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Editor’s Introduction

Once again Vladimir Putin’s regime is front and center in World Affairs because we continue to believe that it represents an immediate and multi-dimensional threat to European unity, the transatlantic partnership, and the global order—and that this threat is insufficiently understood, often underestimated, and growing. So we present in this issue several leading experts who give insights into the Kremlin’s motivations, goals, and strategies—along with advice on how we can remedy the present situation in which Putin plays chess while we play checkers.

To understand the Kremlin’s overarching ambitions and to anticipate and respond effectively to its next moves, it’s important to first recall, as Konstantin von Eggert notes from Moscow, that we are talking about a country where “the people who govern Russia also own it.” They own it, of course, because they have looted its privatized wealth and resources to enrich themselves and now use “firms like Gazprom and Rosneft, arms exports, gold and diamond production” to increase their personal fortunes and divide and weaken the West.

As several writers in this issue observe, it’s clear that the regime understands ideology and ideas—and how to manipulate them to achieve its ends (the broadcaster Russia Today and the cozy relations with Europe’s far right leap to mind). But at its core, Russia’s ruling class is neither aligned with nor motivated by an ideology, as were its communist ancestors. Instead, Putin’s regime is motivated by the two primal urges that underpin its domestic and international policies, urges that those ancestors claimed were at the heart of capitalism: greed and fear. Greed for self-enrichment and fear that the democratic values Putin and his cronies loathe and mock will one day mobilize the Russian people at the Kremlin’s gate, as happened on the Maidan in Kyiv, and shove the regime and all it represents into the ashbin of history. It is this greed and fear that underpin the Kremlin’s authoritarian and nationalistic agenda at home and its aggressive and subversive agenda abroad.

The London-based writer Peter Pomerantsev draws another contrast between Russia’s totalitarian past and authoritarian present in an essay about the Kremlin’s subtle efforts to advance its cause by exploiting Europe’s vulnerabilities to divide it. Unlike the USSR’s threat of nuclear conflict during the Cold War, Pomerantsev writes, “the new Russia manipulates [the West’s] systems from inside.” Its actions are not those of a revolutionary movement but rather of a corporate raider using its minority share position to stage a hostile takeover. Such tactics should not cause surprise because this is exactly “how most of the Russian elite made their money—buying into a company and then using any means possible (violence, bribery, blackmail) to take it over.” Pomerantsev describes how the Putin regime is undermining the international organizations which the West invited Russia to join as part of its effort to encourage Moscow toward electoral and human rights reform in the early 1990s. Today Russia uses its membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, for instance, to “refocus [it] away from election monitoring, threatening to slash funding if it doesn’t.” At the Council of Europe, “which Russia joined ostensibly to guarantee human rights,” it has instead “worked with other undemocratic states like Azerbaijan . . . to water down condemnations of their human rights abuses.”

Von Eggert’s and Pomerantsev’s contributions offer important insight into the regime’s goals and strategies on a range of fronts—from the invasion of Ukraine, to Russia Today’s propaganda assault, and to the Kremlin’s efforts to divide the West by isolating and exploiting vulnerabilities. In the end, however, it might be the seductive lure of Russian investment flows that represents the most serious long-term threat to the West because of the cancerous effect that Russia’s corrupt state-owned enterprises would have on the global system. With that in mind, Pomerantsev cautions that “perhaps the strongest weapon in the Kremlin’s armory” is “the ability to corrupt Western elites, which both stymies geopolitical action and in turn strengthens the Kremlin’s underlying argument that Western democracies have no true values.”

Alina Polyakova, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, takes a look at the troubling love affair between Europe’s Euroskeptic far right and Vladimir Putin, and how this is becoming an increasingly menacing dimension of US-Europe relations and the West’s ability to deter Russian aggression. The relationship may prove to be a passing fling, but for the moment it is joined in common cause by those Europeans who believe the continent has become unacceptably depraved, and national sovereignty unacceptably eroded. According to Polyakova, the rightists’ affection for “Putin is about what it calls ‘values’ as well as the constellation of nationalist issues that coalesce in opposition to the idea, as well as the fact, of ‘Europe.’” This cynical embrace has policy implications, as Marine Le Pen showed when she gave Putin a French kiss by supporting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and “hailed [him] as a true patriot” and “a defender of ‘the Christian heritage of European civilization.’” Polyakova also reminds us that Europe’s other far-right leader, Nigel Farage of the UK, “sees Putin as a ‘brilliant’ strategist who can outwit the West. When asked which world leader he admired the most, Farage’s answer was unhesitating: Putin.” The anti-Europe far-right parties scored big in recent European parliamentary elections, but it remains to be seen how they will fare in the national elections to come, which will likely be far more contested, with many more votes cast. But as Polyakova concludes, “If anti-EU, pro-Russian voices gain a foothold in national governments, a Europe united on foreign policy [capable of blocking Moscow’s objectives] becomes difficult to imagine.”

Speaking of division and breakup in Europe, veteran foreign correspondent and frequent contributor Roland Flamini reports that British Prime Minister David Cameron faces an uphill battle to win elections in March, stalked by disputes over unions old and new. This month, the Scots will vote whether to sever the parliamentary ties that have bound them to the UK for more than three hundred years, while Euroskeptics have made Cameron promise to hold a referendum on UK membership in the EU (with or without Scotland). The prime minister has set the date for that second vote well past next spring’s election, but the question will still hang over the scene, and in these uncertain times for European unity, no surprises can be ruled out.

Gordon Bardos writes about another underappreciated threat to European security—the slowly but steadily mounting threat of homegrown radical Islam in the Balkans. With generous backing from the Middle East, “the militant Islamist movement in southeastern Europe has created a sophisticated infrastructure consisting of local safe havens in isolated villages and in mosques controlled by radical clergy, along with a wide array of electronic and print media propagating news from various jihad fronts, relaying orders from al-Qaeda leaders, and attempting to convert impressionable young people to join their cause.” Bosnia’s Wahhabi leader sings a cute jingle on YouTube with lyrics warning America, “God willing, it will be destroyed to its foundation / If you try to harm the mujadedin once more, oh infidels, / Our Taliban brothers will come from all over, / And they will sentence you with their swords. / . . . With explosives on our chests we pave the way to Paradise.” And the message is getting out. According to Bardos, “over the past decade, militant Islamists indigenous to the Balkans [emphasis added] have been involved in . . . the October 2002 attack on the US Embassy in Vienna, the May 2007 Fort Dix bomb plot, the July 2009 Raleigh Group conspiracy, the 2009 New York City subway attack conspiracy, the October 2011 attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo, a January 2012 plot to bomb nightclubs in Tampa, and the murder of two US servicemen at Frankfurt Airport in February 2012. Most recently, a young man from Kosovo became ‘the Balkans’ first suicide bomber,’ killing fifty people in an attack in Baghdad in March 2014.” Hundreds of jihadis from southeastern Europe are now in Syria and the Middle East. What happens when they come back home with their European passports?

Turning to China, a country Putin has wooed as assiduously as he has the European far right, Gordon Chang writes that the People’s Republic of China is at the dawn of its third era—the first having been the Mao Zedong–led decades of turbulence and the second the reform era begun by Deng Xiaoping. In Chang’s reading, China stands on the edge of a new era as a result of the massive debt incurred by the $486 billion stimulus plan that was enacted by former Premier Wen Jiabao to immunize China from the sudden and dramatic drop in export revenues during the global financial collapse. The Communist Party leadership “decreed growth,” Chang writes, but rather than turning to the private sector to invest the stimulus funds, they doled it out to local governments and large state enterprises not known for their efficiency or transparency and run by the families of—you guessed it—leading party officials. The results have not been pretty, and Chang makes a good case that, as they play out, China is poised for a downturn and a third era marked by crisis and instability.

There are several essays in this issue that go beyond today’s headlines but are still worthy of contemplation. Katya Cengel, an author and journalist, reports the horrifying limbo of a small group of women—formerly legal and permanent residents of the US, who grew up in America but were not citizens, and who were deported to Cambodia, the homeland of their parents, after crimes they committed in the US ensnared them in a Kafkaesque immigration system. Eric Chenoweth writes about an unpleasant bit of historical revisionism that that is gaining traction in Poland—in the unlikely neighborhood of former Solidarity leaders—that seeks to rehabilitate Poland’s last communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, but diminishes the historic and heroic struggle of thousands of Polish freedom fighters. Chenoweth, who himself labored for many years on behalf of Solidarity and Poland’s independence, has made an insightful and useful contribution to Poland’s anti-communist revolutionary history. Meanwhile, Michel Gurfinkiel, the president of the Rousseau Institute in Paris, wonders about the cliché that globalization is irresistible, fusing technologies, cultures, and markets as they interact at lightning speed and over distances unthinkable not even a generation ago. “What if, in addition to globalizing,” he asks, “the world is also splitting into separate and antagonistic sub-worlds?” He sees a new world order comprised of groups that reject the developed and democratic West and will contend with it for power—namely, the anti-American, hyper-nationalist, and often non-democratic “New Emerging Powers” and the failed and ungovernable countries he calls the “Wasteland” states. It is a view of the future that policymakers ought to consider.

We also offer for your consideration a piece by Aaron Menenberg, a congressional affairs fellow at the Israel Allies Foundation, that examines Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s effort to rewrite Japan’s Constitution to jettison the country’s pacifist posture in response to China’s military buildup as well as to doubts about American security assurances. The Hudson Institute’s Richard Weitz, a frequent contributor to World Affairs, has offered another typically thorough and insightful analysis, this time on the thirty-year, $400 billion Russia-China energy deal and how it will play out bilaterally and regionally. The two countries see the pact as “a unique ‘win-win’ model for developing their energy partnership: China loans Russian firms the money, often in the form of large advance payments, they need to develop new energy supplies. Russian energy firms in turn pledge to deliver guaranteed volumes of energy to China.” But as Weitz shows in his discussion of what might happen over the thirty years of the agreement, the devil may well be in the details.

Think of this new issue as your back-to-school reading after what we hope was a safe and pleasant summer. As always, let us know what you think.

— James S. Denton

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