Even before the December 2011 protests — and his own reelection as president in March 2012 — Vladimir Putin had begun signaling the return of a more authoritarian and aggressive Russia, The Washington Post reports:
Beginning in late 2011, the Russian government would adopt policies stifling political dissent at home and increasing pressure on the former Soviet republics, from the Baltic to the Caucasus to Ukraine. … Clinton began privately warning the White House on how Putin’s return could affect a wide range of U.S. foreign policy priorities, such as promoting democracy in Eastern Europe and containing a Syrian civil war that was beginning to ignite sectarian violence and jihadist fervor throughout the Middle East.
Lenin once said: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them,” notes analyst Natalie Nougayrède. Vladimir Putin is no Lenin, nor can his regime – run by an elite that enjoys offshore accounts and oligarchic privileges – quite be described as anti-capitalist, she writes for The Guardian:
Yet in Russia’s new confrontation with the west, the Kremlin’s strategy is to exploit western weaknesses and confusion as much as it is geared towards showing a bellicose face, whether in Ukraine, Syria or cyberspace….. [Putin is] essentially waiting for that rope to be handed over. Brexit is one section of it, because in Russian eyes it has the potential to divide the west. The growth of national-populist movements in Europe and elsewhere is another, because it echoes the Kremlin’s illiberal narrative and produces useful allies.
A previously united Europe is being divided by the aggression of President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Georgia and eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea pose an existential threat to the survival of free countries along Russia’s southern and western borders, notes Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former US under-secretary of state. Putin should be given a warning that the west will protect the democracies of eastern Europe at all costs, he writes for The Financial Times, noting that ….
…. the reactionary Viktor Orban is already in power in Hungary and the Law and Justice government in Poland has created problems for both Brussels and Washington. Will similar movements in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany deepen the assault on the EU’s liberal democratic foundations?
Russia and other authoritarian governments have been waging a shadow campaign to discredit democratic institutions worldwide. The goal is not necessarily to prove the superiority of their system, but to diminish the appeal of representative government and to undermine Western leaders by making them seem corrupt or malicious, adds Madeleine Albright, a former U.S. Secretary of State and chair of the National Democratic Institute, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy. We need to expose this disinformation campaign and limit its effects, she writes:
We already have systems in place to monitor Islamic State propaganda on the Internet, and we should do the same for authoritarian propaganda. The U.S. government should work with technology companies to develop better policies to deal with anti-democratic trolling, as they have done with cyberbullying, hate speech and violent extremism. We should launch an educational campaign so that those who are targets of propaganda understand the source and motivations behind it. We also need to offer more assistance to frontline states in Central and Eastern Europe as they stand up against the threat of illiberalism from within and without. This includes speaking to their publics, strengthening political parties and keeping open space for civil society.
“Finally, we cannot only be reactive,” she adds. “Ultimately, the best way to counter anti-democratic propaganda is to tell the story of our democracy and do more to support democratic allies and activists around the world.”
The Economist’s Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, has several suggestions for what the West can do to contain Russia’s aggression against Western institutions. “The weakest part of the Putin machine: its Western accomplices,” he writes:
Russia can’t launder money on its own. It uses Western — often British — bankers, lawyers and accountants. These are the ‘guilty men’ of our era. They have enabled the theft of tens of billions of pounds every year from the Russian people. They knew what they were doing, and they thought nothing would ever happen to them. We can change that.
We can also raise the bar for Russian propaganda, adds Lucas, a senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Warsaw and Washington, DC:
We should lambast the BBC and other broadcasters for their phony, lazy balancing of truth and falsehood. We should refuse to have dealings with the Kremlin’s lie-machines — the “TV station” RT, and the “news agency” Sputnik. No reputable commentator, politician or official should lend them credibility by responding to their requests for comment. Let these propagandists stew in their own swamp of cranks and conspiracy theorists.
Not a new Cold War
But Russia and the West are not in a new Cold War, argues Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Austria, and editor of the Explorations of the Far Right The first major difference is that the Cold War was an ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, between liberal democracy and totalitarian Marxism-Leninism — in other words between two comprehensive idealistic models of political, economic and social development, he writes for Open Democracy:
Moreover, contemporary Russia is not guided by any single political ideology. The state-backed political discourse in Russia appears to be a postmodernist mixture of various symbolic references to ultra-conservatism, Stalinism, ultranationalism and even internationalism, but this mixture produces no consistent system of ideas that could function as a state ideology. Ironically, this is understood well by Russian right-wing extremists such as Aleksandr Dugin (left), who claims that Russia will not be able to win the war with the west without being guided by a clear anti-liberal ideology.
By waging a psychological warfare on the west, by eroding the boundaries of the contemporary rules of international relations, Moscow strives to force western nations in general and the US in particular to agree to a “new Yalta agreement” which would legitimize the indefinite rule of the authoritarian kleptocratic regime and fix a Russian geopolitical sphere of influence at the expense of sovereign nations neighboring Russia, Shekhovtsov adds.
“Were the collective west to conclude such an agreement with Moscow, it would betray pro-democratic aspirations of the nations in Russia’s neighborhood and deprive of all hope Russian people who are effectively held hostage by Putin’s kleptocratic regime,” he warns.