Tom Burgis: ‘To confront his kleptocracy, we must first cease our complicity in it’
Tom Burgis is investigations correspondent at the Financial Times and author of Kleptopia (William Collins)
There lived a man whose land was rich with oil and gas but who grew up surrounded by poverty and knew every day that things could, and periodically did, fall apart. He joined the security forces then entered public service. That is the wrong term: he began to participate in the looting that is the incessant occupation of those who hold public office in his country. This became his life’s work, to remain an insider, not to tumble from the enclave of wealth and safety into the turbulent world outside.
Facebook Twitter Tom Burgis
He grew rich. He rose. He grew richer. So did those on whom he bestowed his favour, those he licensed to loot. They fawned over him, told of his greatness. As for the rest, those in whose name he ruled, there was no need to seek their consent. Instead, to maintain control, he fed them fear while promising the antidote. They are coming, the others, those who wish us harm, wish to take what we have, but I will keep you safe. It was a double life: he was at once the thief and the guard.
The man I have in mind was the governor of a Nigerian state. As he guzzled petro-dollars, villages burned in his name. But this sketch applies, with only minor variations, to many of the world’s rulers. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Kazakhstan, most countries’ principal way of making money in the global economy is by selling its basic ingredients: fuel, metals precious and industrial, certain stones. The proceeds are at the disposal of whoever holds power. They take what they want, then hire bankers and lawyers to remove their fingerprints from the loot and stash it in rich countries. They have no need to raise taxes from their own people, so their own people have no way to call them to account. Corruption is the opposite of consent.
Vladimir Putin’s eligibility for this club of kleptocrats comes across in First Person, a book written by three Russian journalists shortly after Putin became president in 2000, based on interviews with him, his wife and some of his friends. Growing up with rats and abysmal toilets, Putin dreamed of a place in the Soviet empire’s boss class as an officer in the organisation that protected its power, the KGB. One Easter, Putin, then a young recruit, was policing a religious procession outside a church. “He asked me,” a cellist friend recalls, “whether I wanted to go up to the altar and take a look. Of course I agreed. There was such boyishness in his gesture – ‘nobody can go there, but we can.’” Later, a drunk student asked to bum a cigarette. Putin, a judo champion, said no, then flung the student to the ground. Power is for getting things others cannot have; if others ask for something you do not wish to give, respond with violence.
Facebook Twitter Vladimir Putin descends the stairs of the Grand Kremlin Palace at his 2018 inauguration. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Posted to Dresden, Putin lived with his young family in a serviced apartment. There was a driver, good beer, hotdogs in the countryside at weekends. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Angry crowds massed outside the KGB station. He contacted his commanders and was told: “Moscow is silent.” The old order had fallen; he needed to join the new one. He went home to St Petersburg and secured a position in the local government with powers to decide who was allowed to make money by dealing with western capitalists. Naturally, he decided that this should be him and his cronies. He rose. Within a decade, he was president. He took his gang of kleptocrats with him to the Kremlin. (Some of them, such as Igor Sechin, are now on sanctions lists.)
The rulers of the west applied the same logic to Putin as they applied to the rulers of DRC or Kazakhstan. They wanted to buy these countries’ commodities so they pretended the kleptocrats were legitimate leaders with whom they could do business. They kept this up when he murdered exiled dissidents abroad, when he stole South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, all the while developing a tribal imperialist spiel to stir fealty at home. After 22 years of this, Putin evidently believes his own propaganda that he is a statesman, rather than a character from The Godfather. As his forces devastate Ukraine, I asked a Russian former intelligence officer what Putin wants. “Respect,” he said. “It’s all about respect.”
As well as accepting that we have so emboldened him that we may well have to meet him on the battlefield, to confront Putin’s kleptocracy, we must first cease our complicity in it. What do we think happens to the money we pay for Russian gas? How do we imagine western multinationals secure oil-drilling rights dispensed by a regime we know to be corrupt? Who do we think is behind the companies of anonymous ownership, registered in places like Guernsey, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, that we continue to allow to participate in our economies? The Panama Papers revealed that one of the human beings behind the corporate camouflage was the cellist Putin took to see a forbidden altar. Somehow he amassed a secret fortune that ran to millions.
Facebook Twitter A young Vladimir Putin in his KGB uniform, circa 1980. Photograph: Russian Archives/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
We have known the answers to these questions for a long time but it was just too lucrative to tell ourselves we didn’t. Twin pipelines of money sustain Putin and his fellow kleptocrats. One carries western money into kleptocracies to pay for natural resources; the other carries money back out again, after it’s been stolen, for safekeeping in the west’s property markets and universities and political parties. If we wish to weaken him and his system of corrupt power, we must disrupt both pipelines. That means increasing and sustaining the reduction in our consumption of Russian oil and gas. If we do not wish merely to switch our support for one kleptocracy to others, we must replace this energy supply with something other than the fossil fuels that are the lifeblood of kleptocrats everywhere. As for the second pipeline, our noisy declarations that we are turning it off – that, as Boris Johnson put it, “there is no place for dirty money in the UK” – are laughable. A few names on sanctions lists and some loophole-ridden reforms to economic crime laws not backed by budgets to enforce them are close to meaningless while we still permit financial secrecy.
Nonetheless, the danger is that by throwing more and more people out of the global economy, we hasten the creation of a shadow one. Sanctions-busting deals between Iran, Venezuela and Russia – respectively kleptocracies with Islamist, socialist and imperialist masks – reveal that this alternative is already taking shape. The leaders of the Chinese kleptocracy will use this opportunity to bolster their position at the head of this new order.
We are watching the rise of what I’ve called Kleptopia. An undeclared, unconventional war between kleptocracy and democracy has been under way since long before Putin’s troops marched into Ukraine. The two sides are not arranged merely by geography. The kleptocrats have plenty of allies in the west, from the lawyers shielding their plunder to the politicians advancing their influence within democratic governments. Their victims include both Ukrainian civilians and Russian conscripts. With whom do we stand?
Catriona Kelly: ‘We must try to understand the complex history of Russian imperialism’
Catriona Kelly is honorary professor of Russian and Soviet culture and senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge and the author of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past (Yale)
I left St Petersburg on 22 February 2022, reaching London just 27 hours before Russian troops crossed the borders into Ukraine. For days, I’d been sure the invasion would happen. The question was, on what scale. I’d read speculation in the Russian press about intent to occupy the whole country. Surely that wasn’t possible? All the same, with Petersburg friends I drank the old Soviet toast “To Peace!” – speaking in lowered voices.
What has happened since has destroyed hope and confirmed fear. This unprovoked, brutal and bungled attack on a near neighbour has been Russia’s worst foreign policy disaster in decades. For those of us who know and love Ukraine, but also love Russia, it’s a personal as well as a human tragedy. Large numbers of Russians don’t support the war. It’s an attack on Russia’s independence too. Many are fleeing from their increasingly hostile homeland – wherever flights still operate and borders are open.
Much as I share Tolstoy’s scepticism about the individual’s impact on history, to a significant extent this is Vladimir Putin’s war. Determined to reverse the entropy for which he blames Gorbachev, Putin believes in the transhistorical unity of Great Russia, Little Russia and White Russia. Ukraine as such does not exist.
At best, “Little Russia” is a province that is entitled to its own picturesque traditions. But autonomy equals disloyalty. Those who seek it are “Nazis”. The term assimilates campaigners for Ukrainian independence to the invaders routed by the Soviet Union (for which read, Russia) in the great patriotic war between 1941 and 1945. At the same time, it erases from the record the crucial contribution to victory in that war of Ukrainians themselves. Only such wilful forgetting could allow Putin, a Leningrader, to inflict on Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kyiv and Mykolaiv the siege warfare that devastated his birthplace in 1941-1944.
Facebook Twitter Illustration by Lynsey Irvine/Observer Design.
After 1991, Russian politicians rapidly learned from the west how to govern by spin. The 2012 campaign to restore “spiritual ties”, much mocked by big-city sophisticates, was as focus-group-oriented as anything dreamed up by Dominic Cummings. It spoke to those who felt that globalisation had left them behind, when even goods made in Russia often came from factories owned by international corporations: Danone, Ford, Ikea, Heineken.
When Putin first started talking about the historic unity of Russia and Ukraine, in the spring of 2014, this too seemed expedient, an attempt to justify post factum the impromptu annexation of Crimea. The first anniversary of the annexation once past, the rhetoric died down. But in the summer of 2021, Putin’s “historical unity” talk surfaced in deadly earnest. A precipitating factor seems to have been the 2020 election protests in Belarus. If that could happen in a country whose loyalty to Russia seemed absolute, where would “external powers” (Putin doesn’t believe in dissent without them) get to work next?
The first difficulty in solving “the Putin problem” is thus that Putin is determined to defeat and purge independent Ukraine. Peace talks have been an iteration of certainties by Russian delegates set on a no-compromise position. Typical is Vladimir Medinsky, the former culture minister, an ideologue of Russian supremacism supported by bad history.
It is tempting to think that if Putin and his allies were to disappear, a rational solution would emerge. Yet substantial sections of the population still support Putin: those who share his prejudices about Ukraine; those convinced the west is out to destroy Russia; those for whom things have got better since 1991; those terrified things may get worse.
Putin, unlike Maria in The Sound of Music, isn’t a problem with an easy solution. But let’s concentrate on what may be achievable. Here’s a brief and imperfect list:
Facebook Twitter Police officers detain a woman during an anti-war protest in St Petersburg on 13 March. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Push for proper peace talks, accompanied by a full ceasefire, and with participation in the talks of observers trusted by both sides. As the war drags on and casualties mount, and the economic costs begin to bite, there could be a change of heart on the Russian side. There are some signs of disunity at the top even now.
Listen to voices from the region. A good place to start is Ukrainian activist and historian Taras Bilous’s essay, A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv (published recently on openDemocracy), which corrects many of the British media cliches about insuperable linguistic, cultural, historical and geographical divides and the influence of the far right.
Recognise the efforts, at great personal cost, of the Russians who oppose the war: the demonstrators exposed to police beatings; the artists and administrators who resign from their jobs; the priests who speak up in their sermons when the hierarchy is silent; a few members of the business elite. Don’t organise blanket boycotts by citizenship.
Don’t organise boycotts by place of origin either. Rather than ostracising works of art, try to understand the complex history of Russian imperialism. Pushkin’s To the Slanderers of Russia (1831) told western critics that Russia’s repression of Poland was a family affair. But Evdokiya Rostopchina’s The Forced Marriage (1845) presented Russia and Poland as an abusive husband and defiant wife – provoking outrage in Nicholas I.
Keep up the remarkable outpouring of support for Ukraine. Make sure the media caravans and flashmobs don’t just gallop on to the next sensation. After the campaign for peace with honour, there must be generous aid from the west to help Ukrainians rebuild their devastated cities and the democracy that they are fighting so hard to preserve.
In an address to the nation, the Russian Union of Rectors described Putin’s decision to embark on the “military operation” as “born of suffering”. When I think of suffering, I don’t see a small man sitting alone at the end of a long table. I see people sheltered in basements and metro stations, separated from their loved ones and their friends, or fleeing from their homes under gunfire.
A Ukrainian friend, a gifted literary critic, snatched a book as she and her husband left Kyiv. She later found it was The Sound and the Fury. It couldn’t better have suited the mood among those opposed to the war, who are eloquent in their outrage. Maybe Tolstoy was right after all: it is the apparently powerful who lack full humanity, and not those whom they try to harm.
Oliver Bullough: ‘We can deprive him and his cronies of access to their wealth’
Oliver Bullough is the author of Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take It Back. His new book is Butler to the World (Profile)
All the horror that Putin is unleashing – the death, the lies, the violence, the refugees trudging through landscapes bleached of their colour by snow and artillery – echoes the 1940s. Putin himself calls the Ukrainians Nazis, as if this unprovoked aggression is somehow a rerun of the Soviet people’s self-defence in the second world war. That accusation is disgusting, but it’s harder to dismiss the parallels between Putin’s own behaviour and those of the dictators of the mid-20th century.
He is driven by a perverse misreading of history to deny his neighbours’ humanity. Russian officials and politicians are aggressive in their patriotism. The orange-and-black striped medal ribbon became the nationalist symbol when Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, and the air-recognition-mark “Z” has rapidly morphed into an equivalent for this new war. Putin is a bully who invades his neighbours and kills his critics, and whose government lies compulsively, even about facts that are so self-evidently true that denying them seems self-defeating. He is even driving his tanks through Ukraine, the second world war’s main battleground.
In the circumstances, how could our understanding of Putin not be filtered through 20th-century history? And of course there are lessons for us from that time – about the futility of appeasement, and the heroism of ordinary humans caught up in inhumanity. But Putin is not Hitler or Benito Mussolini, he is not even Joseph Stalin, he is a modern problem, and solving a problem like him requires new skills, new sacrifices, and new laws.
In the first place, the Russian elite’s patriotism and anti-western posturing is performative. The anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has made a cottage industry of revealing how top-ranking officials or regime propagandists have property in countries that are the supposed enemy. After a hard week campaigning against the evil west, which is undermining Christian civilisation by allowing gay people to get married, they would fly to their villas in Italy or their townhouses in London. They may think they believe what they say, but their actions belie them: the ideology is just cant to confuse foreigners and keep Russians in line.
Facebook Twitter Jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny inside a glass cell at a court hearing in Moscow last month. Russian prosecutors called for him to serve 13 more years in prison on new fraud charges. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
Russia is an astonishingly unequal country, with the elite owning a share of wealth as great as, if not greater than, that owned by pre-revolutionary aristocrats. These kleptocrats exploited connections in government to gain lucrative contracts or state property, but they don’t trust the legal system, which waved through this monstrous spate of theft, any more than any other Russian does. That is why they have moved at least half of their wealth out of Russia, and spent it on houses, yachts, football clubs, fine art and more. Their investment managers have been in London, Luxembourg and New York, and complement the harder skills that the oligarchs learned in Russia’s business climate.
What would Russia be without these offshore services? It would be a fading power with a declining population run by an ageing political class loyal to a dead empire. Its sole world-class assets are its resources of oil, gas and minerals, many of which will become irrelevant in the decarbonised world we are moving towards. The USSR’s soft power was once enormous, with its communist ideology, sublime ballet companies, film directors and musicians. But what does the Kremlin have now? A misinformation machine and an unequal alliance with a Chinese elite that must be looking at Russia’s riches and licking their lips.
Putin claims to be defending the rights of Russian-speakers everywhere, yet during the pandemic, Russia had the worst rate of excess deaths of any country, a rate twice as bad as that of the United States and three times as bad as Britain’s. If he truly cared about the nation he serves, he would be focusing on Russia’s healthcare catastrophe instead of sending its sons to die in Ukraine.
We cannot solve the problem of Putin; only the Russians can do that. But we can stop helping him be a bigger problem than he has to be. The first step is to deprive him and his cronies of their access to our financial system. Being able to bury their wealth deep in our economies has allowed Russia’s rulers to avoid the consequences of their own greed: their children have studied in English schools; their wealth has been invested in western funds; their German-built yachts fly under the flags of British tax havens.
The way to do this is to strip them of the shield they can gain from opaque shell companies. Britain’s tax havens have sold secrecy to anyone able to afford it, while the UK’s Companies House has provided the cover for hundreds of billions of pounds of stolen wealth to flow out of Russia. When the shield over assets is lifted, we must give our law enforcement agencies the resources they need to investigate the assets’ provenance, and confiscate anything of criminal origin.
Stripped of their access to the international financial system and of their stolen riches, Putin’s oligarchs will be not plutocrats but thugs. Deprived of their boltholes, they will be forced either to improve Russia for everyone that lives in it, or they will be swept from power.
Ruth Deyermond: ‘Closing contact will confirm Putin’s narrative that the west wants to destroy Russia’
Ruth Deyermond is senior lecturer in post-Soviet security in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London
Although Russia’s war against Ukraine is less than a month old, the debate about what will come after it is already starting to emerge.
So far, the war appears to be going very badly for Russia. Its assumptions about the country it chose to invade have been exposed as fatally flawed; years of expensive military reform have failed to produce an army capable of effectively fighting a war of choice; and it has had to deny asking the Chinese government to feed and arm its troops.
Despite this litany of humiliations, the relative strength of the Russian armed forces mean that a military victory can’t be ruled out. There would probably be continued resistance, forcing Russia to choose between draining its catastrophically damaged economy and military capabilities in an open-ended occupation, and a withdrawal. Unless sanctions are lifted, its most important trading and diplomatic relationships – above all, with China – will be firmly tilted in favour of its partners, who will be able to deal with Russia on much more favourable terms than in the past.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, it seems likely that Putin will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Nothing about his behaviour in the past decade has indicated that he would be willing to give up power voluntarily, and it seems unlikely that those in the best position to remove him will do so, not least because they are themselves closely tied to Putin and his crimes.
This raises the question of how western states respond to a Putin-led Russia and how they organise their relationships with one another. First, European states and the US need to recognise that there is no going back to the world before February 2022. On issues of strategic stability, cooperation, energy security, and indulgence towards the oligarch money that has corrupted their politics, there has to be a commitment to permanent change.
Some of this is already happening, but there will be pressure from other governments, lobbyists of various kinds, and from public opinion in an era of rising living costs, to undo many of the recent changes as quickly as possible, particularly in relation to sanctions. This would be a mistake, not least because Putin would be likely to see it as further confirmation of western weakness and disunity – a longstanding assumption in his foreign policy, and one of the factors that seems to have led to his huge miscalculation in Ukraine.
Western states also need to acknowledge how badly they miscalculated both their relationship with Russia and the international significance of Russia’s relations with its post-Soviet neighbours. Too often in the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, the US, the UK and others have treated Russia as little more than an irritating obstacle to getting on with the more serious business of world politics in the Middle East or east Asia. At the same time, some European states clearly prioritised energy relations with Russia over questions about where Russian foreign policy was heading.
Facebook Twitter Illustration by Lynsey Irvine/Observer Design.
As a result, and because of a shameful view that what was happening in Ukraine or Belarus or the South Caucasus was not really a significant concern for Europe and the US, they failed both to properly respond to the first wave of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, or to think seriously enough about the implications for wider European security.
Those implications can hardly be overstated. The reaction to the war in Ukraine has shown that despite the repeated claims of the past two decades, it is only now that a line has been drawn under the post-cold war period. For the first time since the late 1980s, western states are being forced to confront the fact that a wider European war is possible (though still unlikely), and that it would involve conflict between states with nuclear weapons.
The gravity of the risks means that there needs to be an urgent recommitment to Nato as a defensive military alliance, including a commitment by all members to meet their obligations on defence spending. Those European states that have not joined, particularly those close to Russia, need to decide whether or not they want to remain outside the bloc in an era without the relatively stable rules of the cold war and where the ambiguity of the past 30 years is a vanished luxury. Neutrality is largely in the eye of the beholder, and if the Kremlin regards states as de facto allies of the US, lack of Nato membership is unlikely to protect them from whatever forms of aggression it will be capable of after Ukraine.
The issue of relations with the other European states of the former Soviet Union also needs to be treated as a priority. One of the triggers for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine seems to have been the mixed signalling over Ukraine’s Nato membership, which was neither ruled out nor firmly ruled in. Nato and the EU both need to decide, and to communicate clearly, whether they plan to admit the remaining post-Soviet states that want to become members, and what the relationship with them will look like if they don’t.
At the same time, even if it is unpalatable to talk about it now, there will also need to be engagement with the Russian government in some areas, as there was between the west and the USSR even in dark periods of the cold war such as the early 1980s.
Facebook Twitter A protester holds a placard reading ‘Putin, Stop!’ at a rally in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), March 2014. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA
The most important area will probably be nuclear arms control. The western debate about a no-fly zone and the Russian government’s inflammatory, if vague, threats about nuclear weapons are a sharp reminder of the threat of escalation between nuclear superpowers – a threat that, worryingly, many seemed to have forgotten or dismissed. However hostile the relationship between Russia and the west becomes, dialogue on nuclear matters needs to be maintained.
Similarly, some level of continuing military-to-military diplomatic contact on other issues will remain important – more important, in fact, than it has been in periods of better relations. Channels of communication between militaries are important for reducing the risk of miscalculation, even where they are unlikely to build much trust.
Finally, the west will need to think about how it tries to engage with Russian society. Closing off all contact will simply confirm Putin’s narrative that the west wants to destroy Russia. States need to keep their doors open to Russians who want to study or visit, as well as those who are escaping repression.
None of this is going to be easy, and much of it may fall foul of domestic pressures, wishful thinking, and splits within the EU and Nato. But Europe and the US’s future security depends on recognising that we are in a moment of acute danger, and that we are all in it together.
Peter Pomerantsev: ‘Solving the problem means confronting the psychological grip he has on people’
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (Faber)
Last Monday, a senior producer at the primetime Russian state news programme ran on to the set as it was being broadcast live and waved a placard protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and encouraging the audience to disbelieve her own channel’s propaganda. She was soon hauled off set and disappeared for two days into police custody. She described her act as a desperate attempt to cleanse her conscience for having “zombified” the Russian people.
Some have called her a hero, others say it is too little too late. But whatever your take, ultimately solving the Putin problem and creating change in Russia means confronting the psychological grip he has on his own people. The mental model of Putinism, the worldview it constructs with propaganda of word and deed to keep Russians under control, is built on several foundations: it appeals to nostalgia; it projects a conspiratorial perspective and it insists that Putin can get away with anything, that there is no alternative to Putin. As oppositionally minded Russians, pro-democracy media, civil society activists and public diplomats from the west seek to engage the Russian people, they need to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of these foundations. Even if Putin manages to cut off the Russian internet even further (he has already shut down Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the last independent radio and online television stations), there will always be ways to reach the Russian people, from virtual private networks to satellite TV. The question is what to talk to them about.
Currently, most Russians back the war and Putin’s reasons for it. It’s hard to trust polls in a dictatorship where you get 12 years in jail for mentioning the word “war”. Moreover, it’s always nice to hide behind propaganda: pretending you don’t know what’s going on allows you to avoid responsibility and make any tough or dangerous decisions. But even if these cognitive biases, fears and motivations to dodge reality don’t shift immediately there are already vulnerabilities in Putin’s main propaganda strategies.
Let’s start with Putin’s uses of nostalgia. His mission has always been to “bring Russia off its knees”, the Kremlin version of “make America great again”. This has now reached a climax: in his rambling historical speech validating the invasion of Ukraine he invoked his mission to restore the Russian empire, and framed his war in terms of a second world war redux to battle (utterly mythical) Nazis.
Play Video 1:29 ‘I spread Kremlin propaganda’: Russian TV news protester’s pre-recorded statement – video
Apart from the pleasures of wallowing in (often fictional) past glories, this nostalgia propaganda is effective psychologically in other ways too. It posits that the great Russian people have been humiliated by malign outside powers, and now Putin is restoring pride. The most important humiliation Russians experience, both historically and currently, is of course internal. But the nostalgia narrative allows the Kremlin to transfer its own brutality on to a shadowy outside “enemy”, and then help people relieve their pent-up anger through aggression. The abusive, sadistic tone of Putin’s speeches, and the ones of his leading TV propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov, give people an emotional path to articulate and validate their darkest and most violent feelings. It’s OK to be vicious and mean, this propaganda implies, it’s all history’s fault.
But this nostalgia propaganda also exists to cover up Putin’s great achilles heel: his lack of a vision for the future. The future has long disappeared from Russian political discourse. Thinking about the future means concentrating on political reforms, cleaning up the courts, abolishing corruption – all things Putin cannot achieve, as they will put his own system in danger. With the new economic reality post-invasion, any hope for the future has been eradicated completely. But people will still think about it. What do the sanctions, which are yet to properly kick in, mean for their children’s futures?
Media and communication with the Russian people needs to focus on these questions about the future. Both on the personal level, but also in terms of the future of the country. What, ultimately, should the future role of Russia be in the world? One of the most resonant phrases on Russia media runs: “What’s the point of the world if there’s no place for Russia in it?” The “Russia” this invokes is imperial, its identity tied to crushing others. Is there another way?
To further open up such questions, a group of Russian academics led by historian Alexander Etkind propose to create a university in the Baltics that will bring students from Russia and its neighbours to work on common challenges such as the environment. Projects like these are of course long-term aims, but without the language and ideas with which to talk about the future we can’t even start to chart the way towards it.
This idea of a future Russia has to be developed in partnership with Russia’s neighbours, so that it balances the needs of all of them, and escapes the conspiratorial, zero-sum vision of the world Putin’s propaganda promotes. Conspiracy thinking is another foundation of Putin’s playbook. It serves many uses. Conspiratorial thinking helps solidify community, promoting a sense of “us” under attack from “them”. It helps explain a confusing world. It also removes any sense of responsibility. Big new posters around Moscow claim that Russia “wasn’t given any choice” but to start the war, implying it’s all the fault of enemy powers. Ultimately, conspiracy thinking also spreads a sense that people are powerless to change anything in the world, which in turn seeds passivity. This can often be beneficial to the Kremlin: it wants a docile country.
But this sort of thinking can also work against the government. It feeds a culture of suspicion and distrust. Thus, during Covid Russians refused to take the Kremlin’s vaccine, suspecting the government itself was somehow plotting something malign against them.
As the sanctions take effect, and if people become painfully aware that their experience is far more arduous than that of the elites, a crisis in motivation could kick in. Putin’s system has always motivated people by giving them a piece in the overall cake of everyday corruption: from the traffic cop up to the minister. As long as you showed your loyalty occasionally, you were free to pursue your own financial aims. Now that motivation is gone, and you’re meant to make great sacrifices for a conspiratorial pseudo-ideology. People could simply give up on keeping the system going. This is what happened at the end of the USSR, when many people basically stopped fulfilling their professional responsibilities. Not so much a strike as just lack of motivation and despondence.
Revealing this disparity between the elites and normal people will require independent, investigative Russian journalism. Since the war, however, much of this is largely based abroad. They will have to rely on tracing documents and open-source investigations. We will need a whole new iteration of what the Russian journalist and editor Roman Badanin, founder of the investigative online media outlet Agentstvo, calls “offshore journalism”: exile media that uses modern tools to stay as close to the home country as possible.
Defiant to the last, Moscow’s media star takes aim at Putin’s brutal clampdown Read more
As the economic situation worsens, and the propaganda weakens, Putin will turn to the power ministries to use oppression rather than ideas. This has always been his final argument: that he can carry out any crimes at home, any invasion abroad, any war crime from Grozny to Aleppo, and get away with it. In Ukraine, Putin is purposefully targeting humanitarian corridors, bombing refugees and hospitals in order to break the will of the people. It’s a message to the world that all statements about humanitarian values, the UN’s “responsibility to protect”, “safe zones” is guff. His argument is that might is right, and in the futureless new world the ones who are most ruthless, from Beijing to Riyadh and Moscow, will flourish.
One small, first, but hopefully important step has been taken by the human rights lawyer and author Philippe Sands, who is trying to create a Nuremberg-style tribunal for those who began this war, not merely for war crimes but for having started a completely unprovoked invasion in the first place. In the meantime, however, there’s a joke going round pro-Putin circles inside Russia:
Two Russian soldiers are drinking champagne in Russian-occupied Paris, the whole of Europe conquered. “Did you hear?” one smiles to the other. “We lost the information war.” Such humour is its own form of propaganda: helping push Russians away from the thought that the “special operation” isn’t going quite as planned. But it highlights a deeper truth: in wartime, propaganda of the deed outweighs propaganda of the word.