The Russian Enigma | The article
In the art of Kremlinology, one might be forgiven for assuming that not much has changed since 1939, when Churchill confessed that he could not “foresee the action of Russia.” It is an enigma shrouded in a mystery within an enigma ”. Then it was not clear whether Stalin’s Russia would be Hitler’s enemy or his ally. Today we are no less intrigued by the goals of Putin’s Russia. That this means the free world is no good, however, is a conclusion that’s hard to avoid.
At any moment, Russian forces are ready to start a new proxy war with Ukraine, using the separatists in the Donetsk region as a pretext. We do not know whether the build-up at the border is a bluff or, if not, when hostilities will begin; much less can we understand why such misery and destruction could be in anyone’s best interest. But the fortification of Crimea, annexed by Moscow seven years ago, into a nuclear-armed military and naval complex may be a clue. In order to hang on to his ill-gotten gains, Putin must keep the Ukrainians permanently on the defensive and the West in retreat. Needless to say, the Kremlin accused NATO, which has reinforced its nearby units, of threatening aggression itself.
It is no different in Belarus, the strategically vital buffer state often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Last weekend, two Belarusians were arrested in Moscow on charges of plotting to assassinate their despotic president, Alexander Lukashenko. The Russian secret police, the FSB, handed over the men to the authorities in Minsk. There, Lukashenko himself claims to have found evidence that the conspirators were involved in foreign agencies: “most likely the FBI, the CIA”. No such evidence has yet been produced, but the allegations provide a useful pretext to crush opposition in Belarus, where mass protests last year against a rigged presidential election nearly toppled the regime.
In Russia itself, the opposition is preparing to stage its biggest protests to date on Wednesday evening, to coincide with the president’s state-of-the-nation speech in the Duma. The main focus of the protesters will be Alexei Navalny, who is now languishing in a penal colony and after nearly three weeks of hunger strike. He was denied medical help outside the prison camp and his personal doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, was arrested while trying to visit him. But she says, based on blood tests, his potassium level is “critical” and a cardiologist, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, warns he “could die at any time.” Calling on Russians to gather in city centers on Wednesday at 7 p.m., Navalny’s chief assistant Leonid Volkov said on social media: “His life hangs by a thread … we don’t have [much] time.”
It is impossible to predict what would happen if Navalny were to die. His health was of course devastated by the attempt to poison him with Novichok last summer and has been further undermined by his harsh treatment since returning to Russia. Yet his remarkable resurrection after weeks in a coma after the assassination attempt, his refusal to be forced into exile, and his courage in his trial all contributed immensely to his status as a popular hero and potential rival to Putin. . Russian Ambassador to London Andrew Kelin told the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday that Navalny, whom he called a “thug”, would “not be allowed to die in prison”. This indicates that the Kremlin is concerned about the impact of Navalny’s death in custody, leading to his posthumous emergence as a resistance legend.
The tragedies currently playing out in Russia have had repercussions here as well. Boris Johnson is said to have ordered the modernization of the Official Secrets Act, parts of which date back more than a century, in time for the Queen’s Speech on May 11. The new legislation will encompass not only espionage, but also cyber warfare and interference in democracy. treat. Foreign intelligence agents and agents can currently spy with impunity unless they are caught stealing official secrets. Under the new law, authorities could anticipate their activities, with new powers to prosecute and expel spies. A register of all those who work for foreign governments will be kept, including lobbyists, while cyber hackers based abroad will also be covered. This legislation will replace an even more draconian treason law once hinted at by Boris Johnson, but the new bill will also require careful drafting if it is to avoid fierce resistance from human rights activists.
The intelligence community still echoes the revelation that the same Russian spies who carried out the Salisbury attack in 2018 were also responsible four years earlier for sabotaging a Czech ammunition depot. An explosion killed two workers and was intended to disrupt the export of arms to Ukraine. GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) unit 29155 was reportedly behind a series of attacks across Europe, including other poisoning incidents in Novichok.
Western strategy should never underestimate the impact of Russian espionage and sabotage. Putin remains a dangerous opponent and he has grown more daring over the years. When Joe Biden tells his Russian counterpart that Navalny’s treatment is “totally unfair and totally inappropriate,” or pledges US support for Ukraine against “Russia’s ongoing aggression” in the Donbass region, Putin can just ignore that. Western sanctions have yet to dissuade the Kremlin from its machinations.
Yet we also must not exaggerate Putin’s power and influence. It still has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons outside of the United States, and its control of energy supplies has earned it kudos in Europe, especially Germany. But compared to the Chinese Leviathan, Russia is indeed a very small fish. Moscow’s attempts to hide the scale of Covid deaths – which are almost certainly several times larger than official figures – remind us that in some ways Russia remains a backward country. Its grotesquely large military budget comes at a high price due to declining standards of living and declining life expectancy. Factors that fuel domestic discontent – corruption and stagnation – also limit the Kremlin’s room for maneuver abroad.
There is no doubt that the Putin police state will be making a show of force this week, but Navalny and other opponents have shown that they will not be intimidated. Intervening directly would be counterproductive, but we in the West should show that we care about what is happening on the streets of Moscow and elsewhere. Russia may still be an enigma, but – from Pushkin to Pussy Riot – it is also an essential part of Western civilization.
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