By quietly building up a web of influence across Europe, the Russian President has changed the rules – and Nato is running to catch up
It’s easy to laugh at Vladimir Putin, to dismiss him as a Cold Warrior trapped in the Eighties. His nostalgia for the old Soviet Union, his fondness for ballistic missile testing and denouncing Nato in speeches all seem to underline the image of an old KGB agent who can’t bring himself to admit that the war is over. At first, his behavior just seemed odd. When he annexed Crimea, it seemed more sinister. But now, we ought to consider a third possibility: that we’re the ones stuck in the past. That Putin is fighting a war of the future – and winning.
In the old days, Russians built and maintained an empire by sending tanks over borders. This was the Cold War that my wife’s parents knew: they ended up fleeing Prague after dodging Russian bullets a few too many times. When that war ended, Nato was expanded to make sure it couldn’t happen again. The United Nations has rules based on the inviolability of borders. So, for example, if Russia invaded Cyprus to give its navy access to the Mediterranean then everyone – Uncle Sam included – would come riding to the rescue.
But Putin, now, would do nothing so gauche as to invade. He cuts deals instead: this week, he agreed a €2.5 billion loan for Cyprus. In return, Russian navy vessels will be able to dock in its ports. This will lead to the extraordinary situation of Cyprus becoming a military hub for both Britain and Russia. We still have bases there; when budgets allow, RAF Tornados fly off to bomb Isil positions in Iraq. Their base abuts the Port of Limassol – so soon, British and Russian servicemen may be separated only by the colony of pink flamingos that divides Cypriot and British territory in Akrotiri.
It’s quite a coup for the Kremlin. Cyprus was British until 1960; now it has been absorbed into Putin’s new empire. It’s not an empire that Nato, with its Cold War mindset, would recognize; it’s not one that can be described by coloring in nations on a map. This is an empire of influence – far cheaper to acquire, harder to spot and easier to maintain. It doesn’t cost much for Russia to provide 80 per cent of foreign investment into Cyprus, but with investment comes gratitude. Cyprus, an EU member, opposes sanctions on Russia – making the hard task of a common EU foreign policy that little bit harder.