How afraid of Russia should we be?

Much has been said in the West (and in Russia) against Vladimir Putin. His recent re-election to the Russian presidency by a landslide majority was a transparent mockery of the democratic process, with widespread vote-rigging, not to mention the rule preventing his principal political rival from standing as a candidate. However, Mr Putin isn’t a democrat. He’s an oligarch, an autocrat and a kleptocrat. He is, in a word, a tyrant. But perhaps democracy could never succeed in Russia in the long term. In the West we assume that democracy is a universal political good to which all countries should aspire, but the assumption is challengeable.

In my previous blog I drew attention to the tendency of Mr Putin’s enemies to have short life expectancies, and his reputation as a bully and an opportunist seems well established. The West has condemned his seeming aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, and more recently his forces’ activities in Syria in support of the Assad regime. However, perhaps all is not as it’s portrayed through Western media. There’s no doubt that Russian forces in the Middle East have shown scant regard for the survival and welfare of non-combatant citizens while they’re trying to eliminate the ‘terrorists’ who oppose the Syrian government, but Western critics should take the beams out of their own eyes. How many innocent Iraqi, Afghan and Libyan citizens perished as a result of our military interventions in their countries? Did we have any more right to put those lives at risk than the Russians have in Syria?

Mr Putin oversaw the return of Crimea from Ukrainian to Russian ‘ownership’ because Crimea had always been part of Russia until Stalin donated it to Ukraine for reasons of contemporaneous political expedience. He intervened in Ukraine, backing a broadly anti-Western government by military force, because that government had been democratically elected – and Western powers had attempted to overturn the result of the election and support a pro-EU administration in the country. By any objective moral reckoning, the behaviour of the Russians in these cases was better justified than the West’s actions and recriminations.

(Parenthetically, we should note the West’s inconsistency in support of democratically elected governments. Ukraine wasn’t an isolated example. When Egypt held a democratic election to replace the military administration a few years ago, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was returned to power with a substantial majority. The West didn’t like that result. Their dislike was understandable in its way, but surely Egypt, like any sovereign nation, had (and has) the right to determine her own political path regardless of the opinions of foreigners. However, the foreigners have more money. Were any of us surprised when the Egyptian military staged a coup and unseated the elected government, effectively outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood? Hadn’t the West been embarrassed when its attempt to cajole a non-Western country into espousing democracy backfired?)

Western governments and reporters are unsettled by the Russian gathering of military forces and equipment near the borders of the Baltic States. One can understand the alarm among the Baltic States, but put yourself in Mr Putin’s position. How would you feel if you were the president of a country whose potential enemies had assembled forces less than a hundred miles from your western border? Wouldn’t you want to respond by a show of strength, too?

Why were Mr Putin’s overtures to NATO during the early years of his presidency treated with such contempt and rejected? Why, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, was Russia treated by the West with continuing suspicion bordering on hostility? Mr Putin has unpleasant characteristics, but his actions aren’t unjustified.

In the wake of the attack by American, British and French forces on the alleged chemical weapons depots in Syria, a response to the Assad regime’s apparent chlorine attack on its own civilians, there are fears of Russian reprisals in the shape of cyber-attacks. Such reprisals would be well within the capabilities of Russian electronics experts, but I believe they’ll be limited in scope, more of a nuisance than seriously destructive. This might seem an optimistic assessment, but let us not forget how much of Mr Putin’s personal wealth and his friends’ wealth is tied up in the USA and the UK. He won’t risk harming his own pocket.

Unlike other Western countries, the US and UK allow assets to be owned anonymously. In most democracies, the owner of a company, property or other desideratum must by law be named publicly. Because it permits anonymity in this regard, the English-speaking world opens itself to money-laundering and other abuses. Most of the hundreds of billions of dollars laundered annually in Britain and America goes undetected, and according to specialists in this area of economics the largest part of it is Russian. Mr Putin’s personal wealth is reckoned to be greater than the GDPs of many UN member states. Much of that wealth is stored in the USA and the UK, where the rule of law holds, property rights are secure and ownership can be anonymous. Surely his greatest fear must be transparent accounting, not armed conflict!

There is much talk about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election (and perhaps also in UK elections such as the EU referendum). We should recall that Mr Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for the 2015 leak of the Panama Papers, which exposed the spider-web of shell companies and the devious methods by which he and his friends hid their money. No wonder he wanted to prevent Mrs Clinton from gaining the presidency.
In the previous blog I mentioned some Russian émigrés to Britain whose suspicious deaths were not properly investigated or reported. The same has happened to émigrés to America. A former senior adviser to Mr Putin and a founder of the Russia Today television network, Mikhail Lesin, was found battered to death in a hotel in Washington DC in 2015, the day before he was due to present evidence to federal investigators. The US authorities prevaricated over Mr Lesin’s death for months before declaring it accidental.

Our governments might rattle their sabres at Mr Putin, but because of their financial rules they’re complicit in his wealth accumulation. The expulsion of a few diplomats has been a token gesture. By the same token, any reprisals that Mr Putin might take against us for the bombing of Syrian chemical weapons facilities will be token gestures. He won’t want to do anything that could harm his investments.


  • Well said! After the Soviet Union fell, under Yeltsin, Russia started trying to mend relations with the West — and, obviously, after decades of cold war, trust can not be given instantaneously… but (to me) it seemed (esp. in the Bush era, but also under Obama) Russia was reaching out to the West, but the West was (smiling thru gritted teeth) holding them at arms’ length (no pun intended on “arms”) instead of welcoming the intended embrace. And (despite my Russified pseudonym) I don’t claim to be an expert on Russia, but the sense I get of them as a people (which is very like me) is they will be completely devoted to you if you are devoted to them — but if you doubt them, if you distrust them, when they have not given cause… they will conform to your distrust and live up (or down?) to your expectations. Why knock yourself out trying when you’re just going to be rejected anyway? Might as well do exactly what they expect of you…
    It is — and likely will always be — a very convoluted relationship. And, as you’ve pointed out, Mark, the mind-set regarding democracy doesn’t help. Russians seem to need to be ruled with an iron fist; he may not be tsar (yet?), but Putin is their “Little Father” who takes care of them… albeit sometimes, like any good father, with the harsh hand of discipline. (If not what they “need” exactly, then anyway what they are used to from the last 1200 years of the Rus peoples.)
    A very thought-provoking and eloquent viewpoint, Mark — and important in the sense that we in the West (actually everyone everywhere!) should remember, “our” (whomever) way is not what will work for everyone. If we want a more peaceful Earth (which we’ve only been claiming now for 10,000 years to little effect), we need to learn to be respectful of each others’ differences, and to not take it personally that other countries and/or peoples must find their own way…

    • Mark Henderson

      Once again, Mishka, you and I seem to be of like mind. I’m afraid that we (at least in the UK) are starting to see Russians as bogeymen. According to our perspectives, the Russians exist so we have someone to blame for whatever goes wrong.

  • We like placing blame in the US as well… though we’re much more open about it — blaming everyone for everything, yet taking none for ourselves. It’s truly a burden being so perfect, and so very lonely here on our pedestal as the greatest nation on earth… (well, I mean — except for when it comes to education… and health care… and gun laws… and crime/domestic terrorism… and immigration… and race/sexual orientation/sexual discrimination/ religious issues… and (I am ever increasingly realizing to my great befuddlement and chagrin) accepting scientific fact… and having an effectively functioning government… and (possibly — don’t want to have it tested!) the military…)

    And now I’ve completely forgotten what it was I started off saying…

    Have a great day! 🙂

    • Mark Henderson

      But there’s one thing of which we can both be proud and grateful in our respective countries: we can make critical remarks such as those in your latest comment without fear of reprisals.

      Well, maybe…

  • True! Always room for improvement, so long as we have freedom of speech — so let’s hope that lingers on a bit yet…

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