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
Yanukovych?

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
Donetsk.



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.