Thursday, June 05, 2014

Rewriting History

There is an interesting article by Michael Weiss in Foreign Affairs pointing out the ongoing contest between Russia and Estonia. What is interesting is not so much the Estonian response to Russian spying, but just how intense the competition has become. At the same time comes reports of possible confrontations in space and hostile interceptions by Russian air force planes in the Black Sea and the Sea of Japan.

The Cold War is back with a vengeance.

Russia, having crushed the free media at home has also orchestrated an information war where seemingly large numbers of cybertrolls are unleashed on any commentary that challenges the Russian media narrative. A good example are the comments on Simon Heffer's brimstone filled condemnation of Putin being present at the D-Day commemoration in France. This is organised and orchestrated astroturfing. It is a brutal and deeply unpleasant corruption of free speech.

As I have often written, the hostility of Vladimir Putin's Russia towards the West is uncompromising and implacable. Yet still there are those who, for their own short sighted reasons, do not register the extreme danger emanating from the Kremlin. Whether it is the French who are still willing to sell offensive weapons to Russia, or the property and financial specialists in London who are still eager to prostitute themselves to the highest bidder, irrespective of morality and sometimes even law.

Nevertheless, the reality in Russia is now extremely bleak. Having captured the levers of the Russian state, the mafia regime is simply unable to address catastrophic problems that beset Russian society. The creaking infrastructure and low levels of investment are seeing whole swathes of Russia facing an economic breakdown on a truly stunning scale. Now the threats of nationalization and confiscation of foreign assets have placed a premium on Russian risk that makes all but the most committed or most foolhardy blench. The result is a drastic acceleration of capital flight which is reversing years of careful husbanding and undermining the Kremlin attempts to use their war chest of reserves as a financial weapon. Putin has drastically accelerated expenditure on the armed forces, but even that can not begin to match the capabilities of the United States.

Yet Putin is a Judoka. He seriously intends to try to challenge the West by catching them off guard. He knows that a smaller player can still beat a bigger opponent, if he can use their weight against them. He thinks that he can create an alliance with China that will give him the power to move freely in Europe.

Yet his first attempts at a real agreement with the Chinese have cost him very dear. Although the Russian info-warriors hailed the Russo-Chinese gas deal as a Putinist triumph, a more detailed reading of the runes suggests something quite close to a Russian disaster. So desperate was Vladimir Putin to reach agreement in Shanghai, that his negotiating position was totally exposed and in short the Chinese drove a very hard bargain indeed. From a strategic point of view even a colossal discount to the price they sell gas to the Europeans was worth it. From a financial point of view it is insanity and this reckless politicking severely undermines the long term future of Gazprom.

Putin's contempt for the West does not make the West weaker, his hatred does not alter Russian weakness, and indeed it is now possible to see the trouble that Putin has stored up for the future could severely backfire on Moscow. As demonstrations in Abhazia challenge the Russian dominated order and the economic woes of Crimea grow more serious, the idea that the solution to Russia's problems involves taking over still more of other countries' territory grows patently absurd. The continuing support of the Donbas rebels has cut off all hope of any Russian rehabilitation in the international community, and the economic and financial position of Russia is eroding even more rapidly than was first forecast.

As the confrontation opens up more fronts from cyberspace to outer space, the sleazy and brutal regime in Moscow may find that, against determined opposition, even the most skilled Judoka can face a comprehensive and irrevocable defeat.

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