Putin’s most telling month: December

Vladimir Putin had a relaxing “year of adventure,” as my colleagues call it, impressing Russia and entertaining the rest of the world with populism — motorcycle riding, whale harpooning, fire-fighting — and coquettish flutters of the eyelids regarding his political intentions or lack thereof in 2012. But the most telling events happened in the closing ...

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin had a relaxing "year of adventure," as my colleagues call it, impressing Russia and entertaining the rest of the world with populism -- motorcycle riding, whale harpooning, fire-fighting -- and coquettish flutters of the eyelids regarding his political intentions or lack thereof in 2012. But the most telling events happened in the closing days and weeks of the year, in which the Russian prime minister revealed his more familiar dark side.

I don't necessarily mean today's harsh prison sentence of 13.5 years against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- enough to keep him in jail until 2017, factoring in the time he's already served -- which reflects hard-nosed Putin re-election strategy rather than unadulterated venality on his part. Rather, the more instructive event of 2010 is his embrace this month of racist hoods with chilling power on the street, a thread of extremism that Putin himself kindled and now is racing to get ahead of. Putin's December suggests that, for the moment at least, Russia prefers to remain an unnerving outsider.

Vladimir Putin had a relaxing “year of adventure,” as my colleagues call it, impressing Russia and entertaining the rest of the world with populism — motorcycle riding, whale harpooning, fire-fighting — and coquettish flutters of the eyelids regarding his political intentions or lack thereof in 2012. But the most telling events happened in the closing days and weeks of the year, in which the Russian prime minister revealed his more familiar dark side.

I don’t necessarily mean today’s harsh prison sentence of 13.5 years against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky — enough to keep him in jail until 2017, factoring in the time he’s already served — which reflects hard-nosed Putin re-election strategy rather than unadulterated venality on his part. Rather, the more instructive event of 2010 is his embrace this month of racist hoods with chilling power on the street, a thread of extremism that Putin himself kindled and now is racing to get ahead of. Putin’s December suggests that, for the moment at least, Russia prefers to remain an unnerving outsider.

In watching Russia, it’s important to clear away the brush in which one can get lost. For starters, despite some excited talk over civil rights and the New START treaty, Russia is not a security threat to the United States or NATO. Russia does remain a place where victims and their defenders suddenly find themselves the accused, as the New York Times’ Clifford Levy writes movingly of Oleg Orlov and his defense of the murdered Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. But, while China is deploying a blue-water navy that actually will test U.S. dominance of the Indian Ocean and sea lanes beyond, Russia challenges the United States nowhere militarily. Critics continue to pile onto New START, saying the nuclear arms reduction treaty weakens missile defense, but the opposite is true: Moscow has offered, and ought to be granted, a partnership in a grand missile defense umbrella covering the Eurasian land mass. (Grave doubts remain whether such technology will work any time soon, as we have discussed previously, but that is no reason not to enlarge the common ground between NATO and Russia now.)

Neither is it worth getting vexed over another Russian event this year: the U.S. exposure and expulsion of 11 Russian sleeper agents, one of whom went on to become a cover girl in Russia. Countries and their counterintelligence agencies tend to get nervous in the presence of foreign espionage agents, and the more so when they are working undercover not in embassies, but as financial planners and travel and real estate agents. But, again, did this group pose any special danger? After receiving them as national heroes, Putin told Larry King this month that the group was planted “to be actively involved during crisis times and when diplomatic ties are suspended, when other means of intelligence service are not efficient or sometimes are not possible.” But we are not worried about property and holiday surveillance.

Almost no recent Russian event, however, has attracted more attention than the Khodorkovsky trial. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle argue that the billionaire’s fresh conviction has hurt Russia’s business climate, Bloomberg’s Henry Meyer and Anna Shiryaevskaya report. Richard Ottaway, chairman of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said the trial’s outcome “has serious implications for the confidence of overseas investors and on British investment in Russia.”

But is this an accurate read? I myself have never noticed a measurable economic impact from Russia’s years-long record of murder and business malpractice. If Khodorkovsky were free today, Russia would remain a rotten place to do business, unless of course one excels at gaming the economic, financial and judicial systems. As business titan Viktor Potanin suggested last week, you’re okay in Russian business as long as you are brawny or well-connected. “To do business, you need a powerful partner — either a large company or the authorities,” Potanin said. Even that isn’t necessarily sufficient, as we understood this month when retail behemoth Wal-Mart shut down operations in Russia just a couple of years after arriving.

In a key and ironic way, Russia in fact appears more attractive than the most successful economic model in the world at the moment: Unlike in China, General Electric, for instance,  could seal a Russian deal this week for a potential of billions of dollars in electric-generating equipment sales, secure in the knowledge that its technology will not be stolen, and that a competing company won’t be created to grab future business around the world. (One reason is that, even if it wished to, Russia no longer has the wherewithal that it possessed under Stalin to pillage Western technology.) Western oil and natural gas companies will continue to flock to Russia, regardless of the theft of some of their properties, because they are accustomed to that sort of risk.

So if security isn’t a concern, and Western businesspeople don’t necessarily have a gripe with Khodorkovsky’s raw deal, is Putin’s Russia a problem for the outside world? The short answer is yes — and the reason why emerged this month in racist violence in Moscow. This is activity that could easily become destabilizing, and encourage similar behavior outside Russia’s borders.

On Dec. 11, some 5,000 skinheads and soccer fans gathered near the Kremlin in a wild demonstration against anyone not of Slavic nationality. They attacked passersby who did not pass that litmus test, and when the few police present intervened, they were attacked with “flares, knives and metal rods,” reported the Financial Times’ Charles Clover. (Earlier this month, Clover got inside the Russian skinhead movement and provided this excellent FT Magazine story.)

Historically, such groups start out around the world as officially managed enterprises, but often end up managing their creators. The best current example is Pakistan. In the 1970s, then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started Pakistan on the activist Islamic path in what he imagined was simple creative local politics. His successor and executor, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, picked up where Bhutto left off and created the militant Islamic and nationalist movements that today threaten both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Similarly, writes Miriam Elder at Global Post, Putin created the nationalist Nashi and Young Guard in response to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, training and indoctrinating thousands of Russian youth as street power against whomever Putin so chose. The motivation was to “use nationalism to fill the ideological vacuum created by the Soviet Union’s dissolution,” Elder writes.

But it’s no longer clear who is in charge, Clover wrote last week:

Russia’s ultra-right has for two decades been little more than a curiosity: fodder for hand-wringing academics writing about ‘Weimar Russia.’ But in the wake of the biggest ethnic riots Russia has seen since the Soviet Union’s fall, this formerly marginal if violent movement has arisen as a fearsome new political power. The riots over the past two weeks have seen Moscow’s racist gangs swiftly mobilize thousands of supporters with little warning … and openly defying the Russian leadership.

The Dec. 11 protest was partly ignited by the murder five days earlier of Yegor Sviridov, a 28-year-old Russian soccer fan who was killed by Dagestani supporters of another team. Putin has attempted to get back in front of the phenomenon by visiting Sviridov’s grave, and, while urging everyone to calm down in order to avoid ethnic violence, delivering an in-no-way-uncertain message: If the trouble goes on, the answer will be to limit the number of non-Slavic migrants permitted in Moscow.

Whale-harpooning and firefighting are comic relief. Out-of-control jackboots are not.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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