Thursday 22 August 2019

How do we solve this problem called Putin?

How President-elect Trump chooses to deal with Moscow could have huge implications for us all, writes Willie Kealy

Vladimir Putin: Certainly has no hang-ups about human rights or democratic principles
Vladimir Putin: Certainly has no hang-ups about human rights or democratic principles

Vladimir Putin has one huge advantage over his counterparts in the West. He has no hang-ups about human rights or democratic principles.

He presides over a faux democracy where opposition leaders who wish to stand against him are routinely jailed and must get approval from the Kremlin to be candidates anyway. The most viable opposition prospect in recent years, Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin. The media is state-controlled and totally supportive of Putin. He has the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, and ballot-rigging is routine. And most real wealth is in the hands of a few Putin cronies.

Putin doesn't need to go to these lengths. The most recent poll (admittedly carried out by the state media) showed he had an 86pc approval rating. His ballot rigging merely boosts a natural majority. He and his party are by far the most popular choice with most Russians who look back at the Yeltsin years of chaos and are glad of the stability and relative prosperity they have today, even if it is at the cost of many freedoms.

Yeltsin was a hero for one day 25 years ago, when he saved Gorbachev from the communist plot to reverse his reforms. But afterwards, he was a drunken buffoon who imposed extreme austerity on an already poverty-stricken people (on the advice of American economic experts). Putin changed that and today when they go to the polls, most ordinary Russians say: "If not Putin, then who?" And there is no clear answer.

So in Russia, for now, Putin's position is unassailable. It wasn't always so.

In 2014, when the pro-Russian government of Ukraine was ejected by popular revolt, he urged his Ukrainian puppet who had stolen the election, Viktor Yanukovych, to implement a military crackdown. Yanukovych declined to do so and fled. Putin became convinced that he was in danger of suffering a similar fate. So he annexed Crimea in a show of strength.

Of course Crimea had been Russian territory until about 50 years ago when the Ukrainian-born Nikita Khrushchev ceded it to Ukraine, and many of its citizens remained Russian at heart. Plus access to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol was imperative for Russia. And the West didn't help by dangling possible EU and Nato membership before the new anti-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko.

To ordinary Russians, Putin became a type of hero, a strong man resisting the West's attempts to militarily encircle his country. In doing so, he broke all the existing and accepted international rules of territorial integrity. Specifically, Russia had signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine. But he got away with it and it emboldened him.

Which is what led to Russia's excursion into Syria to shore up the despotic rule of President Assad in the guise of fighting Isil terrorists. The West is no stranger to such adventures. We took "civilisation" to parts of the globe that never asked for it, peddling, first religion, and later, democracy in exchange for access, influence and exploitation. (Russia doesn't need Middle Eastern oil, but it craves influence in the region and access to the southern Mediterranean ports).

Since the defeat of the US military in Vietnam, the West has been less brave about such adventures and more subtle in its approach, though it will still back despots, such as the Saudi royal family if it is deemed to be in the best interests of the West. Putin is not subtle. Though his country had a Vietnam-type experience in Afghanistan, he is not cowed by this relatively recent setback, because he perceives the West to be weak. And who could blame him? When he sanctioned the cyber attack on the US electoral system, as much to discredit the democratic process as to help Donald Trump defeat his arch-nemesis Hillary Clinton (as Putin saw her), Barack Obama told him to "cut it out". (Putin didn't). When he joined Syria and Iran in committing atrocious war crimes in Aleppo, the United States responded by having its UN ambassador, Samantha Power, put forward a moral argument. Had they no shame, she asked, to which her Russian counterpart responded by asking contemptuously, did she think she was Mother Teresa?

From a practical point of view, the Russians can afford to be a bit more relaxed about the downside of their aggression. Being a virtual police state, they don't face as much of a threat of terrorist attacks as France of Germany or Turkey or the UK or America, all NATO members, though the Chechans had a bloody good try for a while. Russia's exposure in this regard seems to be largely limited to their diplomats abroad.

Donald Trump is planning a different approach to that taken by Obama. Putin says he wants to improve relations with the US. Trump seems set to go along that path by appointing Putin's best American friend, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State. But he is on a tricky course. If he is soft on Putin, if he continues to demonstrate that the West has no answer to Russian aggression, he will further embolden Putin.

If, on the other hand, he tries to get tough with him, he will do so at a time when he has already begun to anger that other great super power, China, over Taiwan. The Chinese share the Russian feeling of being militarily encircled by the West through the many missile bases in the Pacific from Australia to the Philippines and Japan and South Korea and Guam. That is why the Chinese have been so active in that region of late, taking over disputed islands - again without any real challenge from the West - and marshalling their sea-based military resources for aggressive manoeuvres. And the Russian Pacific Fleet patrols these waters, too.

Japan is the surrogate for the West in dealing with China in this part of the world, and they are similarly engaged with Russia in a dispute over territory annexed by Stalin in 1945. Putin says: "We don't trade in territories."

John Pilger, the veteran left-wing journalist, recently made an impressive film predicting that this region will be the cockpit for the next global war in which China would be pitted against the West. He could be wrong, but as the saying goes, "just because you're paranoid..." and if Russia were to make common cause with China, the consequences for all of us are too awful to contemplate.

Sadly in all of this we are largely irrelevant. Europe is becoming less and less influential on the world stage as it focuses more and more energy on maintaining a union that was meant to prevent another war on the continent, in the face of the growth of extreme nationalism. And who can say what Mr Trump has in store for that imperfect force called Nato.

All of which gives a profound importance to how Donald Trump handles Vladimir Putin over the next four, or maybe eight years. Is it possible to deal with an enemy like Vladimir Putin through diplomacy and without sacrificing your own commitment to democracy and human rights? Countries like Poland and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and the inhabitants of the Pacific Rim, are nervous about the answer to that question.

Sunday Independent

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