How Runaway Kleptocracy & Post-Putin Insecurity Led to War in Ukraine & World-Wide Fallout.
A growing confluence of problems created by Putin left him with few options going forward. An expanded conflict with Ukraine was the best way to stave off disaster…
How fears of a bloody & chaotic succession post-Putin, are driving the Russian agenda?
“The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into contact with the overwhelming majority of the population…(Liberals) cannot dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to over the recent decades.”
Vladimir Putin, to the Financial Times in June 2019 (1).
Putin’s sweeping dismissal of the the ‘liberal idea’ came in the last year of the wrecking ball that was the Trump Presidency, and was perhaps an understandable, if not in hindsight, well judged statement.
Trump had done his best to dismantle every long standing semblance of Western unity; he attacked NATO, he alienated the EU, he ripped almost every US alliance apart, he rode rough-shod over diplomatic and political norms and niceties, he repeatedly cosied up to one authoritarian strongman after another, and like Nixon before him, he flagrantly used the Presidency to further his own personal interests, consistently demanding loyalty from his appointees to himself first, and America and the Constitution second (2).
Speaking a few weeks ago on WaPO live 50th Anniversary of Watergate series, Richard Ben-Veniste, on with William Cohen, said, “Nixon, for all his authoritarian tendencies and his criminality, did not in my view, pose an existential threat to our democracy. Donald Trump on the other hand, does, and did. And that’s a very significant difference. There’s a difference in 50 years gone by in our respect for the truth and the rule of law, and the education of Americans as to what it means to be a patriotic American.”
The 6th January insurrection, and the ongoing inquiry into the happenings of that day, have perhaps left more than a few of us thinking that perhaps Putin was on the right track, and that the liberal idea really was becoming obsolete.
But even as he was busying himself throwing his verbal bricks at the house of the liberal order, Putin’s own woes were continuing to build at home. Russia’s finite resources were groaning; the kleptocracy that had become the hallmark of Putin’s Presidency, had over the course of two decades, hollowed the nation out. Russia was creaking beneath the weight of its own mismanagement and corruption.
Increasing oppression at home has presaged rapidly increasing unemployment and poverty that was starting to get out of control. Putin and his oligarchs had stolen so much from the people of Russia that in 2018 he had to raise the age of retirement simply because there wasn’t enough money in the government coffers to pay the pensions (1).
Distrust among elites and constant infighting was creating vulnerabilities at the top, which coincided with a huge slide in public support for Putin’s United Russia political party.
No one was safe. They were all running scared of Putin’s inconsistency and mood changes; Putin himself was wary of challengers. They’d all seen the chaos that had followed the end of the Yeltsin Presidency, and no one wanted to go jail; no one wanted to be the fall guy.
At the top the Russian elites and oligarchs are all locked into the system by their own criminality; after everything they’d done to maintain their own grip on power, they couldn’t trust anyone, even from within their own circle.
After having eliminated all his rivals, and all his challengers, Putin was just as trapped as everyone else. No one could escape without constantly looking over their own shoulders worrying about where the bullet might come from, or where, or when the poison might reveal itself in their person, or from which window they might ‘fall.’
The lengths that Putin and the oligarchs had gone to in order to build their own fortress of power and wealth had over time “dragged them so deeply into a web of compromise and criminality that the only way to secure their position was to find a way to prolong Putin’s rule (1).”
On January 15th 2020, in a surprise announcement, Putin declared a change to the Constitution that would effectively leave the way clear for him to be President until at least 2036. This might give time for the Russian elites to prepare for a more peaceful transition, as well securing their own, and their families, futures; safe from prosecution; safe from the wiles or personal grudges of whoever is to follow Putin, or indeed, from Putin himself.
But between now and then, something radical was needed…
Putin’s war has only magnified the post-pandemic strife all around the world…
“If beyond its borders, Putin’s Russia was posing an increasing threat to the Western liberal order, internally the system of KGB capitalism appeared to be calcifying and perhaps becoming unsustainable. the mafia system of tight control and corruption was penetrating every crevice of society, every political decision and every business deal…/…the FSB had leverage over almost every businessman, and every regional politician, no matter how low in the food chain — including even different branches of law enforcement — fighting over slices of the country’s wealth, in which to survive meant you had to cooperate. Those who rebelled found themselves in jail.”
Catherine Belton (1).
However this current conflict ends, and that final reckoning seems to be swinging first toward Russia, then Ukraine, then swinging back again, one thing for sure is that no matter what Putin or Zelenskyy claims, there will be no real winners.
The moral victory will perhaps belong to Ukraine; but Russia may yet cling onto some of their gains, though for how long such gains might be sustained must be in serious doubt. Though such pyrrhic victories will only ring hollow in the ears of all those who have suffered so much, be that directly or indirectly, from the consequences of this war.
Much of Ukraine is ruined and that may yet prove to be Putin’s biggest win. For the moment the Ukrainian economy is understandably in freefall.
Russia though, is more isolated now than at any time since the Cold War, with growing social unrest and even dissent despite the stiff penalties for speaking out, and all because Putin needed a distraction to drive attention at home away from fast dropping living standards and increasing poverty and growing unease among his siloviki, his ex-KGB hardmen, about any future transition.
Reports of the performance of the Russian economy, now into its’ seventh month of conflict with Ukraine, however, differ greatly. Whilst the Russian economy is likely now in economic depression the IMF have revised previous dire predictions upwards and the dramatic forecasts of the war’s impacts are not yet being felt.
Putin, predictably, and rather bullishly insists Russia is actually ‘gaining’ from this conflict; that the Russian economy is prospering, though it should be stressed he not a man known for telling the truth. In a speech aimed at the home market he neglected to make mention of the vast losses incurred in military equipment and lives.
But conflicting reports cloud the facts and only add to the mystery of Russia itself. With the Post reporting that Russia ‘is swimming in cash’ and The Times concurring, saying that the profits from the sale of oil and gas are dwarfing the cost of the war, voices offering a different view of things Russian are being drowned out.
For example, a recent study by 5 Harvard researchers has said categorically that the Russian economy is crippled and even in imminent danger of collapse, with all reports of its’ resilience and supposed prosperity being wrong.
However, this argument remains controversial, not least because the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) stopped publishing figures on investment, trade and other financial indicators in April 2022, and those that are emerging are often thought to be questionable.
The Harvard researchers are at pains to qualify the validity of their sources, but this grave report would seem to be in a very small minority.
Whilst there is agreement that life in more than 300 Russian monogorods (single industry cities) is being badly affected by the ongoing sanctions regime, the depth of the suffering of the people is hard to gauge. The majority of these cities are in Siberia and the Urals, places that Putin is drawing on heavily for his troops and any disgruntlement may be as much about all the deaths and casualties as much as any financial hardships.
Whilst plans are afoot within the G7 to sever the supply of cash to Russia, the West certainly isn’t helping itself.
Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, reportedly told the British government in February that Russians “can suffer like no one else,” and maybe this is in part true. Though it must be stressed that the suffering of the people is enforced, so the correctness of that statement is questionable to say the least. But that said, the likely Russian assumption that the West cannot endure like Russia can endure may now be bearing fruit.
The full force of the sanctions against the Russian energy sector have not been employed for fears of an even more extreme energy price spike than that already seen. With tacit support from the U.S., sanctions against Russia have been quietly watered down, and with the EU’s oil import ban not coming into effect until December, the flow of cash into Putin’s coffers continues (see above).
As energy prices soar the West and its’ governments are feeling the pinch. With an unusually strong dollar, both sterling and the Euro suffering are as a consequence. This is driving deep concerns about the cost of further borrowing that may be needed to help out those struggling to keep the heat on and put food on the table in the coming months.
But such is the the way of today’s interconnected world that the fallout from Putin’s disastrous decision to go to war will be felt around the world for years, perhaps decades to come, and in the end it’s always those that were already struggling before the war who will suffer the most.
An IMF report shows that the war has sharply increased the risk of global geoeconomic fragmentation that will likely effect all levels of earners around the world, from the highest down to the lowest, with inevitably the worst ravages of a global slowdown being felt by the poorest.
In early June both the World Bank and the OECD lowered their predictions for global growth as rising inflation hit 40 year highs in Britain, Germany and the U.S.. There are, however, worrying signs that the risks of stagflation — when consumers and businesses think that inflation is a long-term problem that won’t change and so they adjust their behavior accordingly — might rear its ugly head for the first time since the 1970’s.
Stagflation is a vicious economic cycle where high inflation breeds slow growth, which in turn leads to higher inflation, lower growth and so on, leading to a much longer term problem than had been previously anticipated.
“When (it) last occurred in the 1970s, stagflation flummoxed economists and policymakers. You could fix inflation by raising interest rates, but that risks causing a recession. And if you increase spending to stimulate the economy, you risk raising prices.”
Adam Taylor, WaPO op-ed, June 9th 2022.
In June World Bank President David Malpass said that the “risks of stagflation are considerable,” and as ever, the poorest nations would be hit hardest due to an over reliance on exports to help balance the books, and again more recently he stressed that governments are going to need to be adaptable, innovative and able to utilise a range of policies to counter the many economic challenges they are faced with.
With record levels of national debt after the pandemic in nations with mid- and low-level income economies, borrowing even more money amidst high inflation means less fuel, less grain, and less medicine than ever, and this combined with a staggeringly high dollar makes the interest on a subsequent loans even more costly.
Then throw in the added problem of climate change, and we have what World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley had said before the war started, would be the worst 2 years in the humanitarian calendar since WWII, but then on reflection he revised that statement in the wake of the war by saying to the NYT, “I’m like, you know, wipe that clean — it’s worse than what I was saying.”
Putin’s continuing blockade of Odesa has caused millions of tons grain to rot, whilst millions more sits in unmanned ships waiting to depart, as across in Africa and Asia millions begin to starve as a result of this unnecessary, and utterly pointless conflict.
Whilst that blockade has now been lifted to some extent, with the first grain ships now having arrived in Africa the situation remains critical across much of the developing world.
And yet the West remains puzzled by the refusal of many African nations to condemn Russia’s invasion even as they and their people suffer the fallout from the conflict. But it is the hubris of the West that hides the fact that it has little valid currency left in Africa.
Today’s Western leaders are often quick to dismiss the violence of their colonial past on the continent, even as many African nations struggle still to deal with the consequences of that colonial legacy. Whilst castigating African leaders for their inability to get a grip on the continents many ongoing conflicts, the hand of ‘friendship’ from the West is too often tainted by conditions that, from the African perspective, only reinforce and underline the historical master and servant relationship.
During the worst days of the pandemic for example, the West was often seen to be destroying millions of doses of over-ordered and unused vaccines, while Africa had to continually beg for assistance, despite, and not in spite of, the transparently empty, yet seemingly benevolent platitudes issued by Western leaders at vaccinating the world. The hypocrisy and blatantly tiered outcomes of vaccine use and delivery were felt across Africa with every batch of carelessly destroyed vaccine.
While Russia’s efforts to ‘help’ African nations comes unconditionally. It has also spent much time and effort issuing pro-Russian information, and anti-Western, anti-colonial disinformation campaigns on social media across Africa. To Western eyes and sensibilities, Russia’s support of some of the more controversial and ethically dubious African leaders is suspect, while to many Africans it is seen as a continuation of the Soviet support for African nations, even if the ideologies of the USSR and Putin’s Russia are on opposite ends of the political continuum.
Western diplomatic efforts across Africa are then not only fighting against a damning historical narrative, they are coming up against very effective Russian propaganda efforts at exploiting the existing angst between Africans and the West.
Until the West can change its’ tack, become less dictatorial and more openly equal in its’ dealings with Africa, support for Western initiatives in the continent, whatever the cause, will stand to suffer rejection in favour of something more pragmatic, and often more Russian.
One suggestion of how the U.S. in particular might gain much goodwill and traction in the worst hit regions of Africa and Asia is to include a food assistance package in the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022, which Biden signed into law in May.
At the moment this programme only covers military assistance, but like its’ older brother from WWII, it could easily be amended to include food assistance that could “readily dovetail with existing support to countries currently receiving help through the World Food Program.The WFP
provides huge quantities of food as well as technical assistance to 120 countries but is currently chronically underfunded and under supplied — both issues that would be relieved by augmented assistance under the lend-lease program.”
Such a deal could bring relief to millions and foster much goodwill in places where the U.S. and the West have tarnished their reputations. But more than that, it would also help counter the malign Russian influence that at the moment is winning out across much of the developing world.
And even then, when the war ends, however that end might come about, the West is still left the problem of how to deal with Russia in the medium and longer terms.
As the quote above by Catherine Belton suggests, time may not be on Putin’s side. The rampant kleptocracy, combined now with a badly ravaged and hugely isolated economy, Russia is not going to recover anytime soon.
Though badly damaged and hampered by Putin’s actions and decisions, the clear and present danger Russia will continue to be to the West, will mean that a valid and workable strategy to counter and ring-fence that ongoing threat needs to be in place and fully functioning by the time the war ends.
The Putin horror show…
In the rush to help install his man in power, and to save the Yeltsin family from arrest, (Sergei) Pugachev, had ignored the warnings from Boris Bererzovsky that appointing someone from the KGB was to ‘enter a vicious circle. They can’t change anything.’ He ignored the shocked reaction of Putin’s former mentor Anatoly Sobchak, who on hearing that Putin was to be appointed Prime Minister said, ‘Don’t frighten me!’ ‘ I thought maybe he was jealous,’ said a crestfallen Pugachev, his cheeks still reddening at the memory. ‘ But of course he knew everything. I’m in horror now myself.’
Catherine Belton (1).
Just before Christmas 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Moscow in the midst of political turmoil to meet Russian leader Boris Yeltsin who was trying to figure out how to wrestle power from the hands of his arch rival, the late-President, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yeltsin had just announced he was dismantling the USSR, hoping to have cut Gorbachev’s power off at the knees. It worked brilliantly. Ten days later Gorbachev resigned, and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Mary Elise Sarotte, writing in 2021, tells how even amid the elation of such heady political times, Baker was already concerned for the longer term consequences of so many ex-Soviet Republics seeking independence and whether there would be a blood-letting at some point in the future.
Later Sarotte details how when speaking to one of Gorbachev’s advisers, Alexander Yakovlev, Baker asked “if Ukraine’s breaking away would prompt violent Russian resistance. Yakovlev was skeptical and responded that there were 12 million Russians in Ukraine, with ‘many in mixed marriages, so ‘what sort of war could it be?’
Baker answered simply: ‘A normal war.’
But no war is simply just a ‘normal war.’ There is nothing ‘normal’ about one human being slaying another, and no one could ever convince me otherwise.
“The classical notion of tyranny and the modern concept of fascism are both helpful in understanding the Putin regime, but neither is sufficient. The basic weaknesses of tyrannies are generic and long known — recorded, for example, by Plato in his Republic. Tyrants resist good advice, become obsessive as they age and fall ill, and wish to leave an undying legacy. All of this is certainly evident in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Fascism, a specific form of tyranny, also helps to explain today’s Russia, which is characterized by a cult of personality, a de facto single party, mass propaganda, the privileging of will over reason, and a politics of us-versus-them. Because fascism places violence over reason, it can be defeated only by force.”
And the distorted histories that Putin has pushed to build his imperialistic endeavours upon have no place at all for Ukraine or Ukrainians. In fact, to speak of Ukraine as a distinct political or geographical entity, was to be ‘a mortal enemy of Russia’ (3).
And it becomes clear the longer this war goes on, that Putin has no intention of suing for peace, and even if he did, we cannot for one moment believe that he would stand by any deal, no matter what he were promised by way of appeasement.
Previous pledges, deals and agreements have been willfully and blatantly trampled. Ukraine’s neutrality, supposedly guaranteed by Russia in the laughably named ‘Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership’ in 1997, has been unceremoniously trashed along with the lives of countless numbers of Ukrainian civilians.
Yet Putin still sings the same old tune, demanding neutrality for Ukraine once again, along with promises never to join NATO, and some in the West seem happy to accept this tired old tune as a way forward. Such a deal would in no way guarantee Ukrainian safety and peace for longer than it would take Putin to rearm.
All that is well known, but one cannot escape the thought that this is above all else, Putin’s war. That Putin has become radicalised during his decades in power is arguable. But such an idea, such a thought depends very much on your point of view.
This war is not the one framed by many commentators, that of a reckoning between democracy and tyranny. South Africa, India and Brazil; democracies all by name, did not support the West in condemning the Russia invasion. Much of Africa, as we have seen, is of the same mind.
It is easy to say that most of these nations have more in common politically with Putin’s dictatorial regime than they have with the more robust democracies of Europe and the US.
But it is much more than this. Putin has many admirers in the West, with many of his policies and actions attracting praise, particularly from some quarters such as right-wing extremist groups who see in his support of white nationalism a road map for their own futures.
In a complex philosophical argument, Harvard scholar Tim Snyder, explains how the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of an ‘end of history’ mentality in the West has substantially weakened democracies everywhere with the assumption that democracy was the natural political state that all state’s would eventually become. The idea that democracy was the default political system had become ‘self evident,’ Tim says, following the ‘victory’ over communism, and with that assumption the West lost its’ fear of oligarchy and empire or imperialism, and forgot “the organic connection of democracy to ethical commitment and physical courage.”
The Greeks knew that for a democracy to function it needed to be worked for, to be fought for, and to do otherwise was to fall into the authoritarian trap. They knew that democracy could easily slip into oligarchy; that truth was inherently vulnerable to propaganda; basic premises forgotten by most in the West.
Russia is an aging tyrannical regime that has sought the destruction of Ukraine for centuries. Since 1991 Ukraine has been fighting for its’ democracy and the freedoms it brings. It is not yet a fully functioning democracy as many Americans or Europeans might see it. Corruption and weak institutions continue to undermine that fight.
But the fight continues nevertheless, and Ukrainians recognise far better than most Americans and most Europeans that their democratic rights are worth fighting for, that they are worth spilling their blood for, that they are worth dying for; all things forgotten by the West who see the fight as already won.
When in fact, as the rise of Donald Trump has shown, that the fight is in fact, far from won, and far from over.
Tim explains far better than I…
“A Ukrainian victory would confirm the principle of self-rule, allow the integration of Europe to proceed, and empower people of goodwill to return reinvigorated to other global challenges. A Russian victory, by contrast, would extend genocidal policies in Ukraine, subordinate Europeans, and render any vision of a geopolitical European Union obsolete.”
Dangerous talk costs lives…
After Emmanuel Macron, Mario Draghi and Olaf Scholz returned from visiting President Zelenskyy in Kyiv in June 2022, promising support with words whilst dragging their heels on the weapons that would actually help, they continued to urge both sides to sue for a peace that would work for no one other than Putin.
Of course, little more than a month later Mario Draghi’s National Unity coalition broke apart, leaving Italian politics once again in chaos. With elections due at the end of this month the current front runner is a staunch right-winger who on the face of it might be Putin’s ideal candidate.
Georgia Meloni is head of the Brother’s of Italy party, whose controversial logo evokes memories of the MSI party, founded in the wake of WWII by devotees of Mussolini. Despite these fascist roots Meloni says she has denounced fascism, and is now running on her own brand of populist identity politics that puts the blame for much of Italy’s current woes onto the shoulders of the “surreal immigration policies (that have) been carried out in recent years.”
Heading up a dangerous, right-wing coalition comprised of Matteo Salvini’s League party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, along with her own Brothers of Italy party, Meloni looks set to garner almost 50% of the votes, if the latest polls are to be believed, and should she win, it would come fatefully, just days before the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome that brought fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to power.
Whilst the dangerous talk of Macron, Scholz and Draghi, undermines public support for the war and leads people to believe that peace is a valid option, when it is merely a stay of execution; a chance for Putin to mark time while he decides which European nation will be next on his menu, Meloni has been quick to distance herself from the Italian right’s slavish Putin worship. Insisting she is an Atlanticist, and should she win, then to continue Italy’s support for Ukraine would be “one of the easiest decisions of my life.”
Time will tell…
However, maintaining unity across a Europe that will suffer through the coming cold, dark days of Winter will not be easy. But Ukraine cannot be sold down the river, and we cannot give in to Putin’s demands or even acknowledge them as worth discussion.
At home Putin uses an iron boot to stamp on dissent.
Sergey Parkhomenko, an independent journalist, told Dozhd TV, an online opposition channel that has been forced to close its offices in Moscow: “The Kremlin has successfully eradicated all civil rights and freedoms in the past six months. Russia is now a full-fledged totalitarian state.”
And Putin remains defiant in his actions and words to the Russian people at large brazenly claiming that Russia is now better off now than it was before the war started. And who at home is left now to challenge such assertions?
As much as we might wish it, a new Russian revolution is not going to happen anytime soon.
If Putin is to be beaten then it will happen in the rich, fertile agricultural lands of Ukraine. In the rubble strewn streets and bombed out factories of Ukrainian cities. With Ukrainian lives and with Ukrainian blood and with Ukrainian courage.
And it is to the people of Ukraine that we owe our own freedoms, whether we would acknowledge that debt or not.
Our knowledge and collective history of dealing with Putin should show us that above all else he is not to be trusted, believed or dealt with in any way other than through the use of force. The West cannot risk doing otherwise.
And however long it takes for that victory to materialise is in someway irrelevant; Putin needs to have his ambitions curbed. Despite Macron’s weak and conciliatory comments that Putin should not be humiliated, that is the very thing he should be, because ‘fascism can only be defeated by force.’
But that humiliation still needs a limit. And the aim cannot be to attempt to dethrone Putin for risk of stirring a wider, far more destructive conflict in which everyone loses.
Thus, the West’s only workable strategy going forward is, I believe, a total re-engagement with containment. And it is this old, well worn policy that I shall look at in more detail in my next post…
Thanks for reading.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB too back Russia then took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020.
- Subtle Tools: The dismantling of American democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump; Karen J. Greenberg, 2021.
- The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.