deficit-reduction strategy reflects in any way the "Balls Plan". "Balls just isn't on the same page. This is Alan [Johnson's] and Ed's plan. It's nothing to do with Ed and Yvette."

For Balls, there was anger at the way Ed Miliband distanced himself from the government's record during the leadership campaign. "As the campaign went on, Ed [Balls] became more and more frustrated," says one senior aide. "Ed Miliband was acting as if what happened in government had nothing to do with him. It looked like he was dumping on Gordon just to get elected. Ed B didn't like it."

Others are more nuanced. "You have to remember there was a time when Ed Balls was Gordon's go-to guy and Ed Miliband was doing the photocopying," says one senior Brownite. "In the short term, that's hard to take. It needs a readjustment on both sides."

Ed Miliband's team acknowledge that Balls and Cooper pose a threat to their man but believe it is containable. "How many votes did Ed Balls get in the leadership election? OK, Yvette topped the shadow cabinet poll, but when you have to vote for six women, that's not that hard to do. They're just being driven by ego. They're trapped in the past."

The calculation Ed Miliband is making is that there's little appetite within the party for a return to personality-based agitation. That and a belief that the junior former Brownites are genuine in their desire to build a constructive relationship with the new leader. But one observer counsels caution: "People like Tommy, Ian and Michael want to work with Ed Miliband. But they're essentially tribal. If it comes to a war, they'll line up behind Ed and Yvette."

Some jockeying for position is inevitable in the aftermath of a change of political leadership. But, as a rule, structures are quickly created to channel and control those pressures. An impression is developing that Ed Miliband has not yet managed to put those structures in place. "It's clear Ed's team did not have a strategy for victory," I am told by one David Miliband supporter. "They operated purely on the basis of a series of tactical decisions. It's one of the things that have eaten up David the most. He feels he's lost to someone who had no clear idea why he wanted to win."

Even those around Ed Miliband acknowledge that they are on a steep learning curve. "You've got to understand the scale of the problems we've inherited," one shadow cabinet member tells me. "This is a party that's going through a healing process. The scars of the Blair and Brown years run deep. Ed's still a novice rider and he's trying to get to grips with a very large horse."

Some see the criticisms as little more than expressions of bitterness from David Miliband and his supporters. "David had his opportunity," I am told by one MP. "The MPs, the party and the machine were in his pocket. He blew it. He should get over it."

But among other sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party there is nervousness. "There's a sense of a vacuum developing," says a shadow minister. "People are looking for leadership and direction. And at the moment they're not getting it." Another shadow minister laughed at his team's disorganisation during their first Commons questions. "I got up to say something and sat down again. Can't remember what it was . . . It's all a bit of a joke."

Old stagers who lived through the Blair and Brown years are astonished at the extent of the autonomy being granted to the shadow teams. Policy development is being managed internally. Centralised control is minimal. One shadow minister confirmed that none of the teams had received instructions from the leadership on the need to avoid uncosted spending commitments until Alan Johnson demanded it.

“People are just going to have to get used to this," says one shadow minister who did not back Ed Miliband but is warming to his approach. "The days when things were just handed down from on high are over. We're being given responsibility. We need to be mature and run with it."

Some of the differences are generational. Not everyone has embraced the new politics, especially the rapid promotion of elements of the 2010 intake. "It's insane. They should refuse," says one veteran of the 1992 election, on hearing of the junior shadow ministerial appointments. Most members of Generation Ed report few problems. "It's working pretty well," says the shadow culture minister Gloria del Piero. "People have been helpful and supportive. After the election defeat there's a real sense of everyone pulling together."

However, anxiety runs deep. Ed Miliband's supporters claim to have been shocked by the hostility they received from Labour officials in the wake of his election victory. Ninety per cent of party staffers, whose votes were treated like a mini constituency, voted for David Miliband. "It was unbelievable," says one campaign worker, "they acted like we had no right to be there. Ed's going to have to clean house."

In order to help begin that process, Ed Miliband's team are reaching beyond the party. Caroline Badley, who masterminded Gisela Stuart's surprise victory in Birmingham Edgbaston, Nick Lowles, who leads Hope Not Hate's successful push against the BNP, and London Citizens, who worked closely with David Miliband's campaign, have all been asked to contribute to a campaigning template for the new leadership team. But again, tensions are surfacing.

London Citizens' aggressive organising model, built on church-based community activism, has met with resistance. "These guys burst in, hijack a meeting, demand everyone signs up to their agenda and talk down anyone who disagrees," says one veteran campaigner. A conference fringe meeting degenerated into rancour after London Citizens activists repeatedly called on Ed Miliband to endorse their organisational model and refused to let him leave the meeting until he had done so.

Maurice Glassman, the academic and god­father of British community organising, and someone so well connected that he worked ­simultaneously on both Ed and David Miliband's leadership campaigns, says people have to be open to a new way of working. "You ­cannot overstate the extent to which Labour has lost the ability to organise," he tells me. "Yes, we can mobilise. Get out the vote at elections. But then, once the election is over, it's all left to deflate like an old balloon."

Another reform Ed Miliband is considering is the introduction of a directly elected party chair. Again, the driving force behind the proposal is Compass. "The top priority for us and for the new leader must be party reform," says Compass's general secretary, Gavin Hayes. "We need a root-and-branch review of all areas of Labour's structure."

Party chair is the big prize. "This person will be the commander-in-chief of the grassroots, elected by individual members," Hayes says. "Ed isn't going to have time to be worrying about the nuts and bolts of party organisation. That's why we need this role."

But the putative commander-in-chief faces opposition from an influential quarter. "The unions won't go for it," says one source. "It'll be seen as a Trojan horse. If you get one member, one vote for an elected party chair, why not leader? In the unions' eyes, once you lose the electoral college, that's the link broken."

During the leadership election, David Mili­band told Jon Cruddas, the influential Labour MP for Dagenham, that he would introduce a party chair but only if it was by the election of individual members. Cruddas warned against this but agreed to approach the union general secretaries. They were firm in their opposition. It was a non-starter. Cruddas told Mili­band that even if he, Miliband, won, he'd refuse to stand.

What of the Lost Leader himself? Is he committed to uniting behind his younger brother, who many believe betrayed him. In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was no hiding his bitterness. "He was in a dark place," says one friend. "It was very difficult for him to take." But he has apparently returned from holiday in Italy reinvigorated. "Had he fought and lost, that would have been it," says a senior former campaign aide. "But the way he sees it now is that he won the party, won the MPs and won a decent share of the unions, even with their machine against him. He's not just going to walk away."

Another former aide concurs: "When I heard he'd put out that statement about building an organising base and doing some policy thinking, I didn't think anything about it. Then I went back and had another look. Policy development in education, environment and foreign affairs. His own activist model. Campaigning in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections. It was a pretty clear statement of intent."

“David's rediscovered his excitement in politics," says Lisa Tremble, his former communications director. "He's looking forward to the new challenges. He's not going anywhere."

The consensus of those close to David Miliband is that he does not believe the election defeat fully extinguished his chances of becoming Labour leader one day. He sees himself as the "under the bus" candidate, were political misfortune to befall his brother. They insist, however, that there are no plans to nudge Ed towards the curb.

Within the wider Blairite circle, there is residual sympathy for the manner in which David Miliband fought and lost his campaign. There is also a feeling among some that he needs to accept reality. "I don't think any of the candidates who lost last time around are ever going to be leader," says one former Downing Street adviser. "Over the short term there isn't going to be a vacancy. Medium to longer term, I think Jim Murphy is our standard bearer, with Alan Johnson riding shotgun."

Perhaps. But the one certainty is there are no longer any certainties. Everything is in flux. John Prescott's "plates" are shifting once again. When David Miliband made his plea for unity, it was undoubtedly sincere. But everyone seeks unity. The Blairite outriders. The Ballsites. The Milibites. The problem is not a desire for unity; the problem is lack of agreement on what to unite around. "Frankly, I wish Ed Miliband hadn't run," says one MP. "We should have had a straight battle between David and Ed Balls. One final reckoning. A fight to the death. Then the Blair/Brown struggle would have been resolved once and for all."

As it is, there is no resolution. Most people have not yet picked sides. They don't want to. They are the Ednostics, watching and waiting to see how their new leader faces up to the trials ahead of him. That represents an opportunity for Ed Miliband. But also a threat. There is some space. But also a void. If he doesn't fill it, others will. "He's got a window [of opportunity]," says one MP. "But he's got to use it. It's not ­going to be open for ever."

The tents have been erected, the campfires lit. They are either shining a light on a new political community or pinpointing the location of a series of enemy encampments. One MP's assessment is stark: "We're either on the threshold of the new politics or we're on the brink of a civil war."

No more briefings. No more cliques. No more factions.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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.

***


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.”

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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