Can anyone control the forces the Russian president has unleashed?

CHARLIE GILLIS September 3 2007


Can anyone control the forces the Russian president has unleashed?

CHARLIE GILLIS September 3 2007

A COUPLE OF WEEKS BACK, while news readers were averting their gaze from photographs of a shirtless Vladimir Putin fishing in Siberia, two videos circulating on the Internet laid bare a different, much more chilling, portion of the Russian body politic. The first was a crude bit of agitprop thought to originate with the Nashi, a Kremlin-funded youth movement loyal to Putin whose work involves denouncing the president’s critics as fascists, homosexuals or foreign-controlled traitors.

The eight-minute clip, which eventually found its way to YouTube, was ostensibly meant to persuade draft-eligible teenagers to seek a career in the army. But its true object was to foment paranoia. Images of U.S. soldiers marching on unidentified soil flashed across the screen, while a narrator warned that America aims to “colonize” Russia for its oil. Former Soviet satellites in the ’Stans and eastern Europe were depicted as beachheads for an impending invasion. One animated segment portrayed worm-like tentacles emanating from the United States and creeping around the globe through former Soviet republics like the Baltics, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. “They are right next door,” the voiceover said. “They will take any available opportunity to take us over.”

The clip passed largely unnoticed in Washington and London, where even state-funded disinformation from Russia is greeted these days with a yawn. But the second video, for which the far-right group National Socialists of Rus later claimed responsibility, shocked the sensibilities of Western viewers. In it, two men labelled onscreen as immigrants from Tajikistan and Dagestan were seen kneeling,

bound and gagged, in a wooded area somewhere in southern Russia. A giant swastika hung in trees behind their heads. Heavy metal music blared in the background. Then, without warning, a masked man appeared in the frame, grabbing the head of one victim and hacking it off with a hunting knife. Moments later, he drew a gun and shot the second victim in the head. “Glory to Russia,” the killer shouted as the body fell into an open grave. With that, the screen abruptly went black.

Strictly speaking, the two clips were unrelated—random postcards from a nation defined by lurid rhetoric, lawlessness and tragedy. But as Russia drifts ever further from familiar notions of civil democracy, human rights watchers and political observers are starting to see threads between officially sanctioned groups like the Nashi, and the fringedwellers responsible for the online executions. Both draw inspiration from Nazi-style ultranationalism, with its obsession about ethnic and ideological purity. Both invoke a Russian destiny to wield power throughout its hemisphere. Both do their business under the nose of—in the Nashi’s case, with the blessing of—a government that purports to wage a war against extremism.

The 100,000-strong Nashi, whose name means “Ours Together,” has been dubbed the “Putin Youth” by liberal critics and intellectuals . “This is a way for the Kremlin to entrench its xenophobic, authoritarian political culture in the next generation,” says Edward Lucas, the British author of a forthcoming book called The New Cold War And How To Win It. And the Hitler echoes go beyond blind loyalty. At a rally north of Moscow in July, 10,000 members gathered under images of ballistic missiles to burn works of “unpatriotic” fiction and non-fiction, while studying a manifesto that calls on young people to mobilize in defence of the motherland. Couples were even encouraged to bolster Russia’s “pure”

population by using special tents set up for sessions of connubial intimacy.

As for the National Socialists of Rus, they’re precisely the sort of group Putin claimed to target five years ago with the passage of draconian anti-extremism laws. But after beefing up the legislation again this summer, the Kremlin seems more interested in deploying it against political rivals, leaving violent radicals to their own devices. The result has been predictable: at the end of July, the country’s chief prosecutor reported that hate crimes had gone up sixfold since last year, while independent think tanks count fully 37 homicides this year related to political extremism. The Moscow daily Noviye Izvestia recently pegged the number of radical youth groups in Russia at 141, with membership totalling about a half-million.

No one’s predicting that Europe is headed


for another 1938, of course—at least not yet. But for years, Western leaders have proceeded on the comforting hope that the enigmatic president’s drive for central political control would ultimately lead to greater internal stability. Now, as Russia heads toward an election next March, the question seems not whether Putin’s United Russia party will retain its current level of support, or whether his hand-picked successor—according to the current constitution, Putin cannot run again— will share his ability to galvanize the electorate. It’s whether anyone has the capacity, or the inclination, to control the forces he’s unleashed.

THIS IS MORE than an intellectual exercise. In recent weeks, Moscow has demonstrated a newfound appetite for muscular foreign policy that geopolitics alone can’t explain.

The televised images of a manned submersible planting a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed, which roused official Ottawa from its summer slumber, were only the beginning. In early August, the chief admiral of the Russian navy, Vladimir Masorin, rattled NATO counterparts by suggesting his country might beef up its presence in the Mediterranean—possibly through a port-sharing agreement with Syria—effectively issuing a challenge to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Three days later, a missile landed in a cornfield near the Georgian capital of Tblisi, prompting accusations that Russian military jets had been violating the former Soviet republic’s airspace.

Moscow dismissed the Georgian accusations. But the Kremlin seemed to be revelling in the anxiety it caused. The next day, Russian air force officers proudly announced they’d resumed the Cold War practice of long-


haul bomber sorties into NATO-patrolled airspace—starting with an Aug. 9 flight over Guam. Pilots of the Tupelov-95, a plane equipped to carry nuclear weapons, “waved and smiled” at U.S. fighters who came out to greet them, according to Maj.-Gen.Pavel Androsov. “I think the result was good,” the general added jovially.

On a strategic level, the threat posed by this sort of posturing is minimal, says Harley Balzer, an expert on Russian politics at Georgetown University in Washington. “It’s always hard to untangle the grand strategy from more mundane considerations,” he says. Admiral Masorin’s Mediterranean dream is a good example: “The admiral is about to turn 60 and that’s the mandatory retirement age unless he gets a special dispensation from the president,” says Balzer. “Lately, he’s been running around doing everything under the

sun to show how active and energetic he is.” At the same time, Russia’s conventional military is nowhere close to ready to back up all the tough talk. While Putin promised this week to plow billions into military-related industries, and while the country’s estimated US$140 billion in annual petroleum revenues could certainly buy a lot of planes, there are structural issues even a latter-day Napolean couldn’t overcome. One study released in January by the Washington-based Brookings Institution noted that the country’s plummeting birth rate will cut the number of males eligible for military service by up to half within 10 years. As for equipment, Putin’s cash infusion can’t come soon enough: British author Lucas, who has studied Russia’s war machine closely, figures the navy could spare only a couple of ships for service in the Mediterranean, and notes that the country’s lone aircraft carrier sat mothballed in a Black Sea port until Putin announced its reactivation last week. “Russia doesn’t have the air force necessary to protect its own navy,” he says. “And naval vessels that don’t have air cover get blown out of the water.”

The real concern is that Russia’s military showboating is sucking the Kremlin into a vicious political cycle, where causing friction with NATO rivals pleases Putin’s hardline supporters, who in turn demand ever greater provocations. The effects of the syndrome are already being felt. While virulent antiAmerican rhetoric was seldom heard during Putin’s first five years in power, fear and loathing of Uncle Sam have suddenly become central to the “legitimizing of the regime,” says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center, a Moscow-based think tank that monitors hate crimes and propaganda. “The government needs some external enemies because its internal enemies are by default weak and non-dangerous,” he says. “What’s interesting is that it works not just on people who are old enough to remember Soviet propaganda, but also on the youth.”

Of course, the convenient thing about the West’s supposedly insidious influence is that you can project it wherever you look. The proPutin zealots have already found targets in opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov, whom they routinely denounced as Washington’s stooge (this summer’s Nashi rally featured giant posters of the former world chess chamption dressed in women’s clothing). And nothing has quite grated Moscow like the sight of former Soviet satellites—many of which Russians consider part of their historical domainseeking U.S. protection by joining NATO.

In late April, for example, government business and trade in Estonia ground to a near halt because saboteurs had launched a “cyberriot” on the tiny Baltic country’s computers,

clogging communication networks with hostile messages. The assault—purportedly in response to the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn, which resulted in street riots—was later traced to Russian weblogs, whose operators had egged other angry Russians to join the onslaught. The Kremlin denied involvement. But tensions around the incident quickly formed along old battle lines; NATO even dispatched a so-called “cyberwarfare team” to help its member country safeguard itself against similar attacks.

The question now is who’s next, and many intelligence sources see another potential tar-

get in Ukraine, a country with 10 million Russians and reputed status as the birthplace of Russian culture. The Nashi itself was founded in response to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution ofjanuary 2005, and Stratfor, a U.S.-based private intelligence service once referred to as “the shadow CIA,” describes it as “the most important piece of territory to long-term Russian strategy.” With a western border abutting five European countries, the sprawling country, due to hold contentious parliamentary elections on Sept. 30, is a key pathway for Russian oil and gas exports, or a buffer between Russia and the newly minted NATO allies. “If Putin succeeds in pulling Ukraine into the Russian orbit over the next six weeks, Russia will have secured its core,” Stratfor concluded in an Aug. 15 report. “Then Russia can get serious—deadly serious—about spreading its influence in ways that are far more than merely rhetorical.”

Those are big ifs, of course. And there is no telling how aggressively Putin’s successor might try to spread Moscow’s influence following next spring’s election. Still, the prospect of Ukraine crumbling before Moscow’s new diplomatic paradigm—sabre-rattling from on high, combined with creative forms of intimidation at the street level—highlights some pressing questions facing the U.S. and its NATO allies. Where precisely should the West draw the line? How exactly should it respond? And has it any hope of defusing the increasingly volatile domestic mood in Russia?

THE ANSWERS DEPEND on one’s view of postSoviet history. In recent months, numerous commentators have recommended patience, and even a few friendly overtures, to Moscow on the grounds that Russia’s recent foreign policy shenanigans stem from wounded pride. The West’s indifference toward Moscow’s views on everything from the war in Iraq to missile defence installations in eastern Europe has stung Russian leaders, these critics say. That, in turn, has led to what one op-ed item in Britain’s Guardian newspaper called a “cold peace,” for which the Bush administration must shoulder a good deal of blame. Washington renouncing the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002 and placing weapons in former Warsaw Pact countries were flagrant slaps to a country for whom homeland security had become a crippling expense, say sympathetic observers. From there, things were destined to deteriorate.

Others think Moscow’s grievances run even deeper. Gordon Smith, who served as Canada’s ambassador to NATO from 1985 until 1990, traces the resentment to the period shortly after the reunification of Germany,

when Western countries made a host of promises to Russia to the effect that the disposition of military forces wouldn’t change. “These assurances were made up and down, left and right,” recalls Smith, who now teaches international politics at the University of Victoria. ‘Then the enlargement of NATO took place, and the countries of eastern Europe made no secret of the fact that they wanted to come in as a protection against the dangers of a resurgent Russia.” The result, he says, was a disconnect in public opinion between Russia and the West that lingers to this day. While Canadians and Americans generally greeted NATO expansion as a sign that the Cold War was truly thawing, Russians took it as an act of outright hostility, a trick designed specifically to obtain strategic advantage.

Fast forward to 2002, when the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Moscow elite had all but given up raising such uncomfortable issues. Yet many average Russians were beginning to nurse a serious grudge, say diplomats who worked there at the time. “We did things that in their eyes looked aggressive,” says Rod Irwin, Canada’s ambassador Moscow from 1999 until 2003. “We had real reasons for doing them.


We wanted to bring countries like Poland into the club, to help them and stabilize them. But that’s not how it was seen in Russia.” Others aren’t quite so understandingincluding some liberal-minded thinkers who actually live in Russia. Verkhovsky, for one, says the Putin government’s recent round of Yankee-baiting is less an expression of historic grievance than old-fashioned pandering. “Most of the people listening to this sort of rhetoric don’t need evidence to back it up,”

says the veteran analyst. “It reflects and reminds them of the stuff they heard 15 or 20 years ago.” Lucas takes a similar view, arguing that belligerence and paranoia have been prominent features of Russia’s political culture since long before the fall of Communism. “It’s one of the great Western fallacies to think that if we’d only done something different Russia would have ended up like Poland—a big, friendly post-Communist country,” he says. “We have to deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

To that end, Lucas urges Western leaders to acknowledge the arrival of a new and different sort of Cold War, in which Russia’s de facto army of civilian zealots is a constant wild card. He’s also calling for a set of rearguard actions to secure Western interests. Among them: restoring ties between Washington and European allies that have frayed during the Iraq war; preventing Russian companies who act as agents for the Kremlin abroad from listing on Western stock exchanges; adopting a common European energy policy—an act of solidarity that could discourage Russia from using its position as the continent’s chief gas supplier to punish or reward individual countries for their political co-operation.

Conspicuously, though, none of those ideas addresses the cauldron of anger and paranoia still brewing inside Russia’s borders. Yet increasingly, that appears the most important dimension of dealing with a country where belligerence is the new political currency. Putin can appear at times rational on the world stage. Other times he seems driven by a near-pathological need to provoke. Which raises one of those chicken-and-egg riddles that bedevil international politics. Is he in command of the radicalism that increasingly defines his regime? Or is it in command of him?

It’s the sort of question on which history turns, frequently remaining unanswered until it’s too late. For now, the West is left to ponder such clues in Moscow’s tepid response to the online executions. While several human rights agencies judged the clip to be authentic—and while a man in his early 20s turned himself in to police for allegedly posting it on the Internet—authorities had yet to arrest a suspect in either the killing or the filming of the segment.

Were they truly stymied? Or was this another example of what Amnesty International has described as Moscow’s “grossly inadequate” response to extremist attacks? Perhaps the authorities face a pool of suspects so vast they don’t know where to begin. Or maybe they’ve written the victims off as unlucky pawns in Russia’s transformation into a stronger, purer and united society. Either way, the Motherland’s resurgence is proving a costly and dangerous project, indeed. M