The New Cold War With Russia
Kim Zigfeld is glad the tide is turning on the Western perception of Putinism. Two new books focus on the menacing signs coming from the Kremlin.
March 9, 2008 - 12:00 am
By the third week of January this year, we heard Russia announce that it would not hesitate to be the first to use nuclear weapons in battle, that it would resume this May parading tanks and missiles through Red Square in the Soviet fashion, that it would reestablish the application of double jeopardy in criminal trials and would file criminal charges against former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, in order to stop him from running for president in March.
Back in April of 2006, when I started little blog called La Russophobe with the goal of warning the world that, in my judgment, a neo-Soviet state was rising in Russia, a development that would lead in short order to a new cold war (if not a hot one), and to urge the West to begin preparing to win that conflict (not only for our sake, but that of the Russian people as well). At that time, many thought of me as a crackpot chicken little. The Russian economy was supposedly “booming” and Vladimir Putin was purportedly just a “necessary strongman” as Russia made the “transition to democracy.”
But within six months, both Andrei Kozlov and Anna Politkovskaya had been assassinated in Russia. He was the country’s leading reformer within the Kremlin walls, aggressively investigating corruption at the highest levels, and she was Russia’s leading domestic force for change outside the Kremlin, a journalist confronting the Kremlin on both foreign and domestic issues at every turn. Suddenly, it began to seem that friendly relations with the West and its values weren’t necessarily the Russia’s cup of tea.
Speaking of tea, the next thing you knew, Russia’s most sensational foreign dissident, KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, had been murdered by radioactive poisoning in London. Then Russia was making military incursions in Georgia, blackmailing Eastern Europe back towards Russia’s sphere of influence by threatening to withhold its energy supply, providing weapons to arch American foes like Venezuela, Iran, Syria and Hamas. Putin declared himself president (or whatever) for life, and started imposing Zimbabwe-like, Soviet-style price controls to keep from being devastated by inflation.
And, quite suddenly, my view was the conventional wisdom.
As if to make it official, not one but two different books by former Russia correspondents of major newspapers have recently appeared under the title “The New Cold War.” One is by a British correspondent for the Economist magazine, Edward Lucas (certainly the most defiantly confrontational and courageous Russia pundit in the MSM), and carries the subtitle “How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West.” In my judgment, it’s the most important book on Putin’s Russia yet published. The other, by Mark MacKinnon, a Canadian correspondent for the Globe & Mail newspaper, is sub-headlined “Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the former Soviet Union.” It seems that MacKinnon has tramped just about everywhere in the former USSR, meeting just about every single person along the way, and now he tells the tale. Both MacKinnon and Lucas also operate well-regarded Russia blogs.
The Commitee to Protect Journalists says there are more than a dozen confirmed cases of Russian reporters having been murdered for political reasons since Vladimir Putin took power, while many others — like Natalya Morar — have been hounded, assaulted, or sent into exile. My own blog currently has nearly 100 posts recording such incidents, just in the past two years, including a complete list of the 211 Russian journalists who have died of unnatural causes since Vladimir Putin became Boris Yeltsin’s chief of staff in 1997. Until recently, we might have thought that Western journalists were immune from this kind of terrorism, but Congressional Quarterly recently reported that the shooting several months ago of Kremlin critic Paul Joyal outside his home in Washington DC, which occurred days after he was featured on NBC blaming the Kremlin for the killing of Alexander Litvinenko (a conclusion the British government itself would later adopt), has been linked by some analysts to the Kremlin and remains unsolved.
The books make a neat set. Lucas tells us why and how the new Cold War started, and advises us how to win. MacKinnon doesn’t seem much interested in taking sides, but shows us the consequences of the war on the front lines with scintillating stories, that read almost like fiction, from places like the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Uzbekistan, all places he’s spent a great deal of time. For Lucas, Vladimir Putin is at the center of the storm; for MacKinnon he’s crucial, but shadowy figures the public knows little about, most especially financier George Soros, are nearly as important.
Lucas makes the absolutely vital point right in the title of his work: The neo-Soviet Kremlin is just as dangerous to the people of Russia as it is to the outside world, something that has been true of Russia’s government from the beginning and which had its fullest illustration in the cruelty of Joseph Stalin. By taking action now, he argues, the West will not only be helping itself, but the citizens of Russia as well. His plan of action flows organically out of his analysis of the state of the enemy we face. He argues that Russia is not as strong as we fear, but strong enough to pose a serious threat that will exacerbate if left unaddressed, laying out all the data on both sides of the equation in masterful fashion.
And it’s the presence of that plan which makes the Lucas volume so important. The New York Times, for instance, published an editorial on January 30th and savaged Putin for “kicking the corpse of democracy” by banning Kasyanov from challenging his hand-picked successor Dimitry Medvedev for the presidency next month. Yet, the Times didn’t offer a single word of practical advice for dealing with the corpse kicker, and it seemed to have forgotten that on March 26, 2000, just after Putin was elected to his first term, a Times editorial called him a “democrat” who was “impressed by the benefits of liberty and free markets” and noted that “a steady hand in the Kremlin would be welcome.” It stated that “Mr. Putin helped build the beginnings of a capitalist economy in the early 1990′s” — a ridiculous falsehood, because Putin, who holds no economics or business credentials whatsoever, was in those years nothing more than the clueless lackey of a corrupt local politician who used to be his professor — and speculated that he might choose “to advance reform while protecting the newly won liberties of the Russian people” and make “government an effective, honest and compassionate agent of change.” So even if the Times did have some advice, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to listen. Lucas, by contrast, has consistently been warning the world, from the beginning, about the threats presented by the Putin regime
In the body of his work, Lucas gives us all the primer we need to understand the geopolitical imperative. He starts with a concise history of Putin’s rise to power and then outlines the two major battles already underway in the new Cold War, the first to crush dissent within Russia and the second to reestablish the Soviet empire (a topic MacKinnon explores in much greater detail in a series of postcards from the front lines). Lucas then devotes chapters to examining the two key types of weaponry being deployed by Russia to fight the battles (fossil fuels and the money they generate) and the ideological underpinnings of the Kremlin’s action. Finally, he dispels the illusion that Russia’s Potemkin-village military is anything for us to fear, and then urges us to action with a final chapter full of suggestions on how to fight and win.
A third aspect that makes Lucas essential reading is that chapter laying out Putin’s neo-Soviet ideology, something some Kremlin apologists deny even exists. What Putin likes to call “sovereign democracy” Lucas prefers to label “new Tsarism,” and he shows that it has two vital elements: First, revising Russian history consistent with the Soviet model, based on patriotism, to delete anything that might undercut Russian confidence (Lucas shows how this is infiltrating the teaching of history, dismantling a recent textbook). Second, reviving the Orthodox religion (with an undercurrent of pro-Slavic nationalism bordering on racism that shows signs of being Hitlerian in nature). He writes of Putin’s belief that “Russian civilization is based on unique values quite different from those in the West” and shows that, where in Soviet times religion was repressed, in neo-Soviet Russia is co-opted and manipulated to serve the national ideology — indeed, to serve as ideology itself.
In my view, Lucas has separated from his discussion of ideology a section, which deserves inclusion, namely his chapter on imperialism (with attendant xenophobia and outright racism) and militarism, specifically the battle for Eastern Europe. It seems clear to me that it’s a fundamental part of neo-Soviet ideology to reconquer much of the former USSR; indeed, the phrase “Holy Russian Empire” seems the best replacement for “Communism” that can be found. His chapter on the European battlefront will send shivers down your spine. Lucas explains that, for Putin, imperialism and militarism are two sides of the same neo-Soviet coin.
A crucial point about Putin’s Russia, which I think is much overlooked, is that if Putin were to create a healthy, vigorous population, he would be sowing the seeds of his own downfall — so he likely has no intention of doing so. Any independent center of power, no matter how apparently servile, seems threatening (in a classic Stalinesque move, Putin even turned recently on his own youth personality cult, Nashi). In his defense, he may also think he simply can’t afford to do spend serious coin on social problems and still wage a new cold war effectively, something his warped mind probably believes is necessary not only to advance Russian (or even global) interests but also to cleanse Russian honor of its ignominious defeat. But the fact remains: A dynamic, empowered middle class would start asking uncomfortable questions like: “What really happened on Novosyolov Street in Ryazan on the night of September 22, 1999?”
MacKinnon begins his book by answering that question. A platoon of KGB operatives were caught red-handed trying to plant sacks of explosives in the apartment building located at that address (which, by the way, has only six Google hits). The sacks then magically transformed into sugar and the operatives said they were just testing local residents to see if they were properly on their guard in the aftermath of apartment explosions that had already occurred in Moscow and been blamed on Chechnya. Somehow, the entire story then dropped off the West’s radar screen as a parliamentary investigation into the Moscow explosions was quickly derailed. When an independent committee formed to carry on the work its members suddenly started dying, going to jail and getting beaten up in alleyways. Recently, the Telegraph quoted Sir David King, “who as the British Government’s Chief Scientist played a key role in the investigation into Litvinenko’s murder,” stating: “I can tell you that Putin was responsible for the bombings. I’ve seen the evidence.” The MSM ignored this as well.
Even though, as a Russia blogger, I’m well familiar with the Ryazan bombing attempt, I was astonished to read about it — not least perhaps because Ryazan is the city to which the Kremlin transported youth opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky after illegally drafting him into the Army to silence his insistent criticism of the regime. After PJ Media first wrote on these pages about Kozlovsky’s persecution, it took the MSM weeks to pick up the story, and even now only two major U.S. papers (the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune) have run it (Lucas has covered it in both the Guardian and the Economist, but other British press have been equally remiss). The result is that now the Other Russia political front is reporting that a second youth activist has receive the same treatment, a pattern we can expect to continue unless Lucas’s warning is heeded.
His book is full of such stories, but at the same time it’s clear that MacKinnon has a certain amount of healthy skepticism regarding our ability to actually deliver on the promise of democracy for the people we purport to defend from Russia’s imperial conquest, people for whom he obviously holds great affection. He closes the book not with his own thoughts or summation but talking to one more player in his cast of thousands, an operative named Sinisa who participated in the pro-democracy agitation in Serbia and then trained leaders in Belarus and Ukraine. MacKinnon wanted to know if Sinisa thought he had been “used” by the CIA. His answer? “Maybe we used them.” But despite this bravado, MacKinnon says Sinisa had “a very European distaste for George W. Bush and his administration” which made them “part of a machine that topples governments that run afoul of Washington” because Bush fails to acknowledge the organic component of the struggle, seeming to claim the local leaders were simply “jumping on a wave of freedom that originated in Washington.” In other words, the Ugly American syndrome.
On February 8th, in an address to his newly-installed rubber-stamp parliament in which not a single true opposition member now sits, Vladimir Putin stated: “It is already clear that a new phase in the arms race is unfolding in the world.” He seems to know there’s a cold war on, even if we don’t yet. A recent article in the Moscow Times shows he’s been preparing for some time now: the KGB has come to dominate Putin’s executive staff, the government and the private sector, and in general occupies 78% of national leadership positions. Aeroflot, Gazprom, Rosneft, and Russian Railways are all run by the KGB. All the key ministries are riddled with the KGB, and Putin’s chain of command from his chief of staff to personnel to communications to the press service are all former KGB honchos. Putin, it seems, is preparing to wage war not only on the USSR’s former enemies, but also on the Russian people themselves.
We, and they, have now been warned. Twice.
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%%AMAZON=0230606121 The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West, Edward Lucas, Palgrave Macmillan%%, $26.95 (New York; February 19, 2008)
%%AMAZON=0786720832 The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union%%, Mark MacKinnon, Carroll & Graf, $26.95 (New York; October 4, 2007)
Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the PJ Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.