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“Nothing happens that we do not know about”: Portraits of Putin and Stalin overlook the pro-Russian headquarters in Donetsk, Ukraine (photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s mysterious disappearance from public view for 11 days last month came just as a belated consensus was emerging in Western capitals that his regime presents us with a serious problem. In truth—surprising as it may be to our diplomats—the problem long predates Putin, and will continue even after his re-emergence scotched speculation about the Russian President’s political and physical survival.

Back in 1994 the late Estonian President, Lennart Meri, made a prophetic speech at a conference on Baltic Sea cooperation in Hamburg, decrying the trend in Russian foreign and internal policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He highlighted Russia’s self-proclaimed right to intervene to protect “compatriots” abroad. Russia’s delegation (including a greyly unmemorable official from St Petersburg who later became president of Russia) walked out. Even earlier, in 1993, a brilliant Russian émigré called Viktor Yasman had published a prescient academic paper outlining a sinister new ideology, Eurasianism, based on anti-Westernism, Soviet nostalgia, nationalism and extreme Orthodox religiosity. More recently, opposition leaders such as my friend the late Boris Nemtsov told the West in the bleakest terms that Russia was heading towards dictatorship, that it was prepared to use force at home and abroad, and that our financial system was a vital part of the regime’s money-laundering.

We ignored these abundant and accurate warnings; instead we patronised and belittled their authors. We preferred the warm glow of the end of the Cold War, the prospect of Europe seemingly whole, free, and at peace—and making money in the “emerging market” of the ex-Soviet empire. In truth, the new Russia was a sham democracy awash with corruption. It skated over the Stalinist legacy, ignoring, not atoning for, the crimes perpetrated in captive nations in past decades. Indeed, it retained a belief that these places were destined—whether they liked it or not—to be Russia’s sphere of interest. Nor was the terror-machine of the KGB uprooted. It had merely mutated.

The arrival of an ex-KGB officer in the Kremlin in 2000, and since then of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues to the national treasury, has stoked Russian revisionism to the point that even Western foreign policy experts can see it. Repression at home and aggression abroad are now the dark stars by which the Kremlin sets its course. They obscure the real story of the Putin years: waste, incompetence, pomposity and—above all—colossal theft.

Though the emerging consensus accepts that Russia now a menace, not just a nuisance, it is still too complacent. It believes that sanctions are working, that problems are essentially confined to Ukraine, and that a combination of diplomacy and patience will win the day. It fails to ask three crucial questions. What does Russia want? Why is it winning? And what can we do to stop it?

The Putin regime is more than just the personality of its leader. He may be toppled or sidelined, but the criminal-capitalist business model that has taken root during his reign is all too durable. Clans may fight each other—a row between his Chechen satrapy and securocrats in Moscow began boiling up during his absence.

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in fear of life
April 24th, 2015
10:04 AM might be worth asking Omnicom Group if having SALLY ANN BRAY as an officer in their European operations (who is helping Gazprom as company secretary of G Plus) are not sanction busting

Andrij Halushka
March 30th, 2015
12:03 PM
Lawrence James, at no point Russia during its current war with Ukraine was protetingcitizens of Russia. What Russia did was clear and barefaced military aggression and occupation and annexation of part of its neigboring country

Warren C
March 29th, 2015
9:03 PM
It’s not just the City that has a predilection for Russian money; UK arms suppliers are also afflicted. Is it not ironic that for all Cameron’s bluster and bravado, he is reluctant to supply Ukraine with weapons, yet the Tory government has granted export licenses to sell weapons and military gear to Russia!

Warren C
March 28th, 2015
7:03 PM
Despite the title of the article, only on the penultimate paragraph does Lucas finally write about Russia's “pinstriped” cronies and accomplices. The rest of the article contains the repetitive banal trope Lucas spews. The fact is the City with its army of lawyers, accountants and bankers is awfully fond of Russian money. Moreover, both the Tories and Labour are in the pockets of the City. Therefore, probability of any serious action against Russian money and Russia's "pinstriped" accomplices and cronies in the City by the UK government is rather small. As regards Russian intentions in the Baltics, if Russia wanted to invade the Baltics to gain greater access to the Baltic Sea or intervene to protect its compatriots from discrimination and violence. There would be nothing that NATO can do about. Old Europe such as Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Greece and Spain will never fight for the Baltics and neither would many members of new Europe such as Hungary, Czech, Slovak Republics and Bulgaria. If the West and its army of propagandists such as Mr Lucas, keeps provoking Russia, then Russia will in all likelihood call NATO’s bluff in the Baltics.

Lawrence James
March 26th, 2015
12:03 PM
Edward Lucas is outraged by the Russian government's claim that it reserves the right to intervene to protect its 'compatriots' abroad. So it should, for this is a perfectly legitimate policy that has been adopted by every European power for centuries. This was why an Anglo-Dutch squadron shelled Algiers in 1816 to stop the enslavement of their citizens and those of other countries. Abuse of British subjects by the Greek government prompted the the Royal Navy's blockade of the Piraeus in 1850 to secure compensation for their losses. As our greatest Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston explained to the Commons every subject of the British Empire who was maltreated by a foreign government could invoke the protective power of Britain by claiming 'civis Britannicus sum',just as his Roman counterpart had once done. Foreign governments, particularly those he characterised as 'uncivilised' took heed, and, when they did not, gunboats appeared. Most famously British, American, German, Russian, French and Austrian warships converged on China in 1900 to protect their citizens who were being murdered by Boxer insurgents while the Chinese government stood idly by. It was finally brought to its senses by a multi-national contingent which marched to the besieged legations in Peking, suppressed the Boxers and extracted compensation. Given the pugnacious tone of his article, one assumes that Lucas would approve of these operations and the sound principle behind them.

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