To say that Russia’s image in the British and American media is negative would be quite an understatement. Read press reports on the country and the impression you will get is of a semi-rogue state run by a power-crazed 21st-century tsar, who oppresses dissidents at home and threatens countries abroad.
What is missing from this chilling narrative, however, is that Putin, the former KGB agent dismissed as a new Stalin, saved Russia from disintegration and Yugoslavia- style mayhem. He succeeded in putting an end to the vortex of European and American foreign interventions that transformed his country from the world’s mightiest power to a ludicrous caricature epitomised by a drunk president, who specialised in making a fool of himself and his country, bumbling, dancing or stumbling at international gatherings.
It is ironic that the man who presided over Russia’s collapse was feted, while opprobrium is heaped on the one leading it through its recovery. For much of his rule, Yeltsin was hailed as a hero and embraced by western statesmen – sometimes literally. Clinton even campaigned for his re-election. This proceeded as he transferred his country’s wealth to gangs of thieves while his people went hungry, while GDP plummeted (by 50%), over a quarter of Russians sunk into poverty (an estimated 30%), and mortality rates rose by 50% (see this report, pdf). He was even cheered in western capitals when his tanks besieged the Duma – after it refused to pass his drastic liberalisation reforms – shelled and almost destroyed the building with the elected legislature inside. As long as he did Washington’s bidding, he could do no wrong.
In the space of a few years, Putin transformed Russia from the world’s latest sick man to a confident, resurgent power. Russia is back on its feet after the terrible decade of US/IMF blessed “shock therapy”, of rampant corruption and comprehensive decline. For the last eight years, GDP has steadily increased, rising by the highest percentage since the fall of the Soviet Union at 8.1%. Inflation has fallen to under 10%, and Russia’s trade balance has increased threefold in four years. Last year, the World Bank declared that Russian economy had achieved “unprecedented stability”.
Many British and American economic analysts compete in playing down Putin’s role in Russia’s economic resurrection, maintaining that it has more to do with high oil prices than with any economic reforms he has introduced. What these conveniently overlook, however, is that, had it not been for Putin, the country’s enormous oil and gas revenues would still be flowing into the accounts of Shell, BP and other foreign companies. And were it not for his audacious pursuit of the oligarchs who looted the country to starvation in the mass privatisation of the Yeltsin era, the country’s riches – over 70% of the economy – would still be in the hands of Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, Berezovsky, and the other titans of the Yeltsin era.
What is seldom said in the European and American media is that, far from being a threat to the West, Russia is, in fact, a country under threat. Since the fall of the iron curtain, the US has been tightening the noose around its neck in an attempt to drive it outside the international equation altogether. Analysts love to speak of Russia’s new aggressive tone under Putin. But what is rarely ever mentioned is that rather than being on the offensive, Russia is defending its vital interests and national security from a continuous encroachment by Washington and its European allies.
In December 2001, the US announced its withdrawal from the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia. The treaty, President Bush declared, is “now behind us”; missile defences will be deployed “as soon as possible”. In defiance of Russia’s virulent opposition to the move, the US proceeded to announce plans to deploy a radar facility in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland. Through Nato, the US has worked to isolate Moscow, admitting its former eastern European and Baltic client states into the organisation.
As a result, Russia today finds itself militarily encircled, with Nato at its western frontiers and a ring of military bases planted in central Asia on its southern borders. After a string of colour revolutions, the US has further encroached into Russia’s geopolitical zone by supporting Kosovo’s independence.
And yesterday, Bush set the stage for the coming Nato summit by announcing his intention to “support Map for Ukraine and Georgia” (Map being Nato’s membership action plan for future members), despite the reluctance of Germany and France. In response, Putin warned that should the plan go through, “one can’t theoretically exclude the possibility that Russia will have to point its warheads at Ukrainian territory.”
Is it any wonder Russia looks angrily westward? As a Russian politician put it, “Russia can’t just twiddle its thumbs when it sees the Americans taking root in the Baltic and Caucasus countries and strengthening their positions in East European countries … When Nato’s steam engine is directed toward us, we simply must respond.”
Today, as Putin prepares to vacate the Kremlin – and move next door – Russia looks healthier and stronger than it did for years. Not only did he succeed in halting the cycle of decline and disintegration unleashed by his predecessor, he has driven his country forward economically, politically and militarily, restoring its confidence and sense of itself as a global power. Important lessons can be drawn from this episode of the history of western-Russian relations. One of these is the following: if you see a world leader greeted with open arms in Washington, or London, then beware. Most likely, his services are not for his country or his people, but for those who applaud and cheer him.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 4 April 2008