Vladimir Putin’s contempt for the useless fools of the West who fawn upon him has again been revealed by the sentence given to three members of Pussy Riot last week. An appropriate and proportionate response might be to suspend Russia from the Council of Europe until they are free. This won’t happen, as Tory MPs sit with Putin stooge MPs at the Council of Europe and despite hand wringing from a junior minister on the sentence, Cameron and Hague are refusing to criticise Putin.
In 2008, Cameron flew to Tbilisi from his Aegean holiday to show solidarity with the people of Georgia after the Russian invasion and dismemberment of their country. Last week Putin admitted it was a pre-planned and pre-meditated military assault. At a press conference, Russian reporters were astonished to learn: “There was a plan, it’s not a secret”.
Putin made the remarks in response to a TV documentary, The Day That Was Lost, in which Russian generals made outspoken and unprecedented criticisms of the then President, Dmitri Medvedev. The military men accused Medvedev, who was then commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, of failing to act decisively in the crucial first few hours of the August 2008 conflict – a “tragic delay that cost so many lives” in their view. Putin, who was then prime minister, is portrayed in the film as the saviour of the situation – the man who “provided personal leadership” during the military operation. The then Chief of the General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, said that that until Putin “delivered a kick, everyone was afraid of something”.
Now back as president and commander-in-chief Putin was not going to disavow his generals. “There was a plan, and within the framework of this plan that Russia acted. It was prepared by the General Staff at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. It was approved by me, agreed with me.”
At a stroke the Kremlin line that the Georgian war was wholly the responsibility of Georgia’s leader Mikheil Saakashvili was discarded. Until now Russia has always denied taking offensive action. So why has Putin suddenly revealed the truth?
Inside Russia the slapping down of the Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev taking a shot across the bows of his predecessor.
According to the Russian political analyst, Mikhail Rostovsky, the comments are evidence of a “war” being waged within the Putin-Medvedev double act, as Medvedev “actively struggles for the role of real co-ruler of the country”.
As over Syria Putin may just be fed up with pretending he has any interest in working with the West. What Russia wants it gets if it can. Belarus and Ukraine are now firmly in Moscow’s orbit and the invasion of Georgia four years ago was a signal that Russia would not tolerate an independent western aligned state that
formerly was part of the Tsarist and Soviet imperiums.
Putin’s remarks were also aimed at Tbilisi. Political tension is rising in Georgia in the run up to Parliamentary elections on 1 October where Saakashvili’s ruling party faces a serious challenge. A Georgian oligarch whose fortunes come from business in Russia and whose net worth is about one third of Georgian GDP is backing a recently created party, Georgian Dream. There are plenty of reasons to challenge the personalized rule of Saakashvili but big money seeking to buy power is not attractive. Win or lose Georgia is entering a period of political instability. If the post election scenario is one of chaos and confrontation Russia could be tempted to restore order and stability. This fear is heightened by upcoming Russian military exercises in the Caucasus which also were prelude to the 2008 invasion.
President Obama’s reset diplomacy with Russia has produced very little. British policy wavers. Mr Cameron greets Putin warmly at the Olympics and the Foreign Office refuses to implement a unanimous resolution of the House of Commons mandating action against Putin’s functionaries connected with the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The Labour MP Kerry McCarthy attended the Pussy Riot show trial on which the British government was silent until the sentences provoked global outrage.
Next week British Conservatives will be at the Russian Embassy in London to launch a “Conservative Friends of Russia” group and William Hague has made clear that under his foreign policy trade trumps human rights.
In two years’ time the keen skier President Putin hopes the Sochi winter Olympics will boost Russia. They take place close to the Georgian region of Abkhazia now being turned into a major Russian military zone complete with missile bases. Putin’s revelation that the invasion of Georgia was premeditated are not a good augur for a tension-free Winter Olympics in 2014.
Denis MacShane MP is a former FCO minister. Follow him on Twitter as @denismacshane