9 October 2004  
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Putin the poodle
John Laughland says that the Russian President has adopted an attitude of appeasement in the face of relentless US expansion

Under communism, the ‘open letter’ was a device by which political hacks publicly advocated certain policies. The party hierarchy was then usually only too happy to comply, as happened when the 1968 ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ from a group of Czechoslovak commies begged Soviet tanks to crush the counter-revolution in Prague. The historical resonance was therefore piquant, although presumably unintended, when last week a hundred Western politicians and ‘intellectuals’ published just such a missive, addressed to the heads of state and government of the EU and Nato. In it, they attacked the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, saying that his authoritarian behaviour rendered impossible any true partnership between Russia and Western democracies.

These assorted members of the New World Order foreign policy apparat — from Václav Havel and Richard Holbrooke to Glenys Kinnock and William Kristol — complain that Vladimir Putin is exploiting the Beslan massacre to undermine democracy in Russia, and that he is adopting ‘a threatening attitude towards Russia’s neighbours’. Oddly enough, their views mirror exactly those expressed by Colin Powell on 14 September: the supposedly dovish Secretary of State waited for just over one tasteful week after the Beslan massacre before berating Putin for rolling back democracy and instructing him to negotiate a political solution with the Chechen ‘rebels’. The rules of the ‘global war on terror’ evidently do not apply to the Russians after all.

The days seem long past when, in 2001, President Bush ‘looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes’ and saw a man he could trust. But then he was right. Ever since Putin came to power on New Year’s Eve 1999, he has been the very opposite of a dictator or an imperialist. He has preferred instead to adopt an attitude of appeasement in the face of relentless US expansionism. During Putin’s presidency, Russia has been geopolitically weakened far beyond even the catastrophes inflicted under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and yet the so-called tyrant in the Kremlin has done absolutely nothing to stop it.

Since 2000, three former Soviet republics — the Baltic States — have joined Nato. This puts the West’s military arsenal within 40 miles — and a few seconds — of St Petersburg, because the Baltic States have never signed the 1990 CFE (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) treaty which limits the movement of conventional forces in Europe. It also means that the major Russian naval base at Kaliningrad is now physically surrounded by Nato and EU states. Hundreds of US troops have also been installed in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, even though the Caucasus is geostrategically key and traditionally in the Russian sphere of influence. A US-controlled pipeline is soon to take oil from the Caspian Sea across Azerbaijan and Georgia, and both these countries are already on the fast track to join Nato itself. US military bases have also been created in two key former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, part of a new archipelago of American bases in Central Asia.

In 2002, Washington told Moscow that it was walking out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty which forbids the development of anti-missile weapons systems; this will render the Russian nuclear deterrent useless. In April, Nato signed an agreement with Kiev, the historic birthplace of the Russian nation, which clears the way for Nato troops to enter Ukrainian territory without delay if the alliance so requires. American strategists working on the Black Sea region call for Russian troops to be pushed out of their last few remaining pockets abroad: in Ukraine; in nearby Transdnistria, between Ukraine and Moldova; and in Abkhazia in western Georgia. To top it all, in April the CIA published a report which predicted — and many Russians think encouraged — the break-up of Russia herself, with oil-rich Siberia conveniently escaping Moscow’s control.

Since 2000, moreover, the West has either organised or approved the overthrow, by various means, of the heads of state of Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Georgia, in all cases strengthening Western and weakening Russian influence. All across the territory of the former Soviet Union, and in Russia itself, the West pays for numerous pro-Western non-governmental organisations, media outlets and ‘independent’ politicians to harass elected governments. And it has added insult to injury by encouraging post-Soviet states to humiliate their indigenous Russian minorities: in September Latvia, an EU and Nato member state, started to dismantle minority language-teaching in state schools, a policy which many Latvian Russians believe is intended to drive them out of the country.

This Western policy has met with little but the occasional protest from Mr Putin’s ministers. On occasions, they have actively collaborated with it. In November 2003 Igor Ivanov, the former foreign minister, helped the Americans to engineer the overthrow of President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, who was replaced by an even more grotesque Western puppet than he, Mikhail Saakashvili. Russia helped the Americans defeat the Taleban in 2001 by encouraging the pro-Russian Northern Alliance to do their dirty work in Afghanistan. And far from Russia using her energy resources to exercise any kind of geopolitical leverage on Western Europe, as the hundred grandees seem to imply, the only country from which Russian gas supplies have ever been cut off is Belarus, the most pro-Russian state among all the former Soviet republics.

In support of the charge that Putin has muzzled the media, the Russian president’s enemies cite the sacking of the editor of a national daily, Izvestiya, for publishing inappropriate photographs of Beslan. But they do not say Britain is a dictatorship, in which Piers Morgan, Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies have all lost their jobs. In fact, the worst attack on a journalist in Russia came last July when Paul Klebnikov was shot dead in the streets of Moscow: he was known as a harsh critic of both Boris Berezovsky, the exiled anti-Putin oligarch, and of the Chechen rebels. And perhaps I blinked, but I don’t recall the grandees who now attack Putin for increasing the power of the Russian state having criticised either the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security post 9/11 or, for that matter, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The key to these double standards lies, quite simply, in oil. The letter writers, like other strategists, refer obliquely to Russia’s supposed ‘threat to Europe’s energy security’ and several of them actually work for Yukos, the oil company owned by the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who also funds Mr Putin’s political opponents in Russia. American oil companies, including those with links to members of the Bush administration, are at present trying to buy up controlling stakes in Lukoil: with oil at $50 a barrel and rising, the neocons’ original plan to drive the price down by pumping out huge quantities from Iraq is in tatters, and so American strategy is now to gain influence over Russian oil production. Putin’s problem is not that he has resisted the West, but that the West’s appetite for servility grows with the feeding.

John Laughland is a trustee of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, www.oscewatch.org

© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk