On Putin versus Rasputin

A.J.C. Boone is a former U.S. diplomat, Moscow-based political science instructor and analyst who has been a Russia-/Soviet Union-watcher since the 1980s. Diplomatic postings in Lagos, Berlin and Moscow; residence in France and, currently, the UK; and university and graduate study at the University of Chicago and Harvard inform her work.

It seems we the Public face a moment in which government officials whom we must ​trust, since we neither elect nor purge them, may have finally fatally abused our trust. This is the moment in which we must ask if shadowy PM-whisperers, Mandarins, “eminences grises”, are actually the wrong-uns, even as we are encouraged by a chorus of elites to throw the Newspeak dictionary at the flickering onscreen image of a Russian bogeyman instead. Consider a Page One story in last Saturday’s morning ​Times.

I read the piece and suffered the feeling London homeowners get watching blurry cctv of burglars at work on their property: a grimly familiar combination of outrage and impotence. This was heightened by the fact that I knew most people would read the same article with no such reaction. In fact the ​Times ​ surely expected a reaction not of outrage but bland acceptance, and probably even a certain misplaced bulldog/Blitz spirit at the breakfast table. “Listen to this, dear: we’re giving that horrid little Mr Putin a taste of his own medicine!” A fist lands lustily on the table, and the sausages on the plate bounce one centimetre over the baked beans and grilled tomato.

The story in question was “UK Targets Putin Allies: Covert attacks launched in retaliation against Russia, former cabinet secretary reveals”. Apparently the UK has been enjoying a spot of unilateral target-practice using a shiny new cyber-arsenal. This comes in retaliation against some Russian “oligarchs” and their “money trails,” though the article is sketchy on the crimes committed, beyond the targets’ merely being Russian (but surely that’s enough?) There is a hand-wave towards some implied justifications: the Skripal mystery, the Navalny mystery, an alleged and unspecified cyber-aggression against the coming Tokyo Olympic Games.

The bulk of the article, however, is the headlining former cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, purring knowingly about, in his words, “what aficionados call grey space, that gap between normal state relations and armed conflict”. “​Aficionados” call it that, do they?

In our polarised world, you may be someone who sees nothing wrong with a page-one ​Times story in which shadowy, unelected, pipe-smoking, grey-space inhabiting, self-styled “M”s blithely reference unilateral attacks in undeclared, even invisible wars, “in retaliation” for crimes that are at best sloppily-defined, and at worst non-existent. You, of the airborne sausage, will ask me why I’m no fun, and if I have even ​seen ​ “Skyfall” or “Spectre,” while you hum Adele’s haunting soundtrack. What the ​Times ​ hopes we’ll overlook is the loose linkage between a government essentially engaging in a form of warfare, and a public not only unable to scrutinise and consent to this activity by some formalised process, but unaware of it altogether, except for what can be gleaned from Sir Mark’s winks and nods. What we have is an eye-watering lack of due process, marketed as an elegant pathway through a bog of imponderables.

But legally and ethically: don’t punishments, and indeed the punished, need to be tied to specific crimes? Politically: where is the oversight? Where are the constraints? Is there anything that the British people have a right to say cannot be done in their name? Instead of asking those questions, and in the manner of a criminal gang, the ​Times ​ seduces readers with an invitation to join the mischief. It brokers for us, from Sedwill, a complimentary license-to-kill, to coin a phrase, because as everyone knows, “if you have a clear shot at Hitler, you take it”.

The only way this Faustian exchange — we leave enormous discretionary power to an unelected cast of self-styled Ian Fleming characters in exchange for them doing what they will to bad guys — might work is if Russia were indeed something like Hitler. If you have been a news-consumer in good faith over the past decades, you may be convinced it is, and you may never find a way back. Or it may simply be an awfully long way back. As the old expression goes: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single “you’ve been conned into thinking Russia is some kind of Blofeldian adversary”.

And this brings us to the “impotence” in my reaction to the cyber-warfare story. Russia and Putin are not Hitler, but I am powerless to convince you that they are not. Not only are specific, opinion-moulding public relations techniques — like “talking past the sale”, journalistic sins of commission and omission, and demonisation/hate-campaigns — being employed right now, but also the groundwork for negative public attitudes about Russia has been meticulously laid by institutional “elites” in the broader media, policy-making circles, and think-tanks, for three decades.

First the western press covered Russia with pity; then pity mixed with contempt; then pity and contempt mixed with horror. Now Russia is portrayed with contempt, horror and a kind of triumphalist geopolitical cynicism. If you are aware of the treatment given by the mainstream media over the last four years to the current American president, whereby a Manhattan-centrist, pragmatist, arriviste-blowhard is transformed — abracadabra, hey, presto!– into a white-supremacist Russian agent, then you will be able to fathom why Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s reputation with western news-consuming publics is what it is.

Putin, in 2000 taking over the smoking ruins of a collapsed super-power (further encasing an impressive-if-battered civilisation of writers, philosophers, scientists, musicians, artists…) was the original “Make My Country Great Again” leader, governing in a pragmatic, rational, and not obviously venal way, which explains his consistent domestic popularity over twenty years as the de facto head of state.

Putin was elected to office (preselected in a relatively barren field by the courageous, if alcoholic, Boris Yeltsin who passed the baton with the poignant words: “Take care of Russia!”) in a robber-baron age when newly-created assets in media, banking, hydrocarbons, and commodities were coming under the control of a handful of audacious and generally unscrupulous men, who exploited a near-total absence of moderating institutions or a functioning legal framework. (The picture is not a million miles from the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Goulds, and Rockefellers of 150 years ago, including their subsequent shift, once fortunes were amassed, to a preference for rule-of-law and even philanthropic activities.) The meetings of this handful of men, a dozen household names — the oligarchs — would in the late 1990s actually be regularly followed and filmed from afar by television crews, their pronouncements broadcast as if they literally ran the country.

Putin’s first order of business was to claw back to the elected government the power that had leaked away to this self-appointed ruling cabal. With Putin’s arrival and his demonstrated willingness to play hardball, many of the oligarchs left Russia altogether. Some stayed and have been expected to contribute generously from their fortunes to national projects, like the Sochi Olympics. One breached the informal agreement not to act on any overt political ambitions and ended up in Siberian prison (on tax charges) for nine years.

The western press uniformly chose to portray Putin’s effort to reclaim power that rightly belonged to the elected government as… a “nationalist” and authoritarian power-grab. Putin’s meetings and unscripted interactions with the media, his efforts at transparency and good governance, his appearances at the Valdai Club of analysts of Russian politics, etc., did not win the press over as Putin hoped. In fact, magazine covers and rhetoric from western politicians grew more hateful and hysterical over time. “Thug” is how Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or any number of the villagers from Capitol Hill now routinely refer to Vladimir Putin. Leftist film-maker Oliver Stone appeared on a late-night chat-show to present his 2017 serial documentary on Putin and Russia, and while he tried to convey the character he had discovered, Stone was prodded continually towards conceding Putin’s unredeemable badness by a “comedian”-host who on another occasion referred to Trump’s mouth as Putin’s cock-holster (no kidding).

Stone would not play along, and his efforts to explain the complexity of the Russian context, and of the man, met with giggles from the audience and straight-lines from the show’s host. Stone stared out incredulously at the laugh-tracked crowd. Their minds were literally impermeable to the evidence he offered them.

Infinitely more could be said on this subject (on issues from the Baltics to Georgia to Crimea), but here is one other key point. In March 2018, Theresa May was braying in Parliament for retaliation against Russia for having launched a poison attack on British soil. The UK government’s case relied on the argument that only Russia could be the guilty party because the Russian government had a monopoly on the relevant toxic substance. As in the Litvinenko case, this contention hasn’t been true since the mid-1990s, when the Soviet-to-Russian government’s monopoly control of certain deadly substances was breached, and people like businessman Ivan Kivelidi and his unfortunate secretary killed.

How breached? Imagine the only thing that stood between gangsters who could make excellent use of them, and the USSR’s labs of deadly biological/radioactive substances, was a night watchman or even the lab’s director, whose salaries were evaporating in the heat of hyperinflation and whose life savings disappeared in the myriad failures of (oligarch-owned) banks. What do you suppose might happen?

The homicidal power-plays and score-settling among ethnic or regional gangsters, and over commercial assets, and against journalists, have been widespread throughout the former Soviet Union since its demise. In the era of Putin, however, any casualty that reaches the news is invariably characterised, in a cheap and effortless smear, as a “Putin critic,” laughably even including a Chechen warlord recently killed in France as the Chechens try to wrest the drug trade away from the North Africans who have traditionally run it.

A demonised Russia, in turn, is a handy tool to discredit and smear anything associated with it. Efforts to link Russia (or “​Russia!”) to Brexit, to Italian elections, to Catalonian unrest, to Donald Trump’s electorally effective populist message of rescued national pride, are unbridled in their stupidity, but possible because of a continuous feeding of kindling, like this cyber-war story, to the back-burner hate campaign. If the whole foundation of the ​Times ​ story — the case-closed amorphous “evil” of Russia, of the Kremlin, of Putin himself — is more a result of artificial demonisation than an informed assessment, what does that mean for the proposition that Sir Mark and his shadowy ilk be given carte blanche to launch forms of war without oversight?

The lack of wisdom in this sorry game may well be worse than the ​Times ​ or the UK government guess. Vladimir Putin has tried to initiate the establishment of a global cyber-security protocol, first with President Trump in 2017 , and most recently in September 2020.

Instead of pursuing this idea, which the ​Times ​ story failed to mention at all, the UK’s GCHQ has set up its own cyber unit in Cheltenham, “a bunch of geeks surrounded by boxes sitting in a basement and eating crisps for 24 hours,” per the ​Times. The GCHQ team plays out scenarios to “insert malware in a Kremlin email system” among other things.

Publishing that tidbit in the pages of a major newspaper is odd, but so is choosing the cyber-world as the battlefield on which to provoke Russia, given Russian talent in the field of programming. Below is a chart of the gold medalists for the last 25 years of the prestigious IBM-sponsored ​International Collegiate Programming Contest.

It doesn’t even mention non-gold-winning top-20 finishers from Izhevsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod….

Maybe it’s time to drop the James Bond juvenilia and get serious?

Despite WP’s mysterious conviction that I wrote this piece, it was conceived created, buffed and honed by AJC Boone alone. I am delighted to have her on board The Slog