The first part in a new series on Russia, its internal politics, and its role in International affairs.
The recent news that a Russian cargo ship, bound for Syria, has turned back after having its insurance to move through British waters revoked by the government is troubling. On board the MV Alead reportedly were three Mi-25 Helicopter Gunships and a new advanced air defence system; the perfect tools to fight a civil war and to deter any potential interference from the outside world. The ship, which was flying the flag of the Dutch-Antilles, is now likely re-sail under the Russian tricolour as a sign of the Putin regime’s determination to support Al-Assad.
In such a case, any attempt by the British authorities to prevent the passage of the ship would be highly prevocational and illegal. Instead the significance of the matter remains with the actions of the Russians: Putin’s determination to defy the western world is indicative of his deep paranoia over internal opposition and of the continuance of his outward-looking KGB Cold-War mentality. Indeed the recent wave of protests that have accompanied Putin’s re-entrance into the Kremlin have provoked a difficult situation for the regime. The propping up of Assad is becoming increasingly reflective of the domestic situation in Russia, as the Oligarchy resorts to intimidation and oppression of opposition forces, fearing a movement reflective of the Arab-spring.
|Pro-Democracy protests against Putin's rigged re-election to the Kremlin: New laws against protests are indicative of the police state characteristics of Putin's internal and external policies (more on the protests in Part 2)|
This paranoia is compounded by the paranoia of the ruling elite, who see every attempt to challenge them as part of a wider western-led plot to overthrow them. Luke Harding, in his book Mafia State has estimated that up to 77% of the political elite could have FSB ( (Russia’s post-Soviet Intelligence agency) and/or KGB backgrounds, including 42% of leaders who are already known to have had. Such a makeup goes some way to explaining the action of a regime that has moved to solidify its position internally through oppression, whilst simultaneously remaining belligerent in its diplomacy toward democracies. It is therefore unsurprising that despite the moral-bankruptcy of his position, Putin continues to block UN resolutions towards Syria, considering the immediate parallels that can be drawn between the protests in Syria and the Arab world in general, and the protests against Putin’s recently rigged return to the Kremlin
Aside from explanations centred on the backward and autocratic mentality of Russia’s political elite, and the parallels that can be drawn between Syria’s revolution and Russia’s own internal opposition (more to come in a future article), the regime’s actions can be viewed as an attempt to remain a big game player on the international stage. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs has stated “my deep conviction is that Russia has not cared about its international image for a long time.” This may be true, to the extent that Russia does not care what the west thinks of it. But Putin is desperate to revive the strength of his Russian state; which means being taken seriously by both internal opposition and the West.
The support of Syria is just one on a list of actions that share inconspicuously the common theme of highlighting the strength and autonomy of Putin’s regime from the West. The murder of the KGB defector Alexander Litvineko by FSB agents in London in 2006, which was likely to have been ordered, or at least endorsed, by Putin, is another such example. In the aftermath of the assassination, the Putin regime refused to give up the supposed killer, Andrei Lugovoi, and even endorsed him for political office. The invasion of Georgia to humiliate the country and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, for their pro-Western stance is also indicative of this.
|A posed picture as part of Putin's carefully cultivated 'Strongman' image|
Putin’s legitimacy had been quashed in the wake of the election-rigging scandal and his oppression against opposition and his support of dictatorial regimes is reflective of this domestic context. With his regime’s position so morally-bankrupt, western leaders should not allow him the pleasure of playing such a major, and disruptive, role in international relations.
Part two of this feature will deconstruct Putin’s so called ‘Mafia State’ and assess how Putin’s ascendancy to power has corresponded with the formation of an autocratic oligarchy. Part three will question whether, with the centennial anniversary of the 1917 revolution soon coming into view, popular opposition forces will have the strength to enact a new revolution.