The Russians Are Coming?

When the Kremlin sent its tanks and soldiers into Georgia this past August, it demonstrated to the world that it is prepared to confront a Western-backed nation in the most forceful terms possible—up to and including military action, if need be. Since then foreign policy experts and politicians in Europe and the US have embarked on a vigorous debate about how best to respond to Russia’s growing assertiveness.

Their fears were further heightened in early January when Moscow, in an escalating feud with the Ukrainian government, briefly shut down pipelines running through Ukraine, which provide Europe’s principal supply of natural gas. Coming during a deep winter cold spell, the move left several Eastern European countries without heat, causing schools and factories to close—and forcing European leaders into a round of urgent diplomacy with Russia.

Few of those striving to analyze the situation, however, have gone about the task with the passion of Edward Lucas, a journalist with The Economist who has been covering Central and Eastern Europe for nearly a quarter of a century. The title of his new book, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, was treated by some reviewers as a bit of a stretch when it first appeared in 2008; since the conflict in Georgia and this winter’s natural gas crisis, though, it has looked more like prescience, as commentators have tripped over each other to announce the revival of geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. Lucas is refreshingly direct:

Twenty years after Mikhail Gorbachev started dismantling communism, Russia is reverting to Soviet behavior at home and abroad, and in its contemptuous disregard for Western norms.

This is a pretty bold assertion, but Lucas immediately sets about qualifying it.

It turns out that quite a lot has changed. For one thing, Russia has embraced capitalism—albeit a form of capitalism marred by institutionalized cronyism, minimal rule of law, and endemic corruption. The ex-KGB men who returned to power with Putin have close relations with the organized crime syndicates and some of the oligarchs who played such a prominent part in the Yeltsin era. (Today’s secret policemen are quite different from the Jacobin executioners of Lenin’s day or the torturers of Stalin’s Lubyanka; modern-day Chekists, as Lucas points out, are more likely to be high-paid CEOs than ascetic servants of the state.) The result is a hybrid regime described by Putin and his supporters as “managed democracy”—in fact a markedly authoritarian system that merges select trappings of liberalism (elections, the right to own property, and the freedom to travel) with an ideological mishmash of tsarist imperialism, Soviet nostalgia, and xenophobia inspired by nationalist visions of a Greater Russia.

It does not add up to a pretty picture. Prominent critics of the regime—such as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the ex–secret policeman turned dissident Alexander Litvinenko—have been murdered under mysterious circumstances. Those who have tried to pose serious …

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The Russians Are Coming?’ April 30, 2009