Living With Putin (and Assad) 226

The West cannot approach the problems of Syria, Ukraine or Iran without facing up to the question of its relationship with Putin’s Russia. That relationship is now severely dysfunctional and characterised by squabble and acrimony on a range of detail encompassing much of the globe.

Anti-Russian sentiment is now forming part of the ceaseless wave of militarist propaganda to which the media endlessly subjects us. There were particularly pointless pieces two days ago on all British broadcast media about one of the Royal parasites taking the salute at the 100th anniversary of some RAF squadron. Every week some military unit will have some anniversary. Plus the Second World War lasted fully six years, and as the 70th, 75th and 80th anniversaries are each to be commemorated of every happening during that war, there is never a single day with a shortage of excuse for some royal prat in a Ruritanian uniform to take a salute.

Both Sky and the BBC have recently run pieces on how the brave RAF squadrons protect us from the devastating Russian bomber threat. The alleged “problem” was that Russian aircraft fly along in international airspace close to British airspace. In other words, there is a major issue with Russian aircraft behaving perfectly legally. No mention was made of the fact that NATO aircraft do exactly the same thing to Russia, only many times more often. We saw jets scrambled to meet the “emergency” of Russian aircraft who were – err – flying along well North of Scotland and never entering British airspace at all. You were supposed to watch it and think how happy we are that the RAF are keeping us safe. I was left sobbing at the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money I had just watched wasted for no reason at all.

Which is not to say that Russia is not a threat. Russia plainly is a threat to some of its immediate neighbours. Putin holds that parts of the Former Soviet Union with ethnic Russian populations should be absorbed into Russia. That was the cause of the attack on Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and the de facto annexation of parts of Eastern Ukraine. Putin’s motivation is sometimes hard to fathom, but certainly this use of military power against weak neighbours, with a definite ethnic agenda, is very popular with the Russian public. To Putin, it is more or less cost free, as Western corporate interests would be damaged by any positive action Western governments might take – the “sanctions” are almost entirely token. Putin is not mad enough to take on one of the former Soviet states which is now in NATO or the EU, so his possible future targets are severely limited.

Nor is it plain that Putin is “winning” in a strategic sense. Just three years ago, Russia had a pre-eminent influence throughout all of Ukraine. Now 70% of Ukraine has been lost forever to any Russian influence at all. That is a peculiar kind of victory. The economy of the Crimea plus Donbass is in disarray and even before the crisis, the GDP of the entire region was about the same as the GDP of Dundee. The whole exercise is yet another example of the thesis of J A Hobson, adopted by Lenin, that Imperialism benefits the military and political classes but not the Imperial nation as a whole. The Ukraine civil war has been good for Putin and the Russian military. It has done nothing for Russia.

It is coincidence that the Ukraine confrontation has coincided with a collapse in hydrocarbon prices. But the economic impact of that collapse has been stark and has highlighted Putin’s total failure in the most important task facing him – the diversification of the Russian economy. The failure to develop a viable manufacturing sector and to halt the extreme, Nigerian style levels of capital flight has condemned Russia to continuing Second World economic status. People take issue with my description of the Russian economy as the same size as the Spanish economy. I stand by it. Remember published economic data is historic, rather than reflecting the situation today. I am also unimpressed by attempts to disguise economic failure by using Purchasing Power Parity, rather than actual dollar values. PPP states that as cabbage is extremely cheap in Ekaterinburg, Russians are cabbage rich. So what?

Russia is no superpower. Its economy is the same size as Spain’s, and a good deal less diversified. It is a nationalistic kleptocracy. It has nonetheless a certain residual influence from its imperial past, and continuing Imperial present. Dagestan, Chechnya and Tatarstan remain colonies. Putin is extremely aware of that, which is why peaceful anti-imperial pro-independence campaigners from those countries receive heavy prison sentences, or simply get killed.

Undoubtedly the temporary economic difficulties caused by the oil price collapse have decreased Russian influence for a time. Russia went from being a major player in the Iran nuclear talks (remember the proposals about processing of Iranian fuel in Russia), to being in the end irrelevant. Russia’s impotence over Iran came from a realisation that the prospect of a return of Iranian oil to the open market would depress energy prices still further. But in Ukraine by virtue of force on the ground, and in Syria by simple virtue of being plainly right where the West has been horribly wrong, Russia remains an important player.

I have no time for the Assad regime. The current occupant is not so vicious as his father, but it remains a dictatorship, and I look forward to the day it passes. But you have to be crazed not to accept that the growth of vicious Islamic extremism means that it is necessary for Syria to be reunited under Assad and the dictatorship to survive another decade. That plainly is the lesser of a number of evils. There is no good solution.

Attempts to demonise the Assad regime over use of chemical weapons have been almost entirely unconvincing. The effort by the media to demonise “barrel bombs” – as though being eviscerated by a proper western made technological bomb is preferable to being eviscerated by a homemade bomb – has been bizarre. What is needed is an immediate halt to the funding of combatants by the USA, Saudi Arabia and their allies, and at least an internal acknowledgement that was what created ISIL in the first place. Russia should instead be authorised and funded by the UN to help enforce peace, and Russian troops should wear blue helmets. We then need a comprehensive peace deal which guarantees that the Assad regime will not pursue reprisal, and includes the return of the illegally occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

No other outcome can lead to a sustainable solution which can halt the flow of refugees compelled to leave their homeland. The first step towards such a deal must be a summit meeting between the western powers and Putin. Ideally, Ukraine should also be on the agenda. The obvious solution there is a major UN force followed, after a year of peace, by a genuine referendum on joining Russia in each of the various districts of Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.

I am not crazy and I realise that none of this will happen. What will happen instead is that the West will intensify the civil war in both Syria and Ukraine. In Syria, the neo-cons of the Tory Party will ally with the Blairite Red Tories and the UK will join in, happily bombing away, killing thousands of civilians. Within three weeks of the parliamentary vote they will be massively bombing the Syrian army too because, we will be told, it is necessary to degrade Syrian ground defences to ensure the safety of our airmen. The flow of refugees will intensify.

One aspect of the refugee crisis nobody wishes directly to address is the ferocious grip that xenophobia and racism has on the cultures of Eastern Europe. This lies behind an interesting article in the Guardian by Irina Molodikova which sought to explain this in terms of resentment of historical conquest by the Ottoman Empire. That is a peculiarly Eastern European line of defence, but fails to wash as it goes nowhere to explain the rampant anti-semitism in countries like Poland, Lithuania and Hungary, nor the abuse suffered by black people.

I have personally witnessed extraordinary degrees of racism throughout Eastern Europe. It is a cultural trait common to the otherwise conflicting nationalisms of Poland and Russia. It should not be forgotten that Russia – which is again officially encouraging its citizens to breed as it needs population – is making no significant offer to accept Syrian refugees. I continually hear stories of the everyday experiences with violent racism and discrimination suffered by Uzbek workers in Russia.

I am conscious this lengthy article rambles through a number of major issues. But the problems we face are organic, complex and linked. Any neat analysis is bound to be false, and any neat dichotomy wrong. Those who believe “Putin Bad, West Good” or “West Bad, Putin Good” are fools, just as those who believe “Islam Good, Christians Bad” or “Christians Good, Islam Bad” are fools. We need a deeper understanding. We are about to face a deluge of war propaganda. A genuine understanding is the true defence against it.

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226 thoughts on “Living With Putin (and Assad)

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  • Peter Beswick

    Russia may not be a superpower but it has stpped the US in its tracks.

    Not during Obama’s Presidency will the US have a placeman put in power in Syria, not even in his lifetime.

    Russia has put a stop the th US redesign of the ME, they may well kill Assad but they won’t turn away the Russian presence and that will shape ME politics for the years to come, which will shape Israeli politics, which will shape US politics which will shape UK politics.

    Scottish politics will not be effected / affected / uninfected

  • MJ

    “People take issue with my description of the Russian economy as the same size as the Spanish economy”

    With good reason.

    “Remember published economic data is historic, rather than reflecting the situation today”

    All reliable data is collated over a period of time before publication. That’s true of data for Spain as well as Russia. How are you able to second-guess this data Craig, before it is available? What’s your source?

    Whichever way you slice it, Russia’s economy is considerably larger than Spain’s, closer in fact to Germany’s or Canada’s:

  • craig Post author


    Do you seriously believe that a referendum held within days of an armed invasion and with the newly occupying army extremely visible, can be considered a democratic exercise? Whether the majority of Crimeans would prefer to be in Russia is an entirely different question.

  • craig Post author

    MJ your first link is the PPP “cheap cabbage” model. Your second link shows Russia as 10th and Spain 14th. In 2014 before the oil price collapse.

  • Nuada

    Agree with much of this, Craig, although the Russian air incursions are not always as innocuous as you think. A few months ago three Russian transport planes flew down the west coast of Ireland with their transponders off and refused to answer hails from ATC. Since the Irish didn’t have the aerial firepower to challenge them, flights over Ireland had to be suspended until they passed. About 70% of all flights between Europe and the U.S. cross Irish air space, so that was no small inconvenience.

  • lucythediclonius

    It wasn’t the first referendum and I query invasion .I agree it wouldn’t be an ideal election but I have no doubt of the result (with or without coercion) .

  • MJ

    “your first link is the PPP “cheap cabbage” model. Your second link shows Russia as 10th and Spain 14th. In 2015 before the oil price collapse”

    The PPP model is believed by many to give a more realistic picture but, even on the nominal figures, Russia is above Spain, not on a par. The fall in oil prices will inevitably impact on the next set of data but the last I heard Spain’s not doing too well either these days.

  • Andrew

    Oh there you go again with “the annexation of Crimea and the de facto annexation of parts of Eastern Ukraine” nonsense.

  • craig Post author


    It is certainly vital that any future Scottish Referendum has credible international observers, from the OSCE ODIHR. The Putinista international fan club you refer to were in no sense credible observers.

  • fedup

    Do you seriously believe that a referendum held within days of an armed invasion and with the newly occupying army extremely visible, can be considered a democratic exercise?

    Not being pedantic, but Palestinians are electing their leaders under the full scale occupation by zionistan. Iraqis voted their government under the full scale occupation of US. The latter was hailed as a triumph of democracy, what should it differ when it comes to Russians?

    Georgian war was started by the Saakashvili stepping up and attacking the Russian enclave whilst Putin was in China for the Olympics.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    Agree with most of that, Craig, though I can’t claim any expertise, as you can. It has always seemed logical to me that Assad’s continuance, at least for a while, would be the only hope of pushing back IS and retaining at least some of Syria’s prior borders. It looks as if Putin is willing to co-operate on this, but of course the West’s whole objective was to remove Syria from Russian/Iranian sphere-of-influence, so your dismal conclusion is the most likely outcome.

    Re. Russian airspace incursions: correct that they fly in international airspace, and we reciprocate. But I have no doubt that when they detect an opportunity, they overfly Western territory, as they routinely did during the Soviet era. When I saw them, a couple of times, from the ground. What they were doing over Lairg, I have no idea…I’m sure ‘we’ do the same to them.

    Came across this yesterday – seems relevant.

    Wary of its eastern neighbor, the Belarusian leader embarked in late 2014 on an unprecedented tilt away from Moscow, threatening to leave the Russian-led Eurasian Union and adopting a new military doctrine that warned of “little green men,” like those who appeared in Crimea before it became part of Russia. Belarus has also tried to rebuild relations with the EU, which, as Reuters reported on Sept. 17, will result in the easing of economic sanctions against Minsk.

    But with the new military base, Putin has signalled his desire to keep the unpredictable Lukashenko within the Kremlin’s orbit and avoid a rapprochement between Belarus and the West in the process.

    Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is not something Putin wants to encourage.

  • craig Post author


    Have I ever said the Iraqi election was a valid democratic exercise? Of course it wasn’t. And obviously the Israeli occupation and siege distorts Palestinian democracy. Your point would only make sense if I had claimed those as examples of democracy. They are not.

    In fact Fedup you are making precisely the “West bad, Putin must be good” argument which those with a psychological need for attachment to a source of power cling to.

    The “Russian enclave” was, indisputably, a part of the territory of the state of Georgia on borders which Russia had recognised. Which was not to say that Sashkavili is not a disaster. The CIA have, incredibly, now installed him as Governor of Odessa in the Ukraine.

  • craig Post author


    Thanks. It is astonishing how an idea so obviously common-sense can be shoved out of the Overton window by a howling establishment and media.

  • Peter Beswick

    I think I understand how this works;

    A pub quiz answer is challenged by a player. “Which was the first “Motorway” in Britain?”

    The answer was M1, a player challenged the answer, he said he thought it was the M6

    The question master asked the disputor have you ever driven on the a motorway, knowing the contestant was unable to drive. “No” he answered. “Well there you go, I have”; and the the M1 became the correct answer.

    There is no doubt that Preston should have been bypassed with a unique solution but history needs to be written by those that know best.

  • Alcyone


    “I am conscious this lengthy article rambles through a number of major issues. But the problems we face are organic, complex and linked. Any neat analysis is bound to be false, and any neat dichotomy wrong. Those who believe “Putin Bad, West Good” or “West Bad, Putin Good” are fools”

    It doesn’t ramble at all. In fact, it strikes me as a rather cogent pastiche of a very complex state-of-play. The bit about the “Putin Bad, West Good” or “West Bad, Putin Good” are fools” mantras should be repeated here at the crack of dawn every morning.

    “I am not crazy and I realise that none of this will happen.”

    Craig, why do you think that is? Is that because because leaders at both ends are essentially fools, so we end up with the lowest common denominator with regard to their decisions/actions and related outcomes?

  • John Goss

    “Do you seriously believe that a referendum held within days of an armed invasion and with the newly occupying army extremely visible, can be considered a democratic exercise? Whether the majority of Crimeans would prefer to be in Russia is an entirely different question.”

    Do you seriously believe that if the referendum in Crimea was taken today the result would be any different?

    The Crimean economy is not on the blink but Kiev is in debt to every country, including Russia. There are daily protests on the Maiden. Russia is building a supply-route bridge across the Kerch Strait. Even westerners who have been to Crimea have commented on how normal life is there. We are obviously reading different propaganda sources, and one of them could be right. 🙂

  • eddie-g

    Nice piece, Craig. On the PPP point, I find it interesting that one of your objectors cited the Wikipedia link which ranks countries by PPP… and a few lines in to the entry it says:

    “[PPP] is however limited when comparing the size of national economies; GDP PPP is designed to compare the purchasing power of the citizens of one country against those of another country rather than the total size of national economies.”

    PPP has plenty of uses in economic analysis, from exchange rate and inflation forecasting to measuring poverty-levels. But to your point, it is of very little relevance in comparing the sizes of economies. Just because $1 goes further in Russia today than it does in Spain, there’s no reason to discount the overall size of the Spanish economy.

    On the rampant xenophobia and bigotry in Eastern Europe – it’s not a new problem, Hungary is especially bad, but I wonder if there are exceptions? I had heard that Bulgaria has a good track record, but interested in your views.

  • Geoffrey

    Having recently returned from a trip to Russia, I had the impression of a powerful and united country. Not splashing money around any more,nor trying to trying to impress the west. I was surprised that a memorial at the spot where Nemtsov was killed near St Basil’s Cathedral that there was no police presence,people passed respectfully,and with interest. I spent some time observing.I came across hardly any other Westerners.
    To compare the power of Russia to Spain on the basis of GDP figures is’s like saying that one economy is stronger than another because there is more rubbish on the streets, ie showing that they spent more money.
    GDP measures how many parties you went to last month not how many parties you could afford go to next month if you had the inclination.
    Interesting point about Polish anti semitism, it was explained to me on my journey back through Poland that whilst the Poles may be anti-semitic they were strong supporters of Israel,I think this is generally true in Russia as well.

  • craig Post author

    John Goss

    I really don’t know if the result would be different and with it being under Russian military occupation there is no realistic way to find out. What I can’t quite understand is why you object to demilitarising it under the UN and finding out the truth.

  • Alcyone

    ” Remember published economic data is historic, rather than reflecting the situation today.”

    A minor blemish to a very eloquent post: I fear that might be historical, rather than historic.

  • John Goss


    But the military were already there. It’s quite obvious Putin is going to defend Russia’s strategic interests and not hand over its base, which has been there since the Soviet hero to a coup government of predominantly fascists. The Russians have a long and painful history at the hands of fascists with Nazi Germany n WW2.

    I agree that there is not going to be a referendum, but the people did vote, and there was no invasion. Stop listening to MSM propaganda.

  • MJ

    “Spain has the fastest growing economy in Europe”

    Ok. Last year it was the UK and it’s also coming from a low base, but when the figures for 2015 are published we’ll find out whether Spain has achieved parity with, or overtaken, Russia.

  • Peter Beswick

    My mate ran the first McDonalds in Moscow and I saw the waxwork Lenin in his tomb and I’ve still got a shoebox full of millions of rubles somewhere so I think Putin has got a difficult job to do.

    Some people think he’s doing a good job, some people think he’s doing a bad job some people think some things he does are good and some bad, some people don’t care.

    If tomorrow Obama, Assad and Putin are struck down dead the problems of the ME will endure (mainly because of Blair of whom no one, apart from Rentoul, thinks was good) and as such personalities need to be removed from the picture if it is to be understood properly and in context.

    The picture is bleak as “solutions” are not possible.

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