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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