Jaw-jaw in the sauna with Vladimir Putin
Despite high levels of Kremlin criminality, Russia must not be turned into a pariah
THE NEW COLD WAR
How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West
343pp. Bloomsbury. £18.99.
978 0 7475 9567 0
The distinguished British journalist Edward Lucas has produced a firecracker of a book to throw into the growing crowd of Putinophiles. He is a well-qualified commentator on Russia today, and an accomplished linguist. As a foreign correspondent from the 1980s, he reported on Eastern and East-Central Europe when the Soviet Bloc was disintegrating. He pities Russia and the Russians, and one half of The New Cold War is a convincing account of the damage their rulers have done to them. Few recent books range so vividly across the media, courts, pipelines, criminality and Kremlin politics.
Democratic and civil rights are poorly protected in Russia. The Federal Security Bureau, heir to the KGB, was almost certainly involved in the terrorist bombing campaign in autumn 1999 which Vladimir Putin – when he was still only Prime Minister – exploited to restart the war in Chechnya. Scores of investigative journalists, including the author’s friend Anna Politkovskaya, have been assassinated. Television station owners got into trouble for letting their programme-makers object to government policy or ridicule ministers. The big entrepreneurs have been subjected to judicial persecution whenever they defended their private interests against demands by the State. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, leading “oligarchs” in the Yeltsin period, fled abroad to avoid arrest; Mikhail Khodorkovsky stood his ground only to be put on trial for fraud and incarcerated in eastern Siberia.
The presidential elections of Putin in 2000 and 2004 and of Dmitri Medvedev earlier this month were a charade: individuals who put themselves up against the Kremlin’s candidate were systematically vilified, or prevented from putting their names on the ballot paper. Abroad, Putin has seldom bothered to endear himself. He lectured Western politicians to keep their noses out of Russia and Eastern Europe. Energy prices charged to Ukraine were raised when Kiev began to challenge Russian hegemony. Then, in spring 2007, there was a mysterious blackout of computers in Estonia, and suspicions were strong that the Russian authorities had ordered it. Needless to say, most predictions are that Russia will continue to use its natural resources as an instrument for increasing its influence over all Europe.
Thus far it is hard to challenge the picture given in the book. But difficulties exist right from the start. The title is a problem. Lucas agrees that Russia and the West are not engaged in the titanic struggle that raged between the Soviet Union and the United States from the late 1940s until the end of the 80s. There is little chance that the Russians and Americans will start a world war against each other. The Kremlin no longer propagates a messianic ideology adopted by countries covering a quarter of the world’s land surface. The Russian State no longer rules an empire outside its own territory. International stand-offs such as the Cuba crisis in 1962, when Khrushchev and Kennedy could easily have ordered attacks with nuclear missiles, are unlikely to occur today between Russia and America. Although Lucas concedes all this in his measured introduction, he persists with the terminology of Cold War and cannot help belittling the past and over-inflating the present. Argument is sacrificed for rhetoric.
The New Cold War’s purpose is to sound an alarm about the untoward consequences of allowing Russia to go on behaving badly. The chapters are a polemic against Western politicians and businessmen who turned a blind eye to the bullying tactics used by the Kremlin in Europe during the Putin presidency. The former German Chancellor Gerhard Schr�der typified the corrupted condition of the European approach to Russia. Before coming to power he criticized his predecessor for indulging in “sauna diplomacy”. Then he entered the sauna himself, and was rewarded with a place on the board of Gazprom when he stepped down as Chancellor.
But a bit more shading would have improved the book. The cheap energy prices charged to Ukraine were hardly approvable by any Russian government on a permanent basis. Acting through Gazprom, the Kremlin behaved imperiously and clumsily; but it had a reasonable commercial case that Russia had no obligation to subsidize Ukrainian consumers. The Russian authorities, moreover, have an interest in keeping up a tolerable accord with the countries of the European Union. Export of gas and oil is vital for Russia’s economic buoyancy, and the Europeans are reliable customers: they pay punctually and in full. The projected new pipelines across the North Sea and the Black Sea are extremely costly. Russian business wants them for several reasons. Among them is a desire to avoid the complications of depending on the cooperation of Ukrainian and Belorusian administrations which have not always played entirely fair in supervising the transportation of energy supplies.
Putin’s presidency has coincided with a rise in the world market prices for gas and oil. Like Brezhnev in 1973 (and unlike Gorbachev in the mid-1980s), Putin got lucky. Revenues poured into his coffers. State loans were paid off. Civil servants, doctors and teachers regularly received their salaries; pensions were distributed on time. His popularity soared. Disappointed by the pseudo-democracy of Yeltsin, Russians welcomed a President who at least could impose order and restore pride. President Putin anointed Dmitri Medvedev as his favoured successor in office. Medvedev made speeches committing the government to “national programmes” of improvement in education, housing, health care and agriculture; he also opined that it is no accident that democratic societies have proved to be the most effective in attaining economic success. Little of this appears in The New Cold War. Edward Lucas is surely correct in refusing to take Medvedev’s words at their face value, and in querying any great contrast between Putin and Medvedev. But he takes his analysis several steps too far. By calling for Russia to be expelled from bodies such as the G8 or the Council of Europe, he is proposing a severe quarantine which would make Russia almost as dangerous as he suggests it already is. At the moment, the Russian authorities can be put under some international pressure. If they are turned into pariahs, jaw-jaw will cease, and the Kremlin will have the pretext and freedom to make its bad behaviour still worse.
Robert Service is Professor of Russian History at St Antony’s, Oxford, and Director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre. His most recent publications include Lenin: A Biography (2000), Russia: ExperimStalin: A biography, 2004, and Comrades: A history of world Communism, 2007.