Putin’s Strategy and its Apologists

24 March 2014

By Masha Karp

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated in error that Mr Liam Halligan had acted as a strategist for the Russia Today channel. This is not the case, and the author apologizes to Mr Halligan for this error.

A week has passed since the so-called Crimean “referendum”. Over the course of this week, Crimea has swiftly become a part of the Russian Federation and analogies with the Sudeten crisis and Austrian Anschluss have been rightly invoked.

Yet for me a different historical analogy of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis seems even more appropriate – the Prague Spring of 1968 and the subsequent Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia. The Soviet rulers did not want to put up with a neighbouring country’s attempt to build a better life for itself, and chose to suppress this attempt with tanks. In exactly the same way Putin today is using all the means open to him – including the annexation of parts of Ukraine – to stop the Ukrainians from liberating themselves from the “elder brother’s” powerful embrace and making their own choices about the future.

Much has been said by both Russian and Western media about Russia’s historical and sentimental connections with the Crimea, and even about its “legitimate interests” there. But it was not a fit of nostalgia for this land of Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Bulgarians, Jews and other nations that made Putin breach international law and risk international isolation – it was the hatred of the Maidan’s victory and the wish to destabilise Ukraine.

He is doing this already not only by annexing Crimea but by bringing Russian thugs by bus from across the border to provoke conflicts in the Russian-speaking areas of Eastern Ukraine with a view to unleashing civil war there. He is trying to keep the West on edge by the unpredictability of his actions, hoping that this will enable him to remain in control of the situation. And of course, he does not forget his propaganda war.

In Russia a native brand of fascism (already nick-named “Rashism”) is being openly incited. Racist and anti-Semitic speeches are broadcast on Russian media together with triumphalist slogans glorifying Russia for getting back the territories lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country is polarized – the opposition, including human rights activists and the intelligentsia are trying to protest. On 15th March about 50,000 people took to the streets of Moscow to show their disagreement with government policy and their solidarity with Ukraine. But their situation is difficult – in the ultra-patriotic intoxication taking place in the country it is easy to lose a job or position for being too critical. And the phrase “national traitors”, incidentally used in Hitler's “Mein Kampf”, has already been uttered by Putin with its not so subtle implications of high treason and its consequences…

The voice of the Russian opposition, however, hardly ever reaches the British media. If this voice had been heard during the nearly 15 years that Putin has been in power the current crisis would not have come as a complete surprise for the West. The Putin regime’s military crimes in Chechnya, the annexation of Georgian territory, and the suppression of freedoms in Russia were obvious signs for clear-thinking people inside the country that this would inevitably lead to crimes on a bigger scale affecting the whole world – signs which the West chose to ignore.

It is with relief that these Russians who oppose the regime see Western governments finally taking a firmer stance against Putin, and with regret that they have to admit how scared the Westerners really are of confronting him. Hearing them speak would make the Brits realize that Russia cannot be reduced to its repressive regime, and would give them a different perspective on what is happening now. And yet the views of the Russian opposition are not sought by the British media even in times of crisis.

On the other hand, the same media warmly welcomes not only Russian, but also British supporters of Putin’s policy. One of them is Liam Halligan, author of a weekly Economics Agenda column in The Sunday Telegraph. He has lived in Russia and between 2007 and 2013 was Chief Economist at Prosperity Capital Management - the world’s largest asset-management company that specialises in Russia/CIS investments.

In March 2012 Liam Halligan gave an interview to CNN, which was re-published and even obligingly translated by the Russian propaganda channel RT (Russia Today). Here one can listen to (in English), and read (in Russian), how two years ago Halligan was trying to persuade his viewers that despite huge anti-Putin protests, Russia had become “more attractive [for investors], because of the removal of political doubt that existed in the minds of many global investors”. He claimed that the protests of the opposition had been more of “a carnival-type” and the Russian authorities reacted to them “not with pressure, not with violence but with accommodation”.

This was said on 13th March 2012 ten days after the arrest of Pussy Riot girls on the 3rd March for singing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral. Of course, at that point it was not yet known what sentence they were going to receive, but today everyone who has been following Russian events in the last two years knows with what suppression of liberties Putin responded to the 2011-2012 protests. Yet I was not able to find any evidence that Halligan had changed his mind on that. Even after the crackdown against the protest march on 6th May 2012 (not mentioned by him, of course), he still happily predicted that “in 10-15 years Russia will become Europe’s biggest economy” and invited investors to act accordingly.

Naturally, when a man with views like these comes to talk about Ukraine, we can’t expect him to be critical of the Kremlin’s position in the conflict. On Andrew Neil's show "This Week", in the The Spectator and The Telegraph the tactics Liam Halligan uses are simple: he rehashes official Russian propaganda, adding an occasional elaboration of his own.

With President Putin flatly denying the presence of Russian troops in the Crimea (while everybody on the ground knew very well that the so-called “self-defense units” were Russian soldiers without insignia, and indeed some of them acknowledged it), other lies from the Russian side should not be that surprising. Regimes like Putin’s, especially when they take the offensive, simply cannot do without lying. In one of his articles about the Spanish Civil war - even before his major works on totalitarian regimes - Orwell wrote: ”This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world” (George Orwell, Complete Works, edited by Peter Davison, Secker and Warburg, London, 1998, Vol.XIII, p.504).

Halligan does not say that there were no Russian troops in Crimea – he chooses a subtler approach. He says that all these were soldiers from the legitimate Russian Black Sea bases. Yet, according to the reports, there were many more Russian troops in Crimea than the number allowed to be stationed there. But even if this were so, why did they suddenly leave their bases? Halligan answers with a question: “What would British troops in, say, Cyprus do if the island suddenly saw riots and was on the cusp of serious bloodshed? What would we (and the world) expect them to do? We’d expect them to leave their bases and keep the peace, perhaps paying special attention to the safety of British citizens.” Even this might be true if, of course, the government of Cyprus would allow them to do it, but more importantly – under the Ukrainian authorities Crimea did not see any riots and was not on the cusp of serious bloodshed.

The same method is used to discuss other issues. In a passionate attack, Halligan asks: “Why did the West back a group of rock-throwing thugs as they forcefully ousted a Ukrainian president who, while no angel, had been legitimately elected until 2015? Why did we scrap a deal, signed by three EU foreign ministers, to form a ‘government of national unity’? Why is the current Kiev government ‘legitimate’ when its creation was opaque and transgressed Ukraine’s constitution?”

Every word in these convincingly sounding questions can be disputed. In November 2013 the Ukrainian President suddenly made a U-turn on the promised policy to get closer to Europe. In democratic countries with an independent parliament he would have faced serious opposition to such a move, including at least a motion of no confidence, and possibly even impeachment, but in the absence of democratic checks and balances in Ukraine (and Yanukovich had also changed the Constitution to give himself more power) this was not an option. So the people had to take to the streets – this is how the Maidan started. “Rock-throwing” after three months of peaceful protests was part of the Maidan’s response to the daily attacks and brutality of the government forces. The absolute majority of people on the Maidan were not “thugs” but the best of law-abiding and liberal citizens who wanted to put an end to the regime of swindlers and thieves. The West did not begin supporting the Maidan until 19th -20th February when Yanukovich’s regime started shooting at people and killed over 80 protesters. The deal signed on 21st February had to be scrapped because Yanukovich fled the country. The new government was approved by the legitimate parliament, and so on, and so forth….

The question that comes to mind as one is watching the BBC programme is why nobody there seems capable of challenging Halligan’s assertions? Andrew Neil makes heroic attempts to point out to his guest that Putin is an autocrat and Yanukovich a kleptocrat, and even mentions that Russia does not have any free media (Halligan replies: “There are many, many independent newspapers in Russia and many independent TV channels”). But Neil is much weaker on Ukrainian matters. And another guest, Michael Portillo, says that when he was Defence Secretary his colleagues tried very hard not to antagonise Putin by indicating to Ukraine that it might join Europe one day… As if without them, as I have tried to show in my previous blog, the Ukrainians would never have guessed that Europe and European values exist.

But there is a deeper, more general concern: what moves Putin’s few, but vocal, apologists in the West? Some of them seem to hate the United States so much that they are happy to blame it for everything that is happening in the world, and by contrast make Putin their hero. Others have business interests in Russia and are afraid that the general cooling of relations might prove harmful for their profits. Yet others simply do not have sufficient information. Whatever the reason, what seems incomprehensible is their willingness to ignore the responsibilities taken on by Britain and the US in the Budapest Memorandum and the sheer inability to imagine the consequences of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. 

The views expressed in blogs published on Rights in Russia are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Rights in Russia.