I love reading and learning about history, particularly wartime Europe.
History recorded the fall of the Berlin Wall as the symbolic ending of the Cold War. But did the Cold War end? Was it merely on ice as a wounded Russia licked her wounds and recharged?
As the institutions crumbled around Russia, the former Iron Curtain states would declare independence and communism around Eastern Europe was dealt a mighty blow. Communism had become Eastern Europe’s lingua franca, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a common aspiration for political/personal freedom and general prosperity.
Previously, that had been suppressed by the brutal methods of the Secret Police. The East German STASI and the Romanian Securitate, along with being in cahoots with their KGB masters, were particularly effective in quashing dissent. Russia would default on its debt and factions would lead to civil war in 1993.
Back to the Future
In 1999 ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin became Russian President. It did not take long for Russia to revert to Cold War type. Putin reinstated the 1941-1991 national anthem with new words and, in 2003, closed the last remaining independent nationwide TV channels (BBC). That same year, they opened their first military base abroad for over a decade in Kyrgyzstan. There were indications early into Putin’s tenure that communication was being recentralised. More recently the Kremlin has passed laws for internet service providers to install specialist equipment which will give the government greater control of identifying and blocking content. Direct elections of regional governors were scrapped in 2004 in favour of government appointees.
The state would bring the oil and gas industry back under central control by seizing oil company Yuganskneftegaz over tax debts. Critics has suggested this might have been politically motivated as “oil boss and prominent liberal Mikhail Khodorkovsky” (BBC) was an influential “oligarch’ and political opponent of Putin. The company would be given to Rosneft which is state owned. In 2005 the state gained control of gas giant Gazprom. It is worth noting that Yeltsin, in 1993, sent troops and tanks to seize control of parliament with the support of many liberal “oligarchs”.
Rt.com reports on 10.09.2014 that Putin “has taken personal control of the body that assures cooperation between the military and the defence industry”. Russia was seeking to limit any possible reliance on foreign equipment within its armed services. The President says: “we must do everything to ensure that national security is absolutely guaranteed”. RT also reports that by 2020 70% of all weapons in the Russian military must be replaced by newer models. Between 2003 and 2014 the Russian defence budget has quadrupled. This could either be correction of an oversight or insurance against future sanctions. In the past the West banned the sale of component parts to Russia which could be used for the manufacturing of military equipment.
The state has also tightened its grip on the banking sector with Otkritie, B&N and Promsvyazbank taken under its wing. Sergei Aleksashenko, former deputy central bank governor said:” private banks in Russia are dead from now on” (FT, 01.15.2018).
Putin would strive to hermetically exert control over Russia and he was chicanery in his methods. After a brief flirtation with reform, under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the movement towards a market economy was being reversed under Putin. The ideological bipolarity between Russia and the West, which was the foundation of the Cold War, appears to be returning.
So why then would reform reversal become a policy after the apparent defeat of an ideology that represented the equal sharing of misery?
The Immediate Years After the “End”
Having led Russia through the process of democratisation, Gorbachev attended the G7 meeting of 1991 seeking assistance in transitioning into a market economy. He would later bemoan the suggested “tempo and methods of the transition” as “astonishing”. Gorbachev would resign after the official end to the Soviet Union leaving Yeltsin to carry on the spirit of reform. The West would offer, what transpired to be a stingy amount of, aid when Russia would adopt a Shock Therapy policy towards transitioning from a planned economy to a market economy. Shock Therapy is deeply unpopular with those living on modest incomes as it arrives with increased prices and high unemployment.
The removal of price restrictions increases prices, the privatisation of state-owned services increases unemployment, the reduction in welfare support increases poverty and the opening of markets for foreign products and services further increases local unemployment. These are the policies of Shock Therapy. The end goal is to stabilise inflation and attract foreign investment which will build a healthy market economy and free society. In a nutshell the International Monetary Fund, U.S, Treasury et al induced economic Shock Therapy without any significant fiscal support. Russians would later refer to it as shock without the therapy.
Because the pill would be so bitter for many millions of ordinary Russians certain democratic functions were removed to facilitate speed and temper the desperate backlash. Yeltsin had won special permission from parliament to instigate economic change by decree. This way he could “blitzkrieg” economic reform before “the population had a chance to organise to protect their previous vested interests” (Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist at the World Bank).
After parliament repealed the aforementioned powers in 1993, President Yeltsin declared a state of emergency which triggered a series of events resulting in tanks and soldiers storming parliament at Yeltsin’s request. Democracy in Russia, it seemed, was only a façade and the western bastions of democracy, like Bill Clinton, even congratulated Yeltsin’s “commitment to reform”. Russian citizens had won democracy and now it was slowly being taken away again.
To rub salt into the wounds of ordinary Russians, state-owned assets were sold at overly generous prices:
- Norilsk Nickel was sold for $170 million - profits soon reached $1.5 billion annually.
- Yukos, an oil company that controls more oil than Kuwait, was sold for $309 million -it would go on to generate $3 billion a year in revenue.
- 51% of oil giant Sidanko was old for $130 million – two years later it would be valued at $2.8 billion on the international market.
(Source: Noemi Klein, Shock Doctrine, p233, 2007)
By 1998; “80% of Russian farms had gone bankrupt, 70,000 state factories had closed creating an epidemic of unemployment and Russia managed to impoverish 72 million people in 8 years” (N. Klein)
Aid did not arrive to the same extent the demands by western states / institutions to continue with painful reforms. Renowned economist Jeffery Sachs, who worked on the ground in Russia, suggests the lack of aid to Russia was the result of “Washington’s power brokers still fighting the Cold War”. Russia’s economic collapse ensured America’s supremacy. It did return, if it left, the belief that the West, and thus the U.S., had an anti-altruistic attitude towards Russia.
Despite the fact that Putin’s legal moves against several oligarchs have mostly been symbolic – with a new breed of “state oligarch” rising around the Kremlin – the memory of the chaos of the nineties has made many Russians grateful for the order Putin has restored, even as a growing number of journalists and other critics die mysteriously, and the secret police enjoy seemingly total impunity. (N. Klein, p449)
Fuel for Relations
Russia lost geographical security when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) broke and its constituent states became independent. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova would pursue stronger ties with western institutions like the European Union and NATO to varying degrees. Western organisations were now at Russia’s border. The Kremlin were no longer the puppet masters and found communist sympathies evaporating swiftly around Eastern Europe. The curtailed level of influence had a detrimental impact on foreign policy goals. Sanctions from a larger EU, for example, would economically sting more than those of individual countries. Most of whom would not be able to impose sanctions in isolation.
Russia responded by using its energy exports to her advantage. To contextualise the dependency of Russian energy in Europe:
- 100%: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland and Estonia.
- 80%: Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
- 60%: Greece, Austria and Hungary.
- 50%: Germany
(Source: Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall, 2016, p26)
Russia ceased its oil supply to Latvia’s Ventspils Nafta facility in 2003 and likewise, in 2006, to Lithuania’s Mazeikie Nafta refinery. Both the result of refusal to sell national energy infrastructure to Russian companies (Bara, 2007, 132-133, cited in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies). In 2007 Belarus had supplies cut by almost half over a dispute over an unpaid debt. Again, in 2016 Russia cut supply due to disagreement over price. The Belarussians want higher subsidies but wish to keep their independence of domestic and foreign policy. The Kremlin are using their energy dependency to install an airbase in Belarus as well as greater support for Russian activities in Ukraine (osw.waw.pl, 17.05.2017). Several European Union countries were left with gas shortages in 2006 when supply to the Ukraine pipeline was cut. The general rule of thumb is that the greater the relations with Russia the more favourable the price of energy. Finland, for example, “gets a better deal than most of the Baltic states” (Marshall 2016) presumably for their continued non membership of NATO.
Through energy dependency and a willingness to cut supply on almost a whim, Russia can exert a degree of influence on Eastern and Central European countries. This poses a significant problem to those countries who have a high dependency yet vastly different ideals and goals.
Russia’s influence is creeping into the Central European arena again. To wean Central and Eastern Europe off Russian energy dependency the Americans will soon be able to offer an alternative. The shale gas boom in the USA has led to a surplus to sell to Europe. T. Marshall writes in Prisoners of Geography:
“the gas needs to be liquefied and shipped across the Atlantic. This in turn requires liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and ports to be built along European coastlines to receive its cargo and turn it back to gas. Washington is already approving licenses for export facilities, and Europe is beginning a long-term project of building more LNG terminals”.
Even if LNG does not completely replace Russian supplies the Americans will have reduced the influence Russia has on European foreign policy.
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Annexing of Crimea
Unrest began, in November 2013, when President Yanukovych’s government rejected an accord with the European Union in favour of stronger ties with Russia. This sparked protests from thousands of concerned Ukrainians who had desired stronger ties and integration with Europe. More so the western Ukrainians who feel more intellectually and politically drawn to Western Europe.
December 17 Putin offers loans up to $15 billion and cheaper gas supplies to quieten some dissenting voices; or at least show some tangible positives to having pro-Russian policies. In Crimea, Russia used classic Cold War techniques by equipping and organising pro-Russian groups whilst supplementing them with Special Forces. In 2014 Russia went on to annex Crimea by holding a referendum where 97% had voted to become a Russian peninsula. Subsequently Crimea has become a forward operating base. They would cement their position by building a Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol. Perhaps emboldened by the success of Crimea, Russia has backed separatists in the Dondas region of Eastern Ukraine.
The international community responded by enforcing economic sanctions. The loss from which constitutes some $170 billion, while the lost revenues from oil and gas are estimated to $400 billion, the Economic Expert Group calculates.
A factor in the region that cannot be ignored is the volume of Russian speakers in former Soviet countries. If we are to assume, to a degree, that the Russian speakers in Ukraine have some emotional connection with Russia it is fair to assume that could be manipulated in other counties. Mechanisms, through propaganda, to spread discontent and /or more favourable political views towards Russia.
- Ukraine: 29.6% speak Russian according to Wikipedia
- Belarus: 70% speak Russian (2009 Census)
- Latvia: 37.2% list Russian as their main language (2011 Census)
- Estonia: 29.6% speak Russian (2011 Census)
- Lithuania: 80% have knowledge of Russian (2012 European Commission Report)
- Moldova: 14.1% use Russian for daily use (2014 Census)
Those who have struggled to adapt to a market economy may look to the past through a rose tainted prism.
In January 2019 Putin visited Serbian capital Belgrade where he was greeted by a crowd of 100,000 people; “one of the placards implored him to save the people”. Years of wars and a society rife with organised crime has taken its toll on the Serbian people. Russia and Serbia have strong relations and Serbia supports Russian activities in Ukraine. “Moscow supplies Serbia with military hardware”. Putin has met Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik who opposes Bosnia joining NATO and the EU. The Bosnian demographic is made up of Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs who share presidency of Bosnia on a rotational basis as agreed in the Dayton Agreement of 1995. The agreement prohibits each group from possessing its own army. They are allowed their own police force and the Serb force is trained by Russia. The concern will be that the only distinction between army and police will be insignia. NATO still has troops in Bosnia and the Coats and Bosniaks aspire for greater western integration. The continued NATO presence will limit Russia to a soft power strategy but their disruptive involvement in the region has the potential reignite ethnic belligerence (Tim Marshall, Shadowplay, 2019).
The Washington Times reports on 08.02.2020 that America will deploy its largest number of troops to Europe in 25 years. 20,000 U.S. troops and around 17,000 from other NATO countries will undertake exercises which will answer valid questions about America’s readiness and willingness to rapidly deploy troops to Europe.
The Death of Alexander Litvinenko
Alexander Litvinenko died in November 2006 having been poisoned with a radioactive substance. It is believed the former Russian spy was poisoned after having tea with former agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun.
Litvinenko, who had previously worked for the FSB (formerly the KGB) had fallen out with his then-boss Vladimir Putin over corruption within the FSB. He was arrested on charges of abusing his office after exposing an alleged plot to assassinate Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky (BBC). Litvinenko, before his death, told the BBC Russian Service that he had been looking into the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a long-term critic of the FSB. Litvinenko also claimed the FSB, and not the Chechens, were responsible for the bombings of flats in Moscow as a casus belli preceding invasion.
A public enquiry, headed by Sir Robert Owen, into the killing “has concluded that President Putin probably approved his assassination” (BBC). This type of brazen state sponsored murder is certainly not an indication that the Cold War is over. That said, Russian officials will point out that “probably” is not a legally definite term and does fall into the reasonable doubt category.
There does appear to be a pattern:
- 2018, Sergei Skripal who was a double agent working for British Intelligence was poisoned with a nerve agent along with his daughter.
- 2012, German Gorbuntsov, and exiled Russian banker, survived an attempt on his life after being shot by a silenced pistol.
- 2012, Alexander Perepilichnyy, who was helping prosecutors uncover a money laundering scheme used by corrupt Russian officials, died in mysterious circumstances.
- 2013, Boris Berezovsky, oligarch and critic of Putin, was found hanged in an apparent suicide.
- 2017, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian politician who fled to Ukraine, was shot outside a hotel in Kiev. The Ukrainian President blamed the Russian state.
(source: The long history of Russian deaths in the UK under mysterious circumstances, Lucy Pasha-Robinson, The Independent, 06.03.2018).
Without being able to definitively apportion blame to any individual or organisation it can be stated that having grievances with Putin’s Russia has a detrimental effect on health and life longevity.
Interference in the U.S. Election
The 2016 U.S. elections were controversial for a plethora of reasons; chiefly though for the alleged Russian meddling. There is evidence to suggest they were “behind the hacking of various people and organisations close to Hillary Clinton and the dump of private emails to WikiLeaks” (Vox, Z. Beauchamp et al, 01.11.2016). Russia sought to reputationally damage Clinton as Trump had expressed criticism of NATO’s smaller members and any resulting fracture in NATO could aid Russia’s expansionist goals in Eastern Europe or pave the way to install Russian friendly administrations.
The two most notable victims where the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton aide John Podesta. “Cybersecurity firms investigated the hack and found direct evidence the two Russian-linked hacking groups, Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, did the DNC hack” (Vox). An article by Max Fisher in the New York Times quotes General Valery V. Gerasimov which highlights the policy thinking of the Kremlin: “The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness”. He advocates using “military means of a concealed character”.
The emails dumped on Wikileaks exposed some “normal behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings and activity that looked shady because it happened in private” (Vox). There were also some unpleasant discussions between staff at the DMC on how to undermine the Bernie Sanders campaign. This was a source of embarrassment for not only Clinton but the American election process in general. It publicly exhibited how the sausage is made at a time when scepticism of political honesty was, and remains, high.
Hillary Clinton lost the election campaign to Donald Trump who would later come under scrutiny for his own, alleged, links to Russia.
In the UK, the Intelligence and Security Committee have prepared a report into possible Russian interference in the 2016 EU Brexit referendum and 2017 general elections. The paper is “believed to cover Moscow’s alleged efforts to exert influence in the UK through cash donations, political contacts and social media manipulation” (The Independent, A. Woodcock, 16.12.2019).
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would later be criticised for delaying the publication of the report which to date has not been published.
Russia and Syria
If further evidence were needed that the Cold War never ended the situation in Syria surely provides that. The U.S and Russia are both involved militarily whilst pursuing different objectives.
Syria is a sectarian war with external players. Shia dictator Bashar-al-Assad has the support of fellow Shia Iranians and the Lebanese movement of Hezbollah. Russia would enter the conflict in support of Assad. The Sunni rebels would be supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States. Islamic State is also operating in Syria.
Russia entered the conflict in 2015 with the objectives of, according to Lamont Colucci’s opinion piece on thehill.com 04.05.2020, “blunting America’s influence globally while increasing Russia’s regional status and ability to project power”. Russia is providing Assad with weapons, air support and diplomatic backing. In addition to that, Russia is a big player in the Syrian energy sector. The Kremlin now have serious influence in the region and, allied to their strong ties with Iran, the capacity to “shape Middle Eastern affairs in its image” (Colucci, 2020).
American intervention in Syria was triggered by the alleged chemical attack on civilians just outside Damascus by Assad in 2013. Turkey and Israel both border Syria; both are American allies. Israel has a long history of conflict with Syria. The 1948 Arab Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yon Kippur War is evidence of that. America’s rational for its involvement is punishment for using chemical weapons, removal of Assad and perhaps to send Russia a message about chemical weapons not being tolerated with regards the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Kremlin support for Assad has curtailed the possibility of regime change in the short term and President Trump appears to have changed the focus to simply defeating ISIS who, it is feared, would use a strong hold in Syria to launch attacks on the west (David Waywell, 12.04.18, thewhatandtheywhy.com)
“In 2013 Russian jets staged a mock bombing run on Sweden in the middle of the night” (T Marshall).The Guardian Nov-2014 reports Sweden launched a naval operation to track down an assumed Russian submarine said to be trespassing. In August 2014 Finland scrambled fighter jets when Russian aircraft illegally entered Finnish air space three times in one week. On 11.09.15 the BBC reports RAF fighter jets intercepted Russian planes over the North Sea. In the past it was routine for the Soviets to do this to test possible responses. The BBC 12.03.15 reports NATO performing exercises in the Black Sea which, the article suggests, is to “send Putin a firm message”.
In the early 1990s, there was real optimism that Russia would reform itself to work alongside, not opposing, western institutions. The calamity of trying to achieve this too quickly, and perhaps reluctantly, has set the clock back to before 1989. Through energy exports Russia is again able to exert influence on Eastern European foreign policy and its showing expansionist ideas with regards Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. NATO and the west are responding with sanctions and military exercises to send a “message” to Putin. Russia is taking positive steps to hinder NATO and American objectives in Syria and the Balkans. February 2021 will see the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. If it is not renewed it could result in another arms race with even more sophisticated technologies.
Two massively influential states who are deeply suspicious of one another’s motivations are again involved in an international game of chess.