Books on Russia
Update No: 327 (26/03/08)
A lucky leader
In his state of the nation address before the March election on February 8 Putin
was obviously trying to sum up the legacy of his presidency, which has certainly
been remarkable, and set up a road-map for his premiership.
His two predecessors, Gorbachev and Putin, are arguably both greater men,
progenitors of new countries and of a new geopolitical space. But they presided
over economic meltdown; whereas he has presided over a renaissance of the
stricken economy, that has left the country with a stabilisation fund of $25 bn
and the third largest currency reserves in the world, after a near decade-long
But then of course he has had colossal luck. Oil prices soared just as he came
in in 1999- 2001, bringing a cornucopia of cash into the treasury. Salaries and
pensions have almost doubled. A new middle class is in existence (the former one
was wiped out in the crash of1998). Moscow is a pulsating place.
But there are still grave environmental and social problems, poor state services
and the like, across the vast Russian hinterland. It is its very amplitude and
adversity that one should never forget, as did Napoleon and Hitler to their
A new arms race
Rather than spend the new bounty on old and crumbling infrastructure or an
imploding health service or school system, Putin has been determined to engage
in massive rearmament. Military spending has risen six-fold in his tenure. In
2001 it stood at 140n bn roubles; today it stands at 870bn ( $33bn).
But this is still only a twentieth of the US's Pentagon budget, under 5% of it.
Yet the Russians still have some utterly brilliant scientists, who were kept on
after the end of the Cold War. The education system was still doing well when
they grew up in the USSR. Putin's Russia is going to pit quality against
Anyway, is he shaping up for another Cold War with the West, albeit one with a
In 2006 Putin added six new intercontinental missiles to his arsenal, 12 launch
vehicles, 31 battle tanks and seven Mi-28N night attack helicopters. A new
missile that was tested in July 2007 takes off so fast that no defence defence
system could detect it in time. The new variant of the Topol-M will have
multiple warheads, which splinter so that they cannot be shot out of the sky. It
is a most ingenious weapon, the brainchild of a brilliant Russian physicist or
The US's floundering missile defence system cannot hope to offer protection.
Washington struggles to keep up; in May another interceptor missile fired from
Alaska fell into the Pacific having failed to recognise, far less hit, its
target. The US is losing the ballistic missile game.
It might be thought that this is all about the intended placement of a defence
missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly against 'axis of
evil' states, but rather obviously against Russia's vast arsenal of missiles.
It is not quite as simple as that, although the hawks in the Pentagon here were
quite clearly playing into the hands of those in Moscow. The new Polish
government is lukewarm about the whole affair, while Senators Barakh or Clinton
are unlikely to pursue such an obviously absurd idea, should either of them
reach the White House.
Leading the new anti-Washington coalition
The rationale of the business lies elsewhere. Dean Acheson, formerly US
Secretary of State, said in 1961, with evident satisfaction, "the British
have lost an empire and have yet to find a new role." This was profoundly
true at the time; and also that the Americans were forging an informal empire of
their own in response.
The Soviet Union not only lost an informal empire in 1989, it lost its very
existence in 1991. The US implacably leapt into the vacuum every bit as much as
into that created by the end of the British Empire. The Warsaw Pact states and
the Balts were brought into NATO, breaking promises to Gorbachev that this would
never happen. The Americans are the new pushy people, indeed have been since the
Second World War, which brought them out of isolationism for good.
The Russians are in a far graver plight than the British in the 1960s. Far
poorer for a start. They have emulated the British in building up a successor
Commonwealth, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); but somehow it
doesn't cut quite the same ice. Moreover, the CIS does not have exactly the same
resonance as the USSR.
Putin has, nevertheless, carved out a new role for the Russian Republic. He
despises Tony Blair as being a stooge of Washington, which meant that he ended
his career in ignominy ("Ho -Blair"). He intends to be the leader of
all those opposed to the US.
All the missile-testing, et al, draws attention to Russia. It is consistent with
a bid by Moscow to lead a new power axis against Washington. Putin did a tour
last year in the Middle East soon after making his anti-American outburst, as if
preparing the ground for a coalition of aggrieved states hostile to America.
The future is becoming clear
Putin has chosen the East rather than the West. He dislikes democracy and
liberalism; he equates them both with weakness and decadence, just as did Hitler
We all know where they ended up. But he is not making their colossal mistake of
external expansionism that sets the world by the ears and causes a world war. He
is making the most of his country's two great assets, as he sees them, a vast
nuclear arsenal and a huge reservoir of fossil fuels.
All that he is doing is consistent with a very different axis to that of the
Fascists, the Nazis, etc, namely an anti-US grouping perhaps based on the gas
cartel which Russia is discussing with Iran and Venezuela, et al. The two things
these states have in common are vast energy reserves and a hearty detestation of
the United States of America.
Actually there is a third, if not a fourth. Complete contempt for democracy and
liberalism. There is an affinity after all between the previous Axis powers and
the present ones.
It is now clear that democracy and liberalism have been dumped from the
vernacular of Kremlin discourse.
'Security, order and centralisation of power' are now the key objectives. The
great point is that Russia is now an economic success story. After all it was
Marx who said that the economy counts above all.
The Arctic beckons
While Putin is not going to make the mistake of encroaching on other countries,
as did the USSR - it is the US that is to be pilloried for doing that - he is
strongly tempted to move into the Arctic that stretches so invitingly along
Russia's Far North, half-way around the world.
It is clear that there are vast energy and other mineral reserves hidden under
the Arctic ice-pack and seas that nobody has properly explored yet. Russia is
the logical country to do so in his view, consolidating its coming dominance of
the world's energy industry.
But other countries are interested, that abut the Arctic, Norway, Denmark
(Greenland), Canada and inevitably the US (Thank God for Alaska).
Last August, a submariner team of Russian scientists and legislators trekked to
the North Pole and plunged through the ice pack into the abyss, descending more
than three kilometers through inky darkness to the bottom of the ocean.
There, explorers planted Russia's flag on the ocean bed and, upon surfacing,
declared that the feat had strengthened Moscow's claims to nearly half the
Arctic seabed. The ensuing global headlines fueled debate over polar territorial
The US angle
But that wasn't the whole story. The heroes of the moment did not mention that
the dive had American origins. The following account is based on a story in the
International Herald Tribune of February 19, 'Russia's Arctic dive had US
Alfred McLaren, 75, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, would like to set the record
straight and, as he puts it, "acquaint the Kremlin with the realities"
of recent history and international law.
A major figure of Arctic science and exploration who spent nearly a year in
operations under the ice, McLaren says he developed the polar dive plan and
repeatedly shared his labours with the Russians and their partners - a claim he
supports with numerous e-mail messages and documents.
The Russians, for their part, acknowledge that McLaren played a central role in
the dive's origins. But they say he took no part in substantive planning and
McLaren's plan drew on U.S. polar data and recommended specific sensors and
methods to ensure a safe return. "I wrote the procedures for the
dive," he said in an interview. The Russians, he added, "went for the
Don Walsh, a pioneer of deep ocean diving who worked on the Arctic plan with the
Russians, backed the account.
The divers, Walsh wrote in an e-mail message, "did not develop the original
idea, the operational plan, and they did not pay for it," because wealthy
tourists picked up the bill.
"I am sure," he added, "that this example of how to steal your
way to fame will become a legend in the history of exploration."
The Russians say they took little or nothing. "Talk is cheap," Anatoly
Sagalevitch, the expedition's chief scientist, said in an interview. "But
real operation, this is different."
Putin has made the most of the divers' feat, personally greeting them upon their
return and announcing that Sagalevitch and two other team members would be named
Heroes of Russian Federation, the nation's highest honorary title.
McLaren first got to know the Russians through the lens of a periscope. As a
submariner, he conducted more than 20 secret missions during the Cold War,
mainly in nuclear attack submarines.
Three of his voyages ventured beneath the northern ice pack, gauging its
thickness, probing the dark waters below and bouncing sound waves off the bottom
to map the craggy seabed. An important goal was to find safe submarine routes
near the Soviet Union in case the Cold War turned hot. Over all, he spent nearly
a year under the polar ice.
In 1972, he won the Distinguished Service Medal, the military's highest
peacetime award. He left the navy in 1981 and earned a Ph.D. in polar studies
from the University of Colorado in 1986.
After the Cold War, McLaren began working with Russians, lecturing aboard
Russian icebreakers that carried tourists to the North Pole. He did so
repeatedly while president of the Explorers Club, a post he held from 1996 to
The idea for a polar dive arose in early 1997 when a television journalist, Jack
McDonald, had dinner with McLaren and asked whether anyone had ever gone to the
bottom. The two decided to explore the possibility.
"We spent a lot time on it," recalled McDonald, who planned to make a
The team envisioned going down in a submersible - a small craft with a
superstrong personnel sphere that typically carries a pilot and two observers.
Tiny portholes designed to withstand crushing pressures let the occupants peer
out. A dive is typically an all-day affair, requiring hours to go down to the
bottom and back up.
Later in 1997, McLaren attracted the interest of Mike McDowell, an adventure
tour operator who organized the polar voyages. The next year, Sagalevitch, who
runs Moscow's twin Mir submersibles, came aboard.
In 1999, the three men began diving in the Mirs to visit the deteriorating
remains of the Titanic and the Bismarck. The dives were seen as practice runs
for the polar plunge. All told, McLaren dived in the cramped submersibles five
In 2001, McLaren wrote a polar dive plan for Sagalevitch in Moscow. Drawing on
decades of U.S. polar data, it gave information like mean ice thickness (about 8
feet, or 2.4 meters), water depth (about 2.6 miles, or 4.2 kilometers) and
salinity near the bottom (34 parts to 36 parts per thousand).
Jagged underwater projections and spurs," the plan warned, could endanger a
The document, seven pages long, paid special attention to making sure the
returning Mirs could find the hole through which they had entered the Arctic
Ocean and not become trapped beneath the thick surface ice. It called for
special upward-looking sensors.
"Thank you for your recommendations," Sagalevitch wrote in an e-mail
message after receiving the plan.
For several years the Explorers Club, based in New York City, marketed North
Pole dives to adventure tourists. A cabin would be $16,000, a suite $21,000. The
actual dive beneath the pole: $50,000 extra. Despite a flurry of interest, the
spectacle did not materialize.
By 2005, the plan collapsed. In a bitter e-mail exchange, McLaren accused
McDowell, the tour operator, of abruptly removing him from the polar dive roster
and evading commitments that would have aided fund-raising. "You did not
bother to answer any of my messages," he wrote.
McDowell in turn accused McLaren of failing to recruit dive sponsors and
defended his removal as necessary because of rising costs and the need to
attract more paying tourists. "I do all the work and take all the financial
risk," he added.
Walsh, who worked with both men, laid the rupture to personality conflicts.
"We were top-heavy in chiefs and needed more braves," he said.
Another factor was the Kremlin, which was seeking new displays of geopolitical
muscle. It seized control of the project. On Aug. 2, 2007, Sagalevitch and
McDowell descended to the bottom, taking along two Moscow legislators.
After the dive, many nations sharpened their claims. Denmark mapped icy regions.
The United States mounted a polar expedition. And Canada unveiled plans for an
Arctic military base.