A few days ago, President Joe Biden agreed with an interviewer that Vladimir Putin was a “killer” and added that the Russian President would “pay a price” for his predations. Putin reacted by recalling his Ambassador from Washington, then a day or so later coolly responded by wishing Biden good health. That meant, to me, it was time the White House appointed a food taster.
It certainly was refreshing to hear an American President call out Putin for what he is, after the last guy, but there will be consequences and the hybrid warfare between the two superpowers will escalate. This will also be a contest between two disparate leaders. Biden is a wholesome middle-class guy from Scranton who has become CEO of the world’s largest economy and commander of its biggest military. Putin, however, is an astonishing rags-to-riches story, fueled by cunning and remorselessness, that has made him the wealthiest and most powerful human being in history.
I believe Putin is the world’s only trillionaire (equivalent to 1,000 billionaires) and yet he does not appear on the Forbes billionaire list, which includes 99 Russian billionaires. But these fellows are his proxies and partners. Vladimir Putin controls or owns portions of their assets as well as big chunks of Russia’s largest corporations. His path to such staggering money and power has been a white-collar-crime version of Horatio Alger. He was a poor boy from St. Petersburg whose father was crippled in the war, whose brother died of starvation, and whose mother was devout and doting. Now he has become today’s Genghis Khan or Augustus Caesar. Some may dispute this, but former Russian chess champion and exiled politician Garry Kasparov agrees and has said: "[Putin] controls more money, directly or indirectly, than any other individual in the history of the human race".
All this happened in 22 years or so without unleashing armies to maraud and plunder nations. Putin is simply the boss of the world’s biggest criminal organization, which poses as a nation-state, that controls the biggest piece of real estate on the planet -- or 11.5% of the world’s total landmass. Russia is about twice the size of Canada, the United States (including Alaska), or China. The current Russian Federation has more minerals, metals, and oil resources than any of these, or $75 trillion discovered so far. Yet its economy is only the size of Texas. This is because a few trillion has been looted and moved offshore to tax havens, yachts, palaces, castles, anonymous corporations, faceless trusts, businesses, or into accounts in banks and brokerage firms in secrecy havens.
The confiscation began in 1999 when Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin. He had been a mid-level KGB agent for 16 years but knew how to navigate power and personalities handily. He inherited chaos and in short order restructured the former Communist country’s decrepit government in order to get the trains to run on time and to kick-start its comatose state-controlled economy. Then he and his colleagues ransacked the place. He put members of his inner circle in charge of everything from railways to oil, mining, forestry, and telecommunications, and transformed Mother Russia into the world’s biggest kleptocracy.
Putin’s wealth and power have been extended globally. Two of Britain’s 44 billionaires are pals of Putin and, along with other rich Russians in London, have acquired newspapers, football teams, trophy real state, Royal friends, and peerages. In the United States, the story is similar. Putin’s influence on the White House and Republican Party is well documented. Russian cyber-warriors helped land Donald Trump his 2016 victory, and Russian-Ukrainian dirty tricks whisperer Paul Manafort advised Oleg Deripaska and other oligarchs how to insinuate themselves into the political process through massive donations, lobbying efforts, and targeting and entertaining prominent and powerful politicians and businessmen.
Putin’s business model whisperer has been Ukrainian-born gangster and money launderer Semion Mogilevich, who has been on the FBI’s most-wanted list for years and lives freely in Moscow. The FBI accused him of "weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale”. The regime adopted a criminal template then squirreled away money that belonged to the people instead of lifting living standards or re-investing that wealth to create a strong Russian economy.
Just as Catherine the Great’s favorite minister Grigory Potemkin lined her travel route with sham villages and happy, prosperous peasants to please her, Russia’s leaders have developed an aptitude for window dressing, In 2016, I wrote a paper called “Stolen Future” for the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. and described Russian leadership this way: “Vladimir Putin is very skillful in this regard and would have the world believe that Russia is a respectable democracy governed by the rule of law. This is fiction. Under Putin’s administration, Russia is run by Kremlin insiders and a small business elite, whose methods would be prosecuted in G7 countries.”
This has robbed Russians of decent living standards. Roughly, 19 percent of its people live below the poverty line on less than $200 a month. Russia is ranked 60th in GDP per capita at US$10,192 in 2020, behind Chile and slightly ahead of China with 1.5 billion people compared to Russia’s 144 million. And in terms of life expectancy, Russia is 113th among the world’s nations and is roughly equivalent to North Korea or Libya.
Putin, 68 years of age, manages the press brilliantly. He doesn’t splash around his wealth and is never photographed in any of his lavish palaces, or with children or wives or mistresses or jet-set celebrities. His posed photoshoots are either holding and smiling at puppies he’s received as gifts; appearing bare-chested and engaged in sports activities; or participating in religious ceremonies. He is, unlike most men in Russia, clean-living, a teetotaler, a fitness buff, and deeply religious.
Putin is a modern-day Emperor in a tie-and-suit who conducts business in an imperially-elegant Kremlin complex of castles and enjoys support from his nation of highly educated serfs, who are also walled off from the outside world as well as each other. Russia is a badly damaged society, to generalize, that has been abused for centuries and, while enjoying some Internet access and some freedom to travel, are still grievously mistreated. The result is that many Russians cocoon in isolation and solitude and shun social interaction, and for good reason.
In early 1992, I spent six weeks with a photographer covering the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the anarchy that ensued. There was no functioning economy, no currency or goods in stores, and law and order were non-existent. On one occasion, I approached a burgeoning oligarch to help me land an interview with Boris Yeltsin to which he replied: “Breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Forget that. It has to be breakfast because he’s really really drunk the rest of the time.”
By far, the most revealing interview was with a Russian-Canadian entrepreneur who had moved to Moscow the year before and opened two computer stores to cash in on the new Russia. When I arrived at his shop — after being shaken down by police for bribes along the way — he was seated and shaken. “My manager was just murdered an hour ago as she left work,” he said. “I’m closing up. This is impossible. My workers lie, steal, and cheat. They all have the symptoms of abused children. They were taught to turn in one another, so they trust no one and aren’t trustworthy. This country doesn’t need capitalism. It needs a shrink on every corner.”
This made perfect sense. Communism was damaging, but before that was the Czar, His Russian Orthodox Church, and feudalism which wreaked untold havoc. Now, this. Putin stages Potemkin elections and governs his “peasants” with an iron fist in an ermine glove. His principal foreign policy objective is to destroy the United States and Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union by force, propaganda, espionage, and social media. Above all else, he is a revanchist who wants to emulate his bloodthirsty hero, Josef Stalin, by reconquering the former Soviet Republics like Ukraine or Georgia as well as former satellites like Poland, the Baltics, or the Czech Republic.
To achieve his ends, he eliminates opponents. Most recently was Alexei Navalny who has now been banished to a gulag where he may end up wishing he never recovered from a coma that he succumbed to after the KGB poisoned him. In 2006, former Russian Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko died from radioactive poison in London. In 2015, prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in front of the Kremlin. In 2018, Russian agents used the same Novichok toxin used on Navalny to poison two people in England and also gunned down another in a Berlin park.
Other predations include the murderous 2014 invasion of Ukraine that has so far resulted in 14,000 deaths, the destruction of its industrial base, and the displacement of two million Ukrainians from their homes. This followed the illegal annexation of one-third of Georgia, the acquisition of territory on the Mediterranean Sea as booty for helping Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, and more mischief in Libya, Iran, Venezuela, portions of Africa, and likely Afghanistan again.
Kasparov has escaped Putin’s cross-hairs and continues to publicly warn the world that President Putin is becoming bolder and more dangerous than ever. Russia is a “rogue regime”, he wrote recently, that must be ejected from international organizations and Biden must make a strong statement that the United States will no longer tolerate Russia’s actions.
This week, Biden did just that and also threw down the gauntlet by saying, “he will pay a price. You will see shortly.”
I’m sure that’s true. But it’s also true that Putin won’t take it in the chin.
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