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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  • Andrew

    After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was broken up into a domestic secret police (FSB) and a foreign intelligence agency (SVR). Putin was head of the FSB from July 1998 to August 1999.

    Putin worked for the KGB from 1975 when he left college until 1991 when he resigned with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He then worked for the St. Petersburg city government, serving as deputy mayor until 1996 when his mentor (the mayor) failed to get re-elected. Putin then moved to Moscow and got a job in the real estate office of the Kremlin, followed by the audit department.

    To everyone’s surprise, he was appointed prime minister (and heir apparent) by Boris Yeltsin in August 1999 and took over as president in January 2000, when Yeltsin resigned.

    Putin was born into poverty in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and grew up in a rat-infested Soviet apartment building. A small and sickly only child, he was a street kid and juvenile delinquent who kept getting into fights until he discovered martial arts at the age of 12, which supposedly gave him a purpose in life (he later became a judo black belt and college champion). He will turn 63 on October 7.

  • Habbbakuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    From Andrew:

    “After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was broken up into a domestic secret police (FSB) and a foreign intelligence agency (SVR). Putin was head of the FSB from July 1998 to August 1999.”

    What does “Tom Welsh” say to that? 🙂

  • Habbbakuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    “Tom Welsh”

    Having read my reply and having seen Andrew’s useful clarification, do you feel like answering my question?

    It was:

    “Any other countries whose President spent his entire previous career as a spook before entering politics?”

    I’m holding my breath….

  • Habbbakuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    “I have no idea whether there was any substance to Powell’s claims..”


    Which is, of course, why our Transatlantic Friend felt it important to bring them to our attention?

    He is a fool.

  • mike

    Oh dear Craig. We agree on 95 per cent of everything, but on Russia we are not singing from the same hymn sheet !

    Georgia was a neocon op right down to the Israeli training of their army. The useful idiot Saakashvili has popped up in Ukraine for another bite at the bear-baiting apple. It is Kiev that routinely threatens the Minsk agreements, not the United Armed Forces of Novorossiya. Hell, the clue’s in the name – New Russia, except the Kremlin doesn’t want a formal union.

    Cutting Russian naval access to the Med was and is a neocon goal. Hence the Russian counter-move on Crimea – and hence their increased presence in Latakia, though stopping ISIS getting their hooks into Central Asia (paging Prince Bandar !) is also focussing minds.

  • fwl

    Habbs not gone to ground but a fool only needs to deposit his mental waste accumulated once a day or twice if regular. Meant to come back to you on your Bush snr suggestion that his cia role wss just a political appointment but haven’t yet had s chance to look for s history of the Bushes, which I have somewhere. I was bemused at your suggestion that I had conceded your point about Putin as a spook head of state for its obvious and I am not an apologist for Putin and am not overly critical of your posts seeing your contributions as Moriarty to Craigs Holmes ie a necessary other end of the stick.

  • lysias

    but there are some other theories.

    Only when I was challenged on that (true) assertion did I mention Enoch Powell, as the source of some such theories. As well as mention Kevin Cahill, who claims to have heard as a parliamentary assistant to Paddy Ashdown that the official story of Neave’s assassination was untrue.

    And I continue to say that I have no idea whether Powell’s assertions are true. Which means that, as far as I am concerned, they might be true. All that we have heard against them is the claim that Powell once lied, on an entirely different matter. A claim coming from someone who has himself used Powell as an authority. And someone who seems peculiarly resistant to any ideas that “the Americans” or MI6 might be guilty of anything.

  • Mark Golding

    “..the lesser of a number of evils” is one of the central tenets of realpolitik, is median and and fundamental in Craig’s piece here, “Living With Putin (and Assad)” is clearly a reiteration of Craig’s conciliatory propensity; a criticality that promotes emotion and so it should..

    Only then we realise “necessary evils” is the lesser in the ‘lesser of a number of evils’ principle and that moves Craig to say, ‘There is no good solution.” This does need a ‘deeper understanding’ which sadly in this universe translates to a greater perception instead of greater compassion, consideration, sympathy, kindness and forgiving.


    Jeremy Corbyn’s reply to the armchair warriors(tinpot generals) in the BBC studio.

    In Parliament this week there were a number of tin-pot generals using the opportunity of the Ukrainian crisis to insist that Britain should rapidly and exponentially increase military expenditure. But as with all international crises, it’s important to recognise the history lurking behind the drama.

    Ukraine’s national borders have ebbed and flowed with the tides of history, from being the original heartland of Russian civilisation, expanding under Moscow’s rule during the tsarist era and becoming part of the Soviet Union after 1917.

    The relationship between Ukraine and Moscow was always strained. The famine of 1932-3 due to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s policy of collectivization took the lives of millions and left a legacy of bitterness that has not disappeared.

    In 1941 the Nazi operation Barbarossa saw the Wehrmacht march through Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians fought and died heroically to stop the Nazis, but there were also significant pro-Nazi groups. Their descendants could be seen bearing Nazi insignia and spouting racist slogans in Kiev only a week ago.

    As for the Crimea where Russia is now moving in, it has historically been separate from Ukraine. It was a theatre of war between Western Europe and Russia during the 1850s, a fact which should be a warning to us today. Then, as now, empires fought for space and influence. Its Tartar population was treated disgracefully by Stalin, and wholesale deportation followed the end of World War II.

    Eventually many returned to the Crimea and they now make up an eighth of the population. Most of the rest are Russian speakers who came there during the Soviet period.

    In 1954 Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to Ukraine, and this was later endorsed after the Soviet Union collapsed when Russia accepted Ukraine’s current borders.

    Ukraine declared itself a nuclear-weapons free country. Theoretically it has maintained a policy of avoiding military alliances with either NATO or Russia, but it has been put under enormous pressure to come into the EU and NATO military orbit.

    The end of the Cold War was an obvious time for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, founded in the 1970s as an east-west forum, to assert itself and replace the hostile parties of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The pact was indeed wound up but sadly NATO, since 1990, has been looking to expand.

    Ukrainian politics are divided between Ukrainian and Russian-speaking people. All census and electoral maps reflect much the same pattern. It resulted in Viktor Yuschenko being narrowly elected president in 2005, only to be replaced later by Viktor Yanukovych who was also narrowly elected.

    Such divisions have been clear in the protests against Yanukovych which began late last year.

    We must defend the right of people to demonstrate against their governments, but it was remarkable that the EU leadership in the person of Baroness Catherine Ashton and the US political Establishment in the guise of Senator John McCain both chose to give very strong support to demonstrations in Kiev which were far from representing all Ukrainians. Neither did they make any comments about far-right and racist involvement in the uprising.

    Double standards come to the fore in times of crisis and none could be more obvious than those of the Western media over the past week.

    Russia has gone way beyond its legal powers to use bases in the Crimea. Sending unidentified forces into another country is clearly a violation of that country’s sovereignty.

    Interestingly in his press conference this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed away from his previous support for Yanukovych, declaring that the latter was political history.

    That may have been because opinion polls in Russia are showing only 15 per cent support for military action. It is to be hoped that combined with the great economic cost and potential consequences of the military course this will result in a reduction of tensions.

    Still, the hypocrisy of the West remains unbelievable. NATO has sought to expand since the end of the cold war. It has increased its military capability and expenditure. It operates way beyond its original 1948 area and its attempt to encircle Russia is one of the big threats of our time.

    We should also remember the West’s ongoing use of drone aircraft over Pakistan, with no international authorisation whatsoever; the invasion of Iraq on a trumped-up charge contrary to international law and in the absence of any UN mandate; and of course the continued wholly illegal prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

    The self-satisfied pomposity of Western leaders in lecturing the world about morality and international law has to be challenged.

    While some in Parliament yesterday were calling for a beefed-up military to “meet the threat” unfolding in Ukraine there were others who pointed out that unless any government there actually seeks to embrace the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the country it will forever be an unstable place.

    We have marched against wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We should oppose any foreign military intervention in Ukraine, as that would only succeed in that country reliving its traumatic past as a battleground where Russia and Western Europe vie for supremacy.

    Ukraine obviously has enormous economic problems as well. It was ominous that in a throwaway line in yesterday’s statement from the Foreign Secretary he revealed that the IMF has already sent officials to the country to explain how its economy must be restructured. Such news will be met with a horse laugh in Greece and other places which have been on the receiving end of mass unemployment, the privatisation of public services and the destruction of welfare systems at the behest of the bankers of the world.

  • German Girl

    @ Craig

    Putin doesn’t want to include into Russia every part of the former Soviet Union which houses Russian citizens. But Putin will not allow the EU and the NATO to creep up to Russia’s borders.

    Both in Georgia and to some extent in Ukraine / crimea the West started or encouraged attempts to join the NATO and / or to split the respective country in half. In Ukraine this has nearly worked as one half seems to want to join Russia whereas the other half is more inclined to join the EU / NATO.
    Putin is merely reacting to Western attempts to start wars and civil wars in the satelite states of Russia. But interestingly this is never mentioned in the established media.
    As for the Crimea it is the case that Russia wants a military port in the Black Sea. They have had military ports and camps there since the times of the tsars so I don’t see any changes there. As the NATO and especially the US navy apparently sees an urgent need for military patrols in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea only since Russia is gaining strenght under Putin it seems reasonable for Russia to have some military forces down there.

    As for Russian citizens / Russian natives in former soviet countries: they often get the chance to legally gain Russian citizenship if they don’t have it already and then move to Russia. As they are ethnically and linguistically Russian I don’t see what the problem is. There were Germans who emigrated to Russia during the times of the tsars and many of them came back to Germany more than a century later legally claiming German citizenship and nobody made a fuss about that either.

    I don’t get the disgust for Putin and his military and political responses to Western provocations. Because that is what they are: reactions to Western provocations. US and Nato forces have started patrolling the Black Sea only recently.

    Certainly there is a lot of theft going on in Russia but a lot of it is both encouraged and legalized by the West particularly Western Courts particularly in GB.
    There is also a lot of theft going on in GB: housing prices and rent prices are nothing but theft as current laws encourage the increases without any improvements in quality or quantity of either. British Academies are essentially private businesses under charitables
    status and therefore needn’t publish how they spend their money so guess how much theft is going on there.

    Russia’s economy is about 400 to 600 Mio bigger than Spain’s.
    Spain’s economy is still over-inflated by the Spanish housing crisis whereas there was no such crisis in Russia.
    Russia has an abundance of natural resources and arable land – Spain does not: lacking resources and water for agriculture.

  • Habbbabkuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    Let me just take issue with the following bit of Mr Corbyn’s declaration as relayed by Mr Golding:

    “In 1941 the Nazi operation Barbarossa saw the Wehrmacht march through Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians fought and died heroically to stop the Nazis, but there were also significant pro-Nazi groups. Their descendants could be seen bearing Nazi insignia and spouting racist slogans in Kiev only a week ago”


    It is incorrect to say that millions of Ukrainians fought and died heroically to stop the Nazis in 1941.

    For a start, the German advance in 1941 was so rapid and the Russian retreat so precipitous that it would have been difficult for “millions” of Ukrainians to have fought and died then.

    Which is not to say that millions of Ukrainians fought and died (whether heroically or not) during the entire course of the war.

    The fact is, that with their history in the 1930s fresh in their memory, millions of Ukrainians (political commissars, members of the CPSU and of course Jews) at first welcomed the Germans as deliverers from Soviet oppression.

    It was only with time – quite rapidly, in fact – that the mass of the Ukrainians woke up to the reality of Nazi ideology (the Nazis saw the Ukrainians as Slav Untermenschen in the same way as they saw the Russians as Slav Untermenschen) and policy (the lotting of the Ukraine and especially its agricultural production) and started to resist the German occupation.

    Now, notwithstanding, there may well have been pro-Nazi groups – although they might well have considered themselves to be Ukrainian patriots. However, it is grossly silly to say that today’s Ukrainian Nazis are the “descendants” of those wartime groups. How on earth does Mr Corbyn know that – has he checked out their individual family trees?

    Unless, of course, Mr Corbyn was speaking figuratively. If so, he should perhaps reflect a little and choose his words more carefully. As it is, he sounds a little like Mr Goss with his “fascists” and that is not a good place to be.

  • Habbbabkuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    “Which is not to say that millions of Ukrainians did not fight and die (whether heroically or not) during the entire course of the war.”

  • Habbbabkuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    Oh dear!

    “(political commissars, members of the CPSU and of course Jews excepted)”

  • Habbbabkuk (scourge of the Original Trolls)

    German Girl

    Well, I see you belong to the “it’s all the fault of the US/West/NATO” brigade.

    It’s a shame that Craig’s more nuanced and balanced point of view has not yet rubbed off onto you.

    (If I thought for a moment you were really German, I’d say “think British”. But since I don’t, I won’t)

  • Mark Golding


    I have uncovered another little game by Britain’s military establishment to booby trap plans to resolve the Syrian crisis at the United Nations tomorrow 28th September 2015.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the council with evidence if necessary that US support for rebel forces in Syria is illegal and ineffective,and it is clear US trained rebels were instructed to join Islamic State with sophisticated weapons knowledge and equipment supplied by Washington.

    In an interview with U.S. networks recorded ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deserved international support as he was fighting terrorist organizations.

    Britain has arranged with France to cause a gordian knot at the UN and unleash a hornets nest with a report that the Syrian army has shot down a French Rafale fighter operating out of a base in the Gulf.

    I am certain this disclosure will take down this diabolical contrivance scheduled for a raid in Syria at dawn on 28th…

    You bastard agent Cameron!

  • Jean Thibert

    Graig, thank you for your dedication to social justice, what you do is admirable.
    But, I have to say I’m a little disappointed with your understanding of Russian behavior. You do sound as someone who has fallen pray to the sort of propaganda you cleary despise. Are you possibly less inform on that matter? What you say about Crimea and the Donbass is vague and confusing. Insinuations of Russian imperialism are laughable. And who ever spoke of Russian victory? Certainly not Putin, he’s too grounded for that. I’m sure you’ve had a chance to listen to his UN address. So he’s just another lier, like Obama? The facts on the ground say otherwise to me.
    Best regards

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