The Russian ruler’s strategy is short-termist, simple and successful, says John Kampfner. But it is ultimately hollow
In this era of wartime nostalgia, it may be unfashionable to take issue with Winston Churchill. But I will. Russia, he famously said, is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. That was on October 1, 1939, little over a month after Stalin and Hitler had agreed their miserable non-aggression pact.
Churchill, to his credit, did go on to say in that same address that the key to understanding Russia is ‘national interest’. There was nothing enigmatic about Russia then; there is nothing mysterious now. Vladimir Putin has been entirely unsubtle about his priorities. During his nearly two decades in power he seen American and French presidents, British prime ministers and German chancellors come and ago. He has remained constant. He will do whatever it takes to secure Russia’s interests.
If that means picking off people who can do his bidding, like Donald Trump, all the better. If that means seeing off those who don’t, either at the ballot box or by use of poison, so be it. He will do everything in his means to undermine political alliances or systems that he thinks pose a threat.
What is so extraordinary is that, in spite of all the evidence, so many Western political leaders have been in denial for so long. That has particularly applied to Britain, which turned itself into money laundering central and then suddenly woke up to wonder why it has a problem.
The history of post-communism is well documented. The exhilarating early years of Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s degenerated into a haze of corruption, nepotism and no little alcohol, as Russia was sold off on the cheap to a bunch of crooks, otherwise known as aspiring businessmen.
Western economists encouraged them to do that. They called it privatisation – privatizatsiya. Ordinary Russians dubbed it prikhvatizatsiya (‘theft’). Western intelligence chiefs warned of the societal dangers within Russia and of the security dangers further afield. Their concerns were dismissed as old fashioned by politicians, of the right and the centre left, who were seduced by the ‘end of history’ notions that capitalism and democracy had taken hold across the globe.
Everything and everyone could be bought. By the end of the 1990s, the new class of oligarchs and their friends in the Yeltsin ‘family’, as the elite was known, wanted a pliant leader to take over. They alighted on a certain Vladimir Putin, a diminutive former middle-ranking KGB agent in East Germany.
They assumed he would do their bidding; he was duly installed on New Year’s Day 2000. Within months he turned the arrangement on its head. He summoned the men who had made billions out of oil and gas, aluminium and other natural resources, and gave them a message: you can make as much money as you like as long as you don’t meddle in politics. There was a further, unspoken, part of the deal. They should look after the new boss and his friends. They too wanted a slice of the pie.
For the first few years, even as he imprisoned businessmen who refused to do his bidding, and as journalists who asked too many questions found themselves dead at the bottom of stairwells, Putin flirted with the West.
He sympathised with the United States after 9/11 and tacitly supported the invasion of Afghanistan. He tolerated the war in Iraq, even though he didn’t buy the easy optimism of messrs Bush and Blair. He looked the other way when the EU sought to expand into the former Soviet republics.
Then he snapped. I saw it for myself. In September 2004 I was part of a small group of international journalists and analysts invited one evening to the president’s residence at Novo-Ogaryovo on the outskirts of Moscow. A few days earlier, terrorists had besieged a school in the small town of Beslan in the North Caucasus. The special forces raid that followed was a disaster, in which more than 300 of the 1,000 hostages were killed.
I had asked Putin the first question. For 30 minutes, in silence he unleashed a soliloquy that was fluent, frightening – and deeply impressive. Not once did he remove his steely gaze from me. For four hours, late into the night, Putin his let his anger rip. He complained to us about being taken for granted. He reverted to a classic Russian historical default of encirclement and grievance. Where was the thanks for the support he had given the West over Iraq and Afghanistan? He had turned a blind eye to NATO encroachment and what had he received in return? Just more humiliation.
Fast forward more than a decade, past the annexation of Crimea, warfare in eastern Ukraine, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripal affair, countless murders and attempted murders within Russia and on foreign soil: many of Putin’s subsequent actions can be traced back to then. His was an intriguing mix of the rational and the emotional.
The events of the 1990s were not remembered for the opening up of society after decades of dictatorship. Instead, this was a time of pozor – ‘shame’. It was when Russia allowed itself to be humiliated.
Putin, like many of his compatriots, harked back to a mythical Russia that they had lost. Russia’s role, and suffering, in the Second World War were mythologised. The Orthodox church and social conservatism helped to bind the country in a defiant 19th century nostalgia.
The president identified his enemies openly. Russia would do whatever it takes, legally or illegally, within international law or ignoring it, to safeguard its interests. The business elite could be used for that purpose, as would organised criminal gangs (often they were interlinked anyway). The security state would be mandated to act internally and externally whenever needed. Sometimes their actions would be covert; often they would be in plain sight, to send a warning to those who might be contemplating challenging Putin.
Western politicians have for many years allowed their hopes to trump sensible expectation. The mindset of the Putinistas has for long been fixed. It is where grievance meets greed. His State of the Union speech in 2005 was instructive. ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,’ he declared, adding ominously: ‘Our place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are.’ In other words: if we don’t get them, they’ll get us.
Killings and physical threats are only part of the Putin armoury. The most important, and successful, weapon has been the systematic undermining of Western institutions. It was only after the event that the extent of apparent Kremlin intervention in the twin shocks of 2016 – the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – has become clear. By then it was too late. Anyone, anywhere, was worthy of support, if they challenged the central tenets of Western liberal democracy.
Post-communist Central Europe was relatively easy to pick off. Viktor Orban had been an anti-Soviet dissident. As president of Hungary, he became a close ally of Putin. The two men shared an antipathy towards immigrants and the EU and saw a joint endeavour in anti-Western nationalism.
Orban was rewarded for his loyalty with sweetheart oil deals. His government recreated the tactic of using business cronies to take over media outlets and clamping down on civil society groups. The same began to happen with governments in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, nationalists who had returned, in a devils’ pact, into Moscow’s orbit. The populist pro-Moscow president, Milos Zeman, was re-elected in Prague after his pro-EU opponent fell victim to a smear campaign from 30 Czech websites linked back to Russia, accusing him of being a paedophile.
Closer to home the Kremlin funded Marine Le Pen’s strong performance in France’s presidential campaign to the tune of 11 million euros via a Moscow-based shell bank. On the eve of the election run-off, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement was subject to a massive cyberattack, dumping stolen emails and crude fakes onto the web. The renegade group Wikileaks helped to spread them.
During Soviet times, Italian industrialists queued up to deals with the Kremlin. Silvio Berlusconi regarded Putin as a close friend. The two men would joke about bunga bunga parties while both families holidayed in Sardinia. Putin once sent his two daughters to stay chez Silvio. The bromance was cemented when Berlusconi once described Putin’s leadership as ‘a gift from God’. It came therefore as little surprise that the two leading blocs in the 2018 Italian elections – Beppe Grillo’s leftist Five Star, and the far-right League, were both Putin groupies.
At every turn, Italian ministers tried to urge their EU counterparts to rein in sanctions against Russia. Extremist groups in Germany and Austria also received support, as did the Catalan separatist movement in Spain.
Putin has hedged his bets by supporting both the far-right and far-left. Ideology has long been immaterial. His is a short-term strategy. Beyond causing trouble and allowing certain individuals to make crazy amounts of money, Russia doesn’t stand for anything else. It is certainly not mysterious, but on its own terms it is proving uncannily successful.
John Kampfner was Moscow bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph in the early to mid 1990s