Inside Story

Has the West called Putin’s bluff?

The Russian president faces uncharacteristically united international opposition at the beginning of a potentially unstable final term in office

John Besemeres 4 April 2018 4748 words

“Bureaucrats in epaulettes”: Russian president Vladimir Putin (centre) with Mikhail Fradkov (left), then head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, at a Security Agency Worker’s Day celebration in 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/Presidential Press Office/Alamy

Vladimir Putin’s decade-long campaign against the newer members of NATO, the European Union, and the former Soviet republics to Russia’s west, has brought territorial gains, huge domestic rewards and manageable external stresses. Given the size of the Western strategic community — “the global West,” as the independent Russian commentator Kostya von Eggert has termed it — the seeming riskiness of Putin’s manoeuvres, and Russia’s slender and stagnating economic base, it’s remarkable how timid the international response has been.

Until last week, that is. With the large expulsions of Russian spies, for the first time in years, the Western alliance began to resemble something worthy of the name in its dealings with Russia. What brought that about? And for how long will the unity be maintained?

Russia’s aggression had peaked again in the run-up to the March presidential election. Putin, scarcely bothering to campaign, had delayed his annual address (poslanie) to both houses of parliament until 1 March to serve as a pre-election gambit. When it was eventually delivered, most of the speech was devoted to implausible calls for economic reform, rapid growth and a swift rise in living standards. But its closing section turned to more colourful military matters. In particular, Putin promised new, game-changing nuclear weapons capable of breaching America’s missile defence shield, a favourite bugbear of Russian propaganda.

Up to this point, the elite audience had seemed somewhat bored. After all, the promises of prosperity were aimed not at them but at the voting masses. But the military triumphalism and the slick video accompaniments — one depicting warheads raining down on the United States — evoked delighted animation.

It was an example of that longstanding staple of Kremlin propaganda, nuclear intimidation — a gauntlet flung down to the United States to engage in a new arms race or perhaps even capitulate to a new world order fashioned to Russia’s requirements. The West had been warned more than once, Putin declared, but it didn’t want to listen and believed it could contain Russia. “Listen to us now!” he concluded ominously, to thunderous applause.

From Moscow’s viewpoint, the response from Washington was disappointingly muted, even dismissive. Donald Trump, as is usual when he is faced by hostile Russian behaviour, said nothing. But officials and commentators pointed out that the Kremlin already had a huge nuclear arsenal quite capable of overwhelming US anti-ballistic missile installations. Others suggested that the new weapons were mostly works in progress, on show mainly for domestic consumption.

Even some independent Russian bloggers found the audience’s reaction distasteful. But the audience’s delight reflected a strong feeling in Putin’s listeners that now, at last, they were paying the West back for the intolerable humiliations it had inflicted on them in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Since its seizure of Crimea and violent subversion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s “hybrid warfare” — intrusive overflights, snap exercises, military build-ups close to target borders, hostile propaganda, underhand meddling in democratic elections, and efforts to exploit faultlines within target countries, especially where there are sizeable Russian minorities or pro-Russian parties — has been directed against a growing number of European countries, and occasionally countries further afield, like the United States and Japan.

Russian aggression towards the United States has been constrained somewhat by the United States’ formidable strength, but also recently by the hope that President Trump would deliver on his oft-repeated calls for warm and cooperative relations. Putin’s decision to use videos depicting a shower of missiles landing in Trump’s second home state of Florida was a sharp divergence from his usual cautious handling of his “asset” in the White House. Perhaps he was keen not just to get out the vote domestically and frighten Western populations, but also to remind Trump that it was time to speak respectfully and constructively with Russia about all outstanding points of contention. If so, it seems to have been a timely message, because Trump soon seemed to be proposing precisely that.

Within a few days of his nuclear threats, though, Putin presented the West with another sinister message, when Sergei Skripal, a former senior official of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence organisation, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury. Skripal had been recruited by British intelligence in the 1990s but was later unmasked and sentenced to a thirteen-year prison sentence in 2006. Pardoned by president Dimitri Medvedev in 2010, and then included in an East–West spy-swap arrangement (typically asymmetrical — four for ten, in Russia’s favour), he chose to retire in Britain.

While it took some time for the British authorities to establish exactly what the poison was, the symptoms and the circumstances pointed strongly towards another ostentatious assassination operation by Russia on sovereign British territory. The Litvinenko case from 2006 quickly came to almost everybody’s mind. One or two ministers might have jumped the gun slightly, but prime minister Theresa May was careful not to rush to judgement publicly. She made it clear from the outset, however, that if the government’s extreme concerns about the event were borne out, Britain would respond vigorously.

On 12 March, May announced that investigations had revealed a military-grade nerve agent of a type known colloquially as Novichok (“newcomer”), developed exclusively by the Soviet Union. Together with the evidence of past attacks conducted on British soil (fourteen cases, some of them distinctly suspicious, are under re-examination), it seemed “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. Either agents of the Russian state had been involved, she said, or the Russian authorities had lost control of their weapon stocks. Whichever was the case, Russia was and should be held responsible. She gave Russia a day to provide a full clarification of the circumstances, or action would follow.

From the outset, the Russian response had been angry and aggressive. The usual blizzard of flat denials, obfuscations and confected conspiracy theories was launched through Russia’s formidable propaganda apparatus. Western media began to give wide coverage to these alternative facts and theories, probably unaware of their origins. Contrarians, Putinists and instant experts — of which Australia has an imposing rollcall — stepped into the fray.

After the ultimatum, the official Russian tone became sharper. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared indignantly that no one gives Russia ultimatums. Did Britain not realise, after President Putin’s address, that this was courting a devastating military response? Instead of offering any useful information of their own, Russian officials demanded, as they routinely do in such cases, that Britain supply all its evidence to them, presumably so that Russia could scrutinise British state secrets and intelligence methods and prepare fresh waves of propaganda. This was manifestly not the response of an innocent party, unjustly accused.

On the same day that Theresa May delivered her demand for an explanation, another Russian political exile, Nikolai Glushkov, was found dead in his London home. It soon became apparent that he had been murdered. Glushkov, a former Aeroflot senior executive and political opponent of Putin, had been granted political asylum in Britain after repeated convictions in Russia. He had close links with the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, another London political exile, who died in suspicious circumstances in 2013. As became apparent from his post-mortem, the manner of Glushkov’s death — “compression to the neck” — bore a close similarity to Berezovsky’s, which was initially taken by police to be suicide, though the inquest recorded an open finding. Glushkov’s murder was entrusted — as the Skripal case had been — to Britain’s counterterrorism police.

With admirable restraint, the police have been maintaining that “there is nothing to suggest any link” with the Skripal case. But two assassination operations on Russian exiles within a week in England might seem to the rest of us to be further confirmation of many things we thought we already knew. Carrying out “wet jobs” abroad has been one of the great and more durable of Bolshevik/KGB traditions over the past century, and one to which Putin himself paid public tribute in his annual Q&A session in 2010, the year Skripal was allowed to depart to Britain. ‘Traitors will kick the bucket,” he said. “Trust me. Those people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those thirty pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

Various explanations for the Skripal case are on offer. Russian officials and propagandists have suggested variously that the Czech Republic, Sweden, the United States or Britain itself may be responsible. The idea that the United States or Britain itself may have sprinkled nerve agent around the streets of Salisbury to incriminate Russia may strike the Western mind as implausible, even self-discrediting, but this is the way Putin and his circle appear to think, for it is precisely the sort of thing they might do themselves. The provokatsia — staging a fake event to disadvantage adversaries or even provide a justification for attacking them in some way — is a standing operating procedure in the KGB Stalinist traditions in which many of them are steeped. Putin’s discreet but very effective promotion of that tradition and of Stalin’s persona is one of his most striking achievements.

To a considerable extent, Putin’s rise to power and popularity is built on Moscow’s brutal war in Chechnya, which involved huge civilian casualties, including of ethnic Russian residents. An important casus belli in that war were the so-called apartment bombings in Russia in 1999, which killed nearly 300 and injured more than 1000 people, creating a strong desire among Russians for vengeance against the presumed Chechen perpetrators. These events have been extensively probed by researchers, some of whom (including Aleksandr Litvinenko) have subsequently died unexpectedly. Their view has been that the bombings were a giant provokatsia conducted by Russia’s security agencies. The FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, was clearly involved in one such incident, but its role was explained away as a training exercise and further official enquiries halted.

Among the competing explanations, the overwhelmingly obvious one is that this is another act of revenge by, and a grim warning from, those agencies. Skripal’s daughter had been active on social media in Moscow, occasionally criticising Putin in fairly forceful language, so she was possibly targeted too. In fact, both of the other two members of Skripal’s family have died recently, a suspicious circumstance in itself. More generally, this gruesome attack is a clear warning to all the regime’s enemies that they are not safe anywhere, and particularly not in Britain, despite the fact that members of the Russian elite like to launder money, educate offspring and spend time there.

The second possibility in Theresa May’s ultimatum, that the Russians may have lost control of their weapon, or shared it in some way, opens up other possibilities for which Russia should not be absolved of responsibility. Until Moscow chooses to throw some genuine light on the subject, its reputation for murder and mendacious propaganda should incline us to settle for vengeance and intimidation as the most likely motives.

The question of why the attack occurred now is also of interest. Putin has argued, as have his apologists, that its proximity to the presidential vote was damaging to his chances of securing a good result, and that this is evidence enough that the regime wasn’t involved. Yet the claimed turnout figure and the vote for Putin were high regardless of the attack, and the characteristic falsification of results was enough to guard against any late turbulence.

In any case, the Skripal case was spun to remind Putin’s constituents that Russia is under siege from the West, and that Britain’s outrageous aggression should be forcefully rejected. A minority would not accept that message, but most consumers of state-controlled media appear willing. And, sadly, a majority of voters would probably also endorse the idea that traitors should be murdered wherever necessary. Russians seem again to be very malleable in their opinions. After two decades of Putinism, polling shows that the regime can quickly engineer hostile attitudes towards the United States, Ukraine or other targets.

The lead-up to the election precipitated much discussion about whether Putin would inevitably be a lame duck during his new presidential term, which the constitution prescribes must be his last. If he retains his present dominant position, it will be easy for him to manipulate the constitution in any way he chooses. But the stagnant economy and emerging clouds on the external horizon could conceivably impose a finite stamp on his tenure of office over the next few years, forcing him to eschew any constitutional games and gracefully withdraw when his term ends.

It’s hard to imagine that he would relish leaving office entirely of his own accord, or even feel that he could take the risk of doing so without finding a successor who would protect him, a role he himself once performed for Boris Yeltsin. He would be very conscious, for starters, that whoever takes over might at the very least trash his reputation (as he has done Yeltsin’s).

Putin’s nervous yet lethargic attitude to this latest presidential voting ritual seemed to suggest that he has no intention of going through such an undignified process again if he can help it. The Kremlin’s licensed buffoon-cum-presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who sometimes offers the inside story on Russia’s political future, and the head of Putin’s flagship propaganda outlet RT, Margarita Simonyan, have both hinted broadly that this will be the last such presidential contest.

Simonyan even referred obsequiously to Putin as “our vozhd” (roughly, “our great leader”), a term closely identified with the personality cult that surrounded Stalin. To the Anglo-Saxon ear, “Führer” has many of the same connotations of absolute power and terror as well as mawkish adoration. In the Stalinist postwar years in Warsaw, a Polish primary schoolgirl of my acquaintance was required to memorise in Russian and recite before a large audience a paean of praise entitled “Yunost’ Vozhdya” (The Youth of the Great Leader). The words were certainly not dedicated to the Polish satrap of the time, Boleslaw Bierut. Simonyan’s evocation of Stalinist nostalgia would have deeply dismayed many, but she seems to have been implying, above all, that Putin should not need to undergo any more elections.

It is widely speculated that next time round Putin will follow the example of his good friend and strategic partner Xi Jinping and become paramount leader, for life, at the head of a Chinese-style state council. The consequences of these two parallel power grabs are not in the long-term interests of either of these increasingly bellicose countries, much less those who have to share the planet with them.

These and other recent developments have fuelled much intriguing discussion of the prospects for politics and policy during Putin’s next term. Apart from official pronouncements, neither Russian nor Western commentators are optimistic, mainly foreseeing economic stagnation and increasing international tensions. “Increasing tensions” is the Anglo-Saxon euphemism for increased Russian aggression, particularly though not only in cyberspace.

Two interesting discussants have been Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow, and Yevgenia Albats, the courageous and independent Moscow political scientist.

Wood sees Russia entering a phase of potential destabilisation. Putin’s era is approaching an end, economic stagnation is likely to continue, and a further decline in living standards is a realistic possibility. The military and the security services will continue to have privileged access to resources at the expense of health, education and infrastructure; rampant corruption will continue unchecked, to the anger of the population. Though repressive, the system is chaotic, and state institutions are in decay, which will make any future reform efforts the more difficult.

Putin himself, in Wood’s view, has little interest in serious economic reform. His regime’s central preoccupation is remaining in power, and from that point of view Putin rightly regards serious economic reforms as a risk. Most of the regional governmental structures are impoverished, yet they are being made to bear the burden of funding services for which the central government does not adequately recompense them; and Putin is restricting their autonomy and undermining the ethnic identities of some regions. Putin’s focus on Russia’s quest for great power status has propped up his popularity, but may not continue to do so.

Wood focuses on the evolution of domestic policies and politics, but makes pertinent points about Russia’s external policies. Some of Putin’s recent actions, notably the Skripal case, should serve as a warning to the West to be vigilant about “the real nature of the present Kremlin.” The West should bear in mind that its standing with any post-Putin political actors is likely to depend on the stance it has taken towards the regime’s domestic abuses of human rights.

Wood seems to hint at the possibility that Putin’s dysfunctional next six years could lead to some kind of discontinuity in Russia’s development, which just might offer a fresh start, a new Gorbachev–Yeltsin moment, but hopefully not one so blighted by low energy prices and mass economic disruption. This sketchy summary of some of its themes does not do justice to Wood’s observations, which contain much subtlety and good sense on a wide range of issues, with many apt encapsulations, forceful opinions and moments of mordant, undiplomatic humour.

In her excellent essay, Yevgenia Albats focuses on the way in which siloviki (“bureaucrats in epaulettes”), and especially the mindset of the FSB, have suffused the post-communist political system since early in Yeltsin’s time. Though the FSB’s predecessor organisations exerted a strong and baleful influence in Soviet times, they were subject to control by the Communist Party, and often suffered severe purging and massive executions. It is only now for the first time that the political police have escaped all control, as Albats puts it, and “have become power itself, its essence and its being.” And that pervasive influence has become much more pronounced since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.

Former KGB personnel have heavily infiltrated most non-security elite organisations. Albats stresses that people never leave the KGB, they remain KGB operatives forever, and their families imbibe the same culture and enjoy the same preferential career paths, whether in the security services, or in banking, business or administration. This has left a deep imprint on the structures and policies of the regime that will not be easy to eradicate. She offers this eloquent characterisation of the political culture involved:

The conspiracy-orientated mindset, a search for internal and external enemies, secrecy as a way of running a public office, a disregard for human rights, a disbelief in people’s ability for self-governance and protest, revanchism — all these characterise the current Russian nomenklatura.

Albats tries valiantly, but less compellingly than in her diagnosis of the illness, to find reasons for seeing some prospect of Russia’s recovering from the deep KGB infection of its public life. She suggests hopefully that perhaps the conflicting business interests of siloviki will give rise to greater tensions among them, reducing the security services’ capacity to dominate society; or possibly, the younger generations of the KGB jeunesse dorée who are now moving into top jobs and receiving foreign educations and experience will bring a greater element of sophistication and humanity to bear on public life in Russia.

But the overall tone of most of the discussion of the Putinist future is pessimistic across the board. The next six years will indeed be hazardous for Putin, and while this might conceivably bring about a radical change for the better, it is perhaps more likely to lead to some new catastrophe. Putin is increasingly focused on his own security. The National Guard, with its 400,000 troops led by the former head of Putin’s personal security detail, is directly beholden to him, and he has shown in Chechnya, very probably in the apartment bombings, in the other North Caucasus regions, in Ukraine, in the numerous killings by “unknown assailants” of inconvenient dissidents, and most recently in Syria, that he is capable of massive crimes and brutal repression. He has an obsessive fear of “colour revolutions,” and he would see any discontent that appeared to threaten him as a Western-organised conspiracy and a grave threat not just to himself but also to the country.

In the last few years, the Western strategic community has come painfully and reluctantly to the beginnings of an understanding of just what a dedicated, skilful, unscrupulous and dangerous adversary they have in Putin. It’s possible that Western leaders will finally be so mobilised by events like the Skripal operation that they will conclude they must combine their forces and undertake strong and sustained counter-measures against Russia. After the unprecedented wave of sentiment and solidarity in support of that unexpected heroine Theresa May, such a moment may have come. But optimism on that score may be premature.

Despite the current surge of solidarity and apparent determination, the Western response so far has had some dismaying moments. After the voting ritual and the Skripal incident, EU Commission president Jean Claude Juncker tweeted to Putin: “Congratulations on your re-election. I have always argued that positive relations between the EU and Russia are crucial to the security of our continent… Our common objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order.”

That objective is Russia’s objective, not that of the West, which is trying to preserve the current post-1990 security order rather than rewrite it. What Moscow wants is a new Yalta-like arrangement whereby Russia re-establishes its “sphere of privileged interests.” We have innumerable examples of how it has been pursuing that objective, with recruitment of potential allies in the enemy camp a vital element in the mix.

While the majority of EU–NATO members signed on to the UK-led response, doubtless with varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm, nine did not. Even Germany, which has played a leading role in this effort, is clinging tenaciously to the Nord Stream 2 agreement with Russia, despite the opposition to it of the overwhelming majority of EU members and the evident damage it will inflict on Ukraine and other East European countries. German foreign minister Heiko Maas initially declared the Skripal episode to be an exclusively bilateral matter for Britain. He was evidently rolled on this issue, but that sentiment is widely shared in influential German circles. Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Hungary (despite its expulsion of one member of the Russian embassy staff) and others have often shown sympathy for Russian attitudes and behaviour; and much more could be said about the strength of support for Russia in many European countries.

The scene in the United States is even more worrying. President Trump began in similar style to Juncker, phoning Putin to congratulate him on his election victory, despite the urging of advisers. He also ignored their efforts to have him condemn the poisoning of Skripal, his main public reaction on that score being to call for the leakers of the advice to be found and punished.

But then, when push came to shove, as has often happened, the president’s words were belied by the actions of his administration. Washington came out with by far the largest contribution to the tally of expelled “diplomats,” in addition to closing down the Russian consulate in Seattle. This facility seems to have been a hotbed of military and technological espionage against important US naval installations and high-tech and cyber companies like Boeing and Microsoft.

Trump has recently appointed John Bolton, a fiery hawk on Russia as on everything else, to replace H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor. Compared to the firm but more measured McMaster, Bolton seems a mixed blessing. Even many of those who wish most fervently for a strong and sustained policy towards Russia will feel distinctly nervous about this choice. President Trump’s future trajectory on Russian matters remains cloudy. The one thing we can be sure of is his determination to sack anyone he can who he thinks wants to pursue the issue of the numerous contacts he and some of his close associates have had with Russia.

Russia’s aggression towards Britain continues, with further expulsions of British diplomats bringing the total to fifty identified intelligence operatives along with the closing of the British Council — all in response to Britain’s removal of twenty-three Russian intelligence operatives. As the British ambassador commented, it should be remembered that the British expulsions were a response to what looked very like an assassination attempt using an illegal chemical weapon on the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom that Russia has declined to explain.

It will be interesting to see how many of Britain’s allies respond vigorously to this grossly asymmetrical retaliation. Most are likely to be reluctant to repeat their gestures of solidarity, and that will enable Russia to use its customary divide-and-rule tactics in the hope of leaving Britain isolated.

Meanwhile, in Russia itself, local disasters and fiascos continue, fuelled by massive corruption and incompetence. In the town of Volokolamsk (population 23,000, 130 kilometres from Moscow), toxic fumes leaking profusely from a nearby waste dump have led to the hospitalisation of scores of children, and demonstrations that have lasted for weeks. Fifty-seven children were hospitalised on 21 March alone. On 29 March, the district leader finally announced a state of emergency, and plans are at last afoot to evacuate mothers with infants. Earlier, though, the local authorities had refused to close the dump despite numerous complaints.

The tragic fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo highlighted similar failures of governance and official resistance to protests, but with more tragic results. More than forty children were killed in a fire in a retail and entertainment complex in a building clearly not fit for purpose. Locals are deeply sceptical of the official death tally of sixty-four dead and more than sixty injured. The local governor, Aman Tuleyev, an ex-communist in the job for more than twenty years, told Putin the demonstrators were trouble-makers and “vultures,” and in a classic kiss-up, kick-down manoeuvre, apologised to Putin rather than to the families for the tragedy that had occurred on his watch.

Tuleyev’s two deputies went further: one said the demonstrators were all oppositionists, many of them drunk, who were only trying to discredit the authorities; the other, Sergei Tsivilyov, a wealthy coal oligarch, accused a demonstrator of self-promotion, to which the demonstrator replied that he had lost all his family in the blaze. When faced with appalling breaches of safety regulations, Tuleyev finally resigned. His deputy, Tsivilyov, was rewarded by Putin with the governorship. Tsivilyov owns 70 per cent of his big coal-mining firm, with the other 30 per cent belonging to oligarch Gennadi Timchenko, thought by the US Treasury, among many other Western institutions, to be one of the custodians of Putin’s vast personal wealth.

Two senior Moscow officials also made noteworthy contributions. During a talk-show, Yelena Mizulina, a hardline legislator, offered her “condolences and support to our leader” and described the Kemerovo events as a “stab in the back” for Putin. The human rights ombudswoman, Natalya Moskalkova, accused the demonstrators of using any possible chance to destabilise the situation “to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of their ‘sponsors’” (read: the West).

In Russia, fire disasters in dodgy buildings are even more common than air crashes. There were 10,068 fire deaths in 2014 alone, compared with 3275 in the United States, which has over twice Russia’s population. And in a country where living standards have fallen steeply over four years, events of this kind, illustrating corruption, incompetence and official contempt for the rulers’ unfortunate subjects, could conceivably become a catalyst for a major outburst of popular discontent.

To a significant degree, incidents like these are a consequence of the lack of glasnost (freedom of speech, the first element of Gorbachev’s legacy that Putin closed down) and the unaccountability of local bosses (another of Putin’s achievements). With, or even without, the involvement of a galvanising figure like the opposition’s Alexei Navalny, the resentment might spread, potentially making even the consistently high poll ratings for the Great Leader look unreliable. A major turning point of the kind that occurred more than once in Russia’s twentieth century cannot be entirely ruled out. But with his vast and expanding security empire at his finger-tips, Putin’s chances of forestalling one would have to be rated highly. ●