“I swear that in exercising the powers of the President of the Russian Federation, I shall respect and protect human and civil rights and freedoms…” With those opening words of the oath he has sworn three times in the past twelve years, Vladimir Putin revealed his well-hidden secret – that the essence of his life is to faithfully serve his country and people.
The start of Putin’s third (de facto fourth) presidential term looked more like the coronation of a monocratic Tsar than the inauguration of an elected leader. The only difference between the two is that the “crowning ceremony of a Tsar” used to be carried out in a desolate centre of the capital whereas a democratic presidential inauguration is supposed to be conducted surrounded by “the people.”
The thing is that the day before Putin again pledged to honor “human and civil rights and freedoms,” the police clamped down on those who might try to voice their protest. Arrests continued the next day as well, with total detainees numbering more than six hundred. Everyone who had any potential for staging a protest rally was arrested, including political leaders Boris Nemtsov, Alaksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov. Police raided the restaurant where supporters of the opposition were gathering and blocked all streets that Putin would have to travel to reach Red Square. Most detainees were punished only with a small fine; some were released without any charges after the inauguration of the President had finished. Navalny and Udaltsov were not let off so easily; they were each incarcerated for fifteen days.
Judging by recent constitutional changes, one might say outright that this Russian President intends to outstrip Leonid Brezhnev by the length of time “serving his homeland” and leading Russia. Brezhnev led the Soviet Union for eighteen years. It is obvious that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is firm in his determination to exceed that record by adding twelve more years to the twelve he has already spent at the helm of the Russian government. Exactly how Putin will manage to do that is a separate question.
Many believe that Putin will not even be able to finish this third six-year term. Certainly, his popularity – shored up for years by sharp increases in the market economy and oil revenues – has lately been plummeting. Skeptics, however, see the end of the Putin regime as wishful thinking. They cite other dictators as examples of leaders who stayed in power for a long time despite mass dissatisfaction.
“He doesn’t need massive support,” Bueno de Mesquita, a New York University professor who co-authored “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics,” told The Wall Street Journal. The key thing for Putin is to maintain oil revenues at high enough levels to keep rewarding a narrow circle and to pay the army and security forces.
At the end of 1999, before Boris Yeltsin stepped down, Putin declared to Federal Security Service (FSB) employees gathered at Lubyanka headquarters that a group of security officers was successfully performing its mission of secretly infiltrating the government. When that information was leaked, it was considered a joke. No one is laughing now. It is clear to everyone that modern Russia is indeed a product of the Soviet security group named “Kooperativ Ozero” (“Lake Co-operative”). That cooperative was set up by Putin and his comrades in 1996, when they bought pricey summer cottages in the tony suburbs of Saint Petersburg. Today, Russia is managed by members of that very cooperative: Some of them are in the government; others are in charge of Gazprom, oil exports and other important business areas; many are billionaires.
Any country not concerned about the rights of its own citizens is not able to respect the freedom of its neighbors either. History shows that internal and external behaviors of countries are interrelated – it is a fact that democratic states do not wage wars with one another. Yet, concern about Russia’s democratization is not among today’s pressing international priorities.
Putin believes that regaining the national dignity of Russia is his top achievement. That Russian authorities have their own understanding of “dignity” is not a disputable fact. Even those who try to romanticize the Putin mystique agree to that.
Angus Roxburgh, a one-time Kremlin PR advisor and former BBC journalist, recounts: “I tried to explain [to Putin] why it was that the West did not trust Russia. ‘Don’t you see,’ I would say, ‘that if you are cracking down on democracy at home, if you are taking control of all the media, if you refuse to condemn the Soviet past – and even treat Stalin as if he had been just a normal leader – then people in the West are bound to look at you with fear?’ The answer was always the same: ‘The West shouldn’t lecture us about democracy. We will do things our way.’”
And indeed, Putin has always done things his own way – exactly as he was taught at the KGB. After the fall of communism, he created a capitalist (though totally corrupt) state in which the security service controls the economy, the banks and the media and then kills or imprisons those who do not succumb to that control.
Even more, a number of researchers claim that Russia dictates the rules of play to the West. Among them is British journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings, who expresses concern that “two-hundred thousand Russians are in Britain, and Russians are now in the hands of a gangster culture, and that gangster culture is seeping into London.” According to Sir Hastings, the Russian émigrés buy football teams and expensive houses with their ill-gained money, while the British government turns a blind eye to the fact that “London is becoming the money laundering capital of the world.”
“Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West” is the title of a book authored by Edward Lucas, a seasoned journalist and International Editor of The Economist. The book was published just days before Putin’s inauguration. The author, who has long experience working in Russia, describes accurately, based on concrete facts, how Putin’s authoritarian and corrupt regime acts and what methods it applies to exert influence on the West.
The contemporary Russian spy differs from the old Soviet spy. To explain that difference, Lucas recalls the words of former CIA Director James Woolsey: “If you should chance to strike up a conversation with an articulate, English-speaking Russian in, say, the restaurant of one of the luxury hotels along Lake Geneva, and he is wearing a $3,000 suit and a pair of Gucci loafers, and he tells you that he is an executive of a Russian trading company and wants to talk to you about a joint venture, then there are four possibilities. He may be what he says he is. He may be a Russian intelligence officer working under commercial cover. He may be part of a Russian organized crime group. But the really interesting possibility is that he may be all three and that none of those three institutions has any problem with the arrangement.”
Today’s Russian intelligence officer often uses his/her real name to get a job at a research institution or the office of an influential person and tries, on the one hand, to gather information and, on the other, to influence the decision-making process. If that spy is a woman, she may achieve even more.
An example of the modern Russian distaff sleeper agent is Katia Zatuliveter. She first started to work for, and then became “closer” with, British MP Mike Hancock, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and forty years her senior. As it transpired, Zatuliveter’s true aim was to obtain information about Britain’s defense capabilities, although she did not refuse to provide many other services too. She apparently did her job well. For example, during the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, Hancock extended his heartfelt thanks to the Russian government for preventing the “genocide of the peaceful South Ossetia population” and called on PACE to do the same.
As Edward Lucas asserts, the Western society is a paradise for the network of Kremlin spies: “Despite the metal-detectors and identity checks that burden our daily lives, we are almost suicidally trusting when it comes to real security…. The popular assumption is that we have no secrets worth stealing. That is untrue.”
A significant difference between Russian and Western intelligence is that the West is motivated by necessity – if it needs information, it invests in obtaining it. Russians act indifferently: They have spies everywhere they can, no matter whether they need them or not; they buy everyone who can be bought and who can assist in exerting influence and turning the ongoing discussion toward the interests of Russia.
On top of all that is an army of “useful idiots” and, what’s more important, the clear-cut intention of Russia which treats that intention seriously. In contrast, Western countries do not perceive Putin and his regime adequately or seriously – “Russia is not the Soviet Union, is it?”
Visiting London, I had an opportunity to meet with Edward Lucas and to talk with him about his new book.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 100, published 14 May 2012.