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The old bear is stirring again in Ukraine, it's wearing Putin's face

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  • The old bear is stirring again in Ukraine, it's wearing Putin's face

    The Times, UK
    Nov 30 2004

    The old bear is stirring again in Ukraine, and it's wearing Putin's face
    Michael Gove

    Putin believes in the rule of a grim elite who will protect Russia
    from the corrupt West

    TWO YEARS ago who had heard of Fallujah? Twelve years ago what
    resonance did Srebrenica have? Two weeks ago how many of us had a
    view on the relative merits of Viktor Yushchenko or Viktor

    Its in the nature of international crises that they tend to occur in
    parts of the globe that have escaped the world's close attention. A
    hundred years ago crises in Fashoda and Port Arthur, flashpoints on
    the fringes of empire, dominated the thoughts of statesmen. Today,
    our sleeves are tugged by an insistent media, anxious that we should
    take an interest in the historic events unfolding between Lviv and

    It is, however, in the nature of the busy newspaper reader to wonder
    just which crisis in distant lands really is momentous enough to
    demand close attention. Who now remembers Nagorno-Karabakh? With each
    new story, the pundits bark and then the camera crews move on.

    The drama in Ukraine does, however, deserve even closer attention
    than it has enjoyed so far. For the conflict between the two Viktors
    is more than just a regional power struggle. It is a contest between
    two visions for the world. And a grim reminder that foreign policy
    is, underneath everything, still a Darwinian struggle for power.

    The battle between the Western- inclined, democratically-conscious Mr
    Yushchenko and the Eastern-backed, authoritarian Mr Yanukovych
    matters hugely for the fifty million people of the Ukraine. But it
    also matters to us because it reflects the broader battle going on
    across the former Soviet Union. Russia's leadership has been
    following an increasingly anti-democratic course over the past few
    years, a choice which poses a particular challenge for the West.
    Internally, President Putin has been moving towards the establishment
    of a secret police state. Externally, he has been conducting a
    campaign against liberal nationalist movements, designed to
    consolidate and extend the reach of Moscow's power. Both threaten
    Western interests and values.

    Within Russia, Putin has rigged elections, using puppet parties, just
    as the communists did, to mask the extent of his effective
    dictatorship. He has closed independent media, driven opponents into
    exile and imprisoned those, such as the businessman Mikhail
    Khodorkovsky, who might organise effective opposition. Some of these
    manoeuvres have undoubtedly been popular, and the anti-Semitic
    flavour of Putin's campaign against the oligarchs has certainly been
    calculated to play to street prejudice. But, however much public
    support some of Putin's acts may have won, his intention has been
    decisively anti-democratic. His authoritarian populism is intended to
    be an alternative to democracy, as it is in a different way in China,
    not a path to democracy, as it was in, say, Chile.

    Putin's distaste for democracy does not end at Russia's borders.
    Indeed, his borders don't even end at Russia's borders. Russia's
    leadership has consistently tried to forestall, undermine and crush
    democratic movements in its near-abroad. It has troops on the far
    western border of Ukraine, `policing' the gangster state of
    Trans-Dniester, a breakaway territory which has consistently
    undermined the integrity of the Romanian-speaking republic of
    Moldova. Russia has also supported secessionist movements in Georgia
    and Azerbaijan, in an effort to undermine the independence of those
    former Soviet republics. Additionally, Putin has provided backing for
    those former communist leaderships, such as Alexander Lukashenko's in
    Belarus, which have been happy to reject democratisation and cluster
    under Moscow's umbrella.

    In Ukraine, Putin is trying all his old tricks. He has signalled his
    backing for the anti-democratic strongman, Yanukovych, even
    campaigning for him during the election. Russia's military strength
    in the region has been not-so-subtly advertised. And, unsurprisingly
    for any student of the Putin manual of state subversion, secession of
    one half of the country has been floated.

    These manoeuvres reflect Putin's background and ideology. Although
    raised in the Soviet system, and using tactics to destabilise and
    control neighbours which were familiar to Stalin, it would be wrong
    to think of Putin as a born-again communist. He is instead heir to an
    older, continuing, tradition in Russian politics. As a former KGB
    man, who has surrounded himself with other old comrades from the
    bureau, he is a believer in the rule of an enlightened elite of
    grimly efficient patriots who will safeguard Russia from the
    corruption of Western thought and the consequent risk of
    disintegration. From the Tsarist Okhrana through Lenin's Cheka to the
    KGB and today's FSB, there has existed among Russia's secret police
    elite a determination to maintain Great Power status by ensuring the
    state is not debilitated by liberalism.

    The battle in the Ukraine is therefore crucial for the prestige,
    power and above all, ideology, of Putin's leadership. If Western
    liberalism can be beaten back, or contained, there, then he will be
    strengthened not just in his influence over a key neighbour but also
    in his belief that Russia can maintain a viable, non-Western,
    alternative path of development.

    In Europe it has become fashionable to believe that, in the EU, we
    have developed a new, collaborative, model of international relations
    that supersedes the old power politics. But the reality of foreign
    policy is that our security cannot be defended by international law
    and conventions alone. For Moscow, and for that matter Beijing,
    Pyongyang and Tehran, Western liberalism is certainly a threat to
    their systems, if it ever takes root in their soil - but it is also a
    weakness to be exploited. While we place our faith in treaties, they
    regard them as evidence of our unwillingness to risk confrontation,
    and therefore a licence to cheat, subvert and undermine.

    The outward forms of diplomacy will be respected, negotiations
    entertained, but all the time there will be a drive to acquire new
    influence over neighbours, new military strength, new opportunities
    to destabilise and new openings to reclaim `lost' territories. Unless
    we realise what is at stake in Lviv and Donetsk, then we will
    continue to live in a world where there will, inevitably, be more
    Fallujahs and Srebrenicas.