“My successor will be tall.” In this prediction, as in so much else, President Boris Yeltsin got it wrong.
Vladimir Putin was the president who came from nowhere. Seemingly a colourless mid-level KGB officer, he skilfully allowed others to pour their own imaginings into his empty vessel. Tony Blair flew to St Petersburg to meet Putin even before he ran for president, then invited him for a state visit to London with full ceremonial. George Bush persuaded himself of Putin’s sincerity after saying he had a glimpse of his “soul”. Nowadays this all looks so naive, as relations spiral downwards amid a spate of attacks from Moscow on western institutions and ideas.
As Moscow correspondent for The Economist at the start of the Putin presidency, Edward Lucas had the reputation of a doomsayer, predicting the worst of the new Russian leader, while others argued that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. He has the right to feel somewhat vindicated now. The New Cold War is an impressive polemic arguing that the West still underestimates the danger that Putin’s Russia poses.
Lucas, who has been covering central and eastern Europe for 20 years, argues that Putin took power by stealth and has consolidated it by crushing all dissent, resurrecting a poisonous nationalist ideology and erecting a facade of respectability behind which abuse of power is rampant. The central and European states – especially the Baltic countries – are the front line in this new “cold war”, suffering the Kremlin’s deployment of intimidation, cyberwarfare, historical distortions and energy policy in order to break their ties with western Europe.
No enemy is too small. In an eye-opening passage, Lucas chronicles how the Russian state has crushed aspirations towards a cultural renaissance among the tiny 600,000 Mari people in central Russia, apparently for getting too close to Estonia. He warns us in particular on the issue of gas, Russia’s main export to the rest of Europe, setting out in detail the deals and elbow-twisting that Gazprom, the world’s largest monopoly company, has done to try and make Europe dependent on Russian gas on Russian terms.
“We are facing people,” Lucas concludes, “who want to harm us, frustrate us and weaken us. Their main weapon is our greatest weakness: money. Just as we worried about the firepower of the Soviet war machine, now we should fear the tens of billions of dollars in its coffers, and the weakness of mind and morals on which it is applied.”
Is he overshooting the mark? The problem with Russia, as policy-makers have been complaining since Victorian times, is that it is simultaneously too strong and too weak. The weak side is also set out in this book. Putin’s Great Power is largely a mirage built on a high oil price and delusions of military grandeur but masking a failed health system, a population that is shrinking by 1m a year, epidemic levels of alcoholism and armed forces in collapse. In a generation, the army will have shrunk by a quarter and up to a third of its conscripts will be Muslim. Despite Russia’s apparent resurgence, its spending on defence is just 4% of that of America, and its economy is still only the size of Belgium and Holland combined.
The new Russian elite is also hardly the Taliban. The same officials who fulminate against wicked British policies have bought houses in St John’s Wood and send their children to British public schools. It is telling that, as a compromise on the British Council dispute, the Russians have paid Britain the compliment of asking for visas to be granted more easily.
The New Cold War slots into a debate that has been a stock in trade of British foreign policy since the mid-19th century. Colonel Frederick Wellesley, the British military attach� in St Petersburg in the 1870s, sparred with the journalists of his day arguing that Russia “knows how weak she is both from a military and financial point of view, but is too delighted if anyone will think her strong – in fact, she is glad to bark, because she dare not fight. She knows how precarious her position in [central Asia] is. But as long as the English press continues to write alarmist articles about the great ‘Colossus of the North’, which is to some day sweep us out of India – so long will Russia be content to derive what empty glory she can from the prevalence of such ideas – to trade on her false reputation.”
Less may be more in relations with Moscow. Far more critical than the headline-grabbing rows taking place at the moment was the decision taken quietly in 2006 to start weaning Britain off dependence on Russian gas, when Moscow briefly shut its pipeline through Ukraine. According to one of my contacts, present at a key meeting in No 10, that single unreliable act “turned British policy 180 degrees – away from Russia”.
This is not a new cold war – not yet, at any rate. Lucas’s book is a useful appeal for vigilance, but it would be a big mistake if it were read as a call to arms.
via//Sunday Times, The