Economist correspondent on Poland and eastern Europe, Edward Lucas, pops up in the Times (London) where his opening three sentences are:
‘How was Litvinenko murdered? We don’t know yet; we may never find out, but what is clear is his death marks the start of a new Cold War. The question is: how to win it?’
But surely, if we ‘don’t know yet’ what happened, and ‘may never find out’, then how on earth can we deduce that the murder ‘marks the start of a new Cold War’? Some confusion here, me thinks.
What we do know is that much of the western media has responded to the radioactive murder in London as Edward has done. The British government is being careful, but a New Labour minister broke ranks at the weekend and said what they really think by laying into Putin’s (admittedly loathsome) human rights record. This is a battle of good versus evil, we are told, and President Putin is on the side of the baddies and Litvinenko on our side, the side of the goodies. And this all adds up to a ‘new Cold war’.
But let’s be realistic: Litvinenko was, like Putin, a member of the KGB. The KGB was a nasty organization. Litvinenko was no knight in shining amour. He wasn’t even a dirty angel. He did bad things too.
And at a time when Russia is trying to form new agreements with Britain over energy supplies why would Putin start murdering people in the middle of the UK capital?
But more importantly, we should also be realistic in admitting that the relationship between Russia and the rest of the world is most defiantly not a new ‘Cold War’.
In the Times article, Edward reminds us that there are lots of conflicts going on between Russia and countries that were unfortunately imprisoned in the old communist bloc, such as Georgia, Ukraine and Poland. Most of these disputes are over oil and gas supply, which Moscow does have a strong influence over. Putin (who, remember, has an approval rating in Russia of about 80%) can turn off the taps; the Big Bad Bear can force them into new agreements (for a start, it can make Belarus or Ukraine pay the market rate for gas anytime it likes – at the moment they are getting cut price Russian gas because pipelines go through there territory).
But do these trade disputes add up to a new ‘Cold War’? To think that they do confuses what the old Cold War was really like – a struggle over land, territory, influence, and most importantly, ideology.
Russia is not trying to force its Dickensian capitalism on Poland. There are no threats to invade Warsaw. Tanks are not on the borders. Polish school kids are no longer forced to learn Russian.
So why are western (and many Polish) journalists equating two completely different situations?
Brendan O’Neill in Spiked may have a point when he writes:
‘What is really motivating this reversion to Cold War rhetoric is not any clear evidence of Putin’s involvement in Litvinenko’s murder, or the reality of the ‘Russian threat’ (let’s not forget that the real Cold War involved a global stand-off between two nuclear-armed superpowers; the occasional killing of spies was only a small part of that stand-off). Rather, it is a transparent and cynical attempt to give a shot to Western politics itself.’
When the real Cold War did end western politicians were left without an enemy with which do justify their own existence. Politics has become more and more meaningless and the political class more and more isolated from its people. The last 16 years have been a search for ‘meaning’. Who are the new bad guys?
Well, they have found al-Qaeda; and now they have found a new ‘Russian threat’ – even though we have little or no evidence that al-Qaeda is capable of ‘threatening our way of life’, or that Putin is sending guys over to London to slip some polonium in someone’s sushi.
Time to calm down a little.