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How best to target Putin

Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo: Tass/PA Images - Credit: Tass/PA Images

Putin is not as powerfulas he pretends, says prominent critic OLIVIER VEDRINE. And there is a way to get him…

Vladimir Putin represents a serious threat to liberal democracy, not only in Russia and in Ukraine but also in the EU. The use of a military grade nerve agent against the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and the death of a British citizen as a result of this poisoning, indicates that Putin is prepared to bring his war to the West. The EU must fight back.

The first challenge for Europe is to address Putin’s organised propaganda machine which is using the same instruments that were deployed during the Soviet era. This propaganda relies on lies, manipulating facts, and employing some ‘useful idiots’ in foreign countries, just as the Soviets did with the communist parties in Europe and all around the world.

However much fear Putin has generated, we should note that he is less strong than he appears. Russia is not the Soviet Union and is far less powerful. Moreover, the Russian army is not the Red Army. Russia is also economically weak. The economy of Russia represents 2.86% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the whole world. This economy is now collapsing because of the sanctions applied against Russia, as a result of Putin’s occupation of Crimea and expansionist policy in Ukraine and also because of corruption and an a Soviet culture of management that has produced a profoundly inefficient system. By contrast, the

USA, together with the EU, Canada and Australia represent around 46.25 % of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the whole world and NATO is still the most powerful military organization in the world.

To counter Putin we do not need to produce propaganda about the European Union. We need only to present the facts including the results of Putin’s policy regarding the economy, its effects on social life in Russia not to mention the attacks on the press and policy of repression against critics.

One of the most powerful arguments we can make is to underline that Putin’s supporters stand against Russia and against the Russian people. To be for Putin is to be for an underdeveloped Russia with poor transport, bad roads, substandard universities, old and inefficient hospitals. To be for Putin is to be for a corrupt Russia rife with prostitution, alcoholism, and violence. It also means believing that the Russian people can only live like slaves under an authoritarian regime. To be for Putin is to return to the past, to the Soviet Union, and to offer no future for the new generation. Supporting Putin also means supporting war in Ukraine and in Europe!

Standing against Putin means standing for a modern democratic and European state –one which offers new generations a future and one which is at peace with Ukraine and Europe!

In the case of Ukraine, Russia’s neighbour has no choice but to win the war in the Donbas region. But to do so Ukraine needs both modern defensive weapons and diplomatic pressure including tighter European and US sanctions against the Kremlin. Until then, Putin will continue to disturb Ukraine because a free and developed Ukraine presents a danger to his powerbase in Russia. As a former KGB agent, who lives in the nostalgia of the Soviet empire, Putin depends on lies and manipulation as well as brute force.

The war in Ukraine is not only about freedom from Russian occupation but also freedom for the European continent. That is why, in my view, the new law passed by President Petro Poroshenko which welcomes foreigners into the Ukrainian army is so important.

Only a strong union of states like the EU and USA, and union of governments and citizens can help to fight against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine so that it becomes a space of democracy, freedom, solidarity and fraternity.

Until recently, it was fair to say that Ukraine was the frontline of Europe. However, the Skripal affair shows that this line has shifted. During peace time, Russian security forces tend only to collect information for decisions makers. In war time, they conduct assassinations, initiate sabotage, and engage in kidnapping. Moreover in peace time, the secret service takes care of the political and diplomatic consequences of their actions – that is not the case during war time. Rather, the brazen attacks on individuals inside Russia and now abroad signal that Russia is at war with the West. The Skripal case just like the assassination in the UK of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 indicates that Putin is prepared to strike wherever. He is not afraid to attack another state including a prominent NATO member like the UK.

Last week the British Prime Minister Theresa May obtained European arrest warrants for two Russian military intelligence officers suspected of poisoning the Skripals with the novichok nerve agent. Named as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, their faces have been pasted on newspapers and across the internet.

Then, just as the British government condemned Russia in the United Nations Security Council, the French Defense Minister Florence Parly revealed in a speech on Friday September 7 during a trip to the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) in Toulouse, that in 2017 the Russian Louch-Olymp satellite attempted to spy on the French-Italian satellite Athena-Fidus used for military secure communications. ‘While Athena-Fidus continued its rotation quietly over the Earth, a satellite approached it, up close, a little too close,’ said the minister, ‘So much so that we might think it was trying to capture our communications,’ she added. This behavior fit a wider pattern with the United States also recently denouncing ‘the very abnormal behavior’ of a ‘space object’ deployed by Russia in October 2017. This is yet another example of the Russian secret services offensive strategy in their attack against the West.

Yet, beyond these acts of condemnation, further action is necessary to stop Putin. Of course we need to increase the sanctions against Russia but more important, we must use targeted sanctions. Universal sanctions hurt ordinary Russians who suffer for the actions of their decisions makers. Targeted sanctions are more clever and impact on the decisions makers directly. That includes Russia’s business elite. Right now, the business elite is not really affected by the sanctions applied by the Western powers and their silence is read as approval of Putin’s policies. One might see their silence as giving Putin a green light. However, targeted sanctions could change all that. They would weaken Putin’s base and call into question his legitimacy, just as the latest demonstrations against pension reform have done for ordinary Russians.

One challenge for the UK is the fact that just as the British government is seeking greater support from other European governments for sanctions against Russia, it is simultaneously and paradoxically undermining multilateralism within Europe by pursuing a Brexit that risks breaking ties with its neighbours.

What is clear is that after four years of conflict in Ukraine, and now with Russian military organized attacks in the United Kingdom, the security of the European continent demands greater collective action.

Olivier Védrine is an academic, journalist, broadcaster and member of the Russian opposition in exile. He was chief editor of the Russian edition of the ‘Revue Défense National’ and was visiting professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University. In 2013 he joined the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev and later shut down the Russian edition of the ‘ Revue Défense Nationale’ to protest against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Since 2016, he has been the chief editor of Russian Monitor, one of the most prominent online Russian opposition which now has over one million viewers per month. In 2018 he was named the honorable director of the Kiev School of Policy and Governance. He is also on the board of the New Europeans campaign group

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