Peter Jones: Putin set on restoring Russian empire

Vladimir Putin regards Nato and the EU as puppet institutions of the United States. Picture: Getty

Vladimir Putin regards Nato and the EU as puppet institutions of the United States. Picture: Getty

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A NEW Cold War could well be looming as the Russian president turns his eyes to the Baltic states, writes Peter Jones.

When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, western thinkers proclaimed the victory of liberal democracy over communist totalitarianism.

They argued the coming challenge for western countries would be the rise of militant Islamism. In that they were right, but in consigning the Cold War clash to the dustbin of history, they were wrong. Vladimir Putin is reviving it and not just in Ukraine.

The mistake is to assume that liberal democracy – freedom of speech, a market economy, rule of law, political power springing from the ballot box – is the natural order which will flourish when the problem suppressing them, such as a nasty dictator or a clique adhering to an evil ideology, is removed.

We made that mistake in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Arab Spring. It is time to stop repeating it. It is time to recognise that the liberal democracy we cherish is under attack, not just from violent Islamism, but also from, for want of a better word, Putinism.

This has only loose connections with communism and rather more to do with the effects of its collapse. True, this and the arrival of much more freedom of expression was heartily welcomed by many Russians, not least the few who became grossly enriched by the robber baron capitalism it ushered in.

But on the other side of the coin, the disappearance of Russia’s empire – in eastern Europe and southern Asia – which, in comparison to the dissolution of the British Empire, happened overnight, was a humiliation which rankles.

Once Russia was a great power to whom everyone paid obeisance, then suddenly it wasn’t.

Putinism is about restoring that power and he does not much care about how he goes about getting it. Neither do, according to the broad popular support his actions in Ukraine seem to have, the Russian people, who seem to have broadly bought Mr Putin’s view of the world pumped out by the state-controlled media.

Since the chaos of the Yeltsin period, Russia’s people have mostly experienced rising prosperity. This has come to a sudden halt, mainly because of the oil price tumble. The currency has collapsed and there are shortages of imported food.

Mr Putin portrays this as all part of western intrigue with Russia as the victim. The conflict in Ukraine, you see, is not Russia’s fault, but the result of western aggression.

The uprisings which resulted in the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president were not popular revolts against repressive corruption, but were, in Mr Putin’s view, conspiracies constructed by western special forces, principally American, aimed at moving Nato’s frontier right up against Russia’s underbelly.

The proof of that, according to Putinist doctrine, is no sooner had a “puppet” pro-western regime in Kiev been installed, than the US was offering to install Nato missile systems right on Russia’s frontier. And of course, Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, says Mr Putin, were to defend Ukrainian/Russian resistance against this western imperialism.

This is part of a much bigger narrative. The concept of Russia as the motherland is deeply embedded in Russian thinking. The motherland is an almost sacred idea and has been appropriated by every Russian leader – the Tsars, Stalin, Kruschev, and now Mr Putin – for two centuries.

Put simply, it ties the land and the leader together with the people having a subservient role. Both land and leader will serve the interests of the people but only if the people follow and serve the leader who, in order to do the job properly, must be strong. If Putin is strong and respected, so will be the motherland and the people will benefit.

The logic is circular, which makes it illogical but also impenetrable and fits a centuries-old popular view of the nature of Russia, Hence its popularity. Mr Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the loss of tens of thousands of lives he is causing may be vile in our view, but in many Russian eyes, it demonstrates his strength which will ultimately benefit the people.

This strength can only be measured by the weakness of opponents. These are the US and what Mr Putin regards as its puppet institutions – Nato and the EU. He recently argued that America aims “to freeze the order established after the Soviet collapse and remain an absolute leader, thinking it can do whatever it likes, while others can do only what is in that leader’s interests. Maybe some want to live in a semi-occupied state, but we do not.”

The big troubling question is whether he will test EU and Nato frailties. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all of which are Nato members and have big Russian-origin populations, are one obvious potential flashpoint. If Nato carries through its promise to establish military forces in these countries, will Mr Putin engineer uprisings in the same way as happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine?

And if that happens, will Nato invoke Article 5 of the Nato treaty which sees an attack on one member as an attack on all and demanding a military response? My guess is probably not, particularly since the EU looks a more promising target, not for military, but for political action.

We should not forget that the Ukrainian conflict began when the EU said it would accommodate Ukrainian political wishes to join the union and therefore, in Mr Putin’s eyes, needs to be taught a lesson. Not for nothing does he welcome delegations from every EU political party that wants to either curb EU power or break up the union. Even France’s right-wing National Front has benefited from a £7 million loan from First Czech Russian Bank, which is said to be linked to the Kremlin.

And what about Greece, whose new anti-EU austerity prime minister Alexis Tsipras has visited Moscow and is busily establishing new ties with Russia.

If he decides Greece has little option but to quit the euro, will Mr Putin bankroll the establishment of a new drachma and a new anti-EU ally at the heart of the European Council?

Is this the start of a new Cold War that might turn hot? I hope not. But Mr Putin’s doubling of spending on military forces in the last seven years, the Russian aircraft probing western airspace, the increased intensity of military exercises on Europe’s eastern frontiers, all look terribly ominous.

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