Why are we entering the cold war again?

by Roberto Savio | Rome, 28 April 2014 - For weeks now, the mainstream media have been unanimously engaged in denouncing Vladimir Putin's action in Crimea first and Ukraine now. The latest cover of The Economist depicts a bear swallowing Ukraine, with the title 'Insatiable'. Media unanimity is always troubling, because it means that some knee-jerk reflex is involved. Could it be possible that we are just following the inertia of 40 years of Cold War?

This inertia has not really gone away. Just say or write: 'the communist President Raul Castro', and nobody will blink. Use the same logic, and call President Barack Obama a capitalist, and see how it is received. Here in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was able for 20 years to rally his electors against the threat of 'communists' , as he called members of the left-wing Democratic Party, now in power with a devout Catholic at its head, Matteo Renzi.

There are at least four point of analysis that are conspicuously missing in the chorus.

The first is that there is never any allusion to the responsibilities of the West in this affair. Let us recall that Mikhail Gorbacev agreed with George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand that he would let the reunification of Germany go, but the West should not try to invade Russia's zone of influence; and on this, there is ample documentation. Of course, once Gorbacev was eliminated, the game opened up again. The total docility of Boris Yeltsin to the United States is well known.  What is much less known is that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made a 3.5 billion dollar loan to support the ruble. The loan went to the Bank of America, which distributed the money to various Russian accounts.  None of it ever reached the Russian Central Bank, going instead to the oligarchs so that they could buy up  all Russian public companies. And never a word of protest from the IMF.  Giulietto Chiesa has given a detailed account of this in his book 'Farewell Russia'. Then along came the unknown Putin, put in power by the departing Yeltsin on the understanding that he would cover up all Yeltsin's cronyism.

Here goes a brief summary of how the West did progressively encircle Russia. A longer and detailed analysis can be found in the article by Andrew Gavin, The Hampton Institute.
After Yeltsin, Putin supported Washington's then imminent invasion of Afghanistan in a way that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. He agreed that U.S. planes could fly through Russian air space, that the United States could use military bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and he ordered his military to share their experience in Afghanistan. Then in November 2001, Putin visited Bush at his Texas ranch, in a flourish of hype along the lines of 'Putin is a new leader who is working for world peace…by working closely with the United States'. A few weeks later, Bush announced that United States was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that he could build a system in Eastern Europe to protect the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from Iran - a move that was seen as directed against Russiain reality, to Putin's dismay.

This was followed by Bush's invitation in 2002 to seven nations from the extinct Soviet Union (including Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) to join NATO (which they did in 2004). Then in 2003, came the invasion of Iraq, without the consent of the United Nations and over the objections of France, Germany and Russia, turning Putin into an open critic of the United States' claim that it was promoting democracy and upholding international law. In November of the same year in Georgia, the Rose Revolution brought Mikheil Saakashvili, a pro-West president to power. Four months later, street protests in Ukraine turned into the Orange Revolution, bringing another pro-West president, Viktor Yushchenko, into power. In 2006, the White House asked for permission to land Bush's plane in Moscow to refuel, but made it clear that Bush had no time to greet Putin. In 2008, came Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, with the support of the United States, much against Russian statements. Then Bush asked NATO to give membership to Ukraine and Georgia, a slap in the face of Moscow. So it should have been no surprise when, in 2008, Putin intervened militarily when Georgia tried to regain control of the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossieta and took it under Russian control along with another breakaway region, Abkazia. Yet, we all remember how the media spoke of an unreasonable action.

Obama tried to repair the damages done to international relations under Bush. He asked for a 'reset' of relations with Russia, And, at the beginning, everything went well. Russia agreed to the use of its space for getting military supplies to Afghanistan. In April 2010, Russia and United States signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), reducing their nuclear arsenals. And Russia supported strong U.N. sanctions against Iran, and withdraw the sale of its S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.

But then, in 2011, it was clear that the United States was expressing its views about Russian parliamentary elections.  All Western media were against Putin, who accused the United States of injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into opposition groups. The then U.S. ambassador to Russia, MichaelMcFaul, called this a great exaggeration. He said that only tens of millions of dollars had been provided to civil society groups. Putin was elected again in 2012, already obsessed with the Western threat to his power, and in 2013 he gave asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama cancelled a planned summit meeting, the first time a US summit with the Kremlin had been cancelled in 50 years. And while all this was going, there was the Arab Spring. Russia authorised military action in Libya, but only to provide humanitarian aid. In fact, this was used for a change of regime, and Russia felt that it had been duped, and protested to no avail. Then came Syria, and the West tried to obtain Russian supportagain for a change of regime, and became upset when Putin refused. And finally, now, there has been the intervention in Ukraine to get the country into European Union and away from an economic bloc that Russia was trying to create, also with Belarus. So, Ukraine should be seen in a context....

The second point is that no political action, short of a war, can really reduce Russia to a local power. It has the largest mass land of any country, it is at the borders of the European Union and extends to the Far East.  It is both Europe and Asia. It is in rivalry with China in Asia, it has territorial conflicts with Japan, and it faces the United States across the Straits of Bering. It is a prominent producer of oil, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and it has a nuclear arsenal. Any effort to encircle or weaken it, now that ideological confrontations are gone, can be seen only as part of old imperial policy. Russia is not a threat, as the Soviet Union was. The GNP of Russia is 15% that of the European Union, which has close to 500 million people and accounts for 16% of the world's exports.  China has 1.3 billion people and 9% of world trade. Russia has 145 million people (its population is shrinkingby close to one million people every year) and 2.5% of world exports. It has few industries, also because Putin is not interested in the modernisation of the country, which would inevitably increase the educated professional class, which is already against him.

The third point, therefore, is that we should take the Ukraine affair with a pinch of salt. It is a very fragile state, where corruption controls politics, and it has structural economic problems. Its western part is more rural, while the eastern part more industrialised. The workers there know that entering the European Union would bring the phasing out of many factories. In the western part, during the Second World War,many sided with the Nazi forces, and today there is a strong nationalist movement, close to fascism. Ukraine is a very messy and costly affair.

It is clear that to intervene just to challenge Putin, and offer money (which is basically what the European Union did), seems very shallow thinking. Are we really ready to change the criteria of the European Union, accept a country which is totally out of sync with these criteria, and take on an enormous burden, just to appear to have won against a strongman?

Which brings us the fourth and final point. Putin is an ex-KGB officer, who feels that Russia was unfairly treated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that the West is trying to unseat him. All his  efforts for reaching an entente with the West have been continuously betrayed, with successive enlargement of NATO, a network of military bases surrounding Russia, a  clear Western support for all his opponents, and a mediocre trade treatment. He knows that his feelings about Russian decline are shared by a large majority of his citizens.

But he is also an arrogant autocrat, to say the least, who is doing nothing to foster economic modernisation because, by keeping trade and production in his hands, he can keep control. For him, Ukraine was politically unacceptable. Another autocrat, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's President from February 2010 until February this year and very much in Putin's style, was deposed by massive street protests, sponsored and supported by the West. Any possible contagion should have been stopped in its tracks. So Putin is playing the role of saviour of Russian citizens, which allows him to play wherever there are Russian minorities.

The question is: if Putin goes away, will we have a democratic, participatory, clean, non-corrupt Russia? Those who know Russia well, do not think so. History is full of examples that removing autocrats does not, by itself, bring democracy. So, the policy is to continue to surround Putin in the name of democracy. But are we sure that this is not playing his game, by becoming the defender of the Russian people? They also have the inertia of the Cold War, and they look to the West not exactly as an ally. Today, Putin is the only binding force in Russia. If he goes, most probably there would be a long period of chaos. This is clearly is not in the interest of Russians citizens…and it is always dangerous to play a game of power without looking to the stability of Europe as such. Of course, this is not the thinking of the strategists in the West who would love to eliminate any other power!

As Naomi Klein writes, the only winners in this affair are the energy companies. They are engaged in a campaign for the world to become independent from Russian oil. So, let us speed up production of oil in the United States, regardless of what happens to the environment. And let Europeans stop using Russian gas, we will export tons to them. The problem is that there are no structures to do that, and it will take several years to build them.

But just when everybody was debating how to bring climate change under control, and reduce the use of fossil energy, an overall important strategy is pushing this issue into the background. Tarzie Vittachi, Sri Lankan journalist, once said: 'Everything is always about something else' … and there are not many examples of oil and democracy going hand-in-hand.

Italian version

Photo: Tatiana Bulyonkova/Flickr