(Version published in Village Magazine, March, 2016)
As we know well in Ireland filthy lucre is one of man’s greatest temptations. In the venal world of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869), virtually all of the characters apart from the Prince and Nastassya Filippovna succumb to greed. Ganya is willing to do almost anything in his passion for money – even marry someone he despises and of whom his family disapproves. General Ivolgin desires money to support his addiction to alcohol and to allow him to spend time with his mistress. Lebedev is willing to put his hands into a fireplace to retrieve a package with 100,000 roubles inside that Nastassya Filippovna discards.
No one pays attention to Myshkin, the Idiot, until his inheritance is revealed; afterwards, he is surrounded by claimants who desire his money. In the society of The Idiot, money not only creates one’s fortune it also obtains one a bride. ‘Bids’ for Nastassya Filippovna range from 75,000 roubles to 100,000 to over a million. Money, then, is a clear symbol of the perversion of human values in the novel.
Russia fell into a similar stupor at the end of the Cold War when excessive wealth corrupted Russian politics with Boris Yeltsin cast in the role of the Idiot, his powers declining in a haze of vodka as the plot unfolds. It was in this den of iniquities that Vladimir Putin rose to power, the former KGB officer emerging from obscurity to become prime minister and then being elected President in 2000 when Yeltsin finally lost his reason.
More sinisterly, it has been alleged that, presumably under the direction of Putin, the Russian secret services, the FSB, bombed apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 killing almost three hundred people and pinning the blame on Chechnyan separatists. In any event, Putin was able to use the war in Chechnya to good propagandistic effect and secure the public attention to carry him to power.
Such calumny might have appeared in another of Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novels Devils (1872). Towards the end one of the conspirators Lyamshin is put on trial and asked ‘Why so many murders, scandals and outrages committed?’ He responds that it was to promote: ‘the systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles; to demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything, and then, when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical and sceptical, but still with a perpetual desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation – suddenly to gain control of it.’
Confronting a ruthless interlocutor such as Russian President Vladimir Putin is the greatest foreign policy challenge that Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War. The approach needs to be conditioned by awareness that he was an operative ‘with a lowered sense of danger’, according to the analysis of his former KGB employers. Last year he remarked: ‘fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me that if a fight is inevitable, you have to hit first.’
But in order to act out his violent fantasies, a perceived affront is required. Pretexts for violence must be avoided. In particular Putin must be given no excuse for further intervention in Ukraine which is treated as a domestic concern, indissoluble from Russia: Putin views the former territory of the Soviet Union as Russia’s inheritance and crucial to her security. The Union thus must manage the difficult task helping where possible the Ukrainian people to overcome the endemic corruption there without giving the impression they are seeking to expand into its territory.
Last September Putin shocked the world by weighing into the Syrian conflict with air strikes against rebel-held targets. Controversially the primary targets did not seem to be ISIL. An article in Time magazine (9/15) by Timothy Snyder argued that the motivation for Russia’s intervention in Syria was to turn Europe into a ‘refugee factory’, compelled to accommodate many more beleaguered victims than have already arrived. This is based on the credible assessment that the he views the stability of the European Union as a threat to Russia.
More likely Putin wishes to bolster a client authoritarian regime in the Middle East and play to a growing anti-Islamic gallery in Europe. He appeals to the populations of former Communist states of Eastern Europe where a largely hostile response to the refugee crisis (as witnessed by the election victory of the anti-refugee Law and Justice Party in Poland) has been in stark contrast to the popular outpouring of generosity witnessed in many Western European countries.
Putin now engages in doublespeak of an order that his carefully crafted public utterances should not be trusted. In dealing with Syria he argues that its sovereignty including territorial integrity should be respected yet he flagrantly ignored that principle when annexing the Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting rebellion in Donetsk, a conflict that has now created 2 million refugees. But however repugnant that conduct his continued hold over power in Russia looks assured.
This is despite the Russian economy enduring a collapse in the price of oil and European sanctions: it is running an unsustainable budget deficit of almost 5%. Soon a key threshold will be reached where over 50% of an average income is spent food. But a popular narrative of withstanding adversity for the sake of the greatness of mother Russia allows him to persevere with a policy of economic autarky. Sanctions could actually have the effect of bolstering his power, as occurred in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Pre-emptive support for the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine by the European Union may have contributed to Russian intervention. Putin withstood Moscow street protests against his rule in 2011 and the overthrow of Victor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine was viewed as a potential inspiration to his domestic opponents. But European leaders were too gung-ho in their offer of European Union membership and actually inflamed the situation giving the Putin the pretext to intervene in Crimea and Donbass.
In the face of the danger posed by Putin we must hope that Europe retains its cohesion. Among the important global objectives the Europe Union should pursue is repairing the damage to international law caused by the illegal US –led invasion of Iraq. This represented a new departure in international relations and the current anarchy has given Putin an opportunity to intervene in other states.
We should also refrain from imposing lazy historical analysis in our assessment of Putin. He is not ‘the new Hitler’ against whom ‘appeasement’ is misguided. The challenge Putin’s Russia poses to Europe and global peace and development is unique. Moreover, viewing Ukraine as a zero sum game between Europe and Russia is mistaken. The development of Ukraine will be a slow process and does not have to be contrary to Russian interests. The connections between Russia and Ukraine are deep and should be acknowledged.
Rather than projecting European power eastwards, the Union needs to focus on ensuring that the increasing cleavage caused by migration and austerity between European states of the periphery and the core are not accentuated. Keeping the European house in order is the best way to confront Putin. We hope that the Brexit palaver does not have a disruptive effect on the rest of the Union.
More worrying perhaps are relations between Turkey and Russia between whom a proxy war is developing in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the shooting down of a Russian aircraft over Turkish aerospace in November was the first shot fired in a more generalised conflict. Presumably Turkey’s membership of NATO will deter Putin but the hotheads in Ankara could be emboldened.
There seems to be a complacency on both the right and left in Europe regarding the endurance of peace in perpetuity. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction is supposed to make wars between nuclear states an impossibility but that is no more than an assumption. The European Community was born as a peace process after 30 years of horrific wars, and has contained the destructive force of nationalism. The Union may have significant faults but needs to hold fast in the face of external threats. We must hope that the prospect of Brexit will not lead the Union to unravel and give Putin the freedom to act as chooses.