Russia's New Normal

Edward Lucas is much too smart an observer, with more than enough experience in both the old Soviet bloc and the new Russia, not to concede the obvious. Russia is no longer a closed society, he points out, and "most Russians have never had it so good," which accounts for President Vladimir Putin's consistently high approval ratings. A veteran correspondent for The Economist, Lucas also is willing to admit that Russia isn't a global adversary since it works with the West, even if testily, on any number of diplomatic issues, including Iran and North Korea. "The old Cold War is indeed over," he concludes.

So why is his new book titled "The New Cold War: The Future of Russia and the Threat to the West" (272 pages. Palgrave Macmillan)? Partly because it's a meticulously constructed indictment of Putin's strong-arm tactics at home and his increasingly aggressive tone in dealing with any country that tries to question his actions. And partly because Lucas is appalled by what he sees as the West's deliberate blindness when it comes to Russia. The biggest mistake the West keeps making, he argues, is to assume that Russia is in the process of becoming a "normal" country. While it may be too weak militarily now to threaten others the way it once did, he believes the Kremlin is fighting a new cold war with "cash, natural resources, diplomacy, and propaganda."

Lucas demonstrates how the historical revisionism of the Putin era has set the stage for this new struggle. First of all, Soviet-era myths have been revived. Stalin is once again hailed as "one of the most successful leaders of the USSR." His "mistakes"—which include the mass murder of his own people—are less important than his role in industrializing the country and leading it to victory in World War II. This conveniently sanitizes such events as the annexation of the Baltic states, which helps the Kremlin justify its current belligerence toward Estonia. At home, the same revisionism allows ex-KGB agents to rule, since that organization's role in the mass killings has been swept under the rug. The Stalinist past, Lucas notes, "is the source of both the Kremlin's xenophobia and its authoritarianism."

The other key bit of revisionism concerns the recent past. To justify his crackdown on the media and any political opposition, Putin has portrayed the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin as a period of unmitigated disasters and humiliation. There's no doubt that corruption and lawlessness were rampant then, but it's also true that Russia opened up to the world, its media were largely uncensored and there was hope that the country could evolve into a more functional democracy. Although Yeltsin anointed Putin as his successor, the new man has tried to discredit Yeltsin's legacy to justify his moves to amass a new monopoly on both political and economic power.

The latter is particularly important at a time when rising oil and gas prices have made Russia flush with cash. The country's GDP is more than six times higher than it was in 1999, but this wealth remains tightly controlled by the ruling elite. The result is an economy with growing instead of diminishing state control, and appalling public services like health care. Corruption, murders and demographic decline still characterize this new Russia. But Western notions of democracy based on individual rights are ridiculed, while a new doctrine of Russia's "sovereign democracy"—its unique path of building a strong state—is offered as the solution.

As Lucas points out, the West has almost no leverage to reverse these trends. Earlier, Russia needed the West's financial aid, but no more. This allows Putin to flex his muscles, applying pressure on his neighbors by wielding the energy weapon, backing separatist movements in places like Georgia and Moldova, and offering new arms sales to Iran. While insisting he wants cooperation with the West, he angrily dismisses all criticism. As with the Duma elections in December, Putin made it impossible for the OSCE to carry out its normal election-monitoring duties on March 2, when Dmitry Medvedev was proclaimed the new president in a sham contest.

"The New Cold War" occasionally gets bogged down in the intricacies of Russia's relations with each of the ex-Soviet republics, or the pipeline politics that define today's energy battles. But his main message comes through loud and clear: Russia has changed course, and the West should face up to the implications. What justification is there, he asks, for maintaining Russia's membership in the G8, the club for the world's leading industrial democracies? Lucas has built a very strong case for the prosecution. And, on all too many of the counts in his indictment, the defendant looks smugly guilty.