Matthew Day: Vladimir Putin keeps people guessing

THE Kremlin kingpin has everyone guessing about his next move in the wake of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Matthew Day in Warsaw investigates

Putin holds court at the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, last year. Picture: Getty
Putin holds court at the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, last year. Picture: Getty
Putin holds court at the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, last year. Picture: Getty

THIS IS a heady time for “Kremlin watchers”. A rare breed, they made a good ­living during Cold War days trying to interpret the opaque world of the Soviet Union only to see their world collapse when the USSR imploded with such undignified haste in the 1990s.

But now they’re back and in demand: trying to glean insight into the mindset of the Kremlin, and, in particular, the world of Vladimir Putin.

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The Ukraine crisis and the MH17 disaster has set the West at odds with Putin’s Russia and everyone wants to know what the president is thinking and what the president wants.

To begin with in some ways it can be argued that both the nine-month Ukraine crisis and the tragedy of the Malaysian Airline’s flight have already given the Russian president what he both expected and sought: a conflict with the West.

Throughout his years in office, and even before that, Putin has harboured the notion that the western world in all its manifestations, such as the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the various non-governmental organisations now being crushed in Russia, represent a threat to security and the wellbeing of the Russian nation.

Putin has, at times in the past, offered co-operation with the West, highlighting areas of mutual concern such as Islamist extremism and the fight against global terrorism. But these offers were always robustly pragmatic and little effort was made in trying to remove the mistrust and dislike of the West that permeates not just Putin but also his Kremlin.

The Cold War may be dead and buried but the Russian president still considers, it would seem, Europe as a continent ­divided by imperial powers who vie for control.

So he has, along with many Russians, viewed with horror the gradual spread of the EU and Nato into the former Soviet bloc, seeing it as a process of colonisation and encirclement rather than as a group of independent nations deciding on their own future without any deference to their old imperial master. Moscow could do nothing as the likes of Poland, and the Baltic states embraced their new alliances, but when Ukraine started to edge west, Putin acted. Once Russia again viewed and reduced a country and its sovereign interests to nothing more than a “sphere of influence”, while the perception of yet another chunk of “Russian space” being absorbed by western imperialists trounced the reality that, in fact, many Ukrainians themselves harboured a ­desire to be closer to the West.

However, unlike in Poland, and to a lesser extent the Baltics, Russia could inter­fere in Ukraine to stop the West’s perceived advance. This has been at the heart of his game in the former Soviet republic as he first annexed Crimea and then sent troops and weapons across the border to foment disorder in eastern Ukraine. The country has become the battlefield for a conflict that for a Russian president with a mentality dictated by a Cold War mindset was inevitable.

Destabilise Ukraine, show the world you can act tough and dirty, and Russia, in theory, checks the western advance by making the West balk at getting involved in a country where conflict beckons.

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It is telling that despite the outrage over MH17, Putin had not ordered the “rebels” to lay down their arms or even a halt to the flow of weapons and ­personnel crossing the Russia-Ukraine border. For Putin the war goes on.

The conflict has also provided Putin the chance to enhance his own popularity at home by launching a massive propaganda war. By playing on – and ­inflating – Russia’s old fears of western encroachment in its own backyard he has managed to unite Russian public opinion against the West and portrayed Russia as the victim of aggressive western powers that have scant regard for its interests or the Russian way of doing things.

The Russian media, which has become increasingly subservient to the Kremlin, has twisted the Ukrainian conflict into a fight over national interests and the right to protect “Russians”, whoever and wherever they may be, from alleged persecution by “fascists” and “neo-Nazis”. Even the MH17 disaster, killing 298 people, has been ­explained as a western plot to blame Russia and an excuse to persecute ­Russia even more by heaping on further sanctions.

In this atmosphere MH17 may even help bolster Putin at home by providing yet more “evidence” of how unjust the West is when it comes to Russia, and therefore how the country needs to fight to preserve its rights and security.

Yet it could also provide the Russian president with a problem. With the propaganda machine at full tilt it could be harder for him to step back and try to cool matters without losing serious face, if he so desires. There is a nationalistic chunk of Russian society that has not been asking why Russia is meddling in Ukraine but is, instead, demanding to know why Russia is doing so little to help its brethren across the border. Any step back by Putin and the Kremlin could be seen by them as a betrayal of the passionate and patriotic principles their president has been so happy to expound and propagate in the past.

The West’s options when it comes to dealing with Putin and Russia have until now been subject to conflicting agendas and interests. Germany, for example, with its substantial economic interests in Russia has pursued a more cautious line while Poland – perhaps unsurprisingly given its fraught history with its big neighbour to the east – has pushed for a hard line. This week the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, even claimed that if the West had taken tough action against Russia earlier, the MH17 disaster would not have happened.

The British government, on the other hand, for all its recent bellicose talk on imposing sanctions on Russia may wish to tread carefully when it comes to their imposition for fear of upsetting the City of London, which has had untold millions of pounds of dubious origins stuffed into banks and funds by the ­Russian oligarchs.

Moscow has also proved adept at splintering the chances of building a European consensus on sanctions by highlighting the importance of national interests over a unified approach.

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Nonetheless, with some of the victims of MH17 still rotting in the fields of Ukraine, and evidence, apparently, mounting of Russia complicity, if not ­actual involvement, in the shooting down of the Boeing tougher sanctions have been introduced.

These involve widening the group of individuals close to Putin who are subject to travel bans and asset freezes, and could also include the placing of restrictions and limitations on the access of Russian banks to European capital. Blocking access to money may well have a tangible and painful effect on the ­Russian economy owing to its capital market’s reliance on foreign money.

Western leaders will also have noted the widespread public anger over the fate of MH17, and may have felt the need to react accordingly, but once again economic interests may have limited sanctions rather than be sacrificed to them. European governments, in particular, may also have preferred to defer taking an even harder line on Russia until the investigation into the causes of the Boeing disaster has run its course.

In the short-term sanctions may play into Putin’s hand as he can trumpet them as signs of a belligerent West, and he can also take some solace from the fact they will probably have ­little immediate economic impact.

In time, however, they could start to gnaw away at an economy that is already running out of steam, with growth stagnating. Economists had originally ­predicted growth of 3.5 per cent for the Russian economy in 2013, but in the end it came in at just 1.3 per cent, and few believe this year will be any better. The International Monetary Fund, for example, has estimated Russian growth will come in this year at about 0.2 per cent.

Adding to the Kremlin’s problems – and therefore ­Putin’s – is that regional instability and increasing talk of the country as a “rogue” or “pariah” state, will make western companies begin to “self-sanction” by shying away from investment or expansion in Russia. This could have a painful effect on Russia given that it relies heavily on foreign investment to keep its economy expanding and developing.

A wilting economy often leads to a change of government or, at the very least, a change in a government’s ­economic tack, but this is unlikely to happen in Russia.

To begin with Russia’s leaders – both before and after the Soviet era – have a long and ignoble history of putting their interests ahead of those of the Russian people. While, like Putin, they like to demonstrate their patriotic allegiance and fervour, they are far more concerned about protecting their wealth and the structures that create it rather than ­applying sensible economic policies for the benefit of all.

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In fact, Putin, following another ignoble Russian/Soviet tradition, appears to be suspicious and somewhat contemptuous of the Russian electorate: a feeling that manifests itself in his increasing ­desire to manipulate the press while ­suppressing debate and criticism of 
his polices.

The Russian president is also part of a system. And while he is without question a strong and shrewd politician he is not “the system”. Therefore when he ­departs – not any time soon – anybody banking on revolutionary change may well be disappointed as the system that allowed Putin to prosper and grow will also allow his successor to prosper and grow. While there may be some tinkering here and there, the autocratic structures and the web of corruption that bonds the ruling elite together through mutual gain and complicity is unlikely to disappear.

This question of how to deal with ­Russia has no easy answer.