Commentary Magazine


Topic: FSB

Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Vladimir Putin, Victim?

“Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed.” With that sentence, uttered by Vladimir Putin just after his election to succeed Boris Yeltsin more than a decade ago, the paradigm of Kremlin control had shifted immeasurably. Putin made the remark–according to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who spoke to witnesses–at a private ceremony at the old KGB headquarters on the occasion of a Stalin-created holiday in honor of the secret police.

That sentence was a promise fulfilled. The heirs to the KGB, with Putin at the helm, have consolidated control of Russian political life. And that sentence is what came to mind when I read this pro-Putin screed from Stephen F. Cohen. The headline, which accurately sums up the post, is “Stop the pointless demonization of Putin.” This is the same Putin whose office today said any Russian protesters who hurt a police officer should have their “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” But Cohen has more to say, including the claim that “there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true.” But it turns out Cohen has a funny definition of the terms he uses.

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“Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed.” With that sentence, uttered by Vladimir Putin just after his election to succeed Boris Yeltsin more than a decade ago, the paradigm of Kremlin control had shifted immeasurably. Putin made the remark–according to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who spoke to witnesses–at a private ceremony at the old KGB headquarters on the occasion of a Stalin-created holiday in honor of the secret police.

That sentence was a promise fulfilled. The heirs to the KGB, with Putin at the helm, have consolidated control of Russian political life. And that sentence is what came to mind when I read this pro-Putin screed from Stephen F. Cohen. The headline, which accurately sums up the post, is “Stop the pointless demonization of Putin.” This is the same Putin whose office today said any Russian protesters who hurt a police officer should have their “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” But Cohen has more to say, including the claim that “there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true.” But it turns out Cohen has a funny definition of the terms he uses.

For example, he says “if Putin really were a ‘cold-blooded, ruthless’ autocrat, tens of thousands of protesters would not have appeared in Moscow streets, not far from the Kremlin, following the December presidential election.” First of all, Cohen should consider the possibility that tens of thousands were protesting the fact that Putin is a ruthless autocrat. But leaving that aside, by Cohen’s definition the Arab Spring was pointless. Egyptians wouldn’t have flooded Tahrir Square if Hosni Mubarak were really a ruthless autocrat. The Green Movement in Iran, too, must have looked like a parade of fools to Cohen.

It turns out, however, that Cohen has identified the real culprit for us: Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin, the stubborn and brave revolutionary who risked life and limb to put a stake in the heart of global Communism, is Cohen’s real enemy. That’s revealing in and of itself. But Cohen couches his critique of Yeltsin in terms he thinks the West would be silly enough to swallow.

It was Yeltsin who initiated the “de-democratization,” says Cohen. How? In part because he “‘privatized’ the former Soviet state’s richest assets on behalf of a small group of rapacious insiders.” Privatization is an essential component of democratization, of course. And many of the “oligarchs” made their fortunes not by cashing a check handed to them by Yeltsin but by outmaneuvering the state during the privatization process, most notably through the “loans for shares” scandal in which bankers wrested control of state assets by taking them as collateral for government loans and then rigging auctions to claim the majority of shares.

And that actually gets at the fallacy of Cohen’s comparison between Yeltsin and Putin. Cohen says Yeltsin presided over a period in which journalists were killed with impunity and corruption was rampant, and that Putin was bequeathed this as-yet-unreformed system. The difference, though, is contained in the quote above. Many of Yeltsin’s failures stemmed from his lack of control. Media magnates operated with impunity precisely because they had independence from, and often power over, Kremlin insiders. Corruption was rampant because the lightning transition left the security services in disarray and economic enforcement measures all but absent. (That’s how “loans for shares” came about in the first place; the Russian government couldn’t get anyone to pay their taxes and thus had no money to pay for the federal budget.)

This is what Putin reversed. He jailed or exiled media magnates who wouldn’t take orders. He renationalized energy firms and imprisoned their executives. He turned the Russian parliament into a virtual rubber stamp. And he empowered the FSB far beyond anyone’s imagination save his own.

As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan explain in The New Nobility, members of the security services were “left behind” in the transition after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin, however, “former and current security service agents permeated the ranks of business and government structures.” Under Putin, the security services have become, Soldatov and Borogan write:

something very different from either the Soviet secret services or the intelligence community in Western countries. In some ways the FSB most closely resembles the ruthless mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world: devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted, and unopposed to employing brutal methods against individuals and groups suspected of terrorism or dissent.

Those “brutal methods” presumably include “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” And that’s just what they’ll admit to in public. The whole purpose of the “power vertical” is that everyone is ultimately answerable to Putin. So Cohen absolves Putin of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, because he hasn’t seen the Russian police produce hard evidence of Putin’s involvement (seriously). Cohen’s Russia is the land of coincidence. And it doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny–not to mention Putin’s own account of his intentions. But if privatization is the root of the problem for Cohen, then it’s not de-democratization he’s really worried about, is it?

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