The Putin complex

Nihal Singh

Russia is going through lean times, but has intervened in the Syrian civil war to earn a major role in determining its outcome. Thus, the Western campaign to paint Mr Putin in the lurid colours of corruption.

The manner in which Western leaders are piling up dirt against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is more than a coincidence. First, it was a British judge who ruled that according to circumstantial evidence the murder of the former Russian spy who deserted and became a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko, by two Russian agents adding radioactive polonium to his tea at a London hotel was “probably” approved by Mr Putin. Litvinenko remained a critic of Mr Putin and died 22 days after drinking the tea.

Second, British Prime Minister David Cameron was ready with his conclusion that the United Kingdom would go on having “some sort of relationship with them (Russians)” because of the Syrian crisis, but it would be “with clear eyes and a cold heart”. Then the United States trade official Adam Szubin came up with the clanger that President Putin was probably corrupt for many years.

While the Russian response was along expected lines — it was “pure fiction” — it was quite extraordinary that the Prime Minister of a major Western power should speak of a fellow leader of an ex-super power in the terms he did. And since the American trade official’s public comment has not been repudiated, it has Washington’s blessing.

The obvious question to be asked is: Why this demonisation of Mr Putin? True, Ukraine has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West. After the anti-Russian movement in western Ukraine, Russia has been helping separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, finally annexing the Crimean peninsula inviting anti-Moscow sanctions which continue to operate. Crimea, then part of the Soviet Union, was gifted to Ukraine by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Western relationship with Russia has gone through many phases, but after the end of the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union preceded by the perestroika and glasnost of the Gorbachev era, the West had hoisted the flag of victory. The incorporation of the former East European Communist countries into the then European Economic Community (the European Union) was speeded up and West European countries were waiting for the ripe fruit of Ukraine, a great mass adjoining the Russian Federation with close religious, linguistic and family ties to it, to fall into their lap. The West was disregarding the lessons of Georgia and Moldova, cases in which the Kremlin showed that it was ready to fight for its regional interests.

Underlying Western moves was the belief that after losing the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia would fold up and become a diligent pupil of Western liberal democracy. Indeed, the antics and subservience of Boris Yeltsin to Washington and West Europe played a part in reinforcing this belief.

Perhaps Americans’ own romanticism over the end of the Cold War and the “evil empire” led them up the garden path. Americans, including those in the establishment, were seduced by the dream of remaking the world in their image. A legion of US venture capitalists and do-gooders roamed free in Yeltsin’s Russia building castles in the air. More often than not, these dreams were shattered. And every time the West thought that Russia lay supine, it received a hard answer from Yeltsin’s successor Mr Putin. Washington did not reckon with the fact that the Kremlin had not quite accepted its demotion from the ranks of super power.

I recall the heady atmosphere in the Yeltsin days in contrast to my time in Moscow as a foreign correspondent in the era of the Soviet Union. The setting was the annual session of the International Press Institute, the Western pope of a free press. Yeltsin addressed the gathering, despite his frail health, and everyone agreed that he was a jolly good fellow. Tales of the fortune Yeltsin and his family had gathered were legion and were consumed with merriment. Official Washington, of course, stayed far from casting aspersions.

By contrast, not only do Western media generously estimate Mr Putin’s fortune — an American estimate puts it at $200 billion — but quote a US official for the report of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich giving the President a yacht worth £45 million. The yacht is reportedly maintained at Russian state expense. There are many ironies in these assertions because America’s closest allies and friends around the world are not known as paragons of virtue and integrity.

The question that still remains to be answered is the new Western campaign to paint Mr Putin in the lurid colours of corruption. The answer is that the West is frustrated in its dealings with Moscow. Russia is going through lean times, thanks to low oil prices and accumulated Western sanctions, but has militarily intervened in the Syrian civil war to earn a major role in determining the outcome of the civil war. Mr Putin refuses to wear sackcloth and ashes after the end of the Cold War.

Clearly, Washington will have to row back to break bread with Mr Putin if it wants to help resolve international problems. Syria is the most urgent for several reasons, including the flood of refugees challenging the very triumph of European integration in the shape of the European Union, thanks to the flood of refugees reaching European shores.

Indeed, many American academics are taking a more realistic line. They suggest that the Kiev leadership should find the strength and will to give the autonomy to the East promised in the Minsk II agreement now that Moscow is showing greater flexibility in holding back in the region. Second, though the absorption of Crimea violates the sanctity of national borders no one expects the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine. Its absorption should be quietly accepted, given the extraordinary circumstances.

Ironically, Syria might be the magic wand that takes the West from the brink of a new confrontation with Moscow. The Russian intervention has already strengthened the hands of President Bashar al-Assad at the bargaining table. It is time to make peace.


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