How the world’s leaders are failing in the face of the Russian threat.
Last week’s G20 summit in Hamburg was overshadowed by the much-anticipated first meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Expectations were so low for Trump in this encounter that it’s almost impressive how he managed to surpass them all, handing Putin a victory bouquet of flattery, photo-ops, and outrageous statements that could have been scripted for him by the Kremlin.
The meeting itself was Putin’s greatest prize. He was welcomed as an equal by the American president instead of being shunned as the dictator of a pariah state that is under US and EU sanctions for annexing Crimea. As he had done before with President Obama, Putin carefully staged the photos to make sure he was seen contemplating Trump’s outstretched hand, an image that was instantly spread across the Kremlin-controlled Russian media.
The handshakes and eye-rolls that pass for silly posturing among democratic leaders are vitally important to a dictator like Putin, who will stay in power only as long as he can guarantee to his clique that they are better off with him than without him. Displays like these are designed to show his gang that he can still protect them and their fortunes abroad, that he is still a big boss and that no matter how grim things may appear, he is their best chance to come out on top. Remember that every dictator’s only goal each morning is to stay in power one more day. There are no national interests, only personal ones.
This is also why Putin’s foreign policy is based entirely on meddling and war, from invading Ukraine to carpet-bombing Syria to hacking the US election. None of these things are in any concept of the Russian national interest. The point of these conflicts is not only to gin up nationalistic fervour in the Russian citizenry, although that is a useful side-effect. Most importantly, they keep Putin in the global spotlight all the time, following the dictum that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The Russian economy is falling apart. Repression is worse than ever as Putin’s next ‘election’ approaches in 2018, and the World Cup along with it. Revenues from Russia’s vast natural wealth are squandered in absurd foreign adventures and looted into offshore accounts and London real estate. But if the world is always talking about Putin, how can anyone challenge such a global figure?
Not only is Putin not being dragged off to The Hague for war crimes, he is allowed to hold court at events like the G20. He even gets a special meeting with the US president, who opened with ‘It’s an honour to be with you’. Trump then announced on Twitter (of course), that he and Putin had arranged a Syrian ceasefire and – if only so that did not stand out as the most ridiculous item to come out of the meeting – that they were contemplating cooperation on cybersecurity! To be fair, who would know more about America’s weaknesses in this area than the country that has exploited them so frequently?
(This indecent proposal reminded me of another, one made by Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s analog of the FBI. In 2012, Bastrykin’s aides kidnapped Sergei Sokolov, the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, and drove him out into the forest outside of Moscow. There, Bastrykin told Sokolov that if he didn’t stop what they were doing at the paper, he would bury Sokolov at that spot in the forest – and then put himself in charge of the investigation into the murder!)
As for Syria, few wars are as deadly as any peace announced by Putin. His habit is to start a conflict and then demand concessions in order to stop it. As after the various ceasefires in Ukraine, the Syrian body count will continue to rise until Putin and his murderous vassal Bashar Assad are stopped or until they have murdered everyone they wish to murder. Stopping Putin would put a stop to Assad as well, of course, but stopping Putin will take determination and strategy, things that have become nearly extinct among the victors of the Cold War.
Until Putin’s oligarchs are forced to choose between him and their riches, he isn’t going anywhere. And as long as his power is secure, he isn’t going to change his behaviour. It is therefore vital for the nations of the free world to isolate Putin if they are serious about dealing with his aggression. But the countries that once would have been expected to lead the resistance to Russian belligerence, the United States and the United Kingdom, are missing in action. Britain is hobbled by a prime minister so weakened by the Brexit shambles that she nearly lost control of the government to Jeremy Corbyn, who may have more former Communist Party members in his entourage than does Putin. Just when Britain most needs Europe and Europe most needs Britain in unity against a common foe, one of Europe’s most powerful members has embarked on a mission of division. And with Trump, the problem is not so much that he’s being outplayed by Putin at geopolitical poker, let alone chess, but that the two of them seem to be playing on the same side.
The relationship between the Russian dictator and the insurgent American president has been a matter of speculation – and investigation – since Trump’s strange public displays of personal devotion to Putin made waves early in the presidential campaign. The expected foreign policy fault line in the Republican primary was a return to American activism – exemplified by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio – versus the isolationism of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Instead, all the oxygen in the primary went to Trump, who openly defended a KGB dictator, even flattering Putin as ‘a strong leader’ who was ‘doing what is best for Russia’. I pointed out at the time that calling Putin a strong leader was like calling cyanide a strong drink, and that Putin only ever did what was good for him and his cronies, with the sad state of Russian society as exhibit number one.
Shockingly, Trump doubled-down on siding with Putin against the US intelligence community and American interests during the general election against Hillary Clinton. The mystery took a dark turn when it was revealed that there was a massive Russian hacking and propaganda offensive designed to destroy Hillary Clinton’s campaign and put Trump in office. Now that Trump has been in that office for six months, it’s fair to say that his loyalty to Putin has been the only consistent position in his entire campaign and presidency.
So many new Russian connections between Trump’s family and staff keep appearing that it’s daunting to write about them in any medium more enduring than Trump’s favourite, Twitter, for fear of being overtaken by the latest revelation. And no matter how many pieces of the puzzle we can try to put together based on media reports and White House leaks, the special investigator surely has even more evidence. I’m not sure if that fact is reassuring or terrifying, but Trump’s statements after his meeting with Putin make it clear that the puzzle must be put together sooner rather than later, before more grievous harm is done to the global order.
Trump’s attempts to turn the United States into a banana republic of his own image through shabby nationalism and nepotism have been largely kept in check by a roused American media and the creaking system of government checks and balances. Ironically, Trump has far more latitude to do damage in foreign affairs, where the president’s powers are only weakly restrained.
Lest I be accused of partisanship by those unaware of my record, I protested loudly and frequently over what I saw as Barack Obama’s abdication of America’s role in maintaining world order. This retreat, though supported by an American majority Trump could never dream of, created the power vacuum into which Putin and other malicious actors like Iran have rushed. I could scarcely have imagined that Obama’s appeasement policies toward Putin and other dictatorships would be followed by something even worse: an administration that insists on speaking of Putin’s Russia as if it were an ally and not an adversary. We are at risk of moving from naïve appeasement to outright collusion.
The concept of geopolitical engagement between the free world and authoritarian states can be described metaphorically by the scientific principle of diffusion, in which particles move from regions of higher concentration to regions of lower concentration. By linking economically and politically with unfree and developing states, goes the logic, the ideals and practices of the rule of law and free markets will pass across the border until an equilibrium is reached, the way honey diffuses through a cup of tea when stirred.
It’s a fine political theory, and a demonstrably successful one in most of Europe’s experience after the fall of the Iron Curtain. With mixed degrees of success, but success overall, countries from the Baltics to Bulgaria absorbed the economic and political norms of Western Europe. But in countries like Putin’s Russia, where there is organised resistance to the inflow of civilised ideals like democracy and human rights, engagement has been a complete failure. Not a scientific failure exactly, as the diffusion principle has indeed worked – just not in the way it was expected. Instead of engagement spreading classical Western values into Russia, Putin’s mafia regime has spread its corruption and propaganda into the West.
To give one example, it was seen as a good step when Russia agreed to become a signatory to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECHR). Many abuses that went unpunished in Russia, especially military atrocities in Chechnya, have been referred to the Court over the years, with many decisions against Russia. But as a recent case demonstrates, Russia’s participation in these institutions has become a charade calculated to destroy their credibility.
On June 28, I was in Strasbourg to give testimony to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) regarding Alexei Pichugin, the longest-held political prisoner in Putin’s Russia. For refusing to give false testimony against his employer, Russian energy tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pichugin has spent 14 years in some of the worst prisons in Russia as a martyr of Putin’s system of injustice and repression. The ECHR recently decided that Pichugin’s rights were violated and that he failed to receive a fair trial. Of course, the only judge or jury that matters in Russia today is Putin, and he has continued to ignore the European Court’s decisions.
My effort was not only to draw attention to Pichugin’s suffering, which has been overlooked since Khodorkovsky was released in 2013 after more than a decade of his own unjust incarceration. The main point of my PACE testimony was regarding how Putin’s Russia makes a mockery of European courts and concepts of justice by repeatedly ignoring decisions against it, including those on Pichugin’s behalf. There is no point in continuing to allow Putin’s sham justice system to participate in these European institutions, and doing so only weakens their credibility.
Coincidentally, during my visit to Strasbourg a scandal there was reaching its climax. The Spanish president of PACE, Pedro Agramunt, was stripped of his leadership powers for accompanying a Russian delegation to Syria to meet Assad. For years, Agramunt had lobbied to bring Russia back into PACE after it lost its voting rights there in 2014 for annexing Crimea, and subsequently boycotted PACE in retaliation. While PACE’s action against Agramunt was welcome, it’s revealing that the leader of such a significant organisation was collaborating with the Kremlin on a visit to one of the world’s worst regimes. Once again, the flow of malign influence is diffusing westward.
Permitting Russia to abuse these connections is as ludicrous as Trump’s suggestion to team up with Putin to fight cyber-crime. Expelling Russia from these institutions is an obvious and necessary move, as is damming the rivers of illicit Russian money that flow so swiftly into European assets. Britain in particular deserves scrutiny for failing to resist Putin’s pecuniary predation, and also for weakening itself and Europe in the face of Russian aggression with Brexit, which, while it wasn’t Putin’s idea, certainly could have been.
The language of deterrence and isolation is harsh and difficult, while it is all too easy to pretend that all that can be done about the Russian threat is to have another conference or debate or working group – until the next attack. And there will be another, and another, because Putin needs to stay on centre stage and weakening those who might oppose him is the best way to do it. He has weaponised refugees and fake news to powerful effect, and he may have an unpredictable new ally in Trump. Europe must stand up for itself and for its values, and it must do so without delay. Time is not on Europe’s side, and neither is Putin.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (2015). His latest book is Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins