Putin has been crossing red lines, at home and abroad, with growing impunity since he first gained national prominence in 1999. He made his name with a brutal pacification campaign in Chechnya justified by a series of suspicious apartment bombings. Alexander Litvinenko, later murdered in London, blamed the bombings on the FSB and, by implication, Putin.
Justified perceptions of western weakness, ambivalence and division have since encouraged Putin in a pattern of escalating, aggressive behaviour. Its main features include wars in Georgia and Ukraine, cyber-attacks against Nato countries, election meddling and destabilisation operations, and the bloody Syrian intervention.
Putin was further emboldened by his domestic dominance, achieved through manipulation of elections, the rustication of the Duma into a rubber-stamp parliament, and the elimination, by various means, of leading opponents, critics and free media. Boris Nemtsov, a liberal reformer killed in 2015, and Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist murdered in 2006, are but two names on a long list that could ultimately include Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Underlying Putin’s actions is a sense of Russian exceptionalism – that somehow, Russia is different and not bound by the laws and obligations of the rules-based international order introduced after 1945. His attitude is rooted in the era of the dominant Soviet superpower. But its origins run deeper. Nineteenth-century tsarist Russia both envied and aped Europe. After the 1917 revolution, it defined itself in opposition to the west. Putin has revived that tradition.
Until very recently, western leaders have been reluctant to believe the evidence of their own eyes – and their intelligence agencies. There are reasons for this myopia, not all bad. At one end of the spectrum, there is genuine dread that facing off against Putin could lead to some kind of military confrontation with an insecure, paranoid leader who boasted only this month of Russia’s fearsome nuclear weapons arsenal.
Then there are the usual strategic and diplomatic considerations: Russia is an influential actor in big international issues such as North Korea and Iran. There are important business and trade interests. And then there is sheer political complacency. [Continue reading…]
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