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The alphabet of months: a year of living with multiple sclerosis
My daughter took her first steps on the day I was diagnosed � a juxtaposition so
perfect, so trite, so filled with the tacky artifice of real life that I am
generally too ashamed to tell anyone about it.

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I write a lot of notes to myself these days, but this one is different. Remember
the body. A strange thought. How could I forget it? And yet I do.

For now, the body can often be ignored during the day, all thoughts of it swept
away, returning only with the odd twinge or flutter. At night, though, with the
radio silent and the lights off, my wife and daughter sleeping, the body is
suddenly right there again, its unusual new voice amplified by the absence of other
distractions. It is not happy. The feet tingle. The fingers sparkle with random
jabs and jolts. The spine hints at sharp alien structures and moaning cavities, and
there is something behind the eye that wants to splutter and grouch. As I ease out
of bed every morning, it is such a thrill when my feet touch the ground and my legs
support me. Again! Another day and it still works! Despite all this, I have not
remembered the body. Not this year.

In the early days of an illness there is simply too much more to take in. Last
September I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the immune
system mistakenly attacks the myelin sheaths coating the nerves in the brain and
spinal cord. Myelin is wonderful fatty stuff that both protects the nerve and
enhances neuro�transmission. MS is like a stripping of the wires. As a result,
vital messages muddle themselves, or vanish entirely.

The illness touches the body and the brain. It undermines the bridge between them.
The nature of this relationship, not to mention the unpredictability with which MS
works its nasty magic, also brings the mind itself into play, however, and the mind
can cause all kinds of additional trouble. I should remember the body because
physical problems, although frightening, allow me to give this wayward collection
of symptoms a kind of shape � and because everything beyond the body involves the
tricky intrusion of judgement. I have had MS for a little over a year and this has
been the surprising, sometimes embarrassing challenge in my particular case: where
does the disease end and where do I begin? What is the illness and what is just my
maddening response to it?

Exhibit A: Lhermitte�s sign. Lhermitte�s was one of the first indicators that
something was going wrong inside me, but in my first few months with MS I clung to
it especially tightly because it had taken on a wider significance. It�s not that
it was all-encompassing or even particularly painful. Instead, it had started to
feel emblematic.

Lhermitte�s sign, I would explain with a world-weariness I had yet to earn, is an

electrical sensation that runs down the spine and into the limbs. It is fairly
common in people with MS. What I found interesting about Lhermitte�s, though, is
the seemingly unimportant historical detailing. Jean Lhermitte, the French
neurologist and neuropsychiatrist who published a report on this particular
phenomenon in 1920, was not the first to describe the sensation, and it isn�t
actually a sign, either, because it is not visible to an observer. Lhermitte�s sign
is not really Lhermitte�s sign, in other words, and that, I would conclude with
whatever flourish I could muster, is all you need to know about neurology.

I still get a quiet thrill from such arriviste certainty but I have started to
understand that there are other perspectives available. After all, what I could be
telling people is this: it took seven months to get an MS diagnosis but in fact my
neurologist worked it all out in five minutes. The weeks that followed were just a
hunt for the necessary proof.


In February 2014, I arrived at the outpatients� building of the Royal Sussex County
Hospital in Brighton with a variety of strange and alarming symptoms, the most
striking of which was an inability to do up the tiny buttons on my baby daughter�s
bedclothes after her evening bath. My hands were numb, and they had temporarily
ceased playing along when it came to precision work.

My neurologist made me tap my nose with each finger, he whacked my knees and elbows
with a little rubber hammer, and he had me walk up and down while he timed my
steps. Mostly, though, he listened to me and watched me as I spoke. I told him
about a spiteful pain spreading along my limbs, and he spotted and then disregarded
nearly invisible things, such as a shaking in my right hand which turned out to be
a harmless hereditary tremor passed down through my father�s side of the family.
Throughout our chat, I felt deftly, benignly scrutinised. It was all strangely
intimate. And then my neurologist stunned me by saying that he had worked out that
there was something wrong with my spine, and that it was possibly, very possibly,
the first sign of a scary illness I had probably heard of. He was on to me
immediately. He had rumbled my body�s secret.

Fear and wonder: I suspect these emotions are close relatives. They are both
responses to the extreme, to the extraordinary, and so I found them coiled tightly
together as my neurologist explained what MS is and what it could mean. The fear
was for my daughter, my wife, my job, my mortgage, but also for the suspicion that,
even if MS didn�t unravel me by itself, I would prove unable to resist the
temptation to use it as an excuse to retreat from the world. And the wonder? I
remember feeling wonder that a quiet, watchful doctor had discovered so much in
such a short period of time.

Walk toe-to-heel and tell me how you�re feeling: it turns out that a neurologist is
a bit like a highway patrol officer and a bit like a counsellor. From my
experience, however, I would argue that they are ultimately detectives. The brain
makes sense to these people; I have tried to keep that in mind these past few
months as I have attempted to make sense of it myself. What do I choose:
Lhermitte�s wayward history or my neurologist�s calming reason? Ambiguity and
confounded expectations, or the pleasing certainty of a police procedural?
The very facts have been difficult to navigate. MS today belongs to the fuzzy world
of averages and estimates: the average age at the point of diagnosis is 37 � I was
36 � and, according to NHS statistics, it probably affects about 100,000 people in
the UK. The global tally is roughly two and a half million, and the illness is far
more common in higher latitudes, which is why it is increasingly being linked to a
lack of Vitamin D. I�m told by my neurologist that about half of all MS patients
can walk unaided 20 years after a diagnosis; the disease most commonly causes
problems with balance, muscle movement, co-ordination and fatigue.

A coloured MRI scan of the brain of a 35-year-old MS sufferer. The bright white
areas are lesions. Photo: Science Photo Library
MS is degenerative and incurable, but for people like me who have the milder
�relapsing-remitting� form, in which the symptoms come on in sudden spikes and then
fade or even disappear for periods of time, the drugs that slow the overall
progression are continuing to improve at an exciting rate. If I had developed MS 20
years ago, there would have been no treatments available. Two years ago there were
eight. Now there are ten, although access to them varies � as does the time it
takes to reach a diagnosis. I am extremely lucky and the NHS has been incredible: I
am now on one of the latest drugs to be approved.

For patients suffering from the progressive forms, however � where there are few
periods of relief to speak of � there are still no treatments. Equally, while there
is hope for an overall cure, the sense I get from my doctors is that we remain at
the point of trying to understand the true intricacies of the disease. This is a
period of rapid progress but we are still heading uphill. As an example, the pills
I take twice a day come with a leaflet that contains a page describing how the
manufacturer thinks the drug operates. This is where we stand with MS: some things
appear to work and we suspect we may even know why.

Public awareness of the disease is also hazy; most people don�t know very much
about it. According to a recent poll conducted by the MS Society, 61 per cent of
people with MS have been accused of being drunk at some point when they are only
exhibiting their symptoms. Speaking of symptoms, 49 per cent of the population are
unable to name even one.

A year ago, I couldn�t, either. MS meant vague associations with Richard Pryor,
Jacqueline du Pr� and President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing, as well as a
certain degree of confusion with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and any other
illness that hides behind a musical two-word name. Bartlet is the element that many
people who watched the show can remember � we could rename MS �Bartlet�s disease� �
but even then how much do people really recall? �Oh, you have Bartlet�s disease,� a
friend of mine will say, their eyes suddenly bright and alert. �What happened to
him in the end?�

The answer is that the show�s creators stopped writing about his adventures. I
haven�t been able to stop thinking about my own. MS was so much of a mystery to me
in the early days that I couldn�t help but be drawn into the murkiness. Lhermitte�s
and my desire to see patterns, powered by an ignorance brought on by the fear that
if I dug too deep I might learn something I didn�t like, helped foster a suspicion
that neurology was a jarring, incomprehensible wonderland where any underlying
certainties have been eroded or rendered perverse.

Or rather, it was Wonderland itself. As soon as I told friends that there was
something wrong with my brain, they would inevitably start to invoke Alice and her
tumble through the earth to a place where clarity had ossified into a maddening
kind of literalism, where everything was familiar and yet nothing made much sense
any more. Alice in Wonderland is, apparently, a global shorthand for any troubles
with the head. Before my illness, I occasionally used to wonder how Lewis Carroll
works in translation, when it does not have the staginess of the English language
with its trap doors and its trick staircases to support it. I now see that there is
something terribly universal at work in Wonderland: a shared fear that stuff might
happen to you and then nothing in your life will ever again operate to rules that
you can fully understand.


Compounding this, I was constantly hearing about a world of possible outcomes, many
of them devastating, that I hadn�t yet experienced and might not have to. MS can
leave you in a wheelchair; it can render you practically mute through problems with
swallowing or word blindness; it can cause psychiatric as well as physical
symptoms. The list of the things it can do to you is almost as long as the list of
different parts of the body that can be affected. Or it might just ruffle your hair
a bit and then step back.

I knew that very bad things could be coming my way but I also felt dangerously,
foolishly healthy. Up to a point: sure, most of the scary physical stuff is in a
holding pattern, bright lights in the sky, possibly growing closer. Meanwhile,
though, the runways are clogged with problems of the brain and phantoms of the
mind. When people ask what it�s like to live in a body that�s become unruly, I may
not be able to tell them about specific shocks, like a day when my legs gave out at
the supermarket, but I realise that I already have a few things to say. I know that
you learn to distrust your own body � and then you learn to distrust your own sense
of distrust.

So, from my own fiercely limited experience, let me tell you how the newly
diagnosed sometimes feel. They feel lofty, as though their illness has given them
some wider, more panoramic perspective. They feel perversely special, as they have
something rare, even if it is not precious. They feel invulnerable, because
something has finally happened to them and maybe it will be the only thing that
ever does. They feel lost and compromised, as if their true identity was killed in
the instant of diagnosis. They feel grateful whenever something small suggests that
they are still the same as everyone else.

Mostly, I think, they do not feel any of these things for very long. Throw in the
guilt and difficulty, too, that comes from having to share all of this with those
around you. My own family has been surprisingly good about my diagnosis, perhaps
because a deeply cherished fatalism has saved some of them from too much in the way
of a surprise. After denial, my dad has steadily become an expert. My mum has
fought to maintain a cheery distance from the facts that extended to a phone
conversation during which it became clear that she thought I had motor neurone
disease. They care and they are increasingly watchful, and in most ways it seems
that my illness has merely made them more thoroughly themselves.

My wife, meanwhile, is shaken by our precarious new reality but she has dealt with
so many of my imagined catastrophes over the past few years that it is easy enough
to transition to something real. She probably expected a few lows, but I think the
highs have taken their own toll. I am more present now and less able to sleepwalk
through the day, as I used to. I have also, through necessity, become a deeply
incautious optimist over the past 16 months, and this occasionally tips into
something a little bit crazy. Sarah will return home to a dazed baby surrounded by
dozens of teetering Lego palaces I�ve been constructing all day. �Oh right,� she�ll
say, adopting the briskly jocular tone she probably employed when she worked as a
nurse. �You�re manic again.�
Photo: Laura Hynd for the New Statesman
With MS, things rush into the atmosphere and may burn up quickly and it can be
frightening to realise that some of these things are not real. One day a few months
ago, I was putting together an Ikea bed � manic again � when suddenly I looked up
and realised I didn�t have a clue what I was doing. I had the parts and I had the
instructions, but I had no idea how these two elements related to each other. This
feeling persisted for half an hour. Somewhat ironically, I had to go and find a
place to lie down while it passed. But when I asked Sarah if this was worrying, she
said: �Oh, man, you always get like that when you�re putting stuff together.� She�s

How about this, though? During even the simplest of thought excursions the air can
thin while a kind of dizzy, high-altitude poetry kicks in. Hunting for a calendar
to write down a doctor�s appointment before I forget it, I�ll forget calendars
themselves and ask my wife for an �alphabet of months�. Language feels out of
reach, individual words become cumbersome and I struggle to put them together
neatly. I write about video games for a living and the writing now sometimes feels
like translation. I have become clearer as a writer but it is at the expense of
speed, of flow and of clear certainty in what I am doing. At least the actual games
have helped: little safe houses of simple tasks and wordless logic, places to
experiment freely with disaster.

When I look back, it becomes clear that language is at the heart of many of my
problems, real and imagined. Even when I�m thinking straight, I am still trying to
describe sensations that are internalised and involve aspects of myself that I have
never had to come up with names for. MS has given me an inside: it has opened up
all the territory of the interior � the skeleton, the organs, the strange
connections strung between them. It has made me aware of these places, and it gives
me irregular causes to think of them every day. But it has not given me the
language to discuss the things that go on there.

Take Lhermitte�s once again. When I first started to feel its effects, I spent a
long time trying to classify the particular kind of wide, closely corrugated buzz I
got from it. I initially wanted to say it felt orange somehow, or perhaps friendly.
A sympathetic jolt! In the end, the thing I should have mentioned � the clinically
significant thing � is not how it feels but that it can be reliably triggered by
moving my head forward. Voil�: a cervical spine lesion comes into view.

It doesn�t help that even the most physical symptoms of MS mess with the mind a
little. Sometimes frighteningly, as when prolonged pain in the intestines tricks me
into wondering if perhaps I have bowel cancer hiding behind my MS. Sometimes even
amusingly. Over the past few months, every door handle in the world has suddenly
moved three centimetres away from me. I will grasp and come up empty as my body�s
awareness of its own position � the technical term is �proprioception� � has
started to weaken. Equally, a recent relapse meddled with my long-distance vision,
separating a single three-dimensional image of the world into overlapping, �two-
dimensional images. The bus I catch each morning, which usually says �Brighton
Marina� on the side, one day suddenly read �Britch Mar Marnimar�: a destination I
quite like the sound of. I don�t find everything so jolly. I can feel a little
trapped as a new invisible symptom flares up and I alone have to try to make sense
of it � or at least find the right words before someone else can make sense of it
for me. I have to probe but I also have to attain a certain distance and
objectivity regarding what I may think is going on. If you want an easy sense of
how tricky the relationship between the mind and the brain can get, consider the
conceptual nail bomb that is the expression, �It�s all in my head.�

Reading around the subject a little, I have come to realise that language plays
such a crucial role with all neurological illnesses because neurology in its own
right, despite its SPECT scans and MRIs (and perhaps precisely because its worst
mischief plays out in secret, in the dense matter of the brain, in the delicate
hidden filaments of the spine), is often, like Wonderland, a thing of words. The
real work for the professionals is to pick through the testimony, to find out what
is actually going on and to translate the muddle of evidence into the cold
terminology of a diagnosis.


Even the professionals can get frustrated. I have recently read Reaching Down the
Rabbit Hole: Extraordinary Journeys Into the Human Brain (Atlantic Books), in which
the Harvard neurologist Allan Ropper and his co-author, Brian D Burrell, argue that
the unique challenge of neurology comes down to the neurologist�s primary source of
information � his patients� sense of their own experiences � being, by the very
nature of many neurological illnesses, frequently unreliable.

Ropper believes in listening to the patient �as if to a book on tape�, but his
annoyance shows through when the mind compromises the brain. In the middle of the
book is a chapter dedicated to �malingering, shamming and hysteria� � to the way in
which, besides navigating the confusing world of stroke victims, Parkinson�s
sufferers and people with motor neurone disease, he encounters a steady stream of
people who think they have problems that they don�t: medically impossible stammers,
memory loss that helpfully covers infidelity, paralysis requiring peculiarly fine
muscle control in order to exhibit itself.

I think some of my own symptoms over the past year would land me in this �chapter.
There�s no ducking the fact that I have MS and I am definitely not trying to fool
anyone, but I had an irritating stammer that went away while I was reading Ropper�s
book, and now, whenever word blindness sets in, I try not to give up on the hunt
for what I was after quite so easily.

Like my own neurologist, Ropper has managed to make me feel a lot better, and this
goes beyond his ability to peel away the real stuff from the imagined. Although he
may steal his title from Alice in Wonderland, Ropper�s book presents a different
perspective on neurology � one that I have �encountered before. A brisk anecdotal
tour of a ward, a lively tale of adventure, filled with patient histories and
puzzling symptoms waiting to be understood, Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole is a
detective novel, and despite his flapping white coat and squeaking Crocs, Ropper is
Humphrey Bogart, cerebral yet tough and blessed with a terse wit. Beneath a clever
stylistic choice, an important point is being made. Neurology is about fighting
Wonderland: Dr Ropper is saying that his world makes sense and that although the
logic may be hidden, it�s still there somewhere in my world, waiting to be exposed.

The doctor as detective is another clich�, of course, one that has been exploited
rather elegantly in TV dramas such as House, which transposes the drawing rooms of
Baker Street to the teaching hospital and the MRI tunnel. That said, it has made me
realise that the past year may have been harder than it could have been, because
initially, when offered a choice, I fell for the wrong clich� � the one stating
that diseases of the brain must be relentlessly befuddling to the mind, too; the
clich� arguing that neurology is the realm of Alice and the frumious Bandersnatch,
and that it is incomprehensible, regardless of the angle from which you approach
it. This is certainly true, unfortunately, for some illnesses and some sufferers,
and it is magnified horrifically in the absence of a diagnosis, but steadily what I
have come to understand is that in the early days of my own neurological illness, I
was struggling with the sheer idea of having a neurological illness.
My daughter took her first steps on the day I was diagnosed � a juxtaposition so
perfect, so trite, so filled with the tacky artifice of real life that I am
generally too ashamed to tell anyone about it. Yet disease is a great educator, and
part of that education revolves around ideas that you dismiss as artless or hokey.
They are all true, disease whispers: the clanging truisms, the stodgy
sentimentality. Life goes on. Live in the moment. Stay positive. The writer in me
hesitates before typing these lines. The patient in me could not do without them.

In the year that my daughter has taken her first steps, the year she has mastered
rudimentary balance, the pincer grip and the ability to put two words together, I
have been learning, too. Clich�s, truisms and much more besides. I have been
learning how to understand what is going on in my own skull. I am still learning.

from just �1 per issue
This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini
Protest against NHS cuts
�They are leaving at an alarming rate�: European NHS workers on the winter crisis,
austerity, and Brexit�s impact

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Osama Bin Laden mask
�I thought al-Qaeda was recruiting me�: can we spot when terrorism is a delusion?
Putin�s new Cold War
Assassination attempts, cyber-attacks, military interventions � Russia is once
again playing a deadly game with the West. Yet beneath the bravado is a nation
riddled with insecurities.


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Vladimir Putin is not one to accept criticism from the West, even when his country
stands accused of attempted murder using military-grade nerve agents. Russian
responses to the accusations have been dismissive, even suggesting that British
intelligence was really responsible for the attempted murder on 4 March of Sergei
Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, combined with knowing observations
that their fate should be a warning to other traitors.

Russia has been on the receiving end of sanctions and diplomatic slights ever since
Crimea was annexed in March 2014, and Putin will expect to ride out whatever
punishments the British can put together in the same way that he has ridden out
those of the past. He will talk up the resilience of the Russian state and identify
appropriate forms of retaliation that his adversaries will find difficult to match.

He may even wonder whether heightened tension with the West will help him with his
other main preoccupation this weekend � the first round of his re-election as
president on 18 March. Putin�s message to the Russian people has been for some time
that they are under attack from old enemies and that this requires national unity
and a readiness to sacrifice. He does not need to worry about the result. His
victory is taken for granted. Polls show him romping home with about 65 per cent of
the vote, with the other seven candidates all managing about 5 per cent each.
There are no credible opposition figures because murders, imprisonments and
denunciations have left few capable of taking on this role. The anti-corruption
campaigner Alexei Navalny might have made a dent on Putin�s majority, but he was
barred from standing by the Central Election Commission. The only thing that might
worry Putin is that too few people will come out to vote and so detract from his
victory. Given the lack of a real contest, minimal actual campaigning, calls for a
boycott from Navalny and his supporters, declining living standards and little for
the Russian people to look forward to, the turnout could well be less than the 65
per cent achieved in 2012, which was itself down from 70 per cent in 2008.

This will be Putin�s fourth term (five if you include the 2008-2012 period when he
swapped places with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev). He may not be following
China�s Xi Jinping in getting himself declared president for life, but he has
already had the presidential term extended from four to six years. This means that
he should be in power until he is 71. As Western governments work out what to do
about Russian disruption, there is not much point looking forward to a new
leadership in Moscow that might be interested in starting afresh. They need a
policy for Putin that can last for some time.


This is one reason comparisons are being made with the Cold War � a period that
began after the Second World War and lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in
November 1989. Over this period relations between the two superpowers, the US and
the Soviet Union, and their respective allies were tense and dangerous. There were
many vicious conflicts, often involving client states, but a third world war, which
was expected to involve massive use of nuclear weapons, was avoided.

In the 1990s it was hoped and believed all this could be consigned to history and
that a new period of peace and prosperity could be enjoyed by all. Well before the
start of the Ukraine crisis in March 2014 it was apparent that these hopes were not
being fulfilled. Russia complained about the West demanding a rules-based
international order while regularly breaking its own standards.

How useful is it to think about the new situation as a cold war? Comparisons with
the previous one can be, as we shall see, instructive, if only to explain why
things are very different now. But �cold war� is also a more generic category. The
term was first used in France before the Second World War to describe circumstances
that had not yet led to actual hostilities but were likely to do so at any time.
This was how the phrase was understood when employed by American commentators in
the late 1940s � they had no reason then to expect a long stalemate but were
looking ahead to a period when the possibility of a �hot war� was very real. And
this is how we might think of a cold war now. It is not so much a replica of what
we might call Cold War 1.0 but a new version with its own characteristics. Cold War
2.0 deserves the designation because it might turn hot. That is the risk that
demands attention.

In some respects it is already quite warm, given the number of active measures
recently taken by Russia against the West. As a reminder of the most dreaded aspect
of Cold War 1.0, Putin started this month introducing a collection of new nuclear
weapons, including a cruise missile that could �reach anywhere in the world� and
bypass all forms of defence. Meanwhile, in tones reminiscent of the early 1980s,
Nato generals have been describing the extent of the recent Russian build-up of
conventional forces facing the Baltic states and the struggle the alliance would
face when responding to a quick offensive, even if over time (if there was time)
its superior strength would win out.

The emphasis on nuclear power is one of the major continuities between the two cold
wars. It is the foundation of Russia�s claims to great power status (which is why
Putin refers to it with alarming regularity). The other is its permanent membership
of the UN Security Council, which allows it to prevent other great powers from
ganging up on it. Yet the differences between the cold wars 1.0 and 2.0 are

The most obvious and major change is that Russia is in a far weaker position than
the Soviet Union was. At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union split into 15 republics
and they all went their separate ways. Three � Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania � are
now members of Nato. All its former allies in the Warsaw Pact have now joined Nato
too. Moscow�s sphere of influence has therefore shrunk dramatically. Unsurprisingly
this has led to a sense of isolation and insecurity. The priority for Russian
foreign and security policy has become the old Soviet space � its �near abroad�.

Second, Cold War 1.0 was a global affair. Although it began in Europe, it soon
spread to Asia and then on to the Middle East and Africa. In Cold War 2.0 Syria is
the major exception to Russia�s European focus. Moscow stepped up its engagement in
2015 in order to prevent the defeat of President Bashar al-Assad. This operation
was more successful than the one in Ukraine where Russia is stuck sustaining an
unstable enclave. Putin is now a major player in Syrian affairs, although, as he is
discovering, this is a mixed blessing.

Despite having done enough to ensure the survival of the Assad regime, Putin has
not yet managed to work out how to bring sufficient peace to allow Russia to
withdraw. Nor is this really part of Cold War 2.0 as a new arena for conflict with
the West. Neither President Obama nor President Trump was inclined to get directly
involved in Syria, despite the unfolding humanitarian disaster. They both largely
confined themselves to mounting air strikes against Islamic State and its

Third, the shrinkage from the Soviet Union into the Russian Federation had major
economic consequences. Almost until its fragmentation the Soviet Union had the
second-largest economy in the world. It now vies for 13th place in the economic
league table with Australia, a country with about a seventh of the population. Its
GDP is about 60 per cent that of France and Britain, 40 per cent of Germany�s and
not even 8 per cent of the US�s. In addition its economy is severely unbalanced. It
is extremely dependent upon energy exports, which is why it gained in strength
during the 2000s, as energy prices rose to new heights, and slumped after prices
fell in 2014. Rebalancing the economy was one of Putin�s objectives early in his
presidency, but chronic corruption and disregard for the rule of law have held it

Fourth, during Cold War 1.0 the interaction between the Soviet bloc�s economies and
those in the rest of the world was minimal, other than in the energy sector. Since
1991 the Russian economy has engaged much more directly, using Western capital
markets, importing Western goods and technology, and exporting oil and gas in
return. Russia has always seen its position as an energy exporter as a source of
leverage as well as revenue, a means of demonstrably rewarding friends and
punishing enemies. Over time this has weakened Russia�s position in the market as
customers become wary of being too dependent upon it as a supplier. At the same
time, substantial economic connections with Russia provided the West with
opportunities to impose sanctions, although these have largely been on individuals
rather than whole sectors of the economy.

Fifth, Moscow can no longer claim leadership of an international ideological

movement. There are some old leftists who still find it hard to think of Moscow as
anything other than a leader in the struggle against global capitalism and
imperialism. Its main messages, however, are now crudely nationalist, and so its
natural supporters are on the xenophobic right � figures such as Nigel Farage,
Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orb�n. Russian sympathisers are now most likely to be
found among misogynistic, racist and homophobic parties and movements.

These have gained ground in Europe largely because of the migration crisis, and
Russian propaganda has done what it can to encourage this. Putin can appear to be
more sympathetic to popular concerns than Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Yet this is
not the same as leading a movement with a clear ideological identity. A number of
pro-Putin politicians have come to power in EU states, including Viktor Orb�n in
Hungary but Russia�s lack of economic power means that these leaders end up
complying with mainstream EU policies (including sanctions).

Sixth, Cold War 1.0 was a struggle of the pre-internet age. Cold War 2.0 has been
shaped by the internet. This has provided opportunities for new forms of coercion
and influence that have the advantage of being relatively cheap and potentially
covert. They allow for provocations just below the threshold of what might lead to
a hot war. In this way conflict can be carried on in a grey world of actions that
are hard to attribute, and may be enacted by private individuals and groups acting
as agents of the state. When critical information systems go down suddenly,
affecting banking or a government bureaucracy, or fake and inflammatory messages
overwhelm social media, the fact that Russia is responsible may be obvious but hard
to prove. Even when the evidence is overwhelming the response is often simple

The intensity of Russian activity below the level of actual war is worth noting.
Attention in the UK is focused on attempted assassinations. But the other high-
profile issue concerns the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US
presidential election campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller has reported on the
role of the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based �troll farm� which was
part of an effort to develop links with far-right and far-left groups opposed to
�globalisation� and liberal interventionism. Russia has also been blamed for the
Petya ransomware attack of June 2017, which was originally directed against
Ukraine�s financial, energy and government institutions � but its indiscriminate
character meant that it spread further to other European businesses, causing many
millions of dollars� worth of damage.

The opening ceremony of the South Korea Winter Olympics was also attacked, with the
official website going down and on-site technology failing, in such a way that
North Korea might have got the blame at a time when South and North Korea were
engaging in talks to reduce tensions. A likely motive was revenge for the
International Olympic Committee�s decision to ban the Russian team from the Games
because of its history of doping violations (a practice that showed how ready
Russia is to gain advantage by breaking the rules). The German government has
disclosed that federal computer systems have been penetrated by Russian hackers.

Responsibility is always denied, without much attempt to make the denials

plausible, and often with a knowing sneer. Refusal to be held accountable for
actions is combined with satisfaction at giving an impression of deliberate menace.

Does Cold War 1.0 provide any guidance for how we should cope with Cold War 2.0?
For a start, we should accept it is not going to end soon. For this reason, and to
prevent small incidents escalating into something much worse, we should keep open
lines of communication and be prepared to c0-operate when it is in our mutual
interests to do so. There are, for example, some decaying arms control agreements
left over from easier times that need some attention. In addition, while bad
behaviour must be called out, we should also recognise that suitable sanctions will
be hard to find. A tit-for-tat response to attempted assassinations is hardly

Although our media continues to challenge Russian narratives, Western governments

are never going to be much good at state-sponsored information campaigns. It is
worth noting, however, that Russians are convinced that the West is quite brilliant
at undermining governments this way, citing as examples the Arab Spring of 2011,
demonstrations against Putin in Moscow in 2011, and the uprising in Ukraine in 2014
(indicating their difficulty in believing that popular movements can develop
without substantial help from foreign agents). There are also reasons to be wary of
engaging in offensive cyber-operations, as they can get out of control, although
temptations to move in this direction are likely to grow.


It is important to keep all this in perspective. China is a far more important

player in international politics and economics, and bigger issues are posed by the
wayward course of President Trump�s foreign policy. There have been complaints from
Russian dissidents that exaggerating Moscow�s prowess in cyber-attacks or
overstating its role in Western elections gives Putin an aura of power that he does
not deserve (as well as discouraging honest assessments of why certain political
messages turned out to be popular in the West). Putin wants to be talked up and not
down, for Russia to appear as a great power whose interests must be accommodated
and that must have a say in all important issues.

As Cold War 1.0 ended, it became apparent that a country that had been worrying us
so much was hollow inside. Russia should be taken seriously, but in the end it is a
minor economic power. It has allowed its insecurities to lead it into behaviour
that can hurt its adversaries, but in the end will prevent it from addressing the
aspirations of the Russian people.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King�s College London.

His latest book is the �The Future of War: A History� (Allen Lane)

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This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini