Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the dissolution of the Soviet Union into a number of independent nation states, and with it a transition within Russia from a fully centralised socialist economy to a capitalist one, was carried out appalling poorly. Simplifying the story for brevity’s sake, the immediate post-Soviet government, for all intents and purposes still owning the economy, sought to distribute the proceeds of the state as evenly as possible to ensure that at least the relative equality of wealth Russian “enjoyed” under the socialist system was a starting point. This quickly fell apart. Having no knowledge of how capitalism worked, with actually experience of it non-existent for almost everyone in the country, the shares people were given appeared to be worthless to them. So, a small group of oligarchs traded the shares for things people immediately needed or wanted. Added to this, large scale state ownings were sold off to private individuals and companies at well below their market rate. As a result, huge inequality soon arose throughout Russia, as these oligarchs were able to buy up everything in sight. This inequality persists today, with Russia remaining one of the most – if not the most – unequal country on Earth. A third of the entire economy of Russia is owned by just over one hundred individuals.
Putin coming to a power in 2000 made things even worse. The oligarchs largely welcomed Putin at first, seeing him as someone who would obey their political whims. As it turned out, Putin was much more ambitious than they realised and made it clear that those who did as he wanted would be rewarded with an ability to hold onto their wealth as well as the ability to make more – while those who opposed him in any way whatsoever would face prison or banishment. With assets often seized upon sentencing, the remaining oligarchs got even richer. Added to all this, Putin had semi-imperial designs, looking to re-establish the old Russian Empire that had lived on through the Soviet Union. Expansion of the European Union into the old Eastern Bloc greatly annoyed Putin, and he began a plan, still ongoing, of testing the West to see how much they would put up with. He invaded Georgia, annexing a small portion of the country know as South Ossetia. Well, not technically annexing: Putin used the old Hitler-Sudetenland trick of claiming he was freeing a beleaguered people. Russia was simply freeing the ethnic Russians who had been apparently oppressed by the Georgian government, went the Kremlin narrative. Putin had been at least partially set off by the West’s burgeoning recognition of Kosovo, which wanted to separate from Serbia, one of the very few Balkan states who remained definitively within the old Russian sphere of influence. For the first time, he was both using military force against a country that was vaguely friendly to the West, and also using the West’s narratives against it, all in an effort to see what the response would be.
The West, with America and others still tied up in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in no place to respond adequately to what had happened in Georgia. And this taught Putin a valuable lesson: next time around, he could push the envelope even further.
Although there was a sort of pause in overt Russian aggression against the West during the Obama administration, mostly due to said administration’s extreme desire to bury the hatchet with Putin, this was only ever going to last so long. Eventually, something had to arise that would cause the conflict to reheat. That came in the form of the protests in Ukraine and the overthrow of the government there, a government that had been a puppet state of Putin’s. America vocally backed the protestors, and when they were victorious Putin was furious. He decided to annex Crimea, and annex it for real this time. He held a bogus referendum to rub the whole thing in the West’s face. Again, the West did nothing.
Meanwhile in the midst of all this, Putin, or someone close to him, had one of the most brilliant political ideas of the 21st century. The Kremlin would create an English-language news channel called Russia Today. The genius of Russia Today – now rebranded RT – was that it understood intrinsically what united the hard right and the hard left in the West: a sense of victimhood coupled with a hard to define (but relatively easy to feel out) anti-establishment sentiment. A belief in conspiracy theories was another uniting factor between the political extremes. The theory behind Russia Today was for the channel to pose as an “alternative news source”, giving attention to stories that the so called “Mainstream Media”, or the MSM as both the hard left and hard right enjoy calling it, were ignoring, usually for what was assumed to be sinister reasons.
Tapping into the victimhood and anti-establishment sentiments of Russia Today’s viewers, Putin was able to penetrate the consciousness of large portions of the West much more thoroughly than I’m sure even the Kremlin thought possible when launching the channel in 2005. It is startling how many ideas that were introduced on Russia Today have managed to make it into mainstream British consciousness. A brilliant very recent example of this is how an idea that had originated on Russian state television and then filtered down into Russia Today ended up being repeated by Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, on BBC’s Question Time. When Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, echoed the government’s line that the Russians were blocking a formal investigation into the chemical weapons attack in Douma, Thornberry countered by saying:
“I don’t accept what she says about the Russians stopping it. My understanding is that it’s a United Nations problem with their red tape and their safety and with getting their safety stuff through. That is what’s I am told.”
Again, the notion that “UN red tape” and not the Russian military were blocking a chemical weapons inspection in Syria from taking place had originated on Russian state TV and then been put onto Russia Today for a western audience. Apparently, amongst the people captivated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine are prominent members of Labour’s front bench.
On the surface of it, the western Left being, as a collective, Putin apologists (and increasingly, Putin supporters) makes zero sense. Russia is not a socialist country, or even anything akin to one. To repeat, it is one of the most unequal countries in the entire world. That’s before we get to the fact that Putin is uncompromisingly homophobic, and you have there a combination of social conservativism and massive economic inequality that the western Left should be crying out against. So why is the opposite the case? Why do western leftists feel the need to be on Putin’s side in every single important and strategic battle, from Crimea to the Skripal poisoning, from the Syrian Civil War to Georgia?
Part of it is undoubtedly historic – a kneejerk carry over from the Cold War. This doesn’t seem to be the whole of it though, not by some stretch of the imagination. A bigger culprit here is the fact that Russia happens to be enemies with the West at present and therefore, the black and white view of the modern Left kicks in, with Russia being credited as my enemy’s enemy. But the biggest reason I think leftists in the West are willing to overlook Putin’s many spectacular faults and come to his defence really does come back to Russia Today. It seems to have been a massive influence on current leftist thought, sadly. A good example of how to understand this is to look at the Left’s collective opinion on the Syrian civil war, still raging after more than seven years now.
The problem with the Left’s views on Syria is that they aren’t even internally free of basic contradiction. For instance, the reason often given by many on the Left for why the West intervening in Syria is a bad thing is that the West intervening anywhere is always bad. We shouldn’t pick sides in local third world conflicts as when we do we simply mess things up further, so this line of thinking goes. Except this is instantly torn to sheds every time someone on the Left drapes a Syrian regime flag around their neck at a protest, something which is now ubiquitous. That, very clearly and unquestioningly, is taking a side, demolishing this argument against intervention.
Much more sinister is the Left’s relatively new found anti-Sunni sentiment. The narrative from the Right for years when it came to the Left and Islam was that the Left were endlessly being apologists for Islamism. If this caricature was ever really true (and it was always slightly exaggerated by the Right), this has changed over the last couple of years to see an alarming portion of the Left adopt a pro-Shia, anti-Sunni mind set instead. At present, this is witnessed much more in Europe than America; it will be interesting to see if this trend crosses the Atlantic in the coming years. It stems, I believe, from the fact that the West is in an antagonistic relationship with Iran, while Saudi Arabia is a western ally. The same logic that dictates the Left must support Russia over the West has come into play here: whomever is America’s friend is the Left’s enemy; whomever is America’s enemy is the Left’s friend. Given the Iran-Saudi split is an explicitly sectarian one, the European Left have come to defend Iran and its allies (which include Russia, of course) while increasingly denigrating Sunnis as “terrorists”.
The way this has played out in terms of the European Left’s stance on the Syrian civil war is that Hezbollah flags start making appearances alongside the Assad regime stuff, while the Left echoes Assad and Putin’s line that everyone trying to bring down Assad is a member of a terrorist cell. While Assad’s plan to make the war sectarian has worked, with many of the rebel groups in Syria either taken over or coming into battle with explicitly fundamentalist groups (as Assad had hoped when he had explicitly steered the conflict towards being a sectarian battle), any objective historian of the conflict would be able to tell you that the war very much started out as a non-sectarian rising, with Sunnis, Shias and Christians all uniting to voice their disapproval of the Assad regime. Not to mention that in spite of the secular rebels’ problems with fundamentalist groups infiltrating or even battling with them, there they remain, trying to bring down a fascistic government that any self-respecting left-winger should have been passionately against.
But like all things on the modern Left, Syria can only be seen through a Manichean lens that shifts every so often like popular music trends. While preaching about not taking sides, the Left have decided that Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are the good guys, while the West, as ever, are the bad guys, and the Sunnis who are nominally the West’s allies – in spite of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and the Right’s general narrative of Islam swamping Europe – are also the bad guys. All of them now, apparently. Whereas a few years ago, the narrative on the Left regarding Islam was that any critique of the religion was “racist”, now, increasingly, a worryingly large proportion of Sunnis are being labelled as terrorists by the Left. This only solidifies support for the Syrian regime, and in turn, for Russia.