August 6, 2012

An Alarming Wake-Up Call

“The question comes up whether a very strong financial recovery in Russia is a stimulus for the new Russian leadership to return to the Cold War. Russia wants to dominate and dictate.” These words were spoken by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in an interview with the Financial Times last January, yet they could have been taken from Edward Lucas’s book, The New Cold War. How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West.

“The question comes up whether a very strong financial recovery in Russia is a stimulus for the new Russian leadership to return to the Cold War. Russia wants to dominate and dictate.” These words were spoken by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in an interview with the Financial Times last January, yet they could have been taken from Edward Lucas’s book, The New Cold War. How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West.


Review of Edward Lucas, The New Cold War. How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West, Bloomsbury, London 2008, 342 pages (incl. index)
“The question comes up whether a very strong financial recovery in Russia is a stimulus for the new Russian leadership to return to the Cold War. Russia wants to dominate and dictate.” These words were spoken by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in an interview with the Financial Times last January, yet they could have been taken from Edward Lucas’s book, The New Cold War. How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West.
For Lucas, an editor of the British weekly magazine The Economist, it is abundantly clear that Russia is moving in a semi-dictatorial direction and is increasingly employing its energy bonanza to regain the influence it has lost after the Soviet Union infamously imploded in 1991 and Russia, its main successor state, thereupon entered a phase of economic and political chaos and misery. Vladimir Putin, a Judo-practising, German-speaking former KGB officer and unknown bureaucrat by the time he took over as prime minister in August 1999, solemnly vowed he would overcome this double humiliation of the Sacred Motherland.
He has stuck to his promise, as Lucas demonstrates in a convincing and sometimes terrifying way – Russia is back.
First, Lucas provides the reader with a detailed overview of how Putin, who had became President on December 31, 1999, surrounded himself with siloviki, the clique of active and retired intelligence and security officers, and started working on the establishment of an authoritarian, callous Orwellian state (which keeps up an outward appearance of democratic pluralism), which he christened ‘sovereign democracy’. Some examples are rather shocking, like the ‘thwarted Chechen bomb attack’ (in Ryazan in 1999) that was in fact framed by the FSB, the KGB’s successor; the Kremlin-orchestrated hunt for immigrants from Georgia after that country had arrested four Russian military intelligence officers (in 2006) – a refined form of ethnic cleansing; and the renewed use of forced psychiatric treatment í  la soviet.
Other examples are better known, like the muzzling and Gleichschaltung of the (remaining) free media, such as the TV station NTV, and the dismantling of the Yukos energy conglomerate. Lucas approaches these two developments in a critical, but differentiated way, stressing that expropriated business tycoons – oligarchs – like Berezovsky, Gusinsky (NTV) and Khodorkovsky (Yukos) had acquired their immense fortunes by buying up the assets of the state Molochs for a song during the privatisations in the 1990s. “To many Russians they symbolised the looting and influence peddling that had characterised the Yeltsin era,” as he puts it. The average Russian family was hardly able to survive and lost its savings twice – due to astronomic inflation in 1991 and the catastrophic banking crisis in 1998.   
Putin thankfully exploited this mood of general discontent and longing for law and order. Lucas argues that Yeltsin indeed blundered, but is only partly to blame for the chaos, nepotism, etc. in that turbulent period. Was he not facing the almost impossible task of reconstructing a Russia that had politically and economically been ruined by 70 years of suffocating Communist rule? At least he tried to introduce the trias politica principle and gave independent media a fair chance. According to the author of the book, things have only changed for the worse under his successor who provided expanding state violence with a legal basis (the vague ‘Law on Extremism’); created his own ‘opposition parties’; sacked independent-minded judges; has had himself worshipped by (youth) movements like Nashi – not unknown in Estonia; affected the rights of ethnic minorities like the Mari; and curtailed the position of NGOs, replacing them with GONGOs (‘Government-Organised Non-Governmental Organisations’). Meanwhile, Putin’s approval rates have only skyrocketed – apparently, Russian citizens do not care about the shattering of civil society and find their growing monthly income more important. Lucas blames Russia’s history and the long rule of autocratic Czars for this remarkable lack of democratic disposition. Unfortunately, he only elaborates on the thesis for half a paragraph, while such an underlying historical-cultural dimension might indeed offer a more structural explanation. The self-evident submission of the individual to the state and the collective/community, patriarchal/vertical relations and clan structures – they can all be traced back to the dominant Greek-Byzantine culture and mentality that have moulded Russia for a thousand years and have come drifting to the surface again, now that Communism has disappeared. Since Romania, Bulgaria and most Balkan states are blessed with the same cultural heritage, it might explain their chronic lack of proper, democratic governance and their remarkably good (business) ties with Russia, as described by Lucas in Chapter 7.      
Two of the main features of ‘Putinocracy’ are centralised, state-run ‘capitalism’ and a nationalistic ideology, which also comprises a rewritten version of 20th century history. The public’s aversion to wild casino capitalism and socio-economic uncertainty of the Yeltsin years offered Putin an ideal excuse to extend the Kremlin’s grasp on the economy, especially on the energy companies (which are also active on many other fields). Putin has been able to present this increasing correlation between politics and business as a major success because ever since he came to power, Russia’s economy has been booming and prosperity has evidently grown. Lucas punctually relativises this self-proclaimed success story – oil and gas revenues have grown astronomically and the country has earned about 700 billion dollars in raw material exports over the last seven years, but any president could have enjoyed that kind of luck. Corruption is still widespread; bureaucracy and protectionism are thriving; intellectual property laws are of poor quality; the ICT branch is underdeveloped; small and medium-sized companies are struggling for survival; and infrastructure and public services are of primitive standards. One could argue that this tendency is not unique to Russia – countries like France, Italy and Japan also cherish an intertwined relationship between politics and industry and even in a country as liberalised as the Netherlands an old boys’ network comprising (former) politicians, the business elite and journalists has flourished. Still, for a (self-proclaimed) economic superpower, the killing of private initiative and the waste of talents and means may in the end turn out to be disastrous.   
What is probably far more worrisome is the gradual crystallisation of a militant national dogma, a process that has actively been conducted and encouraged by the Kremlin. It could be considered as a cocktail of slumbering anti-Western sentiments, xenophobia and historical revisionism. In Putin’s Russia, Josef Stalin is no longer a cruel dictator and conscienceless mass murderer, but above all a visionary strategist and economic moderniser. Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned against downplaying the horrors of the Stalin regime; in the meanwhile, rehabilitation has already insinuated its way into schoolbooks. Neighbouring countries like tiny Estonia, who dare to question the greatness of Russia’s (recent) past and to remove its visible remains, deserve to be punished – although in The Economist, Lucas expressed his doubts about the wisdom of the decision to displace the Bronze Soldier. The author of the book creates the impression that this falsification of history only started under the Putin regime. However, the idea that Stalin had no other option but to embark on the 1939 Pact with Hitler, the glorification of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and the stubborn lies about Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s ‘voluntary accession’ to a ‘happy Soviet family’ could already be discerned in the 1990s. In general, all this is a continuation of classic Soviet historiography. An example: in August 1996, the Saeima (the Parliament of Latvia) ratified a motion, in which it strongly denounced Soviet occupation. The Duma labelled this initiative as a ‘provocative act’ and in October 1996 it accepted a resolution that characterised Latvia’s incorporation into the Soviet Union as a ‘reply to the request of the Latvian Soviet Republic for accession to the USSR’. This (Soviet) notion has never disappeared; Putin has simply stressed it more explicitly and integrated it into a broader Weltanschauung.
Lucas hardly conceals his opinion that he finds it shocking that so many Western Europeans are acquiescing uncomplainingly to this pattern of economic centralisation and nationalism. Companies like Shell, BP and Exxon have already experienced that the Kremlin welcomes foreign capital and expertise, but abhors the idea of granting them any form of control over Russia’s varied natural resources. In December 2006, Shell was forced to sell its majority stake in the Sakhalin 2-gas project to Gazprom after the Anglo-Dutch multinational had been sued for ‘environmental damages’. It yielded promptly and its CEO Jeroen van der Veer even thanked President Putin for ‘solving the problem’. “Wouldn’t Westerners be horrified, if sinister practices of this kind would be displayed in their home countries?” Lucas asks. Russia’s massive oil and gas stocks and a vulgar pursuit of gain have blinded them and turned them into new ‘fellow travellers’. This term, once introduced by British historian David Caute, refers to the sympathisers of the Soviet Union during the ‘previous’ Cold War; they often included leftwing writers, academics and other freischwebende Intelligenz. Their main heritage – virulent anti-Americanism – is still most influential in the West and Russia knows that. In countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands, but also Britain, many intellectuals, publicists, etc. see George W. Bush as the ultimate personification of evil and they embrace Russia’s philosophy of striving for a multipolar world order and counter-balancing American ‘hegemonism’, as worked out by then Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the second half of the 1990s. It is therefore hardly surprising that Russia has tried, not unsuccessfully, to capitalise on Europe’s dislike of the War on Iraq and missile defence.
That brings us to the pivotal part of the book: the international-political repercussions of Russia’s ever-growing self-confidence and assertiveness. According to Lucas, Central and Eastern Europe is the ‘front line’ of what he prefers to call the ‘New Cold War’. Russia uses its energy weapon in order to play the game of divida et impera by concluding energy deals with a post-modern Old Europe (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy) and with former satellites that take a more modest stand (Hungary and Bulgaria) and by isolating the most rebellious, Atlanticist republics in its vicinity (the Baltic states, Poland, but also Georgia and Ukraine). Lucas goes even further to draw a parallel with the situation in the late 1930s and with Neville Chamberlain’s cowardly policy of appeasement: “Then the fate of the continent was being decided in Central Europe. Nearly seventy years later, the story is the same, but the threat is from Russia, not Germany. [”¦] Chamberlain’s sentiments are alive today, too. Should, say, German households pay more for gas in order to safeguard the interests of faraway Estonia?” This is rather exaggerated – a comparison with Détente between East and West in the 1970s and the early 1980s would have been more justified. While French liberal thinker Raymond Aron warned against fatal adjustments to Moscow’s wishes and urged the West to be more proud of its basic values, French President Giscard d’Estaing and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt spasmodically tried to cling to the ‘good’ relationship with L. I. Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. The United States ran out of patience with Soviet deception – violation of human rights, stationing of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, expansion to the Third World – but Giscard and Schmidt found President Reagan’s criticism most disturbing and ‘dangerous’.
Lucas pays special attention to Estonia and to Georgia, which are in his view the two ‘hotspots of the New Cold War’. He praises Estonia for its economic achievements and successful absorption of Western rules and principles, which ‘cast doubt on the Kremlin’s central argument of Russian exceptionalism’ – his good friend Toomas Hendrik Ilves would not have formulated it differently. The author rightly points out that Russia overplayed its hand during the surrealistic developments in 2007 (violence in Tallinn, cyber attacks and Nashi’s siege of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow). Yet, that doesn’t mean that all ties between Russia and Estonia have been cut. Lucas mentions two controversial Lithuanian politicians who have been susceptible to Moscow’s desires – former President Rolandas Paksas and Labour Party leader Viktor Uspaskich – but remains silent about Edgar Savisaar and his populist, pro-Russian Centre Party that even signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in December 2004! Georgia’s achievements after the ‘Rose Revolution’ certainly deserve respect as well, but it remains to be seen whether enthusiasm for accession of the remote Caucasus state to NATO and the EU is ‘growing’, as Lucas asserts.
The most important reason for hesitation among most Western European governments regarding further eastward enlargement of the Euroatlantic institutions is – apart from public opinion that fears massive immigration of cheap labour – their business interests in Russia. They might find Georgia (and Ukraine) ‘a price worth paying’. It is highly doubtful whether Germany in particular will be willing to jeopardise its close relationship with Russia, its main energy supplier. German-Russian trade rose from 15 million to 50 million euros in 1998–2006: up to 4,500 German companies are presently active in Russia. Lucas’s analysis of the historic context of German-Russian relations is not really cogent. Chancellor Schröder’s Russophile foreign policy was more than just Männerfreundschaft with President Putin – it was deeply rooted in the neutralist, anti-American traditions of his party, the SPD, and is in fact a continuation of the Ostpolitik that sought reapproachment with the Soviet Union (see also Timothy Garton Ash’s masterpiece In Europe’s Name). The secret genius behind this policy was Egon Bahr whom Henry Kissinger once labelled as a ‘dangerous nationalist’. Bahr is still highly influential in the SPD.     
The ‘zenith’ of this intimate German-Russian affection is the construction of the notorious North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) across the bed of the Baltic Sea by the Nord Stream consortium. Much has been written and said about the NEGP. Lucas shares the cynicism of the Baltic states and Poland vis-í -vis the project and even predicts that it will never materialise because of high production costs and continuous resistance from Estonia, Finland and Sweden, causing endless and expensive adaptations to the route and additional environmental assessments. But does that really mean the pipeline will never come into use? A (long) delay is more likely. Gazprom’s/Russia’s revenues will only increase in the years to come, which will compensate the extra costs, while Germany sticks to its (irresponsible) decision to gradually close down all nuclear plants. In other words, Germany’s gas hunger will not diminish.
This leaves us with an ardent question: what is to be done? Lucas provides the reader with an excellent and breath-taking overview of Russia’s resurrection, its dirty politics and its obsession with raison d’état. But his recommendations in the final chapter are rather meagre. Yes, we will have to accept that the collapse of Communism has spread freedom and justice only to a minority of ex-captive nations and we should give up the naí¯ve idea that Russia’s domestic politics can be influenced, as President Ilves has already written in this magazine (“The End of the Post-Cold War Era,” Diplomaatia, October 2007). It is also correct that the EU should give shape to a strong, common and liberalised energy market without any ‘islands’. However, at the same time, a liberalised market has a weak spot – it automatically implies activities of private players who can hardly be forced by the authorities to give up their business transactions with Russia. For instance, the German state is not a shareholder of E.ON Ruhrgas and BASF/Wintershall, the companies that joined Nord Stream. So who will stop them?
It is remarkable that Lucas thinks that ‘[a]s in the last Cold War, soft power is still our greatest asset.’ The imprisoned inhabitants of the Soviet Union and its satrap states were indeed longing for freedom and prosperity, but great presidents like Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan understood that more than idealistic means had to be employed. They propagated Western values, but combined this with hard power – Truman founded NATO, Reagan the SDI – yielding tangible results: Truman called an end to Soviet expansionism in Europe; Reagan accelerated the erosion of the Soviet empire. It is inevitable that the West will display similar Realpolitik in the New Cold War. NATO should extend its ties with democracies like India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and moderate Islamic countries and should focus more on its traditional defence tasks. Georgia and Ukraine should be included too, but that will only happen if the Americans will bang their fist on the table, as they did during the Prague Summit in 2002 when the Baltic states were finally embraced by NATO at their insistence. Sometimes the West will also have to engage itself with the highly unsympathetic regimes of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. Otherwise Russia will do it.
We can hardly blame Lucas for this shortcoming in his great and easily readable book. He delivered an unequivocal and alarming warning. Now it is up to the policy makers in the European capitals, in Brussels and in Washington to join forces and to work out concrete scenarios for the future. Lucas unmasked Russia’s real intentions. Yet for the time being, it holds the best cards.

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