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Did Vladimir Putin win Cold War 2.0? 

When former Financial Times editor LIONEL BARBER was granted an audience at the Kremlin, Russia’s president proclaimed the end of the liberal idea. Was he right?

Lionel Barber, centre, and Henry Foy, left, interview Vladimir Putin in Moscow in June 2019 - Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/TASS

The choreography for an interview with Vladimir Putin is worthy of the Bolshoi Ballet; every step rehearsed, nothing left to chance.  Our stage that night on June 26, 2019 was the cabinet room in the Kremlin senate building next to Red Square.

It is an imposing chamber with statues of the four great imperial tsars: Nicholas I, Alexander II, Catherine the Great and Peter the Great overlooking the president’s working desk. The FT interview, months in preparation, would take place at a small round table nearby; filmed by Russian television and broadcast the following evening. It was Putin’s first serious interview with a western publication in several years.

Shortly before eight o’clock, we were summoned to the Kremlin with its vast long corridors lined with red carpets and prints including Napoleon’s snow-bound retreat from Moscow.  We entered a large room with yellow-painted walls, white stucco ceilings and a table crammed with cakes, sweets, tea and coffee which I privately dubbed the Polonium Suite. From there we took in the grandeur of the cabinet room. Four fearsome security guards sized up the foreign visitors and occupied four spare wooden chairs. My colleague Henry Foy, FT Moscow bureau chief, and I were kept standing, the first of several psychological stress tests to come.

Three hours later, Russia’s supreme leader swept in. A short compact figure with a touch of swagger, Putin was alternately friendly and intimidating. For the most part, he played statesman, a model of self discipline. When I questioned him about the botched assassination of former GRU double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, his answer was cold-blooded.  “This spy story is not worth five kopecks… Treason is the gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished. I am not saying the Salisbury incident is the way to do it. But traitors must be punished.”

Then I asked Putin about the populist backlash against the establishment with Brexit, Trump’s election, the rise of the AfD in Germany and other insurgencies in France, Spain and Italy. How long could Russia remain immune?

Putin, briefly unsettled, replied that the purpose of government – never to be forgotten by those in power – is to create a “stable, normal, safe and predictable life” for ordinary people. Western elites forgot this lesson and lost touch with their populations. “So the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the majority of the population.”

Henry and I looked at each other. On the eve of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Putin had declared the end of the liberal idea. We had a world scoop and a front page headline which wrote itself, as good stories always do.

Two years on, it is worth returning to Putin’s proposition that liberal democracy is a spent force.  A new study by the Freedom House watchdog highlights that democracy is increasingly under siege and authoritarianism on the rise, from west and central Africa to Turkey, India and the Philippines. Even America, the champion of western democratic values, does not escape criticism – a reflection of the damage inflicted by four years of Donald Trump.

Some observers, like the FT’s Janan Ganesh, believe the world’s lurch backwards into illiberalism is a source of regret, but understandable. In his view, the democratic boom after the Cold War constitutes the historic aberration. “If there is a democratic recession it began from a unique, never-sustainable high.” He adds: “If anything, the real news is how tenaciously democracy has stuck in much of ex-communist Europe and South America. There, despite qualms about Brazil, only Venezuela is ‘not free’.”

The theory that history moves in cycles is seductive, but it leaves many questions unanswered. The most obvious is whether a complacent West fell victim to hubris after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet union. The spirit of the time is best captured by Francis Fukuyama’s best-seller, The End of History, which proclaimed the comprehensive victory of liberalism over communism.

For a while, countries from Poland to Hungary, Russia and even some elements in communist China followed Fukuyama’s script. Yet as Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes describe in their book The Light that Failed, revulsion at the politics of imitation gradually spread: “An anti-liberal backlash was arguably an inevitable response to a world that had been characterized by a lack of political and ideological alternatives.”  

Krastev and Holmes argue that the conceit that “there is no other way” accounts for the wave of populist xenophobia which began in central and eastern Europe and is now washing across much of the world, Crucially, the backlash has spread to established democracies such as the US and the UK, where liberalism has been tarred by association with lax attitudes to immigration, elitist politics and the excesses of financial capitalism.

Vladimir Putin never subscribed to Western-style democracy but it suited him to play along. The rupture came in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. His message was that the Cold War was over, and the Soviet Union had been defeated, leading to its tragic break-up. Now, in effect, marked the start of Cold War 2.0. Russia’s mission would be to undermine the liberal democratic model which the West so hypocritically foists on the rest of the world.

At the time, the list of Russian grievances was legion: the expansion of the Nato military alliance eastwards to central Europe and the Baltic states; ‘out of area’ Nato military actions in Afghanistan and the Balkans; the US-led invasion of Iraq; and the prospect that neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine would join Nato. 

The list of complaints would grow even longer: US support for regime change in the Middle East, notably the toppling of General Gaddafi in Libya; Western meddling in neighbouring Ukraine in 2014 which triggered the downfall of Moscow’s protege, Viktor Yanukovych. Putin regarded the Orange Revolution on Russia’s doorstep as a direct threat to his grip on power.

And so began Cold War 2.0, a contest which differed from the bipolar nuclear stand-off, cloak and dagger espionage and proxy wars in Angola, central America and Mozambique. This time round, Putin gave the west a taste of its own medicine, deploying military force in Syria to rescue the Assad regime, as well annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine.

Moscow’s revanchism also took the form of ‘hybrid warfare’, combining conventional force, cyberattacks, propaganda campaigns (‘fake news’) and other forms of subversion in the democratic West.

The most egregious example was Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential campaign. To be clear, US interference in post-Second World War foreign elections is well documented, but in this case Moscow’s role was brazen. Russian hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s computer system, while Russian trolls and automated bots promoted explicitly pro-Trump messaging via social media to stoke controversy and division around topics such as immigration and Islamophobia. 

The charge of collusion with the Trump campaign against Hillary Clinton was never proved, but in a sense it did not matter. By casting doubt on the legitimacy of a presidential election in the world’s most powerful liberal democracy, Putin had achieved a return on his investment beyond his wildest dreams.

Russia’s leader is sometimes compared to a chess grandmaster who plots every move, but in fact he is more opportunist than strategist. A black belt in judo, Putin can sense an opponent’s weakness and strike. He grasped president Obama’s lack of resolve against Syria after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons breach. In eastern Ukraine, he also profited initially from western indecision.

The course of Cold War 2.0 has therefore been determined not just by western hubris but also by self-inflicted wounds. Failures of governance, insouciance in the face of the populist assault on democratic institutions as well as the use and abuse of social media. The latter has coarsened public discourse and entrenched political division.

In the UK, a succession of referendums have undermined the principle of representative government. The Brexit referendum polarised the UK, exposing fault lines between town and country, regions and generations. These divisions in turn paralysed politics, stoking further rancour and frustration. When the High Court ruled, for example, that the government would require parliamentary consent for triggering the process of withdrawal from the EU, the Daily Mail published a picture of three judges in ermine under the headline “Enemies of the People”.

The US has witnessed similar wilful damage to its institutions. Donald Trump demeaned the office of the presidency, mixing nepotism with self-dealing in business. He went to extraordinary lengths to overturn the legitimate result of the 2020 presidential election, pressuring federal and state officials to delay certifying the results, only to be defied by a few brave men and women in the courts and at local level.

Yet, arguably, the Democrats also overreached in response. Many treated Trump as illegitimate from the day he entered office.  Meanwhile, two failed impeachments – a first in the 244-year history of the American republic – have lowered the bar for future prosecution of executive excess. Arguably, the US is more divided on economic, social and political lines than at any time since the Vietnam War.

Finally, social media is both a symptom and a cause of liberal democracy’s present discontents. As I can testify after my 14 years as editor of the Financial Times, the digital revolution transformed modern media, both for the good and bad. The internet destroyed the traditional business model of newspapers based on advertising, but it also removed barriers to distribution, allowing insurgents to enter the market and offering (the best) publishers the chance to become global brands.  

On the other hand, the rise of Big Tech – in the shape of powerful global platforms such as Apple, Facebook and Google – stripped mainstream media of their traditional role as ‘gatekeepers’ on the flow of information to the public. In a fragmented market, where information can be spread at speed and at scale, those who shout loudest gain the most clicks and attention. Truth is often the first casualty.  

In sum, we have only begun to scratch the surface in understanding how the cheap armies of social media with their targeted messaging have begun to impact our democratic politics. Vladimir Putin understood the potential better than anyone, with the possible exception of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

After more than a year of living under lockdown during the Covid pandemic, it is easy to feel pessimistic about the future of liberal democracy. Political leaders have been found wanting.  Social and economic inequality has risen. For the second time in just over a decade, the liberal capitalist system has had to be bailed out by the state and central banks, to the tune of trillions of dollars.

But authoritarian rulers like Putin also struggled. His approval ratings slipped to historic lows last spring as the Covid virus raged. Russia’s oil dependent economy is not delivering higher living standards: GDP has fallen by 30% since 2013, squeezing an embryonic middle class and diminishing prospects for the younger generation. These are conditions which breed discontent.  

Putin has responded with a brutal crackdown following mass demonstrations in solidarity with Alexei Navalny, the victim of a botched assassination attempt. Navalny, whose name Putin cannot bear to mention, was jailed on trumped-up tax charges on his return to Russia and remains the focal point of opposition. Though technically capable of staying in power until 2036, Putin 68, no longer looks quite so secure.

The victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 election offers an opportunity for liberal renewal. Even if the economic consequences of the Covid pandemic – unemployment, higher public debt and, most likely, inflation – have yet to play out American leadership will be indispensable.

Tim Garton Ash, the Oxford historian, believes liberalism must fight back on three fronts: the defence of traditional liberal values and institutions; a reform of “one dimensional economic liberalism” and its most extreme form of “market fundamentalism”; and finally using liberal means to tackle global challenges such as climate change, pandemics and the rise of China, the new force on the global chessboard. 

This is the stuff of further debate. For now, it is safe to say that after a dismal decade, the West has a chance to stop the rot. But the task is urgent. Was Putin right to declare victory in Cold War 2.0? 

The verdict is: not yet.

Lionel Barber was editor of the Financial Times (2005-20); he is the author of The Powerful and The Damned, private diaries In turbulent times (W H Allen). This article was first published in Business Day, in South Africa 

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