Putin's machine whips up Russia into state of besieged paranoia

Wed, Feb 15, 2012, 00:00

VLADIMIR NESTERETS is now starting a 13-year prison sentence for spying, his fate a small but telling ripple in the ebb and flow of relations between Russia and the United States.

The senior rocket engineer was found guilty of selling secrets to the CIA, while working at a remote base near the Arctic Circle where Russia tests its latest missile technology and launches satellites into space.

President Dmitry Medvedev recently congratulated Russia’s intelligence services for catching 199 foreign spies and agents last year, so it is less the revelation of Nesterets’s activity that has raised eyebrows, than the timing of his very well-publicised conviction.

“These cases are not publicised when relations with the West are normal. The arrests are still made but no information goes out,” observed Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer.

Analyst Alexander Konovalov agreed: “The fact that they disclosed this now means that we are playing diplomatic games again. Anti-Americanism is fashionable in Russia again.”

There is a distinct chill around the US embassy in Moscow these days, and not just because it’s -20 outside the imposing yellow-and-white building.

When Russian opposition leaders and human rights activists visited the embassy recently, they found state-controlled television waiting for them, with cameras rolling and reporters demanding to know: “Why are you coming to see the ambassador?” The footage later appeared online under the title “Receiving instructions in the US embassy”.

The thick walls of the embassy could not protect ambassador Michael McFaul from a withering attack on his credentials within days of his arrival in Moscow last month. State television castigated him for meeting representatives of civil society before Russia’s leaders, Medvedev and his mentor – and de facto boss – prime minister Vladimir Putin, and claimed he was plotting to bring pro-western politicians into power in Russia.

McFaul, who wrote a book about post-Soviet history called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution, was accused along with US non-governmental groups of helping opposition activists with the aim of repeating the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Russia.

It was Putin himself who launched what, to outsiders, looks like a clumsy revival of the crude rhetoric of the cold war.

When tens of thousands of people protested in Moscow last December against alleged vote-rigging in Russia’s parliamentary election, Putin said the US had sent “a signal” to the demonstrators with its strong criticism of the ballot.

In the days before that vote, won by Putin’s party with a sharply reduced majority, he said “so-called grant recipients” were interfering in Russia’s elections on the orders of foreign states.

“Judas”, he noted, “is not the most respected of biblical figures among our people”.

On the eve of the December ballot, state media claimed Russia’s only independent election monitor, Golos, was acting in the interests of Washington because it received funding from US organisations. Golos was summoned to court two days before the vote, its website sabotaged, and is threatened with eviction from its office.

With Moscow’s opposition protests showing no sign of losing momentum with the approach of the March 4th presidential election, Putin’s team is now fighting rallies with rallies as it strives to return the former president to the Kremlin with a comfortable first-round victory.

Tens of thousands of people braved bitter cold to attend rival demonstrations on February 4th, and anti-American rhetoric was rife at the pro-Putin event. Speakers railed furiously against the “orange plague” supposedly threatening Russia and opposition leaders who “drink like cows at the trough of the American embassy”, while people waved flags saying “Those who support Russia support Putin”.

The motive force was fear: fear of instability and a return to the chaos and poverty of the 1990s, fear of subjugation to foreign powers, fear of the unknown – and Putin’s mass media have ensured his coverage-starved critics remain dubious unknowns.

This sharp deterioration in US-Russian relations is being felt far beyond Moscow.

Russia has blocked tougher international action against Syria and accuses states critical of president Bashar al-Assad of arming his opponents in a bid to oust him. Moscow is also stymying US-led efforts to increase pressure on Iran, and is furious at Washington’s plan to build a missile defence system in central Europe.

Putin seems intent on depicting anyone who criticises him as being a traitor. Organisers of the next pro-Putin rally have selected as its slogan: “Let’s defend our Fatherland”/

It is in this increasingly poisonous atmosphere that the case of Nesterets became front-page news.

“The Russian authorities are pushing the idea of Russia as a besieged fortress,” said political scientist Pavel Salin.

“In order to buttress this idea, they need big, scandalous cases to show that the western special services are active on the country’s territory.”