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Gideon Rachman Commentary
Putin’s Survival Strategy is Lies and Violence
When a government starts murdering its critics in the streets, it has crossed the line into barbarism. President Vladimir Putin of Russia is fond of accusing the administration in Ukraine of fascism. But it is the aggressive, self- pitying nationalism whipped up by Mr Putin — allied to the persecution and now murder of his domestic opponents — that is truly reminiscent of the politics of Russia and Germany in the 1930s.
No outsider can know if Mr Putin ordered the killing of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader gunned down within sight of the Kremlin. But the Russian president and his acolytes undoubtedly created the atmosphere of nationalist paranoia that made his assassination permissible. State television had repeatedly labelled Nemtsov, a critic of Russia’s war in Ukraine, a “traitor”.
Just weeks before his death, Nemtsov had told a Russian newspaper: “I’m afraid Putin will kill me.” The fear was understandable because vocal critics of the president have a habit of ending up dead. They included the investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, shot in Moscow in 2006; and the former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London in the same year.
The inquiry into the death of Litvinenko is taking place in London at the moment. Speaking at its opening, Ben Emmerson QC argued that the “trail of polonium” that poisoned Mr Litvinenko “leads . . . directly to the door of Vladimir Putin’s office.” Andrei Lugovoi, the man accused of administering the poison, was not extradited to Britain. Instead, he was elected as a member of Russia’s parliament.
Given this dismal record, it is impossi- ble to take the Putin government’s investigation of the Nemtsov murder seriously. Unleashing violence and then lying about it has become standard operating procedure for Mr Putin’s Kremlin — from eastern Ukraine to the streets of Moscow.
As well as providing a cover story and an alternative reality, Mr Putin’s lies flaunt his impunity. Those who choose to accept his falsehoods are either acknowledging his power or proving their own stupidity. Either outcome is acceptable to the Kremlin.
The Nemtsov murder fits into a pat- tern of recent lawless Russian actions. In the past year, Russia has forcibly annexed Crimea, part of a neighbouring country. It has provided weapons to rebels in eastern Ukraine, who then shot down a civilian airliner killing 298 people. It has broken diplomatic deals and violated ceasefires. It has flaunted its nuclear arsenal and has flown nuclear bombers over the English Channel. Those Russians brave enough to protest have been vilified — and now murdered.
Mr Putin has convinced large parts of the Russian public and some foreign apologists that his actions are driven by a legitimate defence of national interests. In fact, as critics such as Nemtsov pointed out repeatedly, Mr Putin is motivated by a much narrower cause — his own personal survival.
A little over two years ago, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Moscow, protesting against electoral fraud by Mr Putin’s United Russia party. One banner that I witnessed on that march bore the slogan “Putin = Gaddafi”: a provocative com- parison, given the former Libyan dicta- tor’s gruesome fate.
Mr Putin’s fear of losing power was further stoked by the revolution in Ukraine last year. His determination to prevent a similar “colour revolution” in Moscow and to save his own skin is the red thread that connects all his actions. Confrontation with the west over Ukraine has boosted his poll ratings and provided the cover for a crackdown on the opposition. It is probably no coincidence that Nemtsov was murdered just days before he was due to lead a protest march in Moscow. The Nemtsov murder, in turn, makes it even less likely that Mr Putin will ever risk voluntarily leaving the Kremlin.
The Putin government’s record of lies and violence should now prompt a further reappraisal. Mr Putin has shown that he is a threat to his own people and to neighbouring countries. It would be wise to assume that he is also a threat to the west.
Efforts at dialogue with the Russian leader have proved largely futile. Instead, the west should concentrate on containing Russia — as it once contained the Soviet Union. That should mean increased economic aid to Ukraine. It should mean increased military spending and a stronger Nato presence in Poland and the Baltic states. And it should mean tightened economic sanctions on Russia, aimed particularly at the ruling elite.
The Kremlin will characterise all this as “Russophobia”. As far as I am concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past decade, some of the most impressive and memorable people that I have met have been Russians — including Nemtsov himself. For a Russian to choose to take a prominent role in opposing Mr Putin requires a physical courage and intellectual stubbornness that can be awe-inspiring — particularly if you live in a safe, law-governed country such as Britain.
Boris Nemtsov paid for his courage with his life. But in an interview given to the Financial Times, just before his death, he charted a way forward: “Putin lies. But he can’t hide things for- ever . . . We need healthy patience.”
Nation States are as Sensitive as Humans
Just before Alexis Tsipras was elected Greek prime minister in January, he made a vow to the voters: “On Monday national humiliation will be over. We will finish with orders from abroad.” Anyone tempted to dismiss this stress on national humiliation as a Greek eccentricity should look around the world.
When I think about the four international issues that I have written most about over the past year — Russia, the eurozone, the Middle East and east Asia — a theme that links all of them is the rhetoric of national or cultural humiliation.
One of Mr Tsipras’s first acts as prime minister was to visit a memorial to Greek resistance fighters executed by the Nazis in the second world war. This gesture was all about national pride: reminding voters of past heroism while inflicting a little return humiliation on the Germans, who led the pack of euro- zone creditors.
The Greek government came into office promising to slash the country’s debt and ditch economic austerity. But even though Syriza’s confrontational approach did very little to achieve these goals, voters enjoyed the show of defiance. Syriza’s poll ratings went up, even as deposits in Greek banks shrank.
Russia’s confrontation with the west, like Athens’ clash with its creditors, feeds off a sense of wounded national pride. President Vladimir Putin and his generation of leaders once served a larger and more powerful nation — the Soviet Union. Now Mr Putin insists modern Russia should continue to be treated as a “great power”. While the ostensible reasons for intervention in Ukraine are all about the defence of con- crete interests — naval bases, markets and borders — Moscow’s rhetoric seethes with a sense of national humiliation. Russia, it insists, can no longer be slighted and ignored.
The Russians will show that they can- not be bullied by the arrogant Americans. Mr Putin reaches back into the past to summon the spirits of his nation’s finest hour: the Great Patriotic War of the 1940s. And officials boast about Russia’s nuclear arsenal as a totem of their great-power status and a reason for others to fear them.
A sense of national humiliation is also central to China’s approach to the out- side world. History textbooks and the national museum in Beijing dwell on the “century of humiliation” — lasting from its first encounter with western imperialism in the 1840s through to the defeat of Japan in 1945. The message drummed into young people is that a weak China was humiliated and exploited by foreign powers. Modern China, they are told, will never be pushed around.
President Xi Jinping calls for a “new type of great power relations” — a demand that China should be treated as an equal by the US.
Islamic fundamentalists also trade on the idea that the west has humiliated and oppressed Muslims. In 2003 Tom Friedman, a New York Times columnist, noted a speech on this theme by Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minis- ter of Malaysia, and argued that the “single most under-appreciated force in international relations is humiliation”. Mr Friedman suggested that a sense of humiliation was driving both the Palestinian revolt against Israel and the armed rebellion against the American occupation of Iraq.
When revolutions broke out across the Middle East in 2011, it seemed that many Arabs had decided it was their own governments that were the real causes of their misery and humiliation.
Since then, however, it has once again become fashionable to blame outsiders and the west. The government of Iran and the jihadis of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) loathe each other but they share a rhetoric that promises to reject perceived humiliation by the west — whether it is Iran insisting on its right to have a nuclear programme or Isis preaching against western values.
Across the years, various theorists and philosophers have written about the role of pride and humiliation in human affairs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher of the 18th century, argued that the source of man’s corruption lay in the human desire to be acknowledged as superior to others.
Status anxiety (as Rousseau did not call it) was the root of much evil. Centuries later, “realist” theorists of international relations argued that states were driven by many of the same emotions as people. The realists stressed the state’s lust for power. The reverse side of that emotion is a desperation to avoid powerlessness and the humiliation that goes with it.
The implication of all this is that solving international conflicts may involve thinking as much about emotions as about interests.
Sometimes the concession required to address a sense of national or cultural humiliation may be impossible. Nobody is going to concede a caliphate to tend to the wounded feelings of Isis.
But sometimes the gestures required to restore a sense of national pride may be relatively minor. Greece does not seem to have extracted significant con- cessions from its creditors. Nonetheless, a display of national defiance, combined with some linguistic and technical changes, appears to have mollified the Greeks for now. As the west contemplates a dangerous conflict with Russia and the ambitions of China, it might remember that symbols can sometimes matter almost as much as substance.
A Global Test of American Power
How long can a country that represents less than 5 per cent of the world’s population and 22 per cent of the global economy, remain the world’s dominant military and political power? That question is being asked with increasing urgency in the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Pacific Ocean. Since the cold war ended, the overwhelming power of the US military has been the central fact of global politics. Now, in three crucial regions, that power is being tested — as America’s rivals test its resolve and the US considers when and whether to push back.
Consider three stories that appeared in the Financial Times last week. Story one: “US warns Moscow not to escalate military operation in Syria”. Story two: “US warships to challenge Chinese claims in South China Sea”. Story three was that Britain had agreed to join the US and Germany in posting troops to the Baltic states.
These events are taking place in different parts of the world — but they are connected. It is US military might that guarantees borders all over the world. In the Middle East the US has giant naval and airbases, which are there to reassure friends and to intimidate rivals. In east Asia, the US navy has grown used to treating the Pacific as an “American lake”, guaranteeing freedom of navigation and providing reassurance to its allies. In Europe, Nato guarantees the territorial integrity of its member states — and the US accounts for 75 per cent of Nato’s military spending.
But things are changing. Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has underlined the extent to which the US has lost control of the Middle East, following the upheavals of the Arab spring and America’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq. With the US reluctant to put boots on the ground in the Middle East again, Moscow noted a power vacuum and has moved to fill it. By firing cruise missiles into Syria, the Russians even staged a mocking emulation of previous US military interventions in the region.
In Europe, Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year represented the first forcible annexation of territory on the continent since the end of the second world war. Unsurprisingly, the Baltic states, which were once part of the Soviet Union, are very worried by the precedent — hence Nato’s decision to reinforce its military presence there.
In Asia, China’s island-building programme in the South China Sea has taken shape in the past year, transform- ing Beijing’s theoretical claim to territorial waters thousands of miles from its coast into something that is (literally) more concrete. America says it takes no position on China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours but that it is determined to protect freedom of navigation in the Pacific. Hence the US Navy’s apparent decision to challenge the idea that China has established territorial waters around its new artificial islands.
All three disputes are a reminder that, despite voguish talk of a “borderless world”, the control of territory is still fundamental to world politics. As Sir Robert Cooper, a former British diplomat puts it: “World orders are territorial orders. If you don’t know who owns territory, you don’t know anything about international order.” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution makes a similar point when he argues that international political stability is dependent on “healthy regional orders, especially in Europe and east Asia. If these regions fall apart, nothing will save the global order.”
Europe and east Asia are not “falling apart” but they are fraying at the edges. Meanwhile, the vision of a Middle East that really is falling apart is further unsettling both Europe and Asia by raising questions about US power and the durability of international borders. Even some American strategists who have long argued the US should “rebalance” its foreign policy towards Asia and do less in the Middle East are now having second thoughts, believing that a perception of US retreat in the Middle East is undermining US prestige in Asia.
The administration of Barack Obama is under pressure, at home and abroad, to restore the image of American strength by responding more forcefully to these territorial challenges. Decisions to send ships through waters claimed by China, and to deploy troops to the Bal- tics, are a response to that pressure. But Mr Obama remains well aware of the counterproductive nature of recent US military interventions in Iraq and Libya — and is also properly cautious about the risks of military confrontation with Russia or China.
The picture is further complicated by a dispute over who is the “revisionist” power in world politics. The US sees Russian and Chinese territorial claims as challenges to the world order. But the Russians claim that it is America that is truly undermining global order by sponsoring “regime change” in countries such as Ukraine and Syria.
There is an element of propaganda in Russia’s claims. But both Beijing and Moscow also seem genuinely to fear that, unless they push back against US power, they too might ultimately fall victim to American-backed regime change. The Americans, for their part, worry that if they allow territorial revisionism to proliferate, the world will become a more anarchic and dangerous place as their global power erodes.
Mix these fears together and you have a recipe for the kind of dangerous regional disputes that are breaking out all over the world.