The Plague of Putin

Published by The Mail on Sunday (30th October, 2016)

As heavy rain gushed down from glowering skies and cars snaked through heavily fortified customs points, it was impossible to ignore echoes of the last time the world was locked in a Cold War.

For beside me in the gloom of a grisly Baltic afternoon was a bridge that stands on the front line of frightening global tensions that have flared up between Russia and the West.

It is called Friendship Bridge – yet this route over the Narva river between Russia and Estonia is now ringed with steel and bristles with security cameras. At either end of the bridge stand medieval castles flying rival national flags – reminders of this region’s troubled past.

It takes barely two minutes to cross on foot – and would take just seconds in one of the hundreds of tanks in a Russian armoured division stationed nearby.

Barely 100 miles to the north lies St Petersburg – the stunning city that symbolised Tsarist expansion. This was the power base of President Vladimir Putin, the ex-Soviet spy chief, whose plague of aggression in Europe and the Middle East is causing such international concern.

A similar distance west lies the Tapa army base, where 800 British troops with drones and heavy weapons will be deployed next year to demonstrate Nato’s determination to protect Baltic states from the snarling Russian bear.

Other Nato nations are also sending troops as part of the biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the last Cold War. Moscow has moved nuclear-capable missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost between Lithuania and Poland.

Dimitry, 39, a businessman from St Petersburg, spent several hours queuing at the bridge to reach his weekend flat in Estonia. ‘Each time I cross here, I think it may be the last,’ he said. ‘Suddenly things are different and people are talking of World War Three.

‘This is the front line between East and West. I am worried, full of foreboding about what happens next.’

Arriving back in Estonia from the sleepy Russian frontier town of Ivangorod, artist Galina Nikolayeva admitted the atmosphere was nerve-racking. ‘But I don’t think war is coming again,’ she said with a smile.

We must hope she is right. Yet Putin and his kleptocratic Kremlin pals have already seized a slice of Ukraine, carpet-bombed an ancient city in Syria, carried out near-constant cyber attacks on the Baltic states, and even interfered in the US presidential election.

So given his unpredictability, rapid military build-up and ruthless desperation to mask economic failure by whipping up nationalist fervour, who can be sure of this dangerous despot’s next move?

Perhaps this is why Kersti Kaljulaid made one of her first visits as Estonia’s new president to Narva on Friday, to visit border guards in their barracks. She warned officers about their disruptive neighbour spreading dangerous propaganda.

Earlier she told me these were difficult times. ‘Russia is an aggressive state that does not recognise formal agreements, has unleashed humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, and refuses to recognise the Minsk agreements in Ukraine.’

She said her country was grateful to Nato allies such as Britain coming to protect them. When I asked if this was a new Cold War, she replied: ‘We should be calm, not alarmed.’

Yet this is a small nation with a population only slightly bigger than Birmingham that shed its Soviet shackles just 25 years ago – a country where most families have tales of terrible brutality.

As one politician put it to me: ‘The fear of Russia is passed down in our mothers’ milk for Estonians.’ Like many others, his family saw members deported to Siberia under Stalin.

Another person quoted a local saying that Russia gave them only two things in history: bad weather and hunger. He went on to tell of a friend’s uncle who had his face cut off with a spade by Soviet forces.

The Baltic states have long warned the West to be wary of Russia. Yet just four years ago Barack Obama mocked his presidential rival, Republican Mitt Romney, for saying that Moscow was their main enemy, claiming ‘the Cold War’s been over for 20 years’.

How times change as Nato sends 4,000 heavily armed troops to the region as a tripwire to deter 330,000 Russian troops lurking on the other side of the Narva. The purpose is to remind Putin of Nato’s pact to defend any members coming under attack.

‘Russia is playing a very dangerous game with Europe using military tools,’ said Juri Luik, former defence minister and director of Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security. ‘That is why Nato must be very clear in its actions.’

Yet the danger of these ratcheting tensions is not just that Putin does something stupid. It is also that – as with the first Cold War – a mistake is made or move is misinterpreted by a nuclear-armed nation with devastating consequences.

Moscow’s jets routinely buzz Nato ships, its war games simulate attacking Baltic states, its submarines test marine defences, and its hackers taunt Western computer security.

Estonia was the target of the world’s first cyber war attack in 2007 when websites were overwhelmed during a row with Russia over a war memorial.

Putin has warned he will shoot down Nato aircraft if they attempt to stop the slaughter of Syrians in Aleppo, while the FBI believes Russia has been meddling in the US election by leaking Democrat Party emails embarrassing for Hillary Clinton.

Moscow is pumping money into its military and has developed a powerful propaganda machine, which constantly warns of Western aggression. Earlier this month, 40 million people were put through civil defence drills in case of nuclear attack.

Russia also funds populist parties such as the French far-Right National Front, provides a platform for rabble-rousing Western politicians, and has been accused of spreading lies on issues such as immigration to stir public discontent.

In Narva, the majority of citizens are ethnic Russians who make up a quarter of Estonia’s population. Many watch Russian television, read Russian websites and admire Putin’s stance – provoking fears they may be stirred into revolt, as I saw happen in Crimea and Ukraine.

‘The people here like Putin and support Putin – but in Russia, not in Narva,’ insisted Sergei Stepanov, former editor of the local newspaper. ‘We can cross the river and see the real Russia with its low pensions, expensive food and poor choice in shops.’

He believes Russia is fighting a ‘virtual Cold War’ using modern mass media to manipulate opinion. Stepanov helped Estonia set up a rival Russian-language TV station, although it receives a fraction of the massive funds spent by Moscow.

Yet what is so alarming is not just that Putin’s message of supposed Russian insecurity in the face of Western aggression shapes opinion at home, but its corrosive impact abroad.

Just look at how his ‘useful idiots’ range from Nigel Farage and Donald Trump on the Right, through to George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn and his spin doctor Seumas Milne on the Left.

Others argue Russia is just indulging in harmless sabre-rattling when it brazenly sails naval ships past British shores as they head out to fuel the carnage in Syria.

Watching events unfold in Crimea and eastern Ukraine two years ago, I was stunned at how many Westerners fell for Putin’s lies as he carried out the first annexation on European soil since the Second World War using a highly skilled form of hybrid warfare.

They accepted Ukrainians demanding democracy ‘provoked’ Moscow, ‘little green men’ invading Crimea were not Russian special forces, and that a referendum at gunpoint was fair.

Four months later I saw hundreds of bodies littering fields in eastern Ukraine after a civil airliner was shot down by Putin’s allies. The corpses of innocent men, women, children – even dogs – lay in the sun while pro-Russian rebels strutted around and looted luggage.

Moscow media blamed Kiev, then the CIA – yet Putin’s rebel stooges used a Russian surface-to-air Buk missile. It has been established the weapons crossed the border the same morning on a launcher.

Now Putin adds to Aleppo’s agony using sophisticated bunker-busting bombs, cluster weapons and missiles that suck oxygen from the air and create massive blast waves. He ignores Islamic State jihadis, yet targets hospitals and heroic White Helmet rescuers.

Behind all this lie the tried and tested tactics of Russia’s self-styled saviour.

This is, after all, a man who razed Chechnya under the guise of attacking jihadism, and almost certainly bombed blocks of flats in Russian cities to incite outrage against ‘terrorists’. He has plundered state coffers and crushed dissent after a brief flowering of post-Soviet freedom.

Five years ago I watched middle-class Muscovites try to reignite democracy with protests; how futile their brave actions now seem as Putin’s iron grip intensifies. So have no doubts about the determination of this ruthless Russian ruler.

It is no coincidence this month saw the inauguration of Russia’s first statue to Ivan the Terrible, a 16th Century tyrant being recast as a protector of his people.

Little wonder that another Baltic state, Lithuania, has reintroduced conscription. Meanwhile, Sweden may follow suit and is, with Finland, considering joining the protective shield of Nato.

Putin is a gambler who sees attack as his best form of self-defence. For behind his inflaming of nationalist fervour, Cold War rhetoric and throwing of Russia’s weight around the world stage lies growing insecurity over a glorious nation’s crumbling weakness.

After a slump in oil prices, Russia has been left with a gangster economy in dire recession: shrinking GDP, crashing personal incomes, plunging investment, faltering public services and a falling population.

Putin responded by intensifying his control under security apparatchiks and making a handful of high-profile arrests to appease public anger over fraud. Last month, a senior anti-corruption official was arrested over £100 million stashed away in a Moscow flat.

Despite massive military spending, Russia is arguably weaker than it has been since the time of Putin’s hero, Peter the Great, the 18th Century tsar who built St Petersburg to provide his nation with ‘a window on the West’.

Among those I spoke to in Estonia was Marko Mihkelson, who watched Putin’s power games while working as a journalist in Moscow.

‘I know their desire to be great again,’ he said. ‘They are trying to reshape global security to restore the Russian empire.’

Today Mihkelson is chairman of his parliament’s National Defence Committee and agrees that Russia has fired up a new hybrid form of Cold War.

‘They do not accept Western security architecture and that is why they keep pushing the limits in Ukraine and in Syria,’ he said.

The strengthening of Nato in eastern Europe is an important step in standing by Baltic allies who shed blood beside British troops in Afghanistan – and belated recognition of Putin’s danger.

Yet as I leave a rain-sodden bridge spanning a river on the front line, it is hard not to worry where this struggle will end – and whether the West can still meet the challenge of a revived Cold War.

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