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Foreign Affairs

The Czar Is Back - But Why Is The West Worried
By Rakesh Krishnan Simha, December 2011 [[email protected]]

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Vladimir Putin is the man the West loves to hate. There is such a huge industry of commentators, leaders and media people so completely obsessed with the return of the Russian leader as President that the gravity defying jobless rate in the West would jump a couple of percentage points if he suddenly retired.

Western commentators are gleefully pointing out that United Russia has suffered a “massive” fall of 14 percentage points in the December 4 parliamentary election. But the fact is Putin’s party still took home half the votes, and they are streets ahead of their closest opponents, the Communists, who got a fraction over 19 percent. Barring an unlikely upset, Putin will be back in the saddle in March, haunting the West, or more precisely the Anglo-American axis, for many more years.

Game changer
The West's obsession with Putin is because of both personal and historical reasons. Putin represents that moment when Russia was transformed from an economic basket case into a resurgent power. How can the West forgive him for that? Drunk with triumphalism after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they sat back and were enjoying the collapse of their old enemy, only to see Putin return and give all of them a collective hangover.

During the US presidential elections in late 2008, Hillary Clinton, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, said, "He was a KGB agent, by definition he doesn't have a soul," to which Putin coolly replied, "I think that a head of state must have a head as a minimum." Devastating.

In October that year, after the war in the Caucasus, Putin famously described Western lackey Mikheil Sakashvilli of Georgia as “this corpse”.

Indeed, Putin’s steely gaze is truly presidential. For comparison, how about George W. Bush’s shifty, darting eyes, Tony Blair’s smarmy smile, or Barack Obama’s vacuous words?

Image counts
Then there’s the strongman syndrome. Where the clumsy Dick Cheney shoots his hunting partner in the face, Putin uses a tranquilizer to snag a Siberian tiger. (To those who allege his outdoorsy acts are choreographed, please have a look at a Siberian tiger and ask yourself if this 700 pound beast can be co-opted in a fake show). While British Prime Minister David Cameron is refused service by a waitress at an Italian cafe, the Russian leader makes news for his bare chested photos, making Russian beauty queens draft marriage proposals.

These are not the images people in Washington and London want to see. Putin makes Western leaders look inadequate. What they really want to see is a vodka-fortified Russian stuttering on TV. (Something along the lines of GOP candidate Rick Perry self-destructing in his New Hampshire speech.)

Russia first
You get the picture. Putin is sending a clear message to the West: Go ahead make my day. Sakashvilli and his Pentagon backers both know – with the benefit of hindsight – the Russian leader doesn’t bluff. The Americans lost face and Sakashvilli a good chunk of his country when he baited Putin in August 2008. And that is what irks the West most. Putin takes care of Russia’s interests the way they protect theirs.

The democracy drivel
The Economist earlier this month described Putin’s job swap with Dmitry Medvedev as making a mockery of Russian democracy. Really? How about George W. Bush’s stealing of the US Presidential election? Didn’t the US Supreme Court and the Governor of Florida (Jeb Bush, George W’s brother) collude to deny Al Gore of a win, in an election where Gore got more votes than Bush? In fact, if The Economist looks at its own backyard, it will find how Iraq sleaze was used by Gordon Brown’s backroom boys to oust Tony Blair as Prime Minister. But then that would be real journalism. It has no place in a country where investigative journalism means listening into ordinary people’s mobile phone conversations.

The Economist never inflicted such idealistic tripe on its readers when Boris Yeltsin was selling off Russia’s crown jewels to rapacious Western transnationals and plunging the country into third world status. This was the same Yeltsin who ordered tanks against the Russian parliament. As tank rounds thudded into the Russian ‘White House’, killing dozens of deputies inside, TIME magazine described him as “the handsome Yeltsin”. Handsome in the eyes of which species?
What Putin’s detractors fail to understand is that democracy is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end – which is economic prosperity and security for the people. Putin himself has said that he doesn’t want the kind of democracy we now see functioning in Iraq. Indeed, because of the rise of the Russian and Chinese economies, authoritarian prosperity is now a viable governing option to the crumbling democracies of the West. India, for instance, is an example of a country that is being held back from its great power destiny because democracy offers an excuse for non-governance for its ruling classes.

Setting the record straight
Forget the machismo; let’s judge the man by his record and governance.

During Putin’s first stint in power (from 1999-2008), the Russian economy recorded an average growth of 7 per cent annually. During this period, industry grew 75 per cent, while real incomes more than doubled. The monthly salary of the man in the street went from $80 to almost $600. The IMF, which worked overtime to destroy Russia’s state owned corporations and banks, admits that from 2000 to 2006, the Russian middle class grew from 8 million to 55 million. The number of families living below the poverty line decreased from 30 per cent in 2000 to 14 per cent in 2008.

More significant was the impact on morale. Russians could once again hold their head high and the Russian military was able to operate out of its bases. Russian strategic bombers were back over the Atlantic. On one notable occasion, two Blackjack bombers (armed with nuclear tipped cruise missiles) flew past the unprotected southern flanks of the US, causing panic in the Pentagon.
All this was too much for the West, which was used to seeing Russia stagnating and shrinking.

Nothing you do is good enough for us
When Putin’s nationalist economic policies paid off (the Russian stock market jumped 17 per cent the day he got the job in 1999), the Western media rubbished his achievements, and said Russia’s resurgence was solely due to its oil and gas. Brilliant! What these keen observers don’t realise (or won't tell you) is that Russia has always had oil and gas. But oil revenues did not improve people's lives in the Yeltsin era when Western economists and 'experts' were running amok in the country. Then again, what do you expect from journalists told you Iraq had WMDs?

Historically irreconcilable
There is an underlying historical reason why the West caricatures Russia. Starting from the Crimean War—in which czarist Russia’s serf army exposed the military and logistical immaturity of ‘professional’ British troops—to the Great Game in Central Asia, it is true that Russia and Britain have had incompatible interests. The Americans, who are mostly of British origin, have inherited Britain's historical prejudices. The West would like to tell you that the clash is between democracy and dictatorship, but in reality the Anglo-Americans and the Slavs are bitter rivals.

The new Great Game
When Putin talks about his plans to forge a Eurasian Union on the vast swathe of territory that used to be the Soviet Union to compete with the European Union and the US, it makes many Westerners nervous – the same folks who have moved the borders of NATO closer and closer to Moscow.

The Eurasian Union if it happens will create a global power bloc that would straddle one fifth of the earth's surface and unite almost 300 million people. "We have a great inheritance from the Soviet Union," Putin wrote in an article. "We inherited an infrastructure, specialised production facilities, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space. It is in our joint interests to use this resource for our development."

Putin has signalled that US unilateralism is over. So in the months ahead, expect more decisive action in areas such as Syria, the last of Moscow’s two remaining allies in the Middle East; the other being Algeria. Ties with India and China will be strengthened, and Putin will be walking the red carpet in Germany (he speaks fluent German).

The Putin-Medvedev tandem has also signed major oil and gas pipeline deals with both Europe and China, effectively shutting out British and American oil majors. The success of Nord Stream (the Russian oil pipeline to Germany bypassing Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic republics) with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at its helm has been a body blow to Anglo-American hopes of clipping Russia’s oil hegemony in Europe.

James Bondski
Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB spy who defected to Britain in the year 2000 shortly after his retirement. He is said to have spilled a lot of secrets before his British handlers.
One day he was found dead, the cause of his death being plutonium poisoning – the first such murder in history. His killer has never been identified although the British have gone hoarse, crying it was a Russian job. They would like to tie the murder to the KGB and all the way up to Putin himself.

However, it seems the British are acting petulant not because Litvinenko died but the manner in which he died. If you believe the British allegation, then it holds that the fictitious James Bond is British but the real Bond is Russian. For the British, it is simply galling.

No place for weak leaders
Putin’s Russia may not be perfect. It has organised crime, the oligarchs still control a good chunk of the economy, Russian companies are yet to come up with world class consumer goods, and the Soviet era infrastructure needs an overhaul. It is precisely because of such problems that strong leaders are needed; a wishy washy Obama-like approach will ensure that nothing gets done. Russians have seen enough of the Yeltsin era chaos, and the last thing they want is a return to the days of lumpen democracy.

The Anglo-American axis and their hangers-on must realise that a foreign leader who protects his country’s interests is not a tyrant. Around 2300 years ago, Chanakya, the original master of statecraft and policy in India, said in the Arthashastra (Economics): “The foremost duty of a ruler is to keep his people happy and contented. The people are his biggest asset as well as the source of peril. They will not support a weak administration.”

(About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.)

This article was first published at

Editor: When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 price of crude per barrel was around $ 25. Thereafter, it went as high as $ 150 but never less than $ 60 if I remember correctly. Higher crude prices were a boon for the Russian economy. The Russians must thank George Bush for invading Iraq! 


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