"Russia," Winston Churchill famously observed, "Is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." This concatenated conundrum is apparent in many aspects of Russia, not least in its president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin -- the descendent of a family that appears to have come into existence with his grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich Putin, a onetime cook for Vladimir Lenin, his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, and Joseph Stalin. Look further back and the Putin family simply doesn't exist.
A dyed-in-the-wool KGB operative, Putin switched course mid-career into politics, and remarkably, as an almost complete unknown, rose through the ranks to become Prime Minister in 1999 under then-president Boris Yeltsin. No one expected that this neophyte would last more than a few weeks or months… but 16 years later, Putin, like Louis XIV, is the Russian state -- and there is no sign of his imminent departure.
Someone who knows Vladimir Putin well is Vladimir Milov. Milov had a stellar career as an energy analyst rising in the Russian Federal Energy Commission (the energy regulator) eventually becoming an advisor to the Minister of Energy and then Deputy Minister of Energy in 2001–2002 in the early years of Putin's presidency.
Milov embarked on an ambitious program to reform the natural gas industry, electric power, and rail transport in Russia. One of his proposals would have seen making the Russian Far East (Kamchatka, Chukotka, Magadan, and Taymyr) energy independent, and powered entirely by renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. This would have saved the Russian state colossal sums on energy subsidies for fossil fuels shipped to the region, and greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The one glitch: those fossil fuel sales to the Russian state net oil and gas oligarchs colossal profits. Abruptly Vladimir Putin pulled the plug on the project. Milov resigned in disgust.
In the years since, Milov has continued as a prominent energy analyst and proponent of democratic reform. He established the Institute of Energy Policy and has worked with a constellation leading political reformers including former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyonov (in whose government Milov served; Kasyonov is now co-chair of the People's Freedom Party); crusading political reformer Boris Nemtsov (assassinated in February on a bridge next to the Kremlin); former Deputy Chair of the State Duma, Vladimir Ryzhkov (currently a co-chair of the People's Freedom Party), Ilya Yashin, one of the key leaders of the political movement Solidarnost, veteran human rights activist Lev Ponamaryov, and many others. Milov founded the group Democratic Choice and has been active with the People's Freedom Party.
At the Halifax International Security Forum I sat down over coffee with Vladimir Milov to probe Vladimir Putin's political and economic philosophy.
Christopher G. Majka: Over the past two years Vladimir Putin has invaded and annexed Crimea, and triggered a war in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Given the many things that Russia could be occupied and concerned with, this seems fantastically counterproductive. It has greatly complicated his relationships to virtually all of his neighbours, indeed to much of the Western world, resulting in not only opprobrium but also sanctions. Not to mention the fact that Putin has burned his political bridges to Ukraine, one of his closest and most important neighbours. Why is he doing this?
Vladimir S. Milov: Control and dominance over post-Soviet space, the former Soviet republics, has been a key idea over the past fifteen years of Russian politics. The idea was not even invented by Vladimir Putin, it (emerged) in 2003 when Anatoly Chubais wrote an article called "Liberal Empire."
In 2003 there were State Duma elections, after which Putin was able to form a constitutional majority and the Liberals were defeated. But during the pre-election build-up, all the politicians were trying to be more macho than Putin...
[Sidebar: Chubais was an influential member of Boris Yeltsin's administration in the 1990s, responsible for the program of privatization in Russia, which impoverished many people and created a class of kleptocratic oligarchs, for which he came under strong criticism.]
CGM: I would think this would be very difficult.
VSM: That at least was the theory! [laughter]
The economy had started to grow rapidly after the collapse of the 1980s and 1990s and Russian businessmen had started to buy strategic assets in a big way. Refineries in Ukraine, electricity networks in Georgia and Armenia, and so on. The Russian elite wanted to compensate for the humiliation of the 1980s and 1990s. The idea was that Russia is surrounded by countries that are much weaker, so we can become stronger by absorbing them. I don't share this view, but it is believed by the Russian elite.
CGM: A new Russian empire.
VSM: The key idea was that we were weak and that the first and necessary step is to establish control of the countries that surround us. So this idea (extends) far beyond Putin's current thinking. It is one of the pillars of Russian resurgence: establishing control over post-Soviet space. This has something to do with nostalgia about the Soviet Union, but I think it has more to do with the fact that out of all the post-Soviet turbulence and reforms, Russia emerged stronger than most of the other post-Soviet republics. And that was partly because of the Gaidar's reforms and partly because of the price of oil. Over the years there have been many projects in which private interests or state companies have tried to acquire strategic assets or absorb organizations into networking organizations like the Collective Security Treaty, Eurasian Economic Union, and so on.
[Sidebar: Yegor Gaidar (1956–2009) was a Russian economist and politician and chief architect of the "shock therapy" economic reforms that lead to privatization of many public assets, hyperinflation and a serious deterioration of living standards.]
However, it is important to understand one central thing: there can be no dominance over post-Soviet space without dominance over Ukraine. If Russia cannot control Ukraine the whole idea of controlling post-Soviet space fails.
I was still in the Russian government in June 2002 when Putin announced -- and it was a completely unexpected announcement -- an agreement in St. Petersburg between him, (German Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder and (Ukrainian President) Leonid Kuchma, in which -- the project never went anywhere, by the way -- they announced a memorandum of intent to establish a consortium to control the Ukrainian gas pipeline network. It was a crucial idea which Putin was fixated on.
Another issue were attempts by Russian oligarchs to buy assets in Ukraine. These took place around the time of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections. The Russian focus on these elections was associated with hopes to install a puppet president in Ukraine that would give Russia the properties it wanted.
So, over the years this evolved in to a super-idea, namely dominance over post-Soviet space, in which the key issue is dominance over Ukraine. It became a goal in itself and the whole objective of Russian regional policy was to serve this purpose. So Putin cannot stop because that has become the central objective of his policy, that the West should grant him permission that the entire post-Soviet space should be his exclusive sphere of influence. He is crazy about this -- he will take this goal with him to the grave. So he is like a crocodile -- with a small brain, but with a large swallowing instinct. [laughter]
CGM: A striking image.
VSM: You can't engage in dialogue with him. And the whole idea of the creation of exclusive spheres of influence, and territorial domination, is unacceptable in the 21st century.
People ask me, what can the West do to stop this? There is no way of solving this by giving something away. Let's imagine some sort of informal agreement between him and the West -- which, by the way, he actually wants. "I will be your best friend if you simply give me all post-Soviet space." It's questionable whether he thinks that includes the Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) -- but that's a separate issue. But Ukraine is the pearl of post-Soviet space.
So, imagine if the West agreed to such an arrangement. Would there be any guarantee that Putin would not wake up the next morning and suddenly decide that, for example, Bulgaria is now post-Soviet space? See what Putin is trying to do in Eastern Europe. He is clearly trying to influence domestic politics. Is there any guaranteed that he would obey such a division into zones of influence? No!
CGM: The crocodile is still hungry?
VSM: Yes. It's not just that it's still hungry; it's that this is only thing that a crocodile knows how to do! [laughter] So this is why it is pointless to talk about [agreements with Putin] in the first place. Another point: during his more than fifteen years of power, Putin has developed a strongly anti-Western attitude, which was not there in the first place.
CGM: Putin once indicated that he might even be interested in joining NATO.
VSM: Yes. In internal meetings in the first couple of years after he came to power he said that joining NATO was a real policy option.
So, with respect to all the so-called "colour" revolutions in post-Soviet space, its natural that when a pro-democratic movement emerges in some country, with revolts against an autocratic regime, that the West supports it. But Putin took the following lesson from these colour revolutions. First, he thinks that this is proof that the West is not prepared for an agreement for an exclusive zone of interest with him. Second, he fears that (such revolution) will then spill over into Russia. Once Ukraine becomes a democratic state with fully developed democratic institutions, that this will immediately spread into Russia. And he is afraid of this because he wants to preserve his regime. So his hostility to the West has developed over these issues.
[Sidebar: The Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003); the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004–2005); the Pink (or Tulip) Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005); the Denim Revolution in Belarus (2006); and the Grape Revolution in Moldova (2009).]
And the final blow was the Arab Spring. Even though this was far from Russia, Putin was fiercely annoyed with the way the West behaved during the Arab Spring. Putin defended Arab dictators until the very end. Even though the West had previously supported the dictators there, every time the situation became precarious, the West supported the democratic movements attempting to overthrow the dictators. The basic lesson that Putin took from these events was that if things get shaky in Russia, that the West will support those trying to overthrow him. This is what Putin thinks, and maybe rightly so.
So, domination of the post-Soviet space has become so important for Putin that it is beyond rational. He risks the stability of his own regime with all the economic difficulties he has created (See: Blundering in Ukraine: Putin's strategic debacle). To pursue this idea of dominance has become an obsession for him. So, this is why he is doing what he is doing. He thinks of the West as an enemy. He made that choice. Because after all the revolutions in the post-Soviet countries, and after the Arab Spring, he drew the conclusion that the West wanted to overthrow him. And, that the West is against his "beautiful" idea of dividing the world into zones of influence, 19th-century style.
Putin had been considering different scenarios regarding Ukraine in a post-Viktor Yanukovich reality [Note: The former president of Ukraine, who fled into exile in response to the Euromaidan revolution.], but the scenario in which the Ukrainian government would be overwhelmingly dominated by pro-Western forces, and there would be no one influential who could be considered pro-Putin, was the most remote one. The Russian government was trying to meddle in Ukraine with different policies, trying to assert their influence through various politicians. But the scenario in which people come to power in Ukraine who just don't give a shit about him, that was the "catastrophic" scenario.
CGM: And it has come to pass.
VSM: Yes. One of my friends described the situation through the following metaphor. Putin sees himself as a big shareholder in a joint-stock equity company called "Ukraine." Maybe his stake isn't a majority one, but he considers himself to be the biggest shareholder. All of a sudden the company is taken away. So he feels that it is right to go in with force and takes its subsidiary, the joint stock company called "Crimea." He seizes its shares.
CGM: There has been a lot of discussion about the degree to which Putin fears the spillover of ideas from Ukraine into Russia. That if Ukraine can become a successful democratic state which does not function according to corruption and kleptocracy, that this may become a role model for Russians who may think, "If this is possible in Ukraine, why not Russia?" To what extent do you think Putin fears this?
VSM: Absolutely. Putin is a man with very strong instincts. He has the reptile instinct, the snake instinct. He feels the threat with his spine. He knows that the one thing that prevents democratic revolution in Russia is the passiveness of the population. People generally think that they are so small that they cannot change anything.
People are unhappy with the system. Just recently, two of the largest cities in Russia, Novosibirsk, the third largest (population 1.5 million), and Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest (population 1.4 million), elected opposition mayors. Putin used maximal force: television advertising, propaganda, administrative resources -- everything to keep independent candidates from being elected, but the opposition candidates still won.
One of the cornerstones of the political system Putin introduced was the removal of the direct election of regional governors and city mayors in Russia. Despite all the nominal support for Putin, opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Russians are categorically supportive of the return of the direct election of local officials. This is why the demand for real democracy is very high. Russians are fed up with talking about democracy, but they really want to influence power, they really want parliamentary accountability, and they consider it most important on the regional level. So, the demand is there and Putin knows it. The one thing that all his propaganda and paramilitary machine is focused on, is trying to convince people that they cannot change anything because the government is too strong. The status quo is the Russian system and they can do nothing.
Now Ukrainians are very similar people to Russians. We are brotherly nations whose people are amazingly intertwined. Many people have relatives in both countries; many people travel back and forth. So, there is a great interconnection. So, if it is possible to establish a democratic society in Ukraine, it will immediately spill over into Russia. "If they've done it, than we can do it." And this was somewhat (apparent) in the protests in Russia in 2011-2012, which is a prelude of what will happen next time.
Putin's catastrophic miscalculation, his stupidity if you will, is that he doesn't consider either Ukrainian or Russian people to be the authors of their own politics. He thinks that politics is the plotting of big guys -- who control resources, who finances what, and so on. He doesn't believe in democracy. He thinks that democratic revolutions are a façade that involves installing a puppet government to serve someone's interests.
CGM: Perhaps not surprising given his background as a KGB agent.
VSM: Absolutely. Putin gave an interview in which he said that Russia will win because it is right.
CGM: Like the Tsar.
VSM: As Lenin used to say, "The teaching of Karl Marx is all powerful because it is correct." We used to be taught that when I was in school in Soviet times. Putin believes his cause is just.
CGM: It seems that much of Putin's success in the past has not been due to any of his own abilities, but simply because when he took office in 2000 oil prices averaged $27 USD per barrel and by 2013 they had topped out at $112 USD per barrel. So, is the dramatic fall in oil prices having an impact on Putin's government? If the economic prosperity that oil revenues brought to Russia declines significantly, will this be a threat to Putin's hold on power?
VSM: The breaking point was the 2008 global financial crisis. Before that, despite the fact that inequality grew substantially under Putin, society as a whole benefitted from the prosperity. During the first eight years of Putin's presidency the average growth of real disposable income, taking into consideration inflation, was over 12 per cent per year. He looked unbeatable at that time because Russian economic performance was strong. Six years afterwards, growth of income is down to very low numbers [Note: In 2015, the rate of GDP growth will actually be minus three–four per cent.] and many social groups have started to suffer. The protests of the winter of 2011-2012 were linked to the deteriorating economic situation.
What happened was that Putin's policy was largely focused on building big government. If you look at the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) transition reports, which cover the transitional market economies of the entire post-communist and Soviet space, from Macedonia to Mongolia, Russia was the only country which made a big U-turn in which the share of the private sector of the GDP, which had grown to 70 per cent, then turned around and decreased to 50 per cent. Even Turkmenistan and Belarus didn't do such a thing. They have a comparatively small private sector but it has continuously been growing.
Just to give you and idea: before the crisis began in 2008, the annual outlays of the Russian federal budget were $6.5 trillion. They are now $15 trillion. So government expenses have more than doubled. And not even $100 a barrel oil could support that. [Note: As I write this the international price for oil, Brent Crude, stands at $37.88 per barrel.] Such a big government needs constant feeding.
There was this idea that state investments in infrastructure would drive economic growth. It turned out to be complete bullshit. The annual capital investments from federal and regional budgets combined, increased from less than $1 trillion to $2 trillion in just the last six or seven years. The ten biggest state companies have increased their capital investment programs from $1.5 trillion a year to $3 trillion a year. So, a total of $5 trillion a year in capital investments from the state and the biggest state companies. So, where is the growth? It's down to zero or less.
It's very easily explained.
It can partially be explained by corruption. Three years ago I was in Cyprus and I talked to developers and real estate owners there. They told me, "We had bad financial times after the 2008 global financial crisis because the Germans and British stopped investing here. Only the Russians saved us. We were surprised because Russia had also experienced economic difficulties. But big money came here from Russia." I immediately understood that this is where the stimulus package went. [laughter]
But corruption is only a partial explanation. Russian bureaucrats are not private investors. They do not risk their own money. They risk someone else's money -- taxpayer's money. They have absolutely no incentive to do so efficiently. They have built, for example, a billion dollar bridge to Russky Island in Vladivostok for an APEC summit. This is an island with almost no population (5,000 inhabitants) and no economic activity. You go there and see that the bridge is completely empty; a billion dollars thrown away. They build very expensive pipelines, which have a load factor of only 30 to 40 per cent. They built large hydro dams in the Russian Far East that have a load factor of 30 per cent. They built a 200,000-seat stadium in the city of Sochi that has a total population of only 343,000. Sochi used to have a stadium of only 10,000 seats -- which was only filled to capacity only three times in its entire history! What I'm saying is that state investments have put money into projects that have no demand.
CGM: Are some of these useless enterprises controlled through the back door by oligarchs?
VSM: Absolutely. The system works that way. Nominally the companies are controlled by the state. But the biggest contractors are companies that are owned by Putin's cronies. For example, the two companies that are the largest pipeline builders and gas-field developers for Gasprom [Note: Gasprom is a massive (annual revenues of $106 billion USD) Russian gas company, nominally a private corporation (with its own private army of 20,000), but majority owned by the Russian government.] are Stroygazmontazh, owned by Arkady Rotenberg, Putin's judo trainer, and Stroygazconsulting, (the largest construction company in Russia), which has now been bought by multi-billionaire Chechen businessman Ruslan Baisarov, the emissary of Chechen strongman and president Ramzan Kadyrov. [Note: Kadyrov has been heavily criticized in the international press and by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Memorial, and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights for corruption and human rights violations.] Both these companies are supposed to get lucrative contracts for the construction of a new pipeline to China.
[Sidebar: Arkady Rotenberg, is, along with his brother Boris Rotenberg (both billionaires) currently blacklisted under United States economic sanctions. When the Italian government seized assets of Arkady Rotenberg, the Russian government passed a new law, known as the Rotenberg Law, to allow the state to compensate them for any such losses.]
These are risk free businesses. You build it, and you don't care whether what you built is needed or not. You take your money and go away. It doesn't matter if the billion-dollar bridge stays empty or not. All these private contractors are controlled by Putin's cronies.
CGM: Are these cronies of Putin alarmed about the situation in Ukraine and the sanctions that have followed as a result of Putin's interventions there?
VSM: Yes, they are alarmed, and this is where the recent currency crisis comes from. Because one thing that was the main source of Russia's modest growth in the past several years was a huge inflow of Western loans.
Ten years ago the total foreign debt of Russian private companies was $100 billion. In 2014 it reached $660 billion. That exceeds the reserves of the Russian Central Bank by 1.5 times. This debt is denominated in hard currency and a lot of it is very short. They need to permanently refinance this, undertaking new loans to repay the old ones, and Western banks were giving them credit. But after sanctions were imposed this stopped, not only for the companies that are on the sanctions list, but also for other companies. That's because some Western banks have started to (become cautious) not wanting to give credit to Russian companies because they never know which one will appear next on the sanctions list. No wonder that Russian private companies have lined up for government aid. They hoped that the Chinese banks would provide them credit, but the Chinese don't want to either. They don't want to undertake the risks of operating in the Russian system.
CGM: The Chinese banks will give them no great financial bargains I think.
VSM: Absolutely. So, they are in a tight spot. Putin is trying to comfort himself in the parallel reality that Russia still has foreign currency reserves. [Note: Russia's foreign currency reserves have decreased by about 30 per cent in the last 1.5 years.]
He reminds me of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Gorbachev was very swift with political reforms but very slow with economic reforms. Gorbachev could have made radical economic reforms, and if he had done it faster perhaps we wouldn't have experienced the disasters that we did. He made the choice to keep the Soviet economic system afloat for a few years without major changes, borrowing money from the West. Two-thirds of Soviet debt, which Russia inherited after the collapse of the USSR, was borrowed by Gorbachev during the late 1980s. It's the same thing that Putin is doing. He believes in state control and investment, which isn't working.
CGM: In light of all of what you have outlined, what opportunities do you see for the democratic opposition in Russia?
VSM: There is demand for democratic change on the ground, and it is high, but you need to read it correctly. This is not a demand for ideological discussion. This is a demand for political influence, primarily on local issues. People really want accountability of the government, the ability to elect local leaders, and so on. Russia is really a large federal country. Life is very different from one region to another. It is not homogeneous.
With the victories of opposition mayors in Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and other cities, there is some hope. The key issue is that the opposition should abandon the "Moscow" model, that in Moscow we know better. We need to go to the grassroots in the regions where there is great potential for democratic change. But we need to learn to speak to these people in the language that they want to hear and which they understand, not preaching democratic theory, but focusing on practical issues. To say: "[The Putin entourage] govern badly. We can do better through openness, competition and accountability. This is what good governance is." There is a huge demand for that.
Even in Moscow, in the last mayoral elections, the incumbent, Putin's friend Sergei Sobyanin, barely passed the 50 per cent threshold of votes that precluded a runoff election (he received 51 per cent) -- just 30,000 votes in a city of 12 million residents. And Alexei Navalny (the pioneering lawyer, political and financial activist who is one of the main voices of the progressive Russian opposition), his main competitor, received a healthy 27 per cent. So there is a demand for democratic reform.
The upcoming State Duma elections in 2016 give us (the democratic opposition) a good opportunity. Because we have changed from a system in which elections are conducted (as they were in the past) solely on the basis of party lists. Voters had one ballot which listed parties only and that was it (i.e., there were no individual candidates are listed on the ballot). In 2016 we are returning to a system in which half of the candidates will be elected from single candidate constituencies, and the other half on the basis of party lists. This gives us a much greater chance because people can run as individuals. In my district in the southwest of Moscow, I can beat my opponents. And there are many other candidates in the democratic opposition who are in a similar position.
If we are able to elect a large group of outright opponents to Putin, for the first time since 2007, a vocal opposition which will raise issues, which will not simply vote "yes" to every order that comes from the Kremlin administration, that will be a huge departure from the system that we have now. And also, if people go into the streets again in protest, they will have representation in the corridors of power. Which is very important. Consider the example of Ukraine. In the Orange Revolution of 2004, and in the more recent Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-2014, the opposition parties had very strong representation in Parliament. There were deputies who could sit at the negotiation table and were legitimate representatives of the people. This is what we want.
CGM: We were talking earlier in a session with your colleague Mikhail Kasyanov about Putin's great control of the media, and consequently his power to disseminate disinformation and propaganda. Is it possible to move this agenda of democratic reform forward in the face of this? [Note: For more information on this issue see the section on "The muzzled press" in Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets].
[Sidebar: Statesman and former prime minister of Russia (2000–2004), Mikhail Kasyanov leads the People's Democratic Union, was an active participant in the Dissenter's Marches, and is an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. He co-founded the Coalition for Russia Without Lawlessness and Corruption and is co-chair of the People's Freedom Party.]
VSM: It is difficult, but there are techniques. Basically, what you do, is if you are in a local district, you go door-to-door. You issue a local newspaper, speaking to people about local issues in an open, transparent, and accountable way. I've done this in the district where I live and people line up to get copies of this material. Because all they get every day in the official newspapers is that (Moscow mayor) Sobyanin opened this exhibition, that he is doing so much for the city… People are fed up with that stuff.
CGM: To what extent are ordinary people taken in by disinformation and propaganda? For example, do they believe that Ukraine has been taken over by fascists?
VSM: The propaganda is clever. They play on a few things. First, the leaders who came to power in Ukraine are largely unknown to Russians, so they try and portray them as monstrously as possible. Because there is no real information, the gap is rapidly filled with false stuff.
Second, they try and portray the Euromaidan Revolution, which is about Ukrainian integration with the European Union, as if it is Ukraine turning its back on Russia. "We're family; we're brothers. But they want to throw us away. After all these years of us doing so much for them, now they are saying 'We don't want those damn Russians.' And we are offering Ukraine this and that, but they don't want us. They want Europe instead."
They also capitalize on problems in the European Union, for example the Eurozone economic crisis, or Britain wanting to leave the EU. They talk about (French National Front leader) Marine Le Pen and (former Czech president) Vaclav Klaus (a supporter of far-right political parties). They say, "The whole European Union is fascist, it's undemocratic." Remember what Winston Churchill said: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." [laughter]
I do a lot of grassroots work with ordinary people, explaining issues. In my blog I published a series of questions and answers in relation to the Ukrainian revolution. For example:
• Was there was an illegitimate overthrow of government in Ukraine?
Why illegitimate? There was a Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, elected in 2012, which was empowered to make such a decision. Russia never disputed that election. The Rada is legitimate. Yanukovych fled the country.
• But the West is trying to meddle and interfere in Ukraine and establish bases in places like Crimea and Donetsk.
Maybe that's the case, but so far it's our military, Russia, that has taken over the territory of a sovereign state.
• But the United States interferes in various places, like Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.
Exactly. So why do we need to replicate American behaviour? If we criticize them for this conduct, why are we militarily interfering ourselves?
• But Ukrainization and Ukrainian language and culture, this is directed against Russian people.
So, why don't you meet with these people? Why don't you visit Kyiv? If you want to protect the rights of ethnic Russians, engage in dialogue. Go there. Sit down at the negotiating table.
• But we don't want to talk to them, because they are an illegitimate government.
The government of Ukraine is legitimate. Moreover, Russia talks to the government of North Korea. We embraced and talked with Muammar Gaddafi. We are the fierce defenders of Bashar al-Assad. These are all extremely legitimate governments... [laughter]
In my experience, when the issue is explained, 85 per cent of people -- there are of course, a few hardliners -- say, "This is an aspect we hadn't thought about." So you need to be not afraid, of addressing and answering questions, of exposing the fact that (government propaganda) is a lie. Each narrative that is promoted by propaganda has a particular weak point. And what you have to do is search for this weak spot. You have to find it, and then undermine the credibility of the propaganda.
The most important thing (for Russian democrats) is that we should not stop. Russia is not just a dark place stuck in the Middle Ages. There is a fight going on. We should not give up and emigrate. We should stay and try and change the system. We will try to. And, if not next time, then the time after that.
CGM: Thank you very much for your time.
So who is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin?
Victor Milov's insights and observations shed important light on his character, although the full answer is far beyond the scope of this short essay, treating, as it does, a complicated and sometimes contradictory figure of undoubted energy and influence on the global political stage.
Russian history is in some respects radically different from that of the West. It was shaped by centuries of autocratic tsardom, largely unfettered by any of the democratic and constitutional constraints that developed in Western countries. Serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, and arguably its legacy persisted long after. When the Russian Revolution in 1917 finally overthrew the Tsars, what followed was vastly worse. The succession of World War I, the Revolution, the Civil War, the collectivization of agriculture, the liquidation of the Kulaks, the Holodomor (hunger-extermination), the Stalinist purges of the 1930's, and the Second World War (the "Great Patriotic War" in Russian parlance) -- to say nothing of the "zeks" marooned on islands of the Gulag Archipelago -- shattered Russian society to a degree that is almost impossible to comprehend or overstate. If civil society takes time to weave, Russia put its social fabric through a meat grinder that utterly shredded it.
As regards economic philosophy, Marxist-Leninist notions of workers owning the means of production and determining the course of their economic destiny, of economic redistribution, "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs," of scientific socialism, of the withering away of the state -- none of these came to pass. In part because of the shattered fabric of Russian society, and in part because of the proliferation of systemic corruption, privilege, kleptocracy, incompetence, error, and terror. State capitalism governed by the ponderously heavy and inflexible hand of the five-year plan, administered by obsequious and avaricious bureaucrats, subverted egalitarian ideals converting them to an Orwellian parody of what committed revolutionaries had once fought for. As the old Russian joke went:
Question: What is the difference between capitalism and communism?
Answer: Capitalism is exploitation of man by man. In communism it is the other way around.
There is almost nothing in contemporary Russian society that can be understood without reference to this history. Including Vladimir Putin.
Putin's early life in a family of limited means -- growing up in a communal apartment, the son of a wounded war veteran, the death of an elder brother from diphtheria during the siege of Leningrad -- all these undoubtedly left their mark, now visible in his acquisition of fame and fortune. Putin has some 20 villas and residences, including the palatial "Putin's Palace" being constructed at a cost of $1 billion in the village of Praskoveevka on the Black Sea coast. The amount of his personal wealth is unknown but has been estimated at $70 billion.
An equally important influence were his sixteen years in the KGB, primarily in the First Chief Directorate in Leningrad where he was involved in monitoring foreigners and consular officials, and then in Directorate S in Dresden in the former East Germany, where he was a liaison officer with the Stasi involved in illegal intelligence gathering and the recruitment of agents to send undercover to the United States.
Putin, who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, considers that the years he spent in "the organs" (as they are referred to in Russian parlance) as the best of his life. The KGB is a seminary that one never really leaves, and the dark, shadowy, covert, suspicious mindset it cultivates shapes adherents for life. This is apparent in Putin's approach to governance, which is marked by behind-the-scenes manipulation, covert operations, hidden-agendas, and other elements of the spy's dark arts.
Openness, transparency, democracy, and pluralism are words seldom found in the lexicon of stealth-craft and its practitioners, and these concepts are similarly lacking in Putin's political philosophy. As Victor Milov points out, Putin doesn't see the public as having agency over their own politics: "(Putin) thinks that democratic revolutions are a façade that involves installing a puppet government to serve someone's interests." And in fairness, the complex of democratic, egalitarian, pluralistic, meritocratic, due-process, legal- and constitutional-based ideas that make up the Western liberal-democratic tradition, have only precarious roots in Russian politics, and for lack of experience many ordinary Russians are little versed in how these concepts can play out in real life.
These influences saturate Putin's domestic and foreign policy: suspicion, mistrust, behind-the-scenes manipulation, spheres of interest, elimination of opponents, plausible deniability, plot and counterplot, disinformation and propaganda, control of the media, subversion of the courts, intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence operations, recruitment of agents, feints and counter-feints.... This is the political philosophy of the spy, now projected onto the full apparatus of the state.
Historians have long noted that there is a wild, free, joyous, unbounded, and chaotic aspect to the Russian character, one that Russians love in the individual and fear in the collective. Hence the attraction of the "strong hand" that will keep the chaos in line: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander the Blessed, Lenin the Wise, Stalin the Terrible, and now Putin the What? Not only does this still resonate with elements of Russian society, but they are mirrored in the ruler who plays their imperial part. Putin's love of tsarist-style pomp and circumstance, his expressed religious faith and consequent re-elevation of the Orthodox Church to its de-facto position as a state religion -- all these tap into a deep reservoir of beliefs.
In the realm of economics, Putin is a perfect, albeit modernized, reflection of the Soviet system that he grew up under. This involved systemic corruption from top to bottom. From petty bribes to get a choice cut of meat or a hospital bed, to the use and diversion of state resources for luxurious housing, state dachas, opulent vacations, and a thousand other creature comforts. The difference between Soviet corruption and corruption in the era of Putin is its scale and concentration. Just as in the West there has been a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of the one per cent (actually, the 0.1 per cent, as Thomas Piketty makes clear), the concentration of wealth in Russia has been equally dramatic in the hands of the Russian elite and the oligarchs who are their crowning summit. In Soviet times there also was an elite nomenclatura, but their ability to siphon off wealth had distinct bounds. There are virtually no such limits on the Russian oligarchs, and the levels of their kleptocracy are almost boundless. So long as they support Putin politically they not only have the license to enrich themselves, they have the support of the state to enable it.
The privatization of the Yeltsin era saw vast stocks of national capital that were in public hands during the communist era (private capital was next to non-existent) transferred to private ownership. Under Putin, these are being increasingly consolidated under his National Champions policy of economic growth in which massive, vertically integrated companies in strategic sectors, controlled by oligarchs loyal to Putin, are given lucrative contracts and take the lion's share of the economic spoils.
This vision of the kleptocratic state, while not originating with Vladimir Putin, has nonetheless been brought to a certain zenith under his tutelage. A primary motivation for the progressive Russian opposition, as well as for the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, has been to bring this to an end. The 19th century capitalists that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky railed against have been reincarnated on an even grander scale in twenty-first century Russia.
This is Part II of a series on Putin's Russia. Part I is Ilya Ponomarev: Opposing Putin's empire of swindler's and thieves and Part III is Ponomarev on Putin: Understanding the Russian bear.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.