Tuesday 26 March 2019

To Putin, we in the West are hypocrites who disrespect Russia

While we cannot reason with the Kremlin, we can tighten our security and impede its adventurism, writes Charles Moore

HARD MAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to supporters on election day last week. Photo: Alex Zemlianichenko/PA
HARD MAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to supporters on election day last week. Photo: Alex Zemlianichenko/PA

Charles Moore

In late August 1991, there were two coups in Moscow in three days. On a Monday, hardline Communists overthrew the reformist President Gorbachev. On the Wednesday, Boris Yeltsin, the elected President of the Russian Federation, overthrew them. He restored Gorbachev, but effectively transferred power to himself.

I wanted to see whether the Soviet Union truly was falling apart, so that week I flew to Moscow without a visa. If the Soviet system still worked, I reckoned, my lack of visa would cause me to be briefly detained, then sent straight back home. At Moscow airport, I was duly stopped and made to retrace my steps, escorted. Realising that I was about to be shoved on to a plane to London, I sat down and refused to move. After some argument, the officials took me back to an office, muttered for a bit, then gave me a transit visa to let me into Moscow, plus the permission I sought to fly on to Russia's unwilling vassal, Lithuania, which was struggling to gets its independence fully recognised.

It thus became clear to me that the Soviet Union no longer meant business. A regime based, since 1917, on fear, had lost the power to terrify. It had therefore lost power, full stop.

The Soviet collapse was a joyous moment in world history, but was also part of a long process that was horrible for many Russians. The "Committee of Eight", which led that first August coup, put out an "appeal to the Soviet people". Because of anti-Soviet forces, it said, "life has lost its tranquillity and joy for tens of millions of Soviet people" - they were "a united family... who today find themselves outcasts in their own home".

Those hardliners deserved to lose, but what they said resonated. Vladimir Putin, just then entering the newly democratic politics of St Petersburg after a career in the KGB, seems to have felt that way. He had watched in horror as the Soviet authorities did nothing to stop the collapse of the East German frontier controls in 1989.

As the years unfolded, the development of plural democracy in Russia faltered, gangsterism and kleptocracy grew and the traditional sense of the "Russian world" fell apart. There might not have been many Communists left, but there were plenty of Russians who felt disrespected. The Russian word to describe their feelings is "obida": it encompasses both "insult" and "resentment". Mr Putin is the candidate, indeed the embodiment, of obida.

And we, the West, are the chief object of Russian resentment. In 1975, the Soviets signed the Helsinki Final Act, which upholds territorial borders, the peaceful settlements of disputes, human rights and so on. They also agreed later, and not under duress, that the Helsinki principles should organise post-Cold War Europe. But really they remained attached to the Yalta agreement of 1945, in which Stalin secured for the Soviets the virtually absolute control of Eastern Europe.

So when we think we are advancing free markets, upholding democracy and protecting the national aspirations of countries formerly under the Soviet heel, many Russians think of us as stinking hypocrites who are annexing their part of the world and trashing their civilisation. Ever since Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed president of Ukraine, was pushed out in 2014, Mr Putin has made the exploitation of such feelings the mainstay of his politics.

An example of what Russia calls hypocrisy is the British refusal to extradite all but one on a list of 51 Russians that its London embassy gave the Britain in 2015. The UK regards this as protecting the liberties of the persecuted, not to mention keeping some big fortunes in London. Russia sees it as harbouring her mortal enemies and therefore as justification for little acts of war, like that performed on a park bench in Salisbury one Sunday afternoon this month. Britain thinks Russia is attacking the country: Russia thinks it is only retaliating.

Mr Putin's fight-back against the West is a curious, but effective mixture of aggression and subterfuge. When he launches an operation - the armed, uniformed, but unbadged "little green men" in the Crimea, the shooting down of flight MH 17, the Trump campaign intervention, the Salisbury poisonings - it is important for him both that people know Russia did it and that it does not admit what it did. Hence that tone of sarcasm - the boastful disclosure of knowledge about, for example, the chemicals involved, combined with the taunts to produce the evidence. I have been told that most criminals in prison simultaneously protest their innocence and proudly proclaim what great villains they are. Mr Putin is like that. "Catch me if you can," he is saying, conscious that we usually can't.

When I played my little game at Moscow airport all those years ago, I was in a tiny way using what I now recognise as a key Putin tactic of "reconnaissance by combat". While Russia resents Western power and success, it also watches our weaknesses intently and then tests them. We are so vain of our freedoms, so obsessed with money, so indebted and over-welfared, so fond of web-lies, that we neglect our security.

A few years back, Russia noticed how feeble British defences had become, so started to infringe its airspace and sea-lanes to see what the country would do.

Currently, it wants to work out whether Brexit is making the country tougher or just rudderless. So far, Theresa May's reactions have suggested, thank goodness, the former.

Across the West, Russia has long observed how easy (and often cheap) it can be to buy up individuals, think-tanks, websites, pressure groups, shell companies. It has also noticed that there are politically significant people, such as Jeremy Corbyn, who will say what it wants without it having to pay them a penny. Note how readily Mr Corbyn repeats any current Russian propaganda line as if it were his own. A classic last week was his demand that the British authorities send the Russians a sample of the alleged Novichok so that they could kindly test it to work out whether it was theirs. How they must have laughed in Moscow when he said that.

There is a sense in which the Russians are right to resent the West. In our flush of success at ending the Cold War, we undoubtedly did neglect the feelings of the vanquished and underrate the eternal facts of power rivalry. We also are hypocritical: we say how dirty Russian money is, yet provide the laundry bag.

There must be a lot more we can do on this latter point: exposing Mr Putin and his friends for their cocktail of money and power, and depriving them of London as its punchbowl.

The more important question is whether the West should find a new strategy to calm the Russians down by defining their legitimate sphere of influence and leaving them alone. That may be the semi-thought at the back of Donald Trump's mind.

It is hard to discern, though. Mr Putin was not re-elected last Sunday by being reasonable. He thinks his victories have to be our defeats. His relationship to Russia is like Islamism's to Islam - a powerful, deliberate, incendiary distortion.

We cannot change his mind. All we can do is try calmly to impede his foreign adventurism until the day the Russian people realise he is impoverishing and isolating them. The West needs to admit this, and frame its strategy accordingly.

© Telegraph


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