Are we in another Cold War with Russia? I don’t think so. It’s more a case, perhaps, of history appearing to repeat itself–the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
The trouble with the real Cold War was that, although the West won it in the sense that Russia abandoned communism and lost much of its empire, the elite of the old regime remained in charge.
In Germany in 1945 the victorious Allies were in a position to impose, very thoroughly, their policy of denazification. Members of the Nazi elite were hanged or suffered long periods of imprisonment and were banned from ever holding political office. The eradication of Nazi ideas was enforced with success, and the new Germany emerged as a democracy down to the grass roots. The result is that in more than half a century there has been no return to extremism at home, much less abroad. Germany is safe, peaceful and unadventurous, almost to the point of timidity.
Russia, in contrast, was never occupied and reeducated. No one was punished for Stalin’s or his successors’ crimes. The 20 million victims of Soviet communism went unavenged, and their oppressors who were still alive at the collapse of communism remained in their jobs. One of them was a junior secret policeman, Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, the former members of the KGB have flourished in post-communist Russia, especially since they formed financial, family and political links with the new oil and gas plutocracy. These two elements have together turned Russia into a gangster state.
Russia has no ideology, other than the ruthless retention and exploitation of power. It is not burdened by the rule of law, which does not exist there. It has no moral principles of any kind. It is, however, nationalistic and can and does exploit popular xenophobia to win support for its adventures beyond its borders.
Russia thus has much more in common with the Nazi state than with Stalinism. Not that Putin is another Hitler. He resembles, rather, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS and the most cold-blooded and calculating of the Nazi elite. Putin has all the tricks and cruelty and the ruthlessness and inhumanity of the born secret policeman.
Putin’s Russia is a formidable piece on the world chessboard. Or looks it. But it is not to be compared, as an object of fear, with the Soviet Union of the Cold War era. Russia has less than half the population the U.S.S.R. had. It has lost much of its raw material and industry. It has no empire to exploit. Its population is aging, is plagued by alcoholism and the consequences of that addiction and has a low birth rate and low life expectancy. In many ways Russia, economically, is like a large Third World state, heavily dependent on one sector of exports–energy.
Smoke and Mirrors
The huge increase in the world demand for energy, which has characterized the opening years of the 21st century and is largely the consequence of the rapid industrialization of China and India, has given the Russian elite the illusion of omnipotence. They have spent the increase in national income on rearmament and their own stealing. Little has gone toward improving the living standards of the people. The elite hope to keep the cash flowing their way through energy blackmail and by reabsorbing the satellites they lost with the collapse of communism.
The West has nothing to fear, provided it remains united and exercises a judicious mix of prudence and patience. The times are moving against the Russian kleptocracy. The price of oil is already coming down. It will continue to fall much further and faster as the present downturn in the world economy lowers demand, especially in the leading Asian economies.
New sources of oil and gas are becoming available. Gas- substitution measures, especially in the U.S. and Europe, are having their effect. We are starting to build nuclear power stations again. In the long term, the shot of aggressive adrenalin Russia has received from its oil and gas resources will cease to have any effect. Russia will revert to its true status: a poor, badly run country, with armed forces it cannot afford, and badly in need of the foreign capital that its crude and aggressive behavior has scared off.
Whether Putin and his fellow gangsters will survive Russia’s return to realism is an open question. Let’s hope not. But let’s not be too optimistic. The Bear, rich or poor, will always bear watching.
Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author; Lee Kuan Yew, minister mentor of Singapore; Ernesto Zedillo, director, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, former president of Mexico; and David Malpass, chief economist for Bear Stearns Co., Inc., rotate in writing this column. To see past Current Events columns, visit our Web site atwww.forbes.com/currentevents.