Under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s greatest exports are corruption and thuggery. PAUL KNOTT reports on the regime’s destabilising designs around the globe for the year ahead.
Imagine (with apologies to John Lennon) if Russia had continued down a democratic path based on the rule of law over the past two decades.
It isn’t hard to do – because most of its eastern European neighbours such as Poland and Estonia have followed exactly that route since the fall of the Soviet bloc. This choice has produced peaceful lives of growing prosperity for many of their people.
Sadly, most Russians would say you were a dreamer if you suggested that they could have the same opportunities.
Instead, Russia has long been hijacked by Vladimir Putin and his cabal of corrupt oligarchs and ex-KGB cronies. Their rule has led to the country being dubbed the “racketeer with rockets” by the respected (and brave) Moscow-based professor Sergei Medvedev in his new book The Return of the Russian Leviathan.
This characterisation encapsulates both the immense corruption of Putin’s regime and its thuggery, from the brutal assassination of opponents on the streets of Britain and Germany to the invasion of Ukraine and deliberate bombing of Syrian schools and hospitals in support of president Assad.
These latter high-profile acts of military aggression do at least bear enough resemblance to previous misconduct by states around the world for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to claim they are being pursued in Russia’s national interest.
This claim is, of course, questionable, at best. The unprovoked assault on Ukraine has turned a once friendly neighbour into an implacable foe. And it remains to be seen whether acquiring a reputation as a brutal backer of the world’s worst dictators will benefit Russia much in the long run.
The national interest argument is undermined further by Russia’s extensive and unprecedented use of so-called ‘private military contractors’. In reality, these groups largely consist of ‘former’ Russian soldiers armed with hi-tech weaponry provided by state-owned Russian arms manufacturers.
They are often linked to the GRU military intelligence division and directed by people close to Putin. Their creation and deployment enables the Kremlin, somewhat implausibly, to deny knowledge of their actions and evade responsibility for breaking international law.
The price these Russian ‘private military contractors’ usually extract for propping-up a struggling despot or supporting one side in a civil conflict is control of some of the host country’s natural resources.
By far the most prominent of these shady outfits is the Wagner Group. Wagner is allegedly owned and directed by the immensely wealthy Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of the Russian president. Towards the end of the Soviet era, Prigozhin served nine years in jail for robbery. On his release he opened a hot dog stand. His subsequent meteoric rise has led to him being nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’, because his restaurant business is the preferred caterer for state functions and holds a number of other lucrative government food and beverage contracts.
In addition to Syria and Ukraine, Wagner’s forces are increasingly active in Libya. There they are supporting the warlord field marshal Khalifa Haftar and his rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) in their fight to seize the country from the UN-recognised government.
Haftar’s stronghold is in eastern Libya, where much of the country’s bountiful oil infrastructure is located.
Emboldened by their experiences, Russia’s ‘mafia state’ godfathers are now expanding their model to places where Russia’s geopolitical interests are minimal. In numerous, weaker countries in the developing world, Russian state and military might seems increasingly to be deployed solely in pursuit of personal financial gain by Putin’s associates.
This development perhaps first became apparent in the mineral rich but conflict torn Central African Republic (CAR), where Wagner Group ‘mercenaries’ provide protection for both the president Faustin-Archange Touadéra and the CAR’s diamond mines. In July 2018, three Russian journalists were ambushed and killed just days after arriving in the CAR to investigate Wagner’s activities there.
In Guinea, president Alpha Condé is attempting to change the constitution to allow him to retain power for a third term. Widespread public protests against this step are being met with extreme force and at least 11 protestors have already been killed by the authorities. As the risk of civil war rises, Russia has expressed its support for Condé and the presence of operatives from Russian ‘security companies’ is being reported in the capital, Conakry.
Guinea contains about half of the world’s total supply of bauxite plus substantial quantities of high-grade iron ore, gold and diamonds. A significant proportion of the bauxite is mined in a joint venture between the government of Guinea and Russian company RUSAL, which was founded and is co-owned by Oleg Deripaska.
Of all the major Russian oligarchs, Deripaska is particularly close to Putin. He was also a close associate of the now-jailed former head of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Paul Manafort. Deripaska has previously had his US visa revoked and is currently under US sanctions because, according to the US Treasury Department, he has “been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering”.
Perhaps the boldest and most overt recent example of Russian interference came in Madagascar in 2018. As an in-depth investigation in the New York Times reported in November, Russian operatives backed by intimidating armed guards swept through the country in support of the then-president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, bribing and pressuring challengers to step aside, buying blanket media support and paying people to attend rallies.
Farcically, this programme of interference was carried out incompetently and failed to generate sufficient backing for the chronically unpopular Rajaonarimampianina. This flop only briefly derailed the Russians. Unencumbered by scruples or ideology, they belatedly switched their support to the eventual winner Andry Rajoelina. His government subsequently confirmed the extension of a chromium mining contract with the Wagner Group, which appears to have been what the Russians were seeking all along.
The free world should not complacently turn a blind eye to this illicit Russian activity or write it off as taking place in far-away places of which we know little. As well as corrupting and destabilising large parts of the world, such interference increases the wealth and power of Putin and his associates. This in turn strengthens them in their concerted attempts to undermine Western democracy.
In the close-knit, corrupt circles of the Kremlin, everything, and everyone, is connected to everything else. Prigozhin, for example, is not only involved in dubious conduct in distant locales. Western security services are confident that he also funded and ran the notorious St Petersburg troll farm that was central to the Russian campaign of interference in the 2016 US election won by president Trump.
The division that Trump has subsequently sown in the US and the extent to which his scandal-plagued presidency has weakened American influence around the world will have delighted Putin.
It is a near certainty that the Russians will now try to compound the damage by launching a renewed destabilisation campaign in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election. Imagine that.