Opinion

John Lloyd

The claims for Russian imperialism

John Lloyd
Mar 4, 2014 19:28 UTC

The more or less liberal, democratic, capitalist countries that make up seven of the Group of Eight (G8) have condemned Russia and are discussing boycotting the June G8 meeting in Sochi. There is even talk of expelling Russia from the group.

This western government consensus against Russia’s actions is based on evidence that prompted the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to say that it is “hard to avoid concluding that Russia does not want peace and does not want a diplomatic solution.”

It is time, since this is what news media in democracies do, to question that consensus. Let’s consider the case for what’s being called Russian neo-imperialism.

Claim — President Victor Yanukovich was democratically elected by the people of Ukraine in 2010.

He was, by a reasonable margin. Though his main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, alleged fraud, she later withdrew her claim. But after growing corruption, tightened authoritarian rule and the murder by apparently state-sponsored thugs of more than 80 people protesting against Yanukovich’s rule, the parliament in Kiev voted by a substantial majority to strip him of office. Later, with a similar majority, it voted to accept the new government that is now in place.

Ukraine is Putin’s great test

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2014 23:22 UTC

To lose Ukraine — as the Russians and the President of Russia Vladimir Putin would see it — would be a huge blow. For Russians, it is part of them; of their history, of their economy and of their kin. If Putin were to “lose” Ukraine it would hurt him with the large part of the Russian population who have supported him and even more with the circle of military and security people who are his closest and most critical colleagues. The specter of being deposed like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or, even worse, Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, hangs over him.

More than anything else in his 14 years in power, four of these behind the scenes as prime minister, Putin is faced with a test of his own rhetoric. After his return to the presidency in May 2012, his speech has been composed of increasingly bellicose warnings to the West.

“Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech last December. “We will never allow this to happen. Russia will respond to all these challenges, political and military.” In the same address, and on other occasions,  Putin has portrayed the West as degenerate. “Euro-Atlantic countries which have moved away from their roots, including Christian values…on the same level (are placed) a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership…this is the path to degradation.”

Putin’s vision of equality

John Lloyd
Sep 13, 2013 19:28 UTC

The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there’s a light.

For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you’re up, I’m down. It’s not a pleasant equation, but it’s terribly hard to give up.

Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It’s likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin’s way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.

Where is Russia headed?

John Lloyd
Jul 24, 2013 12:20 UTC

Masha Lipman, one of the great chroniclers of Russian politics, told a story at a conference I attended outside of Moscow earlier this week. It was about two scholars who, in a recent discussion about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, fell into a savage argument. One saw the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, the other as a release from tyranny. So radical and bitter was the disagreement that they came to blows, an unheard of event in the generally decorous world of Russian academia. 

Lipman also noted that, in a discussion in the Duma (parliament), several deputies called for the abolition of the country’s Independence Day on June 12, established in 1990. One suggested moving the date to whenever National Day took place in the 10th century, when “Rus” was first formed — in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine — a none too subtle way of saying that Russia was once a Slavic empire, and could be again.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, might agree with the deputies. It would be surprising if he did not — he is, after all, the same man who said in 2005 that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

The special relationship: Putin and Berlusconi

John Lloyd
Jun 8, 2013 04:01 UTC

Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/File

The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.

Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother — a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.

Russia’s reckoning

John Lloyd
May 7, 2013 18:05 UTC

Russia is now in a hard, even dangerous, place. A series of shocks are coming, and it is not well placed to weather them. It has, to be sure, little debt: Vladimir Putin’s administration is proud that the state has borrowed little and has built up a multibillion-ruble national reserve fund. Yet even that is ending, and the basics of the economy are weak. The former Marxists among Russia’s ruling class will know that the economic base determines the political and social superstructure. It is not looking good for them.

What’s worse, Russia isn’t a major player in the global economy. According to Eurostat figures, it has 2.4 percent of world gross domestic product, slightly under that of India; and 2.6 percent of world trade, slightly more than India has. It’s important, especially to Europe, in one significant economic aspect: It ships very large amounts of energy: 63 percent of European Union imports from Russia is oil, a further 9 percent is natural gas, with a further 3 per cent for coal. Icy Russia heats Europe. In return, Russia has, for the past decade, been enriched, as a once impoverished nation, which defaulted in 1998, surged to a lifestyle that supports a burgeoning middle class.

But oil and natural gas prices are falling now, and don’t look like they will rise again soon: “Over the coming few years,” writes Forbes commentator Bill Conerly, “look for oil prices to decline at least below $80 a barrel and quite possibly more” because of increased production. Gas prices are worse: The once-mighty Gazprom, which had dictated prices and terms to those it supplied, has been forced to discount and saw its profits fall last year by $6.5 billion, or 15 percent. The warnings, inside and out of the country, that it was dangerously dependent on fossil fuels for its newfound wealth and strength are coming home to roost. Russia may face recession.

Boris Berezovsky: An oligarch who lost his status

John Lloyd
Mar 25, 2013 18:22 UTC

Among the initial wave of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky was the first among equals, and among the last.

By the mid- to late 1990s, he had become the most powerful figure, after the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, in the Kremlin. A mathematician and engineer of ability, Berezovsky leveraged an early success as a car salesman at a time of rampant inflation into huge wealth and control of media, auto, aviation and oil assets.

He strongly backed Vladimir Putin for president after Yeltsin’s resignation; indeed, he was his main promoter. In Putin, the apparently modest and amiable former KGB officer, Berezovsky saw somebody with self-discipline. He also saw somebody with the need for financial and intellectual support from somebody who had much of both – somebody like Berezovksy.

Changing the Moscow rules

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2012 20:48 UTC

Around the time Vladimir Putin started his first term as Russia’s president in 2000, a man named Gleb Pavlovsky appeared on the Moscow scene. Pavlovsky was a former dissident in Soviet times who called himself a “political technologist”, a highfalutin term for spin doctor. That isn’t to diminish him: Spin doctors in different administrations all over the world are among the most interesting political figures of contemporary times, because their job is to give a narrative about the government and the leaders they serve.

In doing so, they help give the narrative to the leaders themselves, who may not have worked out quite what they were going to do with power, since they were too busy getting and keeping it. They are the necessary middlemen between political power and the media. The media need a big story, and the spin doctors, or political technologists, are there to provide it.

Vladimir Putin, the man chosen by former President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, didn’t know what to do when he arrived. At the time Pavlovsky moved into the Kremlin as his aide, the new president was – as Pavlovsky later said – consumed with anxiety that he would not succeed in imposing his will on a Kremlin still full of aides who were not his choice. Putin, remember, was still less than a decade away from being a middle-ranking, surplus-to-requirements KGB officer.

Do Russians really want democracy?

John Lloyd
Dec 13, 2011 23:18 UTC

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

MOSCOW — This weekend it was the Russians who took to the streets. Authorities claim there were no more than 25,000 protestors while organizers say there were at least 50,000. No matter the number, the protests have taken a sharp turn and seem to have depth in their anger.

Russia is far from a full democracy, but it is enough of one to prompt its electors to indignation that their presidential choices had been radically “improved”.

The current unrest on the streets and the widespread revulsion over solid-seeming evidence of ballot rigging show that many get very annoyed if their democratic choice is falsified. In conversations with students, regional journalists and a few older people in Russia last week, I was left in little doubt of the anger felt by many among them — and many among them had been Putin supporters.

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