JP O’Malley talked to author Peter Conradi about the authoritarianism behind the growing tension between a former superpower and its neighbours in the Baltic and the EU.
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On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev handed in his resignation as president of the Soviet Union. After just seven decades, the vision of a Marxist utopia was officially dead.
The Cold War, we were told at the time, had finally been won by the west.
But as Peter Conradi points out in his latest book Who Lost Russia: How the World Entered a New Cold War, simplifying the story made the west get complacent.
“The problem the United States had after the Cold War ended was to come up with a vision of how Russia could be integrated into the world system,” Conradi explains from the London offices of The Sunday Times, where he is currently foreign editor.
“Russia, because of its size, history, and military power, was never going to accept being treated by the United States like a large Poland,” Conradi explains.
During the mid to late 1990s, as Russia attempted to make the smooth transition from communism to capitalism, it looked, just momentarily, as if the United States and the former Soviet superpower might get on.
Or, that they could become solid global partners at the very least.
But then Russia’s economy during the1990s turned into a basket case: factories closed, inflation soared, pensions couldn’t be paid, and businesses often turned into places of organised crime.
“Up to 2000, Russia was very weak economically, and a pretty lawless place,” says Conradi, who was based in Moscow as a foreign correspondent until 1995.
And so, Russians did what they were told by the west during those early years after the Soviet Union broke up, Conradi explains: “Russia however was never going to continue to be just a subordinate ally of America.”
When former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, left the Kremlin in 1999, a dramatic sea change happened.
In fact, all US presidents, from Clinton onwards, Conradi argues, have been nonplussed with how to deal with Russia’s new ideology under its current president Vladimir Putin.
Russia today, for example, doesn’t exist in binary opposition to the west in the same way as, say, Marxism-Leninism did in the Soviet Union.
“There isn’t such a thing as Putinism,” Conradi explains: “Putin is looking back to an authoritarian past that is based on traditional Russian values. But it’s not very convincing.”
What Putin has managed to do, however, with some success, since he came to power in 2000 — Conradi argues in his latest book — is to restore some semblance of law and order across Russia.
But this restoration has come at a price, the author believes: “Putin has crushed liberal dissent,” he says.
“Putin has reversed lots of the liberal moves of the 1990s. And Russia is an increasingly illiberal country with rigged elections.”
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s nation state mythology became a strange hybrid of paternalism, authoritarianism, conservatism, and nationalism.
Russia also wants to reclaim a sphere of influence in its former satellite states from Soviet times. Namely, Ukraine, and then eventually the Baltic states, possibly even further afield.
Each of these countries has its own complex relationship with Russia.
Loyalties or hatreds depend, of course, on each country’s respective ethnicity, cultural values, and collective memory; especially since the imposed soviet history they remember was often brutal and oppressive.
The Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — for instance, have nothing but bad memories of being dominated by the Soviet Union under the auspices of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1940.
The Baltic states were then briefly occupied by the Nazis until 1944. And the Soviets occupied them yet again as the Second World War concluded, until 1991, when the three states broke away, and regained their independence as nation states.
Lithuania, for example, has recently announced it is planning to build a fence along its border with Russia to further boost Baltic security as Nato troops deploy to the region.
The Kremlin responded by announcing that the wall was a threat to security in the region.
In 1991, 113 people were killed, and more than 140 injured by the Soviet military in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, as Moscow attempted a crackdown on the Baltic republic and its drive for independence.
Can such a tragedy happen again?
Conradi believes today talk of Russian military expansionism in the Baltic states is slightly overrated.
“Putin is not trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union,” says Conradi: “Nor is Russia going to invade Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.”
Other former eastern bloc countries, however, have a more nuanced relationship with Moscow. Primarily because some ethnic communities within those nations naturally gravitate towards Russia, with whom they feel a closer affiliation.
Conradi’s book recalls how Ukraine, for example, in recent years wanted to have it both ways: with one foot in the common free trade area of the European Union, while also maintaining strong trading and cultural ties with Russia too.
However, neither the EU, nor the Kremlin, would allow Ukraine to sit as a bridge halfway between east and west. Instead, both sides insisted that Ukraine must choose a side.
What initially started as a simple conversation about global trade quickly spiralled out of control in December 2013.
Mass protests erupted in Kiev, and crowds smashed a statue of Lenin in protest, holding flags of both the Ukraine and the European Union, expressing their will to be part of the west.
The then president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country in February 2014, fearing his life was in danger.
As Conradi explains, the ousting of Yanukovych and the political instability it caused, provided the catalyst for Putin to annex Crimea in March 2014: thus bringing back into the fold a region that Putin declared at the time “has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.”
Following Yanukovych’s departure, the new government in Kiev had neither the will, nor the military forces, to take back Crimea. Moreover, the west did very little on Ukraine’s behalf, apart from some public moral posturing on the matter.
Conradi claims the EU must take some blame for allowing Ukraine to find itself in a position where it had to choose between Europe and Russia, before the crisis got out of control.
Especially since Ukraine is split down the middle — between those who look west to Europe, and those who look east to Russia.
“The EU mismanaged the Ukraine and the subject of its future,” Conradi says.
“And they underestimated the sensitivity of the Ukraine to Russia. There is a huge difference between, say, the Baltic states, who joined the EU and NATO, without any problems, and the Ukraine, which is so much closer to Russia — ethnically, linguistically, historically and culturally.
“The EU should have devised a status for Ukraine that allowed it to bridge a gap between the two sides.”
During the Obama era, relations between Russia and the West sunk to their lowest levels since the Cold War.
And as Conradi’s book points out, the annexation of Crimea displayed how an international boarder in Ukraine had been redrawn at the point of a gun.
This came with almost no repercussions from the west.
If international diplomacy and a series of Machiavellian political mind games can be handled by Russia in such an aggressive manner for one country in Eastern Europe, can and will Putin continue on this path of Russian expansionism?
With Trump’s arrival in the White House this past January, America’s relationship with the Kremlin will yet again be crucial.
But, givenTrump’s extremely unpredictable nature, predictions are near impossible, says Conradi: “Will Trump actually sit down and say: I don’t want America to be part of NATO anymore? I’m not sure he will.”
To understand the complex relationship in more detail, it’s worth looking at Europe and the West from a Russian point of view, says Conradi.
“Russians feel they are constantly being confronted by a solid wall of the EU and NATO together. So, from a Russian perspective, anything that slightly weakens the solidarity of that bloc is seen as positive.”
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