The New European’s Editor-at-Large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on a memorable exchange between Blair and Putin.
Well, there’s certainly a lot of Putin around right now. ‘The New Tsar’, as the title of last week’s BBC documentary put it, the commentary suggesting he was now ‘the world’s scariest and most powerful leader’. For glimpses of the scary side, NBC’s contribution to the current Putinmania wave was worth a watch. Megyn Kelly certainly gave the Russian president a harder time than Piers Morgan gave to Donald Trump, and was rewarded with a few eye-narrowing, lip-pursing, cheek-clenching KGB glares and sneers for her troubles.
It is a look I have seen up close, most spectacularly across a dinner table at Putin’s dacha, to which he had invited Tony Blair, and where he launched a full-on, full-frontal, full-throated attack for our support of the US over Iraq. ‘Putin’s face was tight and his eyes really piercing,’ I recorded in my diaries. ‘This was someone who felt he deserved to be treated as an equal, he wasn’t being treated as an equal, he was angry and TB was the person who was going to cop the anger.’ At one point, he asked a question, TB started to reply and Putin snapped at him: ‘Don’t answer. There is no answer.’ He didn’t exactly call him ‘Bush’s poodle,’ but he got close.
It was all so different when he first came on the radar as Boris Yeltsin’s chosen successor. ‘The New Tsar’ suggested something of a TB-Putin bromance in the early days. Jack Straw even talked of a lot of ‘testosterone’ flying around, and said that, though neither would thank him for it, there were similarities between the young TB and the early Putin, who was keen to learn from him in how to communicate, and how to lead.
If success is measured in longevity, and having the reputation you would like for yourself, the apprentice has long since overtaken the master. TB left Downing Street in 2007, his reputation battered in some quarters ever since. Putin has effectively been ruling Russia (not necessarily the same thing as ruling Russia effectively) since before the turn of the century, and will this weekend be elected for another four year-term. It ought to be the last. But he circumvented the constitutional two-term limit first time around, by being merely the string-pulling prime minister for a term, and it would be unwise to rule out the possibility that he will find another way to stay in power. If Xi Jinping can be president for life…
As for reputation, if Putin judges success by being unassailable and all-powerful at home, feared and taken seriously abroad, then he ticks his own boxes for sure. Take a look at the self-satisfaction that crosses his taut features whenever Megyn Kelly suggests he is strong, or popular, or inspires fear or admiration; no look is more self-satisfied than when she points out how Donald Trump loves to insult other political leaders, but never him.
The smirking and the sneering and the scary-onics come more when she is asking questions Putin rarely faces from his own state-controlled media, or in his marathon annual television phone-in, about corruption, his supposedly vast personal wealth, dubious friends, interference in the electoral politics of the US and elsewhere. For those parts of the interview, it is worth bearing in mind the central premise of a book on Russia I have mentioned before, Nothing Is True and Anything Is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev. The harder she presses on any suggestion of state interference in the US presidential elections, the more dismissive he becomes, the more her exasperation develops into that of someone banging a sore head against a brick wall. We can doubtless expect more of the same as the story of the Salisbury poisoning unfolds.
Putin does not find it hard to argue that black is white. It is a tactic that has served him well. Do things and say you haven’t. Don’t do things and let people think you have. Always have an answer, like the one he gave to the BBC reporter asking him about Salisbury on Monday – ‘we’re here to talk about agriculture’. What was the old joke about tractor production?
It all adds to the fear and chaos he likes to spread overseas, and deepens the strongman leader image at home. To our Western eyes, the sight of Putin bare-chested in wraparound shades is absurd. But the important thing to understand is that to many Russian eyes it is not.
OST. Objective. Strategy. Tactics. I have long argued that to achieve anything significant and meaningful in politics, or indeed any walk of life, you need clarity of O and S before you go on to deciding upon T; and that too many leaders and organisations lack clarity on O and especially on S, because in the modern media age the pressures are all to be tactical. We had a referendum on UK membership of the EU because of David Cameron’s failings on this front, and he lost it in part for the same reason.
When I wrote a book on winning a few years ago, I pointed out that Putin was virtually unique in the way his O, S and T were totally aligned:
Objective: to reassert Russian strength in the world.
Strategy: the reassertion of Russian strength.
Tactics: anything which reasserts Russian strength. And that can be literally anything, from wrestling a bear, to praise for Russian football hooligans beating up the English, to hosting major sporting events, to sending in troops and tanks to Ukraine or Crimea, to being the main player in a Syrian vacuum.
All of this is of course easier if you have control of parliament and media; if you can use the security forces to harass, intimidate or lock up critics and opponents; or, in the case of Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny, to prevent them from campaigning; or, in the case of Boris Nemtsov, see him murdered within sight of the Kremlin, conveniently on a night the CCTV machines in the area were shut down ‘for maintenance checks’. And of course it’s easier still if much of your public opinion reacts not with the horror we might in the West, but with pride that this strongman leader is reasserting Russian strength at every turn.
Put all this together and what it means is that so far as Russia is concerned, whatever the truth of the Salisbury poisoning, Putin will not mind the effect so far. What is not to like about a UK whose chemical weapons troops and experts are focused not on Syria, where he helps Assad to keep crossing the famous Obama red line, and men, women and children have been indiscriminately killed, but Salisbury, and the near-death of two Russians? What is not to like about the way Russian media and politics, in election week, have fallen into line by feeding, for domestic consumption, the narrative that this is all part of some Russophobic conspiracy?
Putin, and the Russian state more broadly, will likely deny any involvement now and into the future, in the use of nerve agents against Sergei Skripal and his daughter, just as they have always denied killing Alexander Litvinenko, or Nemtsov. Nothing Is True and Anything Is Possible, don’t forget. Meanwhile Russian patriots nod along at the notion that, whoever was behind it, punishing traitors is a good thing. Indeed, amid the glut of Putin documentaries, the glossiest of all was on Russian TV, Putin portraying himself as mild-mannered father of the nation, talking of his capacity for forgiveness, but then admitting there was one thing he could never forgive – ‘betrayal’.
It is hard to escape the notion that the democracies of today are operating at something of a disadvantage to dictatorships. Was it not Theresa May who promised Litvinenko’s widow that she would take tough action so – those famous empty words that ring down the decades – ‘this never happens again’. As any child knows, get away with something once, and you may be tempted to do it again. If the Russian state really is behind the attack in Salisbury, then what does that say about the contempt, and lack of fear, with which they view the UK?
I am writing this between May’s two statements to the Commons, the first having issued a deadline to the Russians to explain how state nerve agents came to be used on UK soil. We are promised a tough response if no credible answer is forthcoming. That is the hard bit. I cannot imagine Putin being too troubled by the absence of Boris Johnson, or anyone else, from the World Cup. Also, as May weighs her options, the government, having rolled out a red carpet for the red money of the McMafia community, with their love of our top private schools, London’s property market and money-laundering opportunities, she might find it a lot harder to roll it back up again, not least because of all the Russian money that has gone into Tory Party accounts.
This was a legitimate issue for Jeremy Corbyn to have raised, had it not been so evident he was doing so in part to avoid criticising the Russia so admired by the posh boy revolutionaries in his midst. But be in no doubt, one of the reasons Putin thinks we are weak is because with Brexit we are choosing to leave one of the groupings that help make us strong. Putin, like Trump, dislikes curbs on his power. A tactic in his strategy of reasserting Russian power is the weakening of international bodies that can check him.
Britain, even before Brexit, is not the power it once was. Our military defences have been weakened by austerity and those in charge of procurement say the lower pound has had a dreadful impact. So we are going to need allies more than ever on the military and the diplomatic front. With Trump in the White House, preferring to believe the word of the Russian leader over the US intelligence services on the matter of their interference in their elections, Putin sees both the UN and NATO as weakened. Result.
It was noteworthy that Trump’s Twitter finger remained idle after May’s statement, leaving Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for once to take the lead, in what turned out to be one of his last acts before being fired via Twitter. The European Union is the one body that might make Putin sit up and take notice once in a while, which is why he was pro-Brexit, pro-Le Pen, pro the anti-EU populists in Italy. Anything that weakens Europe, he is happy. But should we be happy at Britain being weakened at the same time?
Once May made clear the poisoning was almost certainly Russian state-sponsored, moral support from some allies was forthcoming. But might it be precisely because we are so defiantly turning our backs on the world with Brexit, that there was not exactly a stampede of ‘an attack like this in Britain is an attack on all of us’ by way of international response?
Skripal was an isolated man in an increasingly isolated Britain. And if the Skripal case goes the same way as did Litvinenko, might Putin conclude that once more he has taken a risk worth taking, and add the layer of a smile over the KGB sneer to which he treated Megyn Kelly?