Whose side is Vladimir Putin on? It’s a question worth asking, because of late the Kremlin has come closer and closer to the tipping point between obstreperousness and outright hostility towards the West. Last week Barack Obama cancelled a September summit with Putin after Russia offered asylum to the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. But in truth the Snowden affair is only the latest and most trivial of a long and growing list of issues where Russia and the US are on radically opposite sides.
Syria probably tops the list — at least in terms of urgency and human cost. Russia has offered diplomatic support to the Assad regime by using its veto on the UN Security Council to block sanctions and intervention. More seriously, Russia has become the arsenal of dictatorship, selling over $1.5 billion of arms to Assad since the start of the civil war. Last month Russia escalated its military aid still further after foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that Kremlin would deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Damascus — the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, visited Putin in May to beg him not to do that. Lavrov insists that only ‘defensive’ materiel is being supplied to the Syrians. But the S-300 missiles will change the balance of the war — for instance by substantially complicating any western effort to impose a no-fly zone.
For the first time in a generation Russia and Nato find themselves backing opposite sides in a proxy war. Last June a Turkish jet was shot down off the coast of Syria by a Russian-supplied Panshir M-1 missile — possibly, according to Russian press reports, targeted by one of the Russian advisers sent to install the missiles and train Syrian operators. More Russian personnel are due to come and install the S-300 systems. At the same time the Pentagon confirmed in June that US F-16 warplanes and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles would remain in Jordan after the end of a joint drill this month, fuelling speculation that Washington was preparing for a no-fly zone. There’s debate over just what the S-300s can do, and whether they can be installed soon enough to make a difference. But the moment when a Russian officer aims and fires a missile at a Nato pilot — which almost never happened during the real Cold War — is likely to become a reality.
The idea that Russia and the West are engaged in a ‘new Cold War’ was first floated six years ago in a brilliant book of that name by Economist correspondent Edward Lucas. Lucas argued that the Kremlin’s bullying of its neighbours by cutting off gas supplies, sending assassins to murder dissidents in London and invading Georgia constituted acts of war. By that logic, Russia’s subsequent behaviour — Syria, Snowden, banning Americans from adopting Russian children, shutting down USAID offices for alleged ‘subversive activity’, wild accusations that the US is fomenting a rebellion against the Kremlin — are more bellicose still.
Except that I think it’s a mistake to call what’s happening a war. A war, by definition, has two sides — and the US simply isn’t interested. Putin has been turning up his anti-American rhetoric, but Washington has largely maintained a polite diplomatic deafness (even when Putin kept US Secretary of State John Kerry waiting for three hours during a visit to Moscow in May). Only in the wake of the summit cancellation last week did ‘no-drama’ Obama let a little irritation slip, accusing Putin of ‘slipping back into Cold War thinking’. You reckon?
The fact is that, for Washington, Russia simply just isn’t that important any more — politically, economically or militarily. One old friend of mine, headhunted a few years ago from a prominent western bank in Moscow to join the US Treasury Department, marvelled that he never heard the word ‘Russia’ mentioned by anyone in Washington. ‘Not on the radar screen,’ he says. The US has much more serious differences with China than it has with Russia: over Tibet, for instance, copy-right infringement, trade balances, cyber-spying, Pacific security and the rest. But both Washington and Beijing have a big economic interest in reconciling their differences; they speak constantly, on a senior level.
That can’t be said of Russia. Frankly, Russia no longer has much skin in the international diplomatic game. Even energy, its greatest asset, is no longer the tool it was five years ago when the Russian state monopoly Gazprom cut off supplies to Ukraine. The shale revolution has cut US gas prices by 70 per cent. Europe is likely to follow — and fear of dependence on Russia has fuelled heavy investment in liquefied gas and alternative pipelines. As a result Gazprom’s value has fallen from $360 billion in 2007 to $77 billion today: revenues are falling by 10 per cent a year.
What Obama needs from Putin is for him to refrain from arming and protecting the world’s more dangerous rogue regimes (Iran, Syria, Hamas and so on) and, ideally, hold back on invading the neighbours. That’s pretty much it. Four years ago America launched a ‘reset’ of relations with Moscow, largely in an effort to gain Putin’s support for sanctions on Iran. Now, as after similar ‘resets’ by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (who looked into Putin’s eyes and claimed he could see his soul), détente has soured into distrust.
Why does Putin seem so set on picking fights with the US? Partly it’s to play to a chauvinistic domestic audience — big men should have big enemies. But another important motivation is a kind of geopolitical attention-seeking. By putting himself on the opposite side to the West of every debate, Putin keeps himself relevant. His adviser Yury Ushakov has complained that the US ‘is still not ready to build relations with Russia on an equal basis’. But there is only one material parameter on which Russia and America are still equal, and that is on numbers of nuclear missiles.
The last time Putin and Obama met, at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, both men slumped in their chairs, looking sulkily at the floor. Evidently both considered the meeting a waste of time. A communiqué was issued expressing ‘mutual respect’. But even that anodyne formula no longer applies. Since his return to Russia’s presidency in 2011, Putin has nosedived into repression and reaction, to the growing distaste of Obama and the world.
The list of just the most recent crackdowns and abuses is long and alarming. In June Russia’s parliament passed legislation criminalising ‘homosexual propaganda’; outside the Duma police stood by as gay protesters were beaten up. A swath of non-governmental organisations — especially ones monitoring free speech, elections, police brutality and the like — have been closed as ‘foreign agents’.
Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, whose rospil.ru website has exposed tens of billions of dollars in official corruption, has been convicted by a provincial court on absurd embezzlement charges and jailed for five years. Navalny, the poster child of the liberal opposition, has been allowed out on bail pending appeal and is standing for election against the pro-Kremlin mayor of Moscow — but given that the Kremlin’s website mistakenly posted a note of congratulations to the incumbent, complete with voting percentages, a month in advance of the vote, it seems that Navalny’s defeat is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Another whistleblower, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, exposed the theft of $250 million in taxpayers’ money by corrupt police and tax officials — he was duly arrested by the same cops he had accused, and then tortured to death in prison. The regime’s reaction? To commend, decorate and promote the accused police. Magnitsky himself became the first person in Russian legal history to face a posthumous prosecution (for tax evasion; his corpse was found guilty). When the US Congress passed a law banning the Magnitsky suspects from travelling to the States, the Russian Duma reacted, in a piece of spectacular and illogical malice, by banning American parents from adopting Russian children.
Having an outside enemy, especially one as familiar from Soviet days as America, is convenient whenever the Kremlin feels challenged. In the winter of 2011-2 a hundred thousand people came on to the streets of Moscow to protest Putin’s return for a third term: after the protests died down, senior Kremlin officials accused the US State Department of orchestrating them. Dozens of those protesters are still in jail, facing heavy sentences for resisting arrest.
Moscow friends who once threw themselves passionately into the protest movement — such as the journalist, Putin biographer and gay rights campaigner Masha Gessen — have given up trying to change their homeland and left to work abroad. Emigration is once again a regular subject of kitchen -table-talk — though thankfully, unlike in the 1980s, the freedom to travel remains. Another friend, Anton Krasovsky, a popular television presenter, came out as being gay on live TV and was fired on the spot on orders from the Kremlin. ‘They immediately blocked all my corporate bank accounts, my email. Literally immediately, overnight,’ recalls Krasovsky. ‘They deleted not only my face from the website, but also all of my TV shows, as if I’d never existed.’ The Russian Orthodox Church — whose official teaching is that same-sex marriage ‘a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse’ — is becoming politically and culturally powerful.
Last week Stephen Fry called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in protest at the anti-gay legislation; ‘the Five Rings would finally be forever smeared, besmirched and ruined in the eyes of the civilised world’, he wrote. Putin clearly intends Sochi to trumpet Russia’s wealth to the world: he has already spent some £35 billion on the Games (compared with £8.92 billion for London 2012, or £670 million for the last Winter Olympics, in Vancouver).
A full-scale Olympic boycott seems unlikely; thus far, both sides prefer to pay lip service to the idea that Russia and the West are ‘partners’, as Putin puts it with a curl of the lip. But the pretence is wearing thin. Talk-show host Jay Leno, in his recent interview with Obama, compared Putin’s Russia to Hitler’s Germany; Obama didn’t disagree. The ‘reset’ is over. Russia is sliding decisively towards obscurantism and nationalism, its only friends the world’s remaining dictators. Putin seems bent on reviving a Soviet past — and on putting himself and his long-suffering country once again on the wrong side of history.
Owen Matthews, has reported on Russia since 1995, leading Newsweek’s Moscow bureau from 2006 until 2012. His latest book is Glorious Misadventures.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 August 2013