Putin is not strong – it’s we who’ve grown weak

Published by The Mail on Sunday (18th March, 2018)

In December 1989, a young KGB officer was stationed in Dresden watching the collapse of communism when a crowd tried to storm his office. He rang a local Red Army tank unit to request help, only to be told they could not intervene. ‘We can’t do anything without orders from Moscow,’ he was told. ‘And Moscow is silent.’

The officer’s name was Vladimir Putin. A decade later this diminutive spy had risen to become ruler of Russia – and he vowed his giant nation would never again be silent.

There is no doubt he has achieved that aim, having increased military spending twentyfold since taking office, started several conflicts in Europe, stepped into war in Syria and stirred up trouble from Warsaw to Washington.

He has turned his nation from a stumbling democracy into an aggressive autocracy. Today Putin will be elected president for another six years, brushing aside British fury over the nerve agent attack on a former spy in Salisbury.

On Friday I joined his bitterest foes for a conference amid high security and jokes about what might be in the food, where experts examined his rise, his mind, his money, his murders, his propaganda machine and his wars – and how they might be confronted by the West.

PutinCon was opened by Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, opposition activist and chairman of organisers the Human Rights Foundation. After speaking about Putin’s malevolent misrule, he joked that dictators preferred playing poker to chess. ‘In poker you can win with a weak hand if your opponents keep folding,’ he said.

Spot on. For this gathering underlined how Putin took charge of a struggling country and, sucking up cash and control, proceeded to run rings around his domestic and international rivals.

The signs were there from the start – as explained by Olga Litvinenko, once part of a gilded St Petersburg inner circle that rose with Putin. Her academic father Vladimir – no relation to the murdered former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko – helped with Putin’s fake university dissertation, ran his early campaigns and ended up so wealthy that today he funds the troll factories spreading discord on social media.

Putin tested his political arsenal amid the chaos of post-communism in that beautiful Baltic city – just as today he tests his latest weapons amid the chaos of Syria. Rivals were killed or threatened, state resources plundered.

‘They did not like him in St Petersburg,’ said Litvinenko, who served on the local assembly. ‘They remember Putin as taking bribes with the assistance of Mr Sechin.’

Igor Sechin was Putin’s aide. Today he is one of Russia’s most powerful men who runs the state oil firm and insists even his helicopter has spoons made of gold. He symbolises the mafia cabal that has become rich by raping their country’s wealth and doing whatever it takes to stay loyal to Putin, from buying up media outlets that spew out propaganda to funding mercenaries abroad.

Little has changed since St Petersburg beyond the ambition and scale. Putin was appointed prime minister in 1999 by a drunken president with dwindling authority – and instantly used hatred and terror to boost his popularity.

In September that year a series of bombs ripped apart four blocks of flats, killing almost 300 Russians. Security operatives were caught planting one device, while a key political ally disclosed the site of another attack three days before it took place.

Yet Putin used the slaughter to demonise Chechens and launch an onslaught on their republic. His popularity surged on a sea of patriotism, winning him the presidency months later.

This showcased Putin’s tactics: stoking fear, inflaming patriotism with a patsy media – and spilling blood. ‘This is a regime founded on terror,’ said David Satter, an American writer. ’We’ve just seen the latest manifestation of this in the UK.’

Western powers knew precisely the nature of Putin’s cruel regime from the start. Yet they chose to ignore his lies and contain, rather than confront, this malevolent man and his rapacious allies. Again and again we have seen this same appeasement of his tyranny: over wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine; over theft of territory in Crimea; over the shooting down of a civilian airliner; over the killing of internal enemies; over cyber-warfare; even over murder in our own land with the assassination of another former spy.

‘It is not that Putin is strong but we have become weak,’ said German expert Boris Reitschuster. Hard to argue. Yet countries such as Britain could fight back by targeting the travel, families and assets of Putin’s henchmen.

The former president of Estonia told the meeting how affronted he was to hear the Russian foreign minister lambast enlightened Western values, then see the same man’s daughter graduating from New York’s Columbia university, his own alma mater.

Here is the crux of the issue. Putin and his pals claim to love their land and loathe our values – but they stash their cash in our banks, buy our properties, fight legal battles in our courts and send their children be educated in our schools.

The hypocrisy stinks – but so does our response. Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader, said he had just reported an oligarch, who recently listed a major firm in Britain, to our authorities for breach of the bribery act – but expected to be ignored as often in the past.

Economist Anders Aslund, who advised Russia during its brief democracy, asked why Britain had almost 100,000 properties with anonymous ownership when other countries banned such practices. ‘This is why you have all those properties in Belgravia standing empty.’

He estimates Russians launder £14 billion a year in Britain – and this is Putin’s Achilles heel. Yet Britain prostitutes itself before the oligarchs who prop up Putin as they buy up our football clubs and list their firms here. The Tories even take their cash.

We need to clean up our act, end our complicity and start putting morality before money. As one former US government official said, Putin should be wondering what the West will do next instead of us always reacting to his latest outrage.

Instead we are shocked when a gangster president uses his standard tactics of state terror in a quiet Wiltshire cathedral city. When will we learn to fight back?

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