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Why the West Fears Putin – Letter to a New Russian Friend

July 17, 2014

Saint Petersburg. Pic from Herbert Ortner/Wikipedia

Dear Yelena

It was a pleasure meeting you last week in Saint Petersburg. I loved what I saw of your city even though I suspect I only saw the bright side. It was hard to see a dark side on a day when it was bathed in brilliant sunshine almost until midnight.

It was also touching to hear how proud you and your fellow guides are of the city. We British tend to be a bit more cynical about our cities. I remember one of the guides saying that she was horrified at the number of rats she saw in the London Underground, whereas in the Petersburg metro there are none. I wanted to say “ah yes, but we have the most beautiful rats in the world”, but I doubt if she would have picked up the irony.

I was also surprised by your colleague’s candour when she said that while the KGB tried to control people’s minds, the FSB, its successor, is more interested in their wallets.  I remember her saying that every business, big or small, has to contribute a slice of its income to the secret police. Her lack of fear runs counter to Western perceptions that Russia is still a highly controlled society. Perhaps it was because she was a young woman who never knew the ways of the Soviet Union.

Our guide the day before was in her fifties. She was far more circumspect. When she took us to the prison in the Fortress of St Peter and Paul, where pre-revolutionary assassins and political prisoners were incarcerated, the conversation turned to Leon Trotsky. Someone mentioned his assassination, and she came out with what could only be described as a Soviet response. “Possibly,” she said. “That depends on who you believe.” I should have thought that there were easier ways of committing suicide than to impale yourself with an ice pick. Clearly, among the older generation, old habits die hard.

I was intrigued when you brought up the subject of Ukraine. We were in a cathedral whose walls are covered in golden icons. We had been talking about Russian history, and the central role of Kiev in conversion of Russia to Christianity. You said that when you think of the current state of Ukraine, you and many others feel deeply hurt. I can understand that, and I think that few in the West appreciate the extend to which Russians feel connected with your neighbour, not just because of family ties but also because of a common history stretching back to the days of the Kievan Rus.

I also understand that you might share the view of many commentators in your country that there was a strong Nazi element among those who overthrew the government of Yanukovych. You believe that the crisis came about because of interference by the West. I would agree with you that many politicians in the West are reluctant to accept the concept of spheres of influence – that Russia, as a great power, has learned through bitter experience that it needs to protect its borders by establishing buffer states that are either friendly – as was the case with the so-called eastern bloc – or politically neutral, as Finland was until it joined the European Union.

We talked about Vladimir Putin. You couldn’t understand why the West is so antagonistic towards him. You were very surprised when I said that dislike was the wrong word, and that a better description would be fear.

We didn’t get the chance to discuss this at length, so I’m going to try and explain what I meant.

The world I grew up in was polarised. On the one hand, as we saw it, there was the West. We had democratic government, however imperfect. We are able to speak freely and travel freely from one country to another. Looking over fortified walls were the communist countries, of which the Soviet Union was by far the most powerful. We saw in your country an aggressive exporter of a totalitarian system in which freedom of movement and political expression were severely limited.

Thanks to the mutual paranoia that grew up since the Second World War, the two sides engaged in a massive arms race that on at least one occasion nearly resulted in the obliteration of all the countries that aimed nuclear weapons at each other. I’m old enough to remember the Cuba crisis, and I’m sure your parents would have remembered it too. There were other times – during the Yom Kippur War, for example, and in the early eighties, when some of us feared that the next day might be our last.

Then came détente, and the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the cold war, as we thought. When both sides stopped aiming nuclear weapons at each other, we rejoiced, even though we realised that the price on the Soviet side was crippling poverty among the privileged classes (I won’t call them the middle class, because I’m not sure that since the revolution was there ever moneyed class that corresponds to our meaning of the phrase). We worried as technocrats, academicians, engineers and doctors found themselves struggling to get by, their savings wiped out, their pensions reduced and often having to wait months for their salaries. We were concerned that among the technocratic elite, those who worked in the arms industry might be tempted to sell their nuclear and biological knowledge to ruthless state actors – North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria amongst them – none of whom were friends of the West. Worse still, we feared that fully assembled warheads, or their lethal components – enriched uranium or plutonium, might find their way out of Russia and into the hands of our potential enemies.

Thankfully, through cooperation on both sides and new arms limitation treaties, the Soviet nuclear arsenal returned to the Russian Federation, and large-scale decommissioning of warheads on both sides took place.

With the defeat of the coup against Gorbachev and the coming of Yeltsin, we began to feel that the long nightmare of the cold war was really over. Even though we could see that the privatisation programme was giving opportunities to ruthless businessmen who quickly used the opportunity to amass huge fortunes, our major financial and industrial concerns felt confident enough to invest in the new Russia. For us, your country was a bit like the Wild West – a land of opportunity, yet lawless, corrupt and racked with gang warfare. A dangerous place, yet worth the risk.

What we – or at least those of us who took a passing interest from afar – failed fully to grasp was the sense of humiliation felt by so many of your compatriots at the loss of power, influence and prestige that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Also resentment at the fact that so few – apart from the oligarchs – benefited from the economic boom brought about by the rising price of oil.

For ordinary people in the West, the most noticeable change was the appearance of Russians in our towns and cities. Thirty years ago, I had never met anyone from Russia. Now we meet Russians in the street, in businesses, in bars. Wealthy Russians buy huge houses, football clubs and banks. Gazprom sponsors the European Champions League. And millions of people from the former eastern bloc countries would come to Britain for work once their membership of the European Union permitted them to do so.

When Vladimir Putin appeared on the world stage – as if from nowhere – we knew that he was a native of your city, and a middle ranking former KGB officer who had been an assistant to your mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Beyond that he appeared to be just another grey apparatchik. How wrong we were!

From our perspective here was a man who ruthlessly and rapidly consolidated power around himself and a small group of associates. The press freedom that grew up under Yeltsin slowly eroded under Mr Putin. We saw this as an attack on an essential element of the kind of open and democratic society into which Russia appeared to be transforming itself.

Since then we have seen many other signs of a return to a more authoritarian – if not Soviet – style of government. The imprisonment of Khodorkovsky; the Pussy Riot trials; the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil. To us it seemed that President Putin was able to use the judiciary and the FSB as a means of enforcing his will. Again, for the West, an independent judiciary is another pillar of a free society.

In the foreign policy arena we have been concerned by actions that many western politicians have viewed as cynical and inhumane: the intervention in Georgia; the use of gas pricing as a means of rewarding punishing near neighbours; and more recently the continued support of Bashar Al-Assad’s vicious regime in Syria. Regardless of the logic behind these actions, many in the West see them as an ominous return to the style of a previous era.

We are also concerned at the concentration of power in the hands of the President. In Soviet times, the General Secretary’s powers were limited by the need to maintain the confidence of the Politburo and the Party Congress. Today it seems to us that Mr Putin has few constraining influences that curb his power. Our perception is that the Duma acts only to rubber stamp his decisions. Yes, he goes through the motions of seeking its approval of key decisions, but in the knowledge that approval will not be denied.

However, nobody in the West would deny that he has huge support in your country. It seems to us that many people value stability and national self-respect above democracy and the rule of law. Yet we also hear rumours of the massive wealth that the President has accumulated during his terms in office – wealth that cannot have been accumulated only through his salary as president. Whether or not the rumours are true, they reinforce the perception that Mr Putin presides over what is in effect a mafia state, with himself as the chief beneficiary

Now we come to Ukraine. You said that people in Russia are hurt by what is happening to your neighbour. I’m not surprised. Ukraine is so intertwined with Russia that the fighting in the eastern region must feel like a family crisis. And yes, President Yanukovych was freely elected. When he was ousted, extreme right elements in Kiev played an influential part in his overthrow. I fully understand Mr Putin’s intense hatred of Nazism, an emotion that must be shared by all those in Saint Petersburg who suffered so grievously in the siege of the city during the Great Patriotic War.

Yet I’m not sure that Russians are getting a fully balanced picture of events in Ukraine. By no means all of those who opposed President Yanukovych were right-wing fanatics. And although the West surely did influence his downfall, just as it played an important part in helping to hasten the end of the Soviet Union, I believe that the main drivers of the Maidan uprising were economic.

On the ground a major factor in the uprising was that many Ukrainians could see that the key to their future prosperity lay in increasing closeness with the European Union. They can see the transformation in the economies of neighbours and former allies such as Poland, the Baltic States and the former German Democratic Republic. They want some of that prosperity for themselves. They perceived that Yanukovych presided over institutional corruption that led him and his close associates to accumulate massive wealth. The evidence was laid bare for all to see when the doors of his palace were thrown open.

Again it’s understandable that ethnic Russians in the east of the country should naturally gravitate towards their cousins across the border, and fear discrimination by ethnic Ukrainians in the western region. But for us in the West, the massing of Russian troops and tanks on the border, and what we saw as Russian influence and support in the attempted successions of Donetsk and other eastern cities reminded us of Stalin’s tactics in bringing about the incorporation of Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries into the Eastern Bloc after World War 2. We also remembered the suppression of the reformist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1967.

As for the annexation of Crimea, you argued that 97% of the population voted for the region’s return to Russia. Are you sure that ethnic Ukrainians – and the Tatars who had returned to the peninsula after having been resettled by Stalin in the 1930s and account for 12% of the population – took  (or were given) the opportunity to vote? And how does the referendum result tally with a Ukrainian opinion poll taken after the Maidan that suggests that only 41% of people in Crimea supported a union between Russia and Crimea?

Commentators in the West saw Crimea as the first step in a strategy by Mr Putin to reassemble the old Soviet Empire. After Crimea, Eastern Ukraine would follow, and then Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Ridiculous or not, this has been a widely held perception. The West then responded by confidence building measures to reassure the worried Baltic states in the form of joint military exercises. Bridget Kendall of the BBC offers an interesting analysis of Mr Putin’s objectives and tactics here.

Mr Putin is aware that NATO is unlikely to risk military confrontation with Russia, but the statement in March by Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the state news agency, that “Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the US into radioactive ash” did nothing to ease tensions. The ultimate deterrent is still in place.

You argued that Russia has no territorial ambitions beyond its borders. You may be right. But such is the mistrust of Mr Putin among many governments of the West that few would be surprised if Russian military force intervened in Eastern Ukraine to “prevent the oppression of ethnic Russians in the region” – a reason that they consider to be a pretext to justify Mr Putin’s expansionist strategy.

In any event, I’m confident that we are not about to enter a new cold war. Your country has so many links to the West today that such an outcome would be catastrophic. We are entering an era in which the use of oil and gas as a weapon of economic warfare is less effective. Russia needs to sell its commodities as much as the West needs to buy it. There are so many economic ties that bind the Russian economy to those of the West that Mr Putin risks much by damaging them.

So to come back to the central question: why is the West afraid of Vladimir Putin?

First and foremost, because we perceive that he sees relations with the West in terms of “great power rivalry”. Let’s forget the word superpower. These days, as was the case 100 years ago at the outbreak of World War I, the world is dominated by great powers, of which the most potent are the USA, China and Russia. The fact that each is a nuclear power is no coincidence. Germany, though not a nuclear power, is a significant fourth power because of its economic strength. Of the first three, Russia has certainly lost influence since 1989, and Mr Putin is trying, with considerable success, to restore that influence.

Second, because although I have referred to the West throughout this letter as though it was a monolithic entity, it is not. Britain, France and Germany, the European Union’s  most powerful members, are no longer politically tethered to the United States, even though in extremis we still regard American military might as an ultimate shield. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the European Union has become weaker and more politically divided than ever before. We seem incapable of coherent political action, and rely for defence on NATO, a Cold War institution dominated by a non-European power whose confidence has also been badly shaken by recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though we are capable of applying damaging sanctions on Russia, the effective leader of the EU, Germany, has too much to lose by cutting economic ties with Russia much further.

Third, there is concern that Mr Putin presides over an unstable political environment in which nationalist factions such as Alexander Dugin’s Eurasian movement and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR will increasingly come to the fore if a decline in the price of oil causes the country severe economic difficulties. The limits to Mr Putin’s power would then be seen on the streets.

These are perceptions and assumptions that are widely held in the West, Yelena. They may or may not be based on reality. Likewise, opinions in Russia that the West sought to exploit Russia’s weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union may or may not be based in reality.

It’s easy to understand that under Stalin’s post-war logic it would never again be acceptable to your country to tolerate neighbouring countries governed by ideologies fundamentally unsympathetic to yours. But today the logic is different. Russia is no longer under the control of a dominant ideology. The West no longer sees Russia as an exporter of a political system that is fundamentally threatening to its cherished institutions. There should be no more domino theories, Vietnam wars and Cuban crises.

The three main nuclear powers recognise that each has the power to annihilate the other and in the process annihilate themselves. That’s a given. But there are new threats that face each power equally: Islamic extremism, climate change and the instability of the global financial system. These are common problems that require a common approach. Paranoia and confrontation between Russia, China and the West will only make the task of tackling these problems harder. We need partnership, not peer rivalry.

You live in a beautiful city that is rightly proud of the legacy of Peter the Great. Your political legacy may be different to ours, but your people’s values and aspirations are not so different. I watched a newly married couple posing for photos on the banks of the Neva and other young people sunbathing near the river, talking on their mobile phones.

I was one of thousands walking open-mouthed through the magnificent Hermitage museum as we passed by the Leonardos, Rembrandts, Titians, Monets, Gauguins and Picassos and marvelled at the intricacy of the Scythian gold artefacts recovered from Russian soil. You showed me the statue of Dostoyevsky, one of many Russian giants of world literature.

We passed by an old lady offering wild strawberries outside the food market. We stood in the cathedral where the devout were offering prayers in low voices, their heads gently touching the icons that would not have looked out of place a thousand years ago in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman empire.

You and I were able to talk without fear about politics. No minder stood in the background straining to hear what we were discussing. You said how much you enjoyed visiting London. I told you how impressed I was with Saint Petersburg.

Despite the current fears and suspicion that are causing old barriers to rear their ugly heads again, Russia, its culture, its civilisation, its deep spirituality and its technical ingenuity enriches the world. And the rest of the world has much to offer Russia. That idea defines Saint Petersburg, where English, French and Italian architects and builders helped to create a jewel that is nonetheless profoundly Russian.

Yelena, I offer these thoughts in a spirit of respect and admiration, and in the hope that you and your friends will continue to visit my country, and that I will be able in the future to see more of yours. The more that ordinary people like you and me are able to meet, communicate and understand each other, the better the chance that we will never again need to stand behind ramparts under dark clouds of ignorance and mistrust.

Today is the anniversary of the killing of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. During my visit I stood at the memorial to the slain Romanovs in St Peter and Paul Cathedral, where they have taken their place among the tombs of all the other Romanovs since Peter the Great. It seemed like a sign that your country has come to terms with its past. What remains to be seen is whether it can become comfortable with its present reality – something that my country has struggled with over the past 70 years. I sincerely hope so.

In respect and friendship,


From → History, Politics, Travel, UK, USA

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