Snowden, Syria, Vladimir Putin's 'Cold Peace' with the West

Russia's Vladimir Putin has stood up to the West over Syria and has been toying with U.S. sensibilities over intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, currently holed up at Moscow's airport. British writer Ben Judah dissects the Putin game plan.

Q&A with British writer Ben Judah, author of 'Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin'

Russian President Vladimir Putin tells a press conference at the Kremlin on July 1 that Edward Snowden can stay in Russia if he wants, as long as he stops leaking U.S. intelligence secrets. (RIA Novosti / Reuters)

Edward Snowden, the American intelligence leaker and fugitive, helped to make U.S.-Russia relations all the more uncomfortable this past week, when he surfaced unexpectedly in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, looking for asylum.

Snowden has apparently now withdrawn his request, but not before Russia's President Vladimir Putin hastily assured the outside world that Snowden is not a Russian spy, and the Kremlin will not support the fugitive's "anti-American activity."

Regarding Snowden, Putin said. "If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: he must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound on my lips."

However, Putin's gesture to the U.S belies a steadily deteriorating relationship between the two countries over the four years since President Barack Obama launched his putative "reset policy," aiming to put the relationship on a new course.

Many factors helped scuttle that attempt at rapprochement, including, most recently, conflicting approaches to the war in Syria and the West's strong disapproval of the Kremlin's crackdown on Russia's opposition movement.

But is the sour relationship really tantamount to "a new Cold War," as some analysts in the West have suggested?

British writer Ben Judah believes the relationship is more nuanced than that, but also feels that Western leaders would do well to familiarize themselves more carefully with a Russia that is more fragile than it seems.

What he sees is a Russia that is rife with crippling corruption, and transforming irrevocably because of a new generation of post-Soviet young people with no living memory of the former Soviet Union and its culture of fear.

Though only 25, Judah knows what he's talking about. The son of British correspondent Tim Judah, Ben Judah spent part of his childhood living in the Balkans in the 1990s.

"Some of my earliest memories involved watching the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, the transition in Romania and life in Serbia under the wartime regime of Milosevic," he says. 

"This meant it was very natural — and obvious even — to be interested in Russia, as the collapse of the USSR seemed to be the origin point for most of what was going on around me."

British reporter and author Ben Judah. (Ed Ou)

Judah has just published a compelling new book Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, which is a must read for anyone wanting a picture of Russia today.

The book is the result of five years in the field, reporting on Russia for Reuters news agency and numerous newspapers, and he believes his generation of Russia watchers is seeing the situation there with fresh eyes.

He spoke to CBC News Producer Jennifer Clibbon from his home in London, where he is a visiting fellow at the European Stability Initiative.

CBC News: Some Russia watchers in the West are talking of a new Cold War with the Putin regime. What's your take?

This is the Cold Peace. Russia and the West have neither become true friends nor real enemies under the reign of Vladimir Putin.

Unimaginable back in the early 1980s — today you can pay for a visa, the borders are open, entire classes of lawyers, bankers, businessmen are trading [together].

Nor is there any interest in Europe in clamping down on the money of the Russian establishment — which mostly finds its home in EU tax havens, London property and mysterious shell-companies protected by the best European lawyers and PR agents. Thinking back to the economic blockades of the Cold War — this is not how the Western elites behave to an enemy.

But Russia is not a friend either. It remains un-integrated and uninvited into Euro-Atlantic institutions. The Putin years have seen the return of clearly defined proxy wars — first the Russian attempt to defeat NATO expansion in Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, and from 2011 the attempt to block Western designs on removing the Assad regime in Syria.

In the UN Security Council, and on certain clearly defined and violent frontlines, you have a return to small-scale confrontation, which is reminiscent of the Cold War. But it is not total. Russia and the West co-operate in Afghanistan and do not systematically try to undermine [each other's] positions wherever possible, especially as regards jihadi terrorism.

It's worth remembering what doesn't happen — the West plays no dirty tricks in the North Caucasus, nor does Russia in Afghanistan.

Why did Obama's 'reset policy' fail?

The reset was sold as something much bigger than it was. There were overexcited policy wonks hoping this was a "Nixon in China" moment that would really unlock the relationship. But if we look behind the puff we see a very short list of concrete agreements.

In exchange for increased Russian co-operation in ferrying Western troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. would promote democracy and NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union with less zeal — a de-facto acknowledgement, in Russian eyes, of a Putin sphere of influence.

Putin hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro at a meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Russia earlier this week. (Reuters)

The first blow to the reset was the Arab Spring and the Western intervention in Libya. Moscow saw the chain explosions of Arab revolts as a chance seized upon by Washington to remodel the region in its influence — and to reduce that of Russia and Iran.

The moment Moscow felt the U.S. had overstepped the spirit of the reset was when it [Russia] consented to a UN Security Council resolution allowing a Western no-fly zone over Benghazi in eastern rebel-held Libya, to prevent a slaughter.

When NATO forces proceeded to break the resolution and topple the regime itself, the Kremlin felt insulted and betrayed — and not only because it has major arms and oil deals with Tripoli it now stood to lose. It vowed not to let a repeat occur in Damascus.

The final blow to the reset was the outbreak of the Moscow protest movement in December. Putin himself accused the U.S. of sponsoring the protests, while a more sophisticated Kremlin understanding was that the low-key policies of the EU and the U.S. sponsoring NGOs [non-governmental organizations] working on election monitoring and civic activism was paying off for them.

The Kremlin came to understand foreign sponsoring of NGOs as a form of "stealth intervention," with the West silently trying to remodel Russian society in its own image by giving start-up capital to activists and picking winners to hand over grants to.

Under Putin there seems to be a new demonization of the West. Why is this happening?

Putin's propaganda has been about not letting Russian scars heal — rubbing salt in them — in order to stay in power and justify his regime.

State TV has endlessly recycled Russian nightmares from the past — American spies under the beds, the nuclear threat, the fear of encirclement, the fear of a second implosion of the Russian state or a new revolution. The demonization of the West is, in the words of a former Kremlin spin-doctor, part of the general way that "power reawakens past scars to ensure its future."

What is your sense of Putin's own understanding of the outside world?

Putin has a harsh, cruel view of the world and the struggle between states. He is a Russian "realist," disdaining the "idealist" approach to foreign policy he thinks misguided his predecessors Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the preachers of Communism.

A pro-Snowden demonstrator shows her colours at the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations in Boston on Thursday. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

He believes Gorbachev gave up Russia's positions in Eastern Europe for "nothing" and would never repeat the error. He believes that Yeltsin slavishly followed the West out of a mistaken faith.

He also believes that the Soviet Union wasted gigantic resources on far-flung Communists in the third world for little practical gain. For Putin, international relations is a dog eat dog world.

What in your view are his primary foreign policy objectives?

Vladimir Putin has a habit of destroying people and then adopting their policies. We see this now with him attempting to steal the Russian opposition's anti-corruption agenda.

This all began with Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister of Yeltsin and a wannabe post-Soviet Kissinger.

Primakov, to much mockery in the 1990s, outlined a vision for a "multi-polar world" where Russia — too weak to go it alone — would lead an alliance of India, China, Brazil and maybe Iran to dilute American power and thus place itself at the centre of a new concert of powers.

Russia would use this power gained internationally to defend a sphere of influence in the former USSR — making itself the hub of an admittedly small but still important sixth of the world.

Following the Kremlin's disenchantment with the West, this policy revived, and looks remarkably like the BRICS grouping and the pursuit of a Eurasian Union and NATO exclusion area around Russia.

You covered the war in Georgia. What did you learn from that about Russia's imperial objectives?

To my eyes, the war in Georgia exposed Russia's limited means as much as ambitions.

My shock in the conflict was the state of Russia's armed forces. Bedraggled, communicating by cellphone, living off the land, doing dodgy dealing for petrol with Georgian officials.

The inferior quality of Russian compared to Georgian kit was striking. And one of the most telling anecdotes of the war for me was a video clip that circulated of Russian troops entering a Georgian barracks. Shocked at the superior quality [of their opponents] they begin shouting, "We're living like refugees, but we won … we won."