United Press International – 17 April 2000
The former KGB is guilty of many things, but inflexibility is not one of them. Its overriding aim remains, as ever, the domination of Russia by an exploitative elite. In pursuit of this, it has often changed its name and altered its doctrine. Indeed, when it saw that the Communist game was up, it abandoned its ideology altogether.
One effect of this renunciation has been to divorce it from Leftists abroad. Those in Europe, too often willing to overlook Soviet abuses in the name of Marxism, now rightly stand aghast at the atrocities in Chechnya. So, as the "Soldiers' Mothers of St Petersburg" recount horrifying testimony of rape, torture and indiscriminate murder, President Putin must look elsewhere for international solidarity.
Step forward, Tony Blair, whose paean of praise for the Russian leader is grimly reminiscent of those socialists who saw no evil in Stalin's rule when visiting Moscow in the 1930s. My Prime Minister feels "comfortable" with Putin and his "vision of the future". For – like New Labour's – Putin's watchword is "modernisation". When Putin talks about building a strong Russia, Mr Blair helpfully explains that he really means strength
"not in a threatening way, but in a way that means the country economically and politically is capable of standing up for itself, which is a perfectly good aim to have".
As President of Russia, what does it matter that your voting rights in Europe are suspended, if Britain rolls out the red carpet? What price criticism from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, when New Labour's spin-doctors will brush up your image? How many thousands more must you kill before your scheduled audience with the Queen is deemed inappropriate?
In Putin, Russia has a leader who volunteered to be a KGB snitch whilst still a Leningrad teenager. He built his career proudly in the secret service of an evil empire. In Blair, Britain has a leader who swallows whole Russia's professed concern about international terrorism though Putin's KGB now stands exposed as paymaster of some of the most vicious terrorist bands which plagued democratic states during the Cold War. Despite admitting that
"We do not know the extent to which international terrorists are causing trouble in Chechnya",
Blair's spokesmen confirm that intelligence information is being traded.
Does my Government naïvely believe that the Chechens foolishly supplied the pretext for their own annihilation by pointless bomb-blasts in Moscow? The concept of the "short victorious war" as a diversion from internal mismanagement has a long and inglorious history in Russia. It has worked a treat for Putin, as most commentators concede. While NATO pilots were aborting air raids on Serbia for fear of hitting civilian targets, Putin's popularity was on the crest of a wave as Grozny was pounded into oblivion.
For some reason, New Labour academics like Peter Truscott of its tame think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, are confident that this contrast need not be a barrier. He views Blair as
"best placed amongst the heads of EU member governments to build a personal relationship with Vladimir Putin",
despite the "bloody carnage in Chechnya". It could even lead, he thinks,
"to a new Entente Cordiale between our two countries".
Some things are evidently more important than military massacres or the antisemitic and homosexual smears used by state television to undermine Grigori Yavlinski – the third-placed presidential candidate whose vote might have stopped Putin winning on the first ballot.
After all, the West want Russian missile cuts under START II – something which was largely happening anyway, given the parlous state of the country's military budget and nuclear stockpile. It should come as no surprise that ratification will be conditional on America backing away from any National Missile Defence scheme. Let us see if the price of the new Entente will be British sabotage of NMD, at least in Europe, or whether we will be allowed to overlook the threat of a return of the Communists, if the West's political and financial support for Putin is insufficiently generous.
In Britain, the Blair Project was to recreate the Labour Party without its election-losing socialist dogma; in Russia, the Putin Project is to recreate the power-structures of the Communists without the Marxist ideology. The aim is to restore a powerful state and eventually build a new version of the former USSR where there is political and military dominance without the economic burdens of direct administration. Already the Ukraine is under pressure following huge cutbacks in Russian oil deliveries in the past few months, and there have been moves to unify intelligence agencies – to fight "terrorism", of course – in Russia, Belarus and some Central Asian States.
It does not do to be too critical of New Russia. The crusading journalist Artyom Borovik has just come to an untimely end in an air crash – convenient, even if accidental – and there are other worrying portents. An academic friend of mine was recently given a "friendly warning" of the risks she was taking in publicly comparing the current projection of Putin as a forward-looking moderniser with the KGB's manipulation of President Andropov's image as a liberal in the early 1980s. Those who bomb their own citizens are unlikely to stop at trifles.
By cosying up to Blair, the Russian leader aims to win respectability and rehabilitation, to create jealousy in Paris and Berlin (where opposition to the Chechen massacres has creditably been more vocal), and to exert leverage in Washington. By returning the favour, the British leader hopes to burnish his image as an international statesman and to create illusory comparisons with Margaret Thatcher at the end of the Cold War. It is easy to see which of them will get the best of this unsavoury bargain.
[Dr Lewis is a Conservative member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and Vice-chairman of the Conservative Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. He is writing in a personal capacity.]