Putin’s New Evil Empire

The West is a gift to Kremlin propagandists; we should express more pride in our system that has given genuine freedom to millions

Few things make the bien pensants more uneasy than talk of right and wrong. They flinched when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet bloc, rightly, the “evil empire”. Sometimes that fastidiousness was simply based on wilful ignorance. Reports of Stalin’s terror, the Gulag, persecution of dissidents or the bullying of the captive nations were dismissed as tendentious or inaccurate. More often it was based on a feeling that the West’s own shortcomings were so appalling that we were in no position to judge anyone else. Amid the ruins of communism in Czechoslovakia in late 1989, I sat through an excruciating dinner with my then foreign editor where I explained that the Czechs wanted to become a “normal country”. He couldn’t share my enthusiasm. “What’s ‘normal’ about Britain?”, he asked scornfully — a country where mounted police charged striking miners, where a quarter of the population lived in poverty, and where you could be locked up for a decade just for having an Irish surname.

Yet the Czechs were right, and my distinguished boss, whose liberal conscience was tingling so painfully with the shortcomings of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, was wrong. Their enthusiasm for welfare capitalism and political freedom was based not on a naive belief that everything we had was wonderful, but a realistic appreciation: when things went wrong in communist countries, you were powerless. In Western countries, you had a chance, either through politics, the law, or the media, to get something done about it.

I was reminded of this at another dinner last February in London, where a frail but determined Baroness Thatcher enjoyed a lengthy standing ovation from hundreds of Lithuanians gathered to celebrate the 90th anniversary of their country’s founding. The Lithuanian ambassador to London, Vygaudas Usackas, with a moral clarity and historical perspective that are seldom found in our own diplomatic service, explained eloquently how Mrs Thatcher’s tough talking had given hope to him and three million other Lithuanians, a captive nation in the Soviet empire. The Iron Lady beat the Iron Curtain. She may be the object of easy derision on the London stage and at the dinner table, but to those who tasted totalitarian rule, she is still a heroine.

If the political elite in the West found it hard to grasp that the old Cold War was a struggle of good against evil, they find it almost impossible to understand the moral dimension of what is going on now, particularly with regard to Russia. Readers will need little to remind them of that country’s descent into autocracy at home and bullying abroad. The events—it would be unfair on countries with real political freedom to call them “elections” — of December and March produced a sycophantic legislature and a docile successor, Dmitri Medvedev, in the Kremlin. But it is clear that real power will stay with the man — and the system — that has ruled in Russia for the past nine years.

Vladimir Putin has moved from being president to prime minister. He is also chairman—I nearly wrote General Secretary—of the ruling party. Together with his ex-KGB colleagues, he presents a profound challenge to the West, and never more so than now. Our economy is slumping just as theirs is booming. The idea that economic prosperity depends on political freedom seems to have been exploded. Russia has a system of authoritarian bureaucratic capitalism that at least on the surface seems to deliver the goods: high living standards, decisive leadership, and none of the messy complications of Western-style electoral democracy and separation of powers.

Even when the real shortcomings of the Kremlin’s crony capitalist system are pointed out, we in the West flinch from telling it like it is. So Russia’s economy and politics are distorted, monopolistic and corrupt? Surely that’s just like Italy — particularly with Mr Putin’s chum Silvio Berlusconi back in charge. So Russia incarcerates dissidents in psychiatric hospitals? Well, America has flung the innocent into the prison camps of Guantánamo Bay.

It is certainly true that the worst aspects of the Russian system are often a concentrated form of our own worst shortcomings. Indeed, the West has largely lost the moral authority that it enjoyed during the last Cold War. Once it was the Russian elite who feared us, and ordinary Russians who admired us. Now the elite despises us for our corruption and weakness, and ordinary Russians see little difference between one lot of rulers and another.

But just because we have many flaws does not mean that we are always wrong, or that somewhere else can’t be worse. Without some kind of moral self-confidence in our own system, we cannot defend it: we are in the same position as the kind of leftwingers who believe that mugging is a political action by the poor against the rich. The squirming reaction to the praise lavished by Nicolas Sarkozy on Britain’s dynamism, efficient institutions and deep historical traditions was a good example. His audience were so used to moaning about Britain’s crowded, vulgar, discredited (fill in blanks from either The Guardian or Daily Mail leader columns according to your choice) that they could hardly believe that a foreigner was coming here to tell us that we had something to be proud of.

Moral timidity is a gift to Kremlin propagandists. During the Cold War they were trained to use a technique that I dubbed “what-about-ism”. Any criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, political persecutions or censorship was met with a “what about” apartheid South Africa, (or trade union rights, American-supported dictatorships in Latin America, etc, etc).

Now they have a much easier job. Communism was a hard sell. Not only did it demand huge sacrifices of freedom, but it didn’t work. The painful truth for the Kremlin’s lie-mongers was that workers in the Soviet Union lived worse — a lot worse — than their counterparts in America. The crony capitalism of modern Russia is much less distinctive. And — lethally for us — it is highly tempting for the rich, powerful and unscrupulous elsewhere. That is particularly true now that the regime has taken some of its most sinister ex-KGB types out of the front line, and promoted the quiet, lawyerly Mr Medvedev. On close scrutiny, his well-honed phrases about liberty and the rule of law sit ill with the lawlessness and repression at home. But they are a perfect sugary coating for the bitter pill that the Kremlin wishes us to swallow: the Finlandisation of western Europe, and the recovery of its old eastern Empire.

The clearest example of this has been the Kremlin’s success in suborning Germany, once a pillar of the Atlantic Alliance and now almost Russia’s closest ally in Europe. During the old Cold War it would have been inconceivable that a serving German chancellor, in his last weeks in office, would have signed off a loan guarantee on a controversial Kremlin-backed energy project that directly threatened Europe’s collective security. It would have been even less conceivable that, having left office, the same German politician would then take a lucrative job as chairman of that project.

Yet that is exactly what Gerhard Schröder, the successor to such giant statesmen as Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, did in 2005, with the Nord Stream pipeline. This will take gas along the Baltic seabed directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing the countries in between (and thus making them vulnerable to energy blackmail). Even more shocking is that the German government of Angela Merkel has been unable to derail the project.

Worse, at the Nato summit in Bucharest in early April, it was Germany that blocked the chances of Ukraine and Georgia taking the next step towards Nato membership. Never before had the divisions in Nato been so cruelly — and dangerously — exposed. A compromise was cobbled together to disguise the split; but the damage had been done. When push comes to shove, Germany cares more about pleasing Russia than America. Now Georgia is paying the price, as Russia moves swiftly to annex, in effect, the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These two statelets have been Russian puppet states for 15 years. The pro-Western government in Georgia is humiliated; those in it who have argued for a peaceful approach to the separatists are undermined. And as the Kremlin flexes its muscles, the absence of any protest from Europe is painfully apparent.

That exemplifies one of the most successful tactics adopted by Vladimir Putin and his ex-spook sidekicks. He has successfully built up the Kremlin’s influence not only on the West, but also in the West. The growing business lobby tied to Russia represents a powerful fifth column of a kind unseen during the last Cold War. Once it was communist trade unions that undermined the West at the Kremlin’s behest. Now it is pro-Kremlin bankers and politicians who betray their countries for thirty silver roubles.

Nobody in Britain has any reason to get on a moral high horse where Germany is concerned, given the behaviour of our own commercial and financial elite. If someone turned up in the City of London with a suitcase full of Fabergé eggs purloined from a Russian museum, it is hardly likely that the slickest investment bankers, sharpest lawyers and smoothest PR firms would compete for the business of selling them in a legal and uncontroversial way. (At least I hope not.) But when Russians turn up with a stolen oil company, such as Rosneft, the story is quite different. Having gobbled up the eviscerated remains of Yukos, a company largely owned by Western shareholders, Rosneft came to London and successfully listed its shares, with barely an eyelid batted among the pinstriped accessories to the deal.

That sort of behaviour makes it much harder to draw a line between the law-governed liberty of the West and the lawless greed of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Why bash Russia when Germany is just as bad? The West is open to criticism that it uses double standards; even that it is racist. Why are we so hard on the behaviour of countries that dare to be assertive in their foreign policy (i.e. Russia) while overlooking those that play the Western game (i.e. Italy)?

It is that question which is now the central “ideological front” of the new Cold War. Does the West really believe in its own values? Do its rulers feel any sense of shame? And do voters mind? The broad path downwards is tempting. We will become more like Russia. Our rulers dip their snouts in the trough, paying lip service to conflict-of-interest rules, soaking up expenses and bribes while in office, and looking forward to lucrative directorships afterwards. Voters regard politics as a mildly entertaining soap opera, but lose any sense that it makes a difference to their daily lives. Public-spiritedness becomes a mugs’ game. Voting is something you do with your wallet and your feet. If politicians muck us about too badly, we stop paying taxes or move abroad. As public services fray, we go private. The rule of law remains, at least in theory — a ghostly reminder of a nobler age.

That is the broad path down, but a narrow and rugged way back to moral ascendancy is there, if we choose to tread it.

It requires first of all a clear understanding of the historical and geographical context in which we articulate our views. Stalinism, for example, should not be regarded as some distant abstraction, as irrelevant to modern-day politics as the Bismarckian militarism of 19th century Prussia. It is a powerful and toxic force that modern Russia has yet to confront. The fact that Vladimir Putin regards the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as lawful is not some curious historical footnote. It is as outrageous as if a German chancellor were to maintain that the Munich agreement on the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia had been “just another treaty”. Our ahistorical, optimistic age finds that difficult to grasp. Politicians with a strong sense of history are rare. “That was then, this is now” is an easy retort to those who raise the whiskery problems of the past.

A degree of historical amnesia is a necessary lubricant in politics. The postwar rapprochements between France and Germany, or more recently between Britain and Ireland, would not have been possible if either side had stuck rigidly to a script featuring past historical wrongs. But that presupposes goodwill. Germany and Poland get on pretty well — but it took Willy Brandt’s genuflection in Warsaw in 1970 to dent the Polish conviction that nothing could be forgotten or forgiven. Nobody should rub modern-day Russians’ noses in the Katyn massacre, or the mass deportations from the Baltic states to Siberia of 1941 and 1949. But the quid pro quo is that Russians do not speak of those years with pride or nostalgia.

Secondly, we have to be a lot blunter about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Why do we accept the language and citizenship policies in Estonia and Latvia, which the Kremlin portrays, now with increasing vehemence, as a discriminatory blot on the West’s record? Why do we think Kosovo deserved to be independent, while Transdniester (a breakaway region of Moldova) doesn’t? Is it solely because the Kosovan leadership is pro-American and the separatists in Transdniester are Lenin-loving Soviet holdovers? If so, it is hardly surprising that Russians and others think we are being hypocritical.

The answers to these questions are good ones, but too often understated. Estonia and Latvia have certainly inflicted some injustice on the Soviet-era migrants stranded on their territory when the empire collapsed. They must pass a language test if they want to become citizens of the reborn countries. That policy was unsettling, upsetting, and to some extent unjust; and this needs to be bluntly acknowledged. But it would have been an even greater injustice to have expected those much abused countries to give instant citizenship to a population still largely loyal to the old Soviet order, or to have allowed the russification policies of the past decades to become a new status quo. An honest Western policy would say this — and also point out that the Russians living in the Baltic states now enjoy far more political freedom and much higher living standards than their compatriots in the Motherland. Russia does not like that to be said, which is one reason why nobody says it. But it is still true. Our policy was tricky, but both right in principle and successful in practice. Such things deserve to be advertised, not mumbled.

Similarly with Kosovo: the truth is that we think that Europe’s “soft imperialism” gives us a chance of making a go of it. It is not just the thousands of lawyers and police — the continent’s most ambitious colonial adventure for decades — that the European Union is sending to give the new-born state a semblance of law-governed rule. It is also that Kosovo (and Serbia) have reservations on that clunky, puffing rattletrap of the enlargement train. EU expansion rarely gets the plaudits it deserves. It is easier to highlight the bad side-effects: unsettling migration, growing criminality, bad government and corruption. But overall it has been a stunning success, spreading freedom and security to tens of millions of people. For all its faults, Europe has a great deal to be proud of in the way it treats its citizens — nowhere else in the world do so many people enjoy such liberty or such good public services. And it is all the more commendable that this sphere of good-ish government is spreading east.

By contrast, Russia has nothing except cheap gas to offer tinpot statelets like Transdniestria. However muddled, ineffective and hypo­critical the EU is in its influence on what it calls the “European Neighbourhood”, it is incomparably better than the thuggishness and mischief-making that are the hallmark of Kremlin policy in its former empire. We do not want Transdniester to become independent, because it will be like Russia. We do want Kosovo to be independent, because it will eventually be like us. Again, that is a blunt message, but one better spoken proudly than left unsaid.

Historical perspective and plain speaking are only part of the story. Real success will come only when we strengthen our own moral ­authority. That requires the West to become both more self-critical and more self-confident. On the face of it, that is a conundrum. In fact, it is the extent and effectiveness of self-criticism that distinguishes us from the authoritarian societies to the east. And it is on this that our self-confidence should rest. That is a task not just for politicians, but for everyone. Our cause — and our future — are corroded by bad government, apathetic citizens, sloppy journalists and, most of all, those who scoff at the very notion of right and wrong. If we do not use it, we will lose it.

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