Putin is winning his war against the West

Published by The i paper (5th March, 2018)

The temperatures are below freezing with snow falling, but how sunny the view must seem for Vladimir Putin as he gazes out from the Kremlin. On Saturday he held his only rally ahead of voting in the presidential election later this month, a stage-managed event before he secures another six-year term in office. ‘We are a warring country, make no mistake,’ said businessman Igor Ashmanov, a campaign aide pouring praise on his leader. ‘He collects territories, wins wars, and introduces new weapons. How can a warring country change its commander-in-chief?’

Little danger of this happening. Putin does not allow small things such as elections to get in the way of ruthless self-preservation. No need to bother with the messy business of campaigning and debating rivals given his vice-like control of Russia. He has the media, the money and the process in his pocket. His most serious rival is barred from standing, while the six candidates allowed on the ballot include a billionaire Communist and a celebrity journalist who is the daughter of his mentor.

But note the crude nationalist rhetoric that underlines the leadership’s stance and dominates Russian media. For Putin sees himself at war with the West, challenging liberal values that threaten both his grip on power and pillaging by his kleptocratic regime. He is contesting ideas of democracy, equality and decency that dominated our post-war world, using any means possible whenever an opportunity arises. And his cheerleader Ashmanov is right: Putin is winning.

Clearly he has won over Crimea, despite British and American promises to protect Ukraine if it gave up nuclear weapons and being the first annexation on European soil since the Second World War. Yes, sanctions are an annoyance. But Ukraine has been left devastated again by Moscow, punished by Putin after pro-democracy protesters managed to oust his thieving ally. Fighting goes on in the East as a bored world looks away while corruption carries on unabated under new leadership, corroding faith in an elected government.

Putin seized the opportunity in Syria presented by Western hesitancy and United Nations paralysis. He claimed to be acting against Islamic terrorism; then his forces pounded moderate rebels to aid a vile despot who has used chemical weapons and deliberately fanned jihadism to undermine opponents. Now as another enclave is reduced to bloodstained rubble in eastern Ghouta, Bashar Assad looks more and more secure. So Russia has extended its influence while protecting a key naval base – and Putin’s pals are first in line for huge reconstruction contracts.

The President boasted last week of his ‘invincible’ nuclear weapons to highlight Russia’s resurgent military strength and alarm Nato. But look away from formal battle fronts and things look even rosier from Putin’s perspective. He set out to destabilise democracies, weaken multilateral institutions and sow divisions among Western foes – yet could he have ever dreamed there would be such fierce discord from Warsaw to Washington? Could he have imagined extremists would surge so strongly on left and right, the tone of debate growing ever nastier? Or that while his side fought with cash funnelled to populists, online trolling, seduction of useful idiots and subversive use of media, so many wounds would be self-inflected by his enemies showing lack of faith in their core values?

So we see a self-absorbed inadequate in the White House sparking trade wars against close allies while eroding trust in mainstream media, inflaming racial tensions, slashing UN funding and endorsing repressive regimes. Whatever role Moscow played in his election, Donald Trump is doing much of the Kremlin’s dirty work. But he is far from alone. In Britain we are tormented by Brexit. As Theresa May’s speech last week demonstrated, this looks utterly pointless – yet it dominates debate, exacerbates divisions, renders government impotent, rips apart the two main parties, hurts the economy and weakens our global position.

Similar forces can be seen throughout Europe. Look at Spain, jailing Catalans who dared push for independence and so inflaming the issue. Or Germany, with the far-right on the rise and Angela Merkel left wounded. Or the Italian election – another perfect case in point – with victory expected for either an anti-establishment party founded by a comedian, or a hard-right coalition led by a tycoon convicted of fraud which features neo-fascists spewing bile against migrants. The governing centre-left party could collapse, just as across the continent.

Populism rides again – and Putin stands among the winners, especially if the right-wing coalition led by his admirers emerges triumphant. This is the legacy of decades of political neglect in Rome, compounded by more recent failures across Europe to respond collectively to globalisation issues. Italy shows the scale of political crisis engulfing the West as it spirals into scarier terrain, each election underscoring the extent of discontent. Take your pick from a menu of causes that includes arrogance of governing elites, advances of technology, excesses of capitalism, generational issues, immigration, inequality, stagnant wages. Whichever you choose, they come down to lack of decent leadership – and not just in politics.

As Putin prepares to extend his hold on Russia, his regime fans flames of unrest with malevolent skill. He is an opportunist exploiting the cracks in Western society, the insecurities of fearful electorates, the openness of our political systems and the timidity of our leaders. Liberal democracy and enlightened values are under assault in their heartland and who knows where this turbulent period is taking us? But one thing is certain: Putin is winning right now. And that should chill us all to the bone.

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