Presidents for life Putin and Xi menace the West

A former diplomat and politician during the Cold War asks whether the threats posed by Russia and China are now more ominous than ever

George Walden

Two events in the last month have brought us back with a jolt to the hard essence of what used to be called East-West relations. The Russian nerve agent attack in Britain and the return of lifelong leadership in China are throwbacks to earlier times. The implications for the West are great, not least for Britain, a country threatened more than anywhere else in Europe by extreme left-wing government.

Putin and Xi: The return of lifelong leadership (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Our era is one of over-abundant but unreliable information combined with galloping amnesia, and nowhere has amnesia been more pronounced than on Russia and China. The fact that the Cold War ended so abruptly means that few people under the age of 50 have much recollection of what totalitarianism in those two countries was about. Younger folk often have only a hazy idea of the suffering it entailed or the international conflicts it led to. Only a third, it seems, can identify Mao Zedong at all, and some remain sympathetic towards him. They can tell you all about Nazi atrocities not because they have read many books, but they have seen the films. Not too many films have been made about communism, dreary by definition, and few are aware that Stalin and Mao were together responsible for the deaths of some 100 million people — about twice the number of victims of Adolf Hitler’s war.

As I write, memories of something most people never knew or have forgotten are being disinterred, literally, in a Salisbury graveyard, where the remains of the wife and son of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal are dug up. Neither fashionable middle-class Corbynites nor Momentum types are likely to be aware that in the 1930s Stalin would routinely order the murder of the wives and children of (often innocent) “Trotskyite spies and saboteurs”, or others who had incurred his displeasure. So no one should be surprised when it is suggested that a Russian leader who is seeking to restore Stalin’s reputation might have had a hand in the attempted assassination not just of Skripal and his daughter but in the premature deaths of several members of the family of a double agent whose death Putin personally predicted.

This is an extraordinary event. Equally unprecedented was Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to condemn the Russian leader in Parliament for his country’s actions. For a Labour leader already accused of decades of gross naivety about Soviet communism, and who like Donald Trump, although for different reasons, steadfastly refuses all criticism of Putin today, the timing was unfortunate. The Salisbury atrocity also comes at a time when former communists are becoming increasingly prominent in the Labour leadership and Party apparatus. Weird as it seems, neither these grizzled veterans nor the leader himself have realised that they can stand down on loyalty to Moscow, now closer to a far-right than to a far-left regime.

As Corbyn’s maître à penser, the former Guardian journalist and Stalin apologist Seumas Milne, seeks to defend himself and his boss, let me advise him of one way not to do so. In the 1930s purges Stalin’s French communist backers took the line in L’Humanité that not only should traitors and saboteurs be liquidated but their wives and children too, because they might seek revenge on the regime. Responding to reports that the security services were murdering children as young as 12, L’Humanité explained that this was necessary because Russian children matured quickly.

As it is revealed that British policemen in country towns have indeed risked a hideous death at the hands of Moscow agents, in Milne’s shoes I would urge Corbyn to find a form of words suggesting the maximum amount of displeasure compatible with a lifetime’s dogged credulity about the Russian past and present on the one hand, while leaving an opening for fruitful cooperation in the future, since that is what Corbyn in power would undoubtedly seek.

The re-election of Putin with a sound majority reminds us that condemnation of the regime in Britain and abroad for attempted murder has done it no damage in the eyes of the Russian voters, perhaps the contrary. What happened in Salisbury is a lesson in historical continuity, and in the absence of a civil society worth the name in Russia. Government assassinations are part of the Russian tradition, Tsarist as well as communist. Like the KGB the Okhrana would track opponents abroad and occasionally kill them.

In post-communist times, the logic continues. Now that traitors are more likely to be motivated by money rather than ideology, it is imperative for the Kremlin to show its enemies, whether renegade oligarchs, whistleblowers or intelligence turncoats that, as Putin himself has put it, they will not live to enjoy their gains; a reminder that condign punishment for betrayal is a personal passion for a man steeped in security and intelligence traditions. Even if it transpires that the Kremlin was not initially behind the latest instance, the fact that something so primitive can occur reflects the atmosphere the regime and Putin himself have engendered. Ironically, the extraordinary bungling behind both this and the Litvinenko murder do not reflect well on the professionalism of the Russian intelligence services, endlessly vaunted by Putin.

Their esprit de corps is a central plank of the regime, and the nature of Skripal’s treachery — apparently he sold the names of GRU agents — could be important. If I were one of them and unable to enjoy life in the West again, aggrieved to see the traitor living quietly in Britain, I would want something done. And if the Kremlin did indeed instigate the attempted murder in disregard of the convention over swapped spies with the election in mind, then that would be a reminder that Putin is capable of anything to secure his domestic popularity. Were I a Balt I would take note. And were I a Russian living abroad, especially but not only in Britain, I would draw consequences too.

As for Britain herself, we are a medium-sized state with increasingly friable alliances, whether with Europe or the United States, a massive Russian presence (450 millionaires), and a country where for historic reasons going back to our attempted intervention in the Russian Civil War intelligence matters loom larger than they should in the Russian mind. As we are presently seeing in the less than full-throated support we are getting from allies, there is no excess of respect abroad for an unstable British government or its Foreign Secretary — for Britain an unusual position. Indeed, one of the motives for the Salisbury attack may have been the perceived weakness of Britain, as well as equanimity about its powers of retaliation.

Moscow is doubtless looking forward to a Labour government and will do whatever it can, fair or foul, to help it, regardless of the risk to relations with the Conservatives. Its Salisbury attack will not have made Corbyn’s position easier, but then Putin’s tactical genius is easily overrated. When the time comes a Labour victory remains on the cards, and the possibility of a Corbyn visit to Moscow as Prime Minister, to reset Anglo-Russian relations and establish the “robust dialogue” with Putin he has called for, must be soberly contemplated, however inherently comical.

One of the reasons Corbyn would go naked to the Kremlin is that under his leadership the special relationship with the US would be special in a different sense. On Russia there would be solidarity at the top, with both leaders giving the Kremlin an easy ride. At the same time the core of the UK-US relationship — the intelligence intimacy — would drastically shrink. I don’t see the CIA or FBI entrusting secrets on Islamist terrorism or Russia itself to a Marxist-dominated and pro-Hamas Number 10. That in turn would make us less valuable to our former EU friends, and we could easily find ourselves out of the loop, reduced in Europe’s eyes, as well as Moscow’s.

On security we could look forward to a beefed up Russian Embassy and Trade Delegation, not all of whose members are engaged full-time in commerce, and whose gross expansion under Harold Wilson — similarly keen to ingratiate himself with Moscow — was a contributing factor in the mass expulsion of 105 agents under Ted Heath. As the Soviet desk officer in the Foreign Office at the time, I remember it well. post-Corbyn government might have to do it all again.

Though we are too dependent on the Chinese market to admit it, like the re-election of a brutish Russian leader  Xi Jinping’s assumption of neo-Maoist status as lifelong leader is a major step towards the past. It is a long way from the days, only five years ago, when most people assumed that the sophisticated new leader, keen to travel the world (Mao went nowhere except Moscow) and to immerse China in international conclaves, would gradually ease up domestically as the free market spawned free thinking. Instead, in a robotic spectacle of near-unanimity reminiscent of more primitive times, China’s Parliament has handed its new Great Helmsman powers in perpetuity.

Judged by the vote in the National People’s Congress the extent of Chinese reform since the death of Mao in 1976 is modest: 2,958 delegates voted in favour, with three abstentions, one spoiled ballot and only two against, and unless they were set up to convey an impression of vibrant democracy, their longevity in office could prove shorter than Xi’s. Worse, thought-control mechanisms are to come back too, in the form of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, now to be embedded in the constitution. The one set up in 1982 was admirably terse and to the point, reflecting Deng Xiaoping’s feline economic pragmatism (who cares about the colour of cats so long as they catch mice?). Xi, on the other hand, is proving to be an ideologically wordy fellow, as he strives to match Mao’s scholarly reputation.

Once again, schoolchildren, students and staff at state factories will have to bend their minds to the study of official ideology, as China strives to nurture a zombie nation. This giant step backwards is especially painful for me, bringing back memories of sights I witnessed during three years in Beijing (1966-9) in the worst years of the Cultural Revolution.

I don’t suppose China will revert to daily marches by semi-hysterical and sometimes tearful Maoist zealots chanting their veneration for Mao Zedong Sixiang (Mao’s Thought) and hatred for his enemies like Deng Xiaoping (“Smash in his Dog’s Head!”). Nor will a new version of Red Guard thugs burn down our mission as they did in 1967, molesting wives in the process. But anything reminiscent of that dismal era will make observers sceptical about the depth and duration of the Chinese reformation.

What will it mean for us, as we strike out on an independent path in the world? As Xi feels his oats China is likely to be that much less prudent and more thrustingly assertive, whether in the South China Sea or in Hong Kong. And if we are after a munificent bilateral trade agreement with Beijing we shall have to behave. In particular we shall have to learn to stifle our lamentations about the erosion of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry has already dismissed last year as a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”. Nor shall we be well-placed to risk Chinese wrath by obstructing Beijing’s rapid expansion of ownership in Britain, including sensitive areas of our infrastructure. The forcible British economic penetration of their country in the 19th century is still alive in Chinese minds.

Meanwhile we must once again face the scarcely credible prospect of a hard-left British government handling relations with Beijing, and a recent remark by Corbyn gives us a clue to his thinking. Asked in an interview with Andrew Marr to admit that capitalism had served China well in recent decades, Corbyn demurred, and spoke of China’s economic advances after the communist revolution and in the Great Leap Forward (1958-62).

Sentimentality about China (he was born in 1949, the year of the revolution) cannot explain the mixture of ignorance, blockheadedness and racism revealed by this remark. When I worked in China a mere 2-3 million perished; “mere” because seven years earlier 45-50 million had died in the Great Leap Forward from starvation, brutality or execution, not a few of them eaten by their desperate fellows in outbreaks of cannibalism across the country. The scale and horror were recently confirmed by a chilling book (Tombstone:
The Untold Story of Mao’s Famine by Yang Jisheng,
Allen Lane.) Racism comes into it because as with other apologists for Mao (notably Jean-Paul Sartre) Chinese deaths are downplayed or dismissed in a way that would not be done if Westerners were driven to cannibalism in the course of some ideological experiment. In China, the unspoken assumption goes, lives are cheap, and the experiment worthwhile.

On China Seumas Milne has form. At Winchester in the ’70s he wrote a pro-Mao poster explaining that in Britain businesses from farms to factories should be run by “committees of workers” similar to China, and that “population control would be effected in a number of ways”, something that certainly worked in the Great Leap.

“Youthful excess”, one might sigh, except that Milne, a kind of hatchet-faced ideological Peter Pan, appears never to have grown up, any more than his boss, even if his schooling was more expensive. Accompanying Corbyn to China would be a big day for him, so he would be unwise to spoil it by congratulating his hosts on the Great Leap. No one in the Chinese Communist leadership today would dream of defending the biggest man-made disaster in history.

The turbo-charged history of Russia and China these last decades has ensured that what preceded it would be forgotten more quickly than in the past, so that when the clock is being turned back we understate the reactionary nature of what is happening, and the implications for Western policy.

In Soviet Russia communism did not wither and expire over decades; it died overnight. Long-time students of communism like myself felt almost affronted. All those books and articles and diplomatic reports — some of them drafted by me — had explained that the power and ideology of the Kremlin and the Chinese leadership were deeply rooted and would take time to change. I for one was happy to be proved us wrong. When I returned to China in recent years I didn’t think back to the vicious-looking Red Guards menacingly eyeing me prowling their streets in the Cultural Revolutionary years reading their wall posters — the da tsebao. Instead I looked forward to a sophisticated conversation with a young Chinese journalist or writer in one of the delicious Beijing restaurants, something I was never able to enjoy in the late Sixties.

On trips to Russia, where until recently I chaired the Russian Booker Prize for fiction — an offshoot of the British original — I didn’t think back to the hounding by the KGB of students I got to know as a postgraduate in Moscow University in the early ’60s. I was too busy talking — and drinking — with some of the most literary folk on earth.

More recent events suggest that we weren’t so very wrong about the deep roots of these regimes. Just as we failed to see the possibility of reform, today we have underestimated the tug of recidivism in both countries. Today nationalism, repression and paranoia are back, and East-West tensions with them. Not long ago humanity seemed on the road to the Kantian dream of perpetual peace. Instead of arms races, people were talking of economic conversion, as American defence industries and Soviet munitions plants retooled to produce consumer goods. In Russia swords really were being turned into ploughshares, or rather tanks into cars and baby carriages.

On top of that there was to be a “peace dividend” for civilian use as defence budgets shrank. Intellectuals were talking about “the end of history”, as the global march of democracy quickened and East-West cooperation spread. Today all that seems a long time ago, but it wasn’t: it is a mere 28 years since the Berlin Wall came down. Now the armed conflict that was avoided during the Cold War has broken out in Europe as Moscow forcibly expanded its post-Soviet frontiers to include the Crimea, seeks to re-establish suzerainty over Ukraine, and intimidates the Baltic states.

As for swords and ploughshares, it is the weapons that are proliferating, not the ploughs. The Russian defence budget has been increasing at 20 per cent a year, while China’s is running at 8 per cent. Nor is there any talk of a peace dividend, as the US pushes its Nato allies to spend more, as it does itself, some of it on sending back troops it withdrew from Europe. As for the triumphs of democracy around the world, the Middle East is a reality check: when the strongmen went in Iraq, Egypt or Libya, or were challenged in Syria, look what happened.

And strongmen are back in fashion. Watching Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt or Xi Jinping in China toughening their grip on the minds of their peoples is depressing enough. Worse, democracy appears to be stumbling in parts of Europe and the US itself. And worst of all is the spectacle of developing countries concluding that authoritarianism is the only road to stability, and that tough guys are the future.

No one can say we haven’t been warned. The following appeared in the semi-official China Daily seven months ago:

“In the years immediately after the Cold War, Western scholars were quite confident that Western-style ‘democracy’ would eventually triumph over all other political systems, with Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and The Last Man, being a case in point.

“Yet the past decade has revealed many deficiencies in what the Western scholars claimed to be a faultless political system. Western-style democracy, in fact, has failed to solve the social, economic and political problems of even the Western countries.

“In contrast, socialism with Chinese characteristics is propelling China toward realising the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.

“China’s democratic system under the leadership of the Communist Party of China is perfectly suited to the country’s present conditions and cultural traditions. Unlike Western political parties that represent the interests of only part of the people, the CPC represents the working class along with the rest of the Chinese people.

“China is the only ancient civilisation that has continued to evolve without a break for more than 5,000 years. And the CPC has inherited, and has been promoting, the cultural traditions of that civilisation with the aim of serving the nation and its people. And contrary to some Western scholars’ prophecy during the Cold War, China is rising steadily while the West remains mired in all kinds of troubles.”

Reading glossy Maoist propaganda about the glories of the People’s Republic and the impending doom of the West, it was hard not to smile. The serene self-confidence of China Daily, and its anticipation of Xi as a new global leader, a figure around whom lesser figures will come and go, is less amusing.

How did we stumble into a world that sometimes appears more unstable than in Cold War days? Historians and commentators who tell you that it’s our own fault are two a penny, with their allegations of Western incompetence, greed, insensitivity and plain stupidity. There was never any lack of that, and there was always an element of hubris in the triumphalism of the Cold War winners.

Of course there were mistakes. Yet it would be another one to indulge in an orgy of puritanical self-reproach. As accusations of alienating Moscow or Beijing needlessly fly around, we should be careful whom we listen to. Not a few of the people who chastise the West for throwing away their victory are the same ones who found an exonerating word for Mao Zedong or the brutalities of the Soviet regime, frequently under the disguise of moral equivalence.

It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now: the West and the Soviet Union were never equally wicked, nor is the West as guilty as Russia for the new tensions. We underestimated the post-Cold War neurosis the Russians experienced as their empire disappeared around them and their country shrank, and we behaved clumsily over Nato, but that is far from explaining aggressive Russian behaviour today.

It is unfashionable to say so yet countries have characteristics, something like personalities, forged over time by their histories, cultures and experience. When Gorbachev was forced to dismantle the Soviet empire it did not mean that Russia had changed. It lost half its territory and much of its power, but its history remained what it had been, along with the qualities it had bred in its people and their leaders.

The uniqueness of Russian culture we know about, as we do the heroism of its people against the Nazi menace. Yet there is another, less uplifting history. Their experience of democratic progress, confined to a few years at the turn of the 20th century, was brief and unproductive. Next came revolution, when the legacy of Tsarist serfdom and autocracy were compounded by 70 years of moral and material squalor under totalitarian communism, and by Hitler’s ruinous invasion.

When you look at the cynicism, mendacity, corruption and official contempt for human rights characteristic of today’s Russia, don’t be surprised. The kleptocracy run for the benefit of its politicians, oligarchs and secret policemen has its antecedents, as does the absence of an effective liberal opposition: look at the historic failure of the anti-Bolshevik politicians in the October revolution. And as Putin casts about for foreign fall guys for his country’s domestic failings, political or economic, don’t be surprised either. Soviet Russia did the same.

You can argue that Western miscalculations since the Wall went down have helped to bring out the worst in the Russian psyche, but you cannot contend that the worst was not already present. And by “worst”, in essence I mean its chronic subservience to power, the strongman syndrome, and its chronic intelligence sickness.

The best way to understand Russia’s historical legacy today is to examine its president’s background and personality, because in many respects he incorporates its recent past. A child of his time, for all his power and success, fundamentally he is a bitter, profoundly resentful man. He comes from a lower-middle-class background, and his family suffered grievously in the siege of Leningrad. An elder brother died and his parents were crippled by hunger. The young Putin was a proud if undistinguished member of the KGB, but his patriotism took a blow as the Soviet Union disintegrated around him when he was 38, and its intelligence services — briefly — lost their dominating hold.

As a result of these and other experiences he has inherited many of the nationalistic, bar-room veracities of his countrymen: the spiritual superiority, the anti-Western grievances, justified or not, the paranoia about being surrounded, or the imminence of a liberal uprising conceived and plotted in the West. In Putin’s Russia cynicism and nihilism can be seen in his far-right intellectual backers, such as Alexander Dugin, a self-confessed former fascist, for whom postmodernism is a licence for governments and their leaders to lie.

Vehement denials and vicious innuendo by Russian spokesmen over the Salisbury spy affair should be seen alongside Putin’s rejection of any connection to the tragedy of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down in 2014 with the aid of Russian troops, killing all 283 passengers. Or remember him denying with a straight face that Assad, his Syrian client, had used poisoned gas.

These are not the routine evasions of embarrassed statesmen. Putin, a KGB man to his soul, is genuinely indignant at such accusations, not because they are not true but because he cannot allow the truth to be used as a weapon against himself or his country. He sees the world through the prism of his security services, where truth denial is the point. If the FSB, successor to the KGB, says it didn’t happen, in Russia’s parallel world, it didn’t.

When Angela Merkel said of him that “he lives in another world”, this is what she was getting at: a world of institutionalised mendacity. His attempt to interfere in the US election is another example of nihilism. To an extent he succeeded, and humiliated his American adversaries, but at what cost? Not even Trump can deny that it happened, and the idea that there can be a new beginning in Russian-US relations based on mutual trust while Putin is in power has finally gone. Not so smart.

Giving short-term intelligence coups like this precedence over Russia’s long term interests is a manifestation of a small man’s psyche — something to remember when Western magazines pronounce Putin “statesman of the year”. Russia’s strategic nihilism shows in the destructiveness of his foreign policy, notably on the EU. Anything that damages Western interests is fine by him, even if it does little to enhance his own.

In Syria we are told Putin is winning. It depends what you mean. The idea that responsibility for the reconstruction of a country destined to be dominated by terrorism and religious-based conflict for generations to come rests with Russia, whose GNP is about the size of Italy’s, and 20 per cent of whose population is below the poverty line, is a curious concept of victory. To say nothing of the vileness of the regime Russia will find itself supporting. His short-termism poses dangers for us as well as Russia herself. A combination of power projection abroad and economic stagnation at home can only increase his domestic problems. The point may come when he becomes like the man described by Nietzsche who thinks he’s leading the crowd, but when he looks round discovers they’re chasing him.

The temptation will be to maintain popularity by risky moves abroad, while dramatising Western reactions as threats to the motherland. For the West, it is as if Russian foreign policy were being run by the Russian intelligence service — something that did not happen in the Soviet Union, when the Politburo was in charge. The vulgar, shock-jock style of the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova makes her a Putin favourite, but she would have horrified Gromyko.

Reaction to the Putin phenomenon in some American and European circles has been disconcerting. A troubling number of politicians or commentators who would have been seen as anti-communists in the past speak fondly of a man who in many ways is harking back to that past. To see Western figures oozing admiration, whether Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, or Republicans in the USA, is remarkable. The fact is that today’s Russia is edging close to the fascistic spectrum.

A harsh word, yet it is hard to think of another. In Russia we have ultra-nationalism, oligarchic corporatism, militarism, a leadership cult, militant youth movements, thuggish treatment of opponents, state-sponsored murder, homophobia, religious mysticism — together with a revanchist mindset over the country’s Cold War defeat. Anti-semitism is also there, though not as official policy or in the Kremlin.

When we speak of the Cold War we tend to think of the Soviet Union rather than China, yet the global impact of unleashing the energies and intelligence of more than a billion Chinese has been far greater than that of 140 million Russians. Some saw it coming. As early as 1927 Oswald Spengler, in Man and Technics, wrote:

And so presently the natives saw into our secrets and understood them, and used them to the full. The innumerable hands of the coloured races — at least as clever, and far less exigent — will shatter the economic organisation of the whites to its foundations.

Once the Chinese had sloughed off the Maoist incubus, nowhere has the truth of his words been more striking than in their country. As the Russians — who import not just most of their consumer goods from China but high-tech items too — will have noticed.

To illuminate the personality of Xi Jinping it is useful to compare him to Putin. The contrast in their backgrounds is as striking as in their physical appearance: Putin smallish, nervy and frequently sullen, especially in Western company, Xi Jinping large, dominant-looking, and serene. Putin is a long-term body-builder; we have difficulty imagining Xi being anxious about his physique. Taller than any Chinese leader for decades, and imposingly corpulent, he is content to be himself. He is also well-read: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other classics. Putin has been known to quote Kant, briefly.

Xi Jinping once told Putin that they had similar characters, which is true in the way they run their countries. Both are tough regimes and getting tougher, especially in controlling information. Both share a fear of instability — Putin of a Ukrainian-type uprising in Red Square, and Xi of anything harking back to Tiananmen. And in both cases their fears are exaggerated. The fact that there seems little prospect of this happening in either country is due partly to their popularity as leaders, partly to their ruthless repression of dissidence and manipulation of public opinion.

We are accustomed to seeing China and Russia acting together, notably over Syria and North Korea, but the days when China took its lead from Moscow are long gone. It is cautious about identifying itself with Russian aggressiveness in Europe, and if it joined the Russians on naval manoeuvres in the Baltic last year, the reason had more to do with the situation in the South China Sea and the Pacific, where China resents the increasing US presence.

Xi has impressed world opinion more than Putin. In fact he has impressed too much. As American prestige in the world subsides, before his crowning as permanent leader Xi’s was rising unrealistically high. China had become the “global grown-up”, claimed the front cover of the Economist. Beijing would now be seen “as the linchpin of global economic stability”, said Newsweek. To suggest that Xi Jinping is the new champion of the “liberal world order” now looks as silly as it is to overlook his human rights abuses so long as he delivers rhetorically on climate change.

Meanwhile there can be no denying that in our relations with both Russia and China these are uneasy times. In gloomy moments, some wonder whether we were not better off in the old Cold War after all. We remember the tensions and dangers, and forget the upsides. Those were the days when the West faced no economic competition from the communist East, when the talents of able, educated Chinese, Russians, Czechs or Poles were stymied by the communist system.

Then there was a kind of stability. In post-Stalin Russia (the Cuba crisis excepted) we faced a formidable but mostly disciplined adversary, with a prudent collective leadership. Today there is no Politburo, no row of stolid bureaucrats in hombergs in the Kremlin, only Putin and his cronies. Brezhnev was unlikely to have allowed the use of polonium or nerve gas on British streets, and I recall seeing intelligence showing that risky KGB operations were vetoed by the Politburo. Now that the Kremlin, the intelligence services, the military and an oligarchic mafia are under one man’s direct control, with no stabilising collective system, adventurism is more likely.

The intelligence services themselves boast of their new prominence. A recent head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, said it had become “our new nobility”. Nobles like statues, so no wonder Putin has allowed a new one to commemorate the bloodiest of all Soviet heads of the secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first boss of the Cheka.

On policy towards Putin’s Russia, the truth is that the Cold War is pretty much back and we are going to have to soldier on where we left off. If Putin is determined to drag his country back to the 1980s he will drag us back with him. While he and his circle are in power no one will be able to say, as Mrs Thatcher said of Gorbachev, that here was someone with whom she could do business. Doing business means having a degree of mutual trust and respect, and someone with an unreconstructed KGB mindset deserves neither. And if we pretend that Putin can be a reliable partner the day change might finally arrive will be further delayed.

Soldiering on is not a recipe for mutual isolation. Now as then we must continue to engage with Moscow on all fronts — diplomacy, trade, contacts, culture — though without the slightest delusion. For all its outward changes, in essence our adversary — there is no other word — is the same country as before. Somewhat richer, somewhat freer, but a country whose people remain ultimately in thrall to a corrupt, repressive power. History shows that internal change only comes when Russia has exhausted the alternatives. If there is any scope for optimism, it is there.

What I see now, in both Russia and China, is the threat of nationalistic self-assertion against a fracturing West. And the worst way to counter that is for the West to indulge in new forms of nationalism itself. The effect can only be to weaken solidarity, as we are discovering.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"