7 April 2018
The first Cold War was about ideology. It was, at least ostensibly, an argument – conducted on a global scale – about how people should live. What is the new one about? Because there can be no doubt any more that this is where we are. As shocking and unexpected as it might seem, we have no choice but to conclude that Russia is now engaging in wilful provocation that exceeds even those revanchist acts of aggression in Georgia and Ukraine within what it regards as its own territorial sphere. Its belligerence goes beyond any comprehensible political disagreements. It is simply visceral nationalism.
There are no more abstract moral justifications for its involvement in disputed regions of the world: the old communist logic that the Soviet Union was defending the poor peoples of developing countries from imperialism and capitalist exploitation has been superseded by – what? A reckless, almost anarchic, programme of disruption designed to confound normal expectations in Western political life and set its leaders against one another. Sheer adventurism and defiance of international ethical codes carried out with truly shocking bravado in the first instance and then denied with childish lies when challenged.
Oddly, this gratuitous onslaught comes after the original argument – which was the basis for the great confrontation between East and West – has been lost. The modern Russian economy is a form of gangster capitalism largely unencumbered by legal or political restraint. No one in the Kremlin pretends any longer that Russia’s role on the international stage is to spread an idealistic doctrine of liberation and shared wealth.
When it intervenes in places such as Syria, there is no pretence of leading that country toward a great socialist enlightenment. Even the pretext of fighting Isil has grown impossibly thin. All illusions are stripped away and the fight is reduced to one brutal imperative: Assad is Putin’s man and his regime will be defended to the end in order to secure the Russian interest. But what is that interest? Simply to assert Russia’s power in the world – which is to say, the question is its own answer.
This strange pattern has found a clear expression in the spy poisoning incident on British soil, which has gone from sinister to surreal. If you watched the 90-minute press conference given by the Russian ambassador to London last Thursday, you must have been struck by its sheer weirdness. Giggling and grinning his way through a series of quite meticulously detailed questions from a room full of journalists, Alexander Yakovenko behaved as if this whole show was ridiculous.
Three people – one a British police officer – struck down by a deadly nerve agent? The innocent people of a historic British city exposed to unfathomable risk from a substance that was known to be developed in Russia? Ha, ha, ha. This was an absurd charade which would backfire against the UK and those countries that supported its unfounded accusations against Russia.
It only stopped being funny when somebody, commenting on his jocularity, asked if he (and Russia) thought this was a joke. Then the mask slipped. “Don’t [be misled] by smiles,” he said ominously. Like the embassy’s notorious “humorous” tweets, they were just his manner. The goofy grin vanished as he went on, “We take this very seriously – for us it’s not a joke, believe me.” That was the voice of Russia more familiar to me: the spokesmen I encounter look as if they are about to pull out a pistol and wave it in the air.
The smiles had completely disappeared by the time of the UN Security Council meeting later that day, which Russia had demanded when it failed to get the exoneration it wanted from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. All semblance of reasonable behaviour was well and truly gone by that point. Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, went for outright blood-curdling threats: “We have told our British colleagues that you are playing with fire and you will be sorry.” Somehow we seem to have returned to a pre‑détente era when the Kremlin used the UN forum to attack the imperialist West for traducing Russia’s blameless intentions.
And all of this was happening roughly five years after Barack Obama confidently ridiculed Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia (rather than Islamist terrorism) was the greatest global threat to American security. “The Cold War has been over for 20 years,” he pronounced triumphantly, and added, for good sarcastic measure, that the Eighties had just called “and asked for their foreign policy back”. Maybe it was the persistence of that delusion that accounted for Obama’s fatal withdrawal from his red line in Syria (which, interestingly, also involved the use of chemical weapons), thus encouraging Putin to believe he had a free hand in the region.
How ironic that the most pessimistic predictions about the post-Soviet international order were that it would be dangerously unstable: the absence of two counter-balancing power blocs that had maintained a mutually acceptable stability would unleash countless small but unpredictably contagious eruptions. Well, we got some of that with al‑Qaeda and Isil – but we now seem to have the original threat from a rogue rampaging Russia back on the scene, too. A Russia determined to reinstate its claim to be a superpower, but this time without even the moral scruples of an ideological mission: the country that had once joined the respectable association of modern industrialised nations to make it the G8, rather than the G7, prefers to be an outlaw.
Where does this leave us? It was notable that Mr Yakovenko during his stand-up comedy routine made several references to those nations who were supporting Britain being members of the Nato and EU “blocs”. He was dividing the world once again into two rival camps: those who were implacably opposed to Russia and those who were not. That clearly is the only reality with which his country is comfortable.