Putin’s Obsessions: Control & Revenge Above All.
It was all going so well, & then came the 24th February…
As far back as 1947 George Kennan had rightly identified what he called the “innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism.” He said that this concept had become deeply embedded in the foundations of Soviet power, and that it had profound implications for Russia’s behaviour on the international stage.
He said this antagonism meant there could never be “any sincere assumption of a community of aims between the Soviet Union and powers which are regarded as capitalist,” because, rightly or wrongly, it assumes that the capitalist world is by its very nature against, or antagonistic, to the aims and prosperity of the Soviet Union.
But he warned, the socialists were pragmatic in this belief, and will relax that antagonism if it suits their purposes, or if there is something “they want from us,” and at such times there are always some Americans (he said) who jump around gleefully proclaiming that “the Russians have changed.”
That we shouldn’t be fooled by such a tactic is a given, because it doesn’t or won’t change the fundamental characteristics of Soviet foreign policy which will always remain the same: “the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness and the basic unfriendliness of purpose” towards the capitalist world is unmoving and relentless in its purpose.
And he was spot on. For what was true back then, remains just as true today. Reread the above, substituting Russia for the Soviet Union, the West for the capitalist world, and it becomes clear that Putin’s Russia is just marking political time; the only thing that has changed is the colour of the uniform they wear almost 80 years after Kennan made his observations.
That uniform change has meant moving from a faux socialist agenda to a kleptocratic version of capitalism, but the antagonism against outliers within and the West without, lingers on. The West then remains the enemy, as does anyone who speaks out against the regime from within Russia.
The Russian elites then still fight against their own people every bit as much as they do against their foreign adversaries.
Power is still maintained via a complex system of lies, deceit, disinformation, misinformation and oppression at home, and a foreign policy that knows little more than how to disrupt, wrong-foot and undermine ‘enemies’ abroad.
Putin’s first two terms paid lip service to capitalism and, just as Kennan had predicted, saw Western leaders duped and falling over themselves to praise Putin’s supposed turn to capitalism.
His first two terms saw great economic progress, but it was all based on a lie. It was what Catherine Belton called “anaemic (economic) growth” (1) that left the economy in terminal decline as their rampant kleptocracy literally dried up all investment.
Putin’s capitalist ventures were a ruse designed to ingratiate, infiltrate and corrupt Western politicians, governments and financial systems, while he and his ex-KGB hardmen, his loyal siloviki, pillaged the Russian economy, hollowing out the nations vast energy resources to enrich themselves, creating enormous slush funds of black cash abroad to be used for nefarious processes aimed at destroying the West, to bring it to its knees just as, so Russia thinks, the West had done to the USSR before (2).
And the West swallowed it all, believing the Cold War was over, history had ended and the victors were secure in their capitalist towers. Russia had come round to ‘our way of thinking at last’; but it was a fantasy borne out of Western hubris and well rehearsed Russian deception.
The KGB had been preparing for this moment for decades. The crumbling infrastructure of the USSR was an inconvenience, a grave humiliation at worst, one that hurt men like Putin deeply. He later called it a “major geopolitical disaster,” a “genuine drama” whose “disintegration infected Russia…” and the lives of many millions of Russians all over the world.
For Putin the hurt was buried deep, re-emerging as a profound desire for revenge against the West. All that has happened since has been to this end.
For him the battle was lost, but the war would continue.
Time passes slowly in the corridors of power…
There were those in the West who warned us that this was the case, that Putin’s nod to democracy was all deception and lies, but they were ignored. There were others who called for a social reckoning within Russia in the years following the immediate collapse of the USSR, one that might cleanse Russia’s many ills, wash away the stench of the nations recent history by forcing the truth into the light of the day, to let the many historic distortions buckle and break under the weight of an honest, open reconciliation with the past.
Indeed more recently, the Ukrainians themselves, experienced in dealing with Russian subterfuge and under the counter tactics, started to warn the West that Russia was seeking to sow division across the West.
“Everyone (in the West) thought the Russians were just stealing,” said Konstantin Batozsky in 2015, an aide to a former Donetsk governor. “But they’re working to create their own circle of corrupt politicians. This has been going on for a long time, and Russia will undermine Europe. Russia is laying a huge bomb in the foundations of the European Union. Russia is looking for vulnerable points to split Europe.This is a gigantic risk today. Russian NGO’s are working very actively, giving grants to groups on the ultra-left and ultra-right.” (2)
Yet none of these warnings were heeded. There was no reckoning with the past. And more to the point, there was no movement in the Russian resolve for revenge.
Kennan pointed out that the Soviet theory of the inevitability of the eventual collapse of capitalism meant that there was no hurry to their mission. And Russian leaders were happy to bide their time. Putin in particular after he changed the Russian constitution in 2020, has possibly inaugurated himself as President for life and with this action he became the living personification of Kennan’s observation.
Unlike most Western, democratic leaders, Russian leaders have the luxury of not having to undergo the rigours of a true democratic election.
Russian dissident, American passport holder and WaPO contributor, Vladimir Kara-Murza, jailed again last month for speaking truth to the Russian elites, wrote in 2018 that “not once during his (then) 18 years in power has Vladimir Putin faced off against a genuine challenger,” meaning that setting a long-term goal or strategy, and then moving towards that inevitable goal becomes much more achievable.
Western capitalism is seen as rotten in its core. Debauched, corrupt and complicit in its own downfall, the inevitability of complete collapse is a raging certainty; it is only the time-frame that remains a mystery. And in that measure, as we have seen, Russia is happy to be patient.
And the ease with which Russian agents, oligarchs and politicians are able to corrupt and undermine the West makes this assertion of a corrupt, debauched West much more understandable.
The political and commercial bribes, the backing of extremist groups on both sides of the aisle, the social media disinformation campaigns, the mountains of black cash working to destabilise and undermine democracies everywhere, are in constant, reiterative motion that will only end, so the theory goes, when the West falls apart.
Indeed, before Putin invaded Ukraine in February, one might easily have argued that he was succeeding.
Democracies across the globe have been in retreat for years, including in the U.S., where Putin fan and wannabe, Donald Trump, enabled an insurrection and has been burying his own democracy from within for much of the past decade.
A disastrous, humiliating defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan last year by Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, must have confirmed to Putin that his patient plan was finally coming to fruition.
His every move military move since 2008 had been left unanswered by a weak, disjointed and divided West who had always put profit ahead of their much lauded human rights.
And his oligarchs enjoyed celebrity status all across the West, all built on a river of dirty money that flowed into the West, that everyone knew about, but wasn’t prepared to curtail.
“What is more surprising — indeed, shocking — is the willingness of Western democracies to act as accomplices to Putin, providing him not only with much-needed international acceptance but also with a lifeline in the form of access to Western financial systems — a lifeline the Kremlin uses to challenge the West’s own interests.”
Kara-Murza, summing up the deep hypocrisy of the West that Putin sees only as weakness and a slavish devotion to put profit above all else.
Thus the West carried on blithely pocketing the bribes and reaping the profits of corrupt Russian deals, while the Russians themselves maintained the subterfuge of reaching out economically to the West, and all the while the flow of black cash into Western bank accounts continued.
There seems little doubt now that many businesses and governments in the West were, and still are, complicit and were more than happy to take the cash, turn a blind eye, and facilitate Russian crimes because it paid well (2).
Outside of the Kremlin the clock ticks much quicker…
But the kleptocracy couldn’t carry on forever.
Russia has finite resources and the limits had been reached. Something had to give. The Russian economy was sick and had been running on empty for years, and as it began to cough and splutter, it slowed down, then finally ground to a halt.
Putin’s excessive greed and kleptocractic policies had started to come home to roost.
In 2019 15% of Russians were living in poverty with another 49% hanging on by their fingertips.
But after the pandemic tsunami had subsided those figures had risen alarmingly. Some 40% were unable to feed themselves, and 52% were unable to afford even the basics.
Farida Rustamova explains in an op-ed in the NYT:
“In this dire condition, people understandably tend to think first and foremost about their stomachs. For many of them, politics is like the weather, an unchangeable and often incomprehensible fact of life. All opportunities for them to comprehend why they live this way have been completely blocked by state propaganda — and the politicians who could help them understand are either dead or in prison.”
She likened Putin’s rule in Russia to life in an asylum, with him presiding over the wards of starving people as the head ‘head’ doctor.
Punitive psychiatry for those in Russia who spoke against the regime has long been a ‘treatment’ for the ills of dissension. Vladimir Bukovsky, the man who asked Yeltsin for a reckoning with the past mentioned above, was ‘admitted’ several times, on the first occasion having been diagnosed as being mentally ill for handing out copies of a banned book.
Rustomova tells of a Russian journalist, Valeria Novodvorskaya, similarly treated in 1969 for handing out anti-Soviet literature.
Decades later, and after the fall of the USSR, Novodvorskaya wrote down her thoughts when describing hundreds of years of harsh Russian sistema. “Since the 16th century,” she said, “we have existed according to the laws of manic depressive psychosis.”
By early 2022 the Russian people were not living; they were merely surviving. Rustomova explains:
The people in Putin’s psychiatric “ward (are) a mostly poor, depressed society of 144 million people, divided by 11 time zones and four climate zones. In a state of anesthetized apathy and drugged-up distemper, the bulk of Russian society has quietly acceded to Mr. Putin’s rule — and (in the end) to his brutal war in Ukraine.”
Putin and the post-Cold War elites had doubled down on the lies, the distortions, had reinvigorated old imperialistic agendas and theories, inculcated and corrupted the Orthodox Church, and finally let it all boil over into a reckless war against its cultural neighbours as way to stave off financial disaster that might have led to an ignominious end to their reign.
There should be no doubt that the Russians envisage a “duel of infinite duration” as Kennan called it, in which significant successes have already been achieved.
Therefore, given the events of the last 3 months, the obvious question becomes why did Putin risk it all now with a poorly considered, poorly planned, poorly executed war? When every indication was that it was a bad idea, why go ahead?
After all the patience, why the sudden rush?
Before Putin’s disastrous incursion he was arguably winning his silent war with the West. One in the know might have said following one of Tolstoy’s characters, a Russian officer called Zherkov, in War and Peace, ‘Our friend Putin knows how to get things done.’
And up until the moment the first Russian troops crossed that arbitrary line on a map that we call a border, he was getting it done.
But on February 24th that all changed, and for Putin it has gone downhill almost every day since then, but the self-destructive persistence remains in the face of enormous losses on every front. Both militarily and economically, Putin has put Russia back decades, generations perhaps.
As I detailed in my last post, there have been reports that Putin may well be sick, perhaps even dying. As to whether such reports are speculative or yet or another Russian tactic to destabilise the West is not yet known.
Whether Putin is somehow able to continue despite waning long-term support among the people, or if in some unlikely turn he gets ousted, his successor, whoever that may be, will no doubt be inheriting an economic straitjacket that will leave him with few strategic options other than to continue with Putin’s ill-judged, dishonest, kleptocratic policies.
This would include the necessity to increase oppression at home and aggression abroad, simply because to do otherwise would mean the end of the Russian billionaire ex-KGB cabal. And whatever the cost, Putin or his successor, will not allow that to happen.
The way of honesty, justice and reconciliation with the past for the Russian people will have to wait for another day, another generation, another lifetime.
As George Kennan said in the days after Berlin had been partitioned by Stalin’s aggressive land-grab, such behaviour is embedded in the Russian psyche. ‘The antagonism remains.’
Thanks for reading!
- Putin’s Rise to Power with Catherine Belton, on Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, May 23rd, 2022.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020.