Under­stand­ing Russia

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A Russian agent who switched sides is attacked with a mil­i­tary-grade nerve agent in a provin­cial English town. Prime Min­is­ter May holds Moscow respon­si­ble for the attack. Are we back in the Cold War, or have we somehow inad­ver­tently landed in a James Bond film? By Ralf Fücks und Marieluise Beck

The Scripal case is not a one-off inci­dent. Alexan­der Litvi­nenko, a former Russian secret service officer and a fierce critic of Putin, died in London of polo­nium poi­son­ing in Novem­ber 2006. The prime suspect is former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, who left an actual trail of polo­nium behind him on his London visit. Lugovoi now sits in the Duma as a member of the Kremlin’s United Russia party. The Russian author­i­ties have refused to extra­dite him to face British justice.

A number of Putin’s adver­saries have been mur­dered or died of mys­te­ri­ous dis­eases over the past years. In October 2006, the jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lift at her block of flats in Moscow. Her research on the human rights vio­la­tions in Chech­nya had crossed the “red line”. Five other oppo­si­tion jour­nal­ists who had reported on the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Russian army in Chech­nya had already lost their lives in 2000. Sergei Mag­nit­sky, an auditor who uncov­ered a large-scale fraud scheme involv­ing state offi­cials, died in prison, after crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings were launched against him on trumped up charges. In Feb­ru­ary 2015, Boris Nemtsov, former Vice Premier and a fig­ure­head for the oppo­si­tion to Putin, was gunned down in the street within sight of the Kremlin. The list could go on and on.

The murders of rene­gade secret service offi­cers, oppo­si­tion figures and jour­nal­ists serve as a signal: those who cross the people in power are living dan­ger­ously. No one who does so can hope for pro­tec­tion from the police or the justice system; on the con­trary, these are the instru­ments of that power. Legend has it that lovely facades were once hung before the wretched­ness of Russian vil­lages to prevent their dismal reality from marring the view of Cather­ine the Great; now, a back­drop of democ­racy hangs across the land­scape of today’s Russia. There are polit­i­cal parties, par­lia­ments, courts, private media and even com­mis­sion­ers for human rights. In reality, they are merely sim­u­la­tions. The Duma is a machine designed to gen­er­ate acclaim for Kremlin policy, the parties, like the media, are con­trolled by those in power, judges and public pros­e­cu­tors are subject to instruc­tions from above. Putin has his hooks in the provin­cial gov­er­nors as well: they are no longer elected offi­cials but Kremlin appointees. Putin once called this regime a “guided democ­racy” – an elegant euphemism for an author­i­tar­ian system of gov­er­nance aiming at absolute control.

In such a system, pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are simply an exer­cise held to confirm the power of the supreme ruler. Where there is neither polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion nor a free press, where oppo­si­tion can­di­dates are not allowed onto the ballot and state employ­ees are under enor­mous pres­sure to vote for the right can­di­date, elec­tions are nothing more than a farce. Two people might have posed a serious chal­lenge to Putin: Boris Nemtsov, the head of the liberal oppo­si­tion, and Alexei Navalny, who has voiced the sen­ti­ments of many Rus­sians with his anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign. The one was mur­dered, the other barred from can­di­dacy.

We still strug­gle to find the right words to describe the “Putin system”. The regime evokes a modern-day feu­dal­ism, in which high state offices are benefices granted to loyal hench­men. The system also exhibits some of the fea­tures of a klep­toc­racy, in which polit­i­cal power and per­sonal enrich­ment go hand in hand. Putin is thought to be one of the world’s richest men, one who uses front men and dummy cor­po­ra­tions to conceal his assets. The “Panama Papers” shed light on one corner of this shady empire. Cellist Sergei Roldugin, an old friend of Putin, figured as the owner of various accounts through which 2 billion dollars were shifted. Gov­ern­ment func­tionar­ies who take home modest pay-checks own flats in London or on the Côte d’Azur and send their chil­dren to pricey private uni­ver­si­ties. Polit­i­cal power is serving as the mech­a­nism for the redis­tri­b­u­tion of soci­etal wealth. Suc­cess­ful private entre­pre­neurs have every reason to expect a hostile takeover of their busi­nesses by the state cliques. Where there is no legal cer­tainty, there is no guar­an­tee of private own­er­ship either. Those who wish to gain an impres­sion of this atmos­phere of abuse and vio­lence should watch Russian direc­tor Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan”.

The key influ­ence wielded by the intel­li­gence ser­vices is largely undis­puted. The “siloviki” form an infor­mal fra­ter­nity in control of large por­tions of the state appa­ra­tus and the economy. Putin came from the ranks of the KGB; his own per­sonal ascent is closely bound up with the secret ser­vices’ trans­for­ma­tion into the strongest power in the state. For those shaped by this envi­ron­ment, there is only the hammer or the anvil – one either strikes the blow or takes it. Those fight­ing for the great cause of Russia are bound by no law. This applies to both inter­nal and exter­nal action: not the slight­est doubt about the legal­ity of the violent takeover of Crimea exists in offi­cial circles in Russia. Nor is there crit­i­cism of the bombing of schools and hos­pi­tals in Syria or shock about the dev­as­ta­tion of entire towns. On the con­trary, the pre­vail­ing emotion is one of patri­otic sat­is­fac­tion over Russia’s return, finally, to its role as a strong mil­i­tary power that is feared by its adver­saries.

The Kremlin no longer sees itself as bound by any inter­na­tional law or treaty, annex­a­tion of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine made this clear, if it was not already. Who cares if Russia is one of the powers com­mit­ted to guar­an­tee­ing the inde­pen­dence and ter­ri­to­r­ial integrity of Ukraine? “Might makes right” is once again the order of the day. Putin’s message: We are no longer playing by your rules. The sys­tem­atic mixing of truth and lies ties in with this as well. After ini­tially denying that Russian troops had occu­pied Crimea, Putin went on to award them medals for this great patri­otic feat. Foreign Min­is­ter Lavrov has no problem assert­ing pub­licly that Russia has nothing to do with the war in East Ukraine. What have facts got to do with any­thing? Truth is that which best serves the Kremlin. The Russian Gov­ern­ment has raised this tactic to a mas­terly art. An army of Inter­net trolls and com­puter bots is loosed to sew hatred and strife in the West under the con­ceal­ing cloak of false iden­ti­ties, but offi­cially Moscow has nothing to do with any of it.

Why then, despite all this, is Putin met with so much under­stand­ing in Germany, while the demo­c­ra­tic oppo­si­tion in Russia elicits hardly any inter­est at all? Is it the sense of guilt about the bar­barism with which Nazi Germany raged through the Soviet Union? If so, surely the empathy for the victims would apply for Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the other former Soviet Republics as well. But of this there has been little sign. Is it the sup­posed spir­i­tual kinship with a Russia per­ceived as a counter-pole to Western indi­vid­u­al­ism and the culture of con­sump­tion? Is it fear of the threat­en­ing mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing by the Russian lead­er­ship that drives us to avoid any con­flict? Or is it the tempt­ing prospects offered by Russia’s raw mate­ri­als reserves and sales markets? Prob­a­bly a mixture of all those things.

Every real­is­tic policy towards Russia starts with the recog­ni­tion that the Kremlin sees itself as an adver­sary of the West once again. The elites ruling present-day Russia no longer see their country as being on a long path towards the West. They have no inter­est in democ­racy; on the con­trary, they see it as a threat to their power and their benefices. Not content to stop at shield­ing Russia from the “colour rev­o­lu­tions” in their region, they have turned to the offen­sive. Ukraine is to be brought back under Russian hege­mony, the rifts within NATO and the Euro­pean Union should be deep­ened. It is not on a whim that the Kremlin is sup­port­ing nation­al­ist, xeno­pho­bic and anti-Western forces all over Europe. Seeking to placate Putin by being yield­ing is point­less. It only whets his appetite for more. Human rights, the equal sov­er­eignty of all states and the renun­ci­a­tion of vio­lence are the foun­da­tion of the Euro­pean frame­work for peace. Con­struc­tive coop­er­a­tion with Russia on that basis is welcome. As long as the Kremlin keeps playing the role of an antag­o­nist of the liberal order though, firm­ness is called for.

Marieluise Beck was the Green Party’s Eastern Europe policy expert in the Bun­destag, Ralf Fücks served on the Board of the Hein­rich Böll Foun­da­tion for many years. Last autumn they founded the Center for Liberal Moder­nity, which is intended to serve as a gath­er­ing place for liberal thinkers from all polit­i­cal camps.


On 18 March 2018, this article was pub­lished at the German Sunday paper “Welt am Sonntag”.

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