Putin is playing a dangerous game

Last week, I found myself in Dom Knigi, the very largest of all the very large Moscow bookstores, staring at the history section. Spread out over an entire wall were books of a sort I’ve never seen in such quantities during 10 years of visits: endless glorifications of Soviet fighter pilots, Soviet war heroes, even Stalin himself. Stalin: the Author of the Great Victory was one title; others had cover illustrations featuring red stars, or hammers and sickles.
I don’t think this new publishing trend heralds a new period of Stalinism, or not exactly. But it does illustrate a growing Russian fascination – encouraged and manipulated by the Kremlin – with Russia’s imperial past.Every year, celebrations marking the anniversary of the end of the Second World War grow more elaborate. One by one, those countries in Russia’s periphery which remember that conflict differently – Estonians, say, for whom the war ended with 40 years of Soviet occupation – have found themselves in open conflict with the Russian federation.
A Russian historian and publisher told me a few days ago that government authorities had informed him, more or less outright, that while they didn’t mind what he or anyone else wrote about the internal, Soviet victims of Stalin and his Gulag, he’d do well to stay away from the Katyn massacre.
The Katyn massacre? It sounds distinctly odd. After all, the massacre by Soviet secret police of more than 20,000 Polish officers in and around the Katyn forest happened nearly 70 years ago in 1940. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe, my friend speculated, the Kremlin hopes to make use of the Katyn story in its current trade dispute with Poland. Or maybe Soviet behaviour in what used to be the Soviet empire is taboo simply because right now the Russians want to remember that period as one of success and glory.
Either way, this creepily retrograde mood forms the backdrop to the current foreign policy of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Whether by waging cyberwarfare on Estonia, threatening the gas supplies of Lithuania, or boycotting Georgian wine and Polish meat, he has, over the past few years, made it clear that he intends to reassert Russian influence in the former communist states of Europe, whether those states want Russian influence or not.
At the same time, he has also made it clear that he no longer sees Western nations as mere benign trading partners, but rather as Cold War-style threats. Last week, Andrei Lugovoi, the man accused of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London, responded by accusing MI6 of the crime instead – a statement he surely would not have made without the Kremlin’s support.
This week, Putin himself upped the stakes further, threatening to point nuclear missiles at Europe if the United States puts missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. “It is obvious,” he said, that “if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the US is located in Europe and will be threatening us, we will have to respond.”
Actually, though I have some doubts about the missile defence bases – are they really necessary? Will they work? Couldn’t someone have done some better advance diplomacy to explain them? – it is a pretty big stretch to call them “part of the strategic nuclear potential of the US”.
Nor are they designed to threaten Russia, or indeed to threaten anybody. They are designed to block missiles that might some day head in America’s direction from North Korea or Iran – as the Russians must know perfectly well. It is deeply cynical for Putin to use Cold-War rhetoric to describe them. And now that this rhetoric is beginning to worry people in the capitals of Western Europe, as well as in Prague and Warsaw, he must be counting it a huge success.
But why Stalin? Why militarism? Why empire? Why now?
Of course Putin is trying to build support for himself, unifying the country behind him in the face of external “enemies”, such as Estonia, and internal “enemies”, such as the few human rights activists who still manage to function in Russia or the tiny opposition groups, such as the one led by Gary Kasparov, a former chess champion and hardly a political threat.
Of course Putin is trying to use this support to “maintain stability” as people around him become frantic about who, 10 months from now, will succeed him, and what that person’s policy towards the country’s wealthiest men will be.
Of course there are economic advantages for Russian companies if the Kremlin has more influence in the countries on Russia’s borders, particularly given that natural resources, the one area in which Russia is a true powerhouse, tend to be government controlled.
Yet there is a huge price to be paid, both economic and political. Russia risks being refused entry to those Western clubs it still wants to join, such as the World Trade Organisation, and risks being expelled from those it is in already. Russia risks investment, too: though oil companies will always come to Moscow, others will surely stay away. Russia even risks real violence.
Maybe all Putin wants is to stir up imperialist emotions in order to maintain public support for himself or his successor – but once such emotions are unleashed, uncontrollable violence may follow. That’s what happened in Estonia a few weeks ago, when a Russian-speaking mob fought Estonian police over a government decision to move a war memorial from the centre of town to a nearby cemetery – over history, in other words.
Next time, the violence might take place at home, not abroad. It’s a dangerous game he’s playing. Does Putin really understand the rules?