If we continue to delude ourselves about Putin’s agenda, we will reap the whirlwind. Andrew Levi explains why we have to face up to what drives Putin in this hard-hitting article.
Clueless in Europe’s Chancelleries
You’ve probably never heard of Lars Klingbeil. If you have, you know more about German politics than most.
He’s a smart, youthful politician who has reached high office. He is co-chair of Germany’s main governing party, the SPD. And he’s out of his depth on the most brutal crisis which has faced Europe since 1945.
We’ll come back to him.
He’s far from alone.
There’s a deep, widespread misunderstanding about what matters to Putin. It dangerously affects policy.
Putin cares about his own survival. Not Russia’s well-being.
If he’d wanted a prosperous Russia, he could have had one.
Instead, he has a basket case.
Over twenty years in power and gross domestic product (GDP) per person is US$12,000. Outside the Moscow and St Petersburg areas, among the 80 per cent, it’s generally far less.
Yet Russia is massively resource-rich.
And Putin has a personal wealth of US$200bn. It’s hard to be certain. But let’s not quibble about the odd US$100bn either way. Who would?
It’s all stolen.
Putin’s government salary is under ₽10m a year. Even before his Ukraine invasions, starting in 2014, crashed the Russian currency, that amounted to no more than around US$250,000. Now it’s more like US$100,000.
His wrist watches alone are worth multiples of that.
Somehow, he’s accumulated a million or so years’ worth of salary. Even if you reckon his wealth is one thousandth of that (it isn’t), it’s a thousand years’ worth.
How that happened, and why, is a long story.
Putin’s People, by Catherine Belton (pp 640) is a superb, open source.
Two key points, which our governments knew for many years, before the story became widely public:
- an obscure oil and gas company was long dedicated to channelling revenue to Putin;
- under threat of incarceration, and worse, Russian ‘oligarchs’ were forced to share their gains with Putin.
Massive personal greed is obviously part of it.
Another part fundamental to this story, and all our futures, is personal survival.
Putin can no more safely rely on the protection of ‘the state’ than could Al Capone.
His survival costs vast amounts; even without super luxury trimmings.
Which brings us back to Russia’s prosperity and well-being.
Suppose Putin is spending US$20bn a year of his fortune to ensure his own personal priority needs are met. It’s unlikely to be greatly more than that.
Russia’s annual economic output is around US$1,500bn. It makes little difference to Putin’s systematic theft whether that’s US$10,000bn or US$500bn.
He won’t go short. The population will.
He literally cares nothing for any of them. Nil. Except for one thing: if there’s any risk that they might rise up and dispose of him.
To stop that, it’s cheaper, easier, safer and more effective to use repression, propaganda and paltry bribes (a few more rubles on pensions, say), than build a truly prosperous economy.
In fact, a prosperous economy could be fatal. A pesky middle class might demand something terribly inconvenient like, say, democracy.
Even Putin can’t come close to paying personally for the state security apparatus. Nor would he want to. He has far more satisfying uses for his unimaginable wealth.
So, the funding of internal security and armed forces does need an economy of some significant size.
Certainly, it’s better from Putin’s point of view to have US$1,000bn GDP rather than US$500bn. Or US$2,000bn rather than $1,000bn. But those differences aren’t critical.
And anyway, that’s all an entirely different matter from having, and progressively building, a strong economy.
Disproportionate diversion of funds from a small, narrowly petro – and commodity –based economy to internal repression and military aggression does Putin’s required job very nicely.
Cutting off much of those earnings could wreck his repressive and aggressive state apparatus.
And it would halt funds to his personal treasury.
Combined with seizing his assets overseas, his survival would be on a knife edge.
‘Survival’ means just that. This is nothing like democratic politics. The frame of reference is as different as Kew Gardens is from the Moon.
While understanding that Putin is a kleptocratic gang-leader on a gigantic scale, it’s important to recognise the role of invasion, subjugation and eradication.
If Putin didn’t exist and Russia were led, say, by a ‘strong-man’ who believed in a powerful state and a ‘great’ Russia, invasion would always be possible, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The driving forces would be purported geo-strategic anxieties and genocidal, ethno-nationalist, aggressive, imperialist hubris.
The former could be thought of, in principle, as rational considerations. In reality, they are profoundly ill-conceived, and barely – if at all – distinguishable from the latter. Which, in turn, is perhaps best understood as a collective psychosis.
Putin shares the psychosis. And believes himself a master geo-strategist.
But Putin is unlike our hypothetical ‘strong man’ who cares about the state.
The psychosis and nonsensical geo-strategic theorising might lead a ‘strong man’, Russia and, above all, the neighbours to which it would lay waste, to disaster. The history of Russia is littered with such examples.
Nonetheless, a ‘strong man’ trying to build a powerful, broadly-based economy, and state structures which, while by no means democratic, were neither his – nor any narrow group’s – personal fiefdom, would have other priorities.
He (there’s a reason the term ‘strong man’ is gender-specific) would need to ensure no-one, even himself, had excessive personal wealth or power. He would, like Frederick the Great of Prussia, probably have to recognise the need for every person, however high and mighty, to be subject to a more or less fair rule of law.
The ‘strong man’ leader might, at least according to his own analysis of what would strengthen the kind of state described above, under some circumstances, see invading others as serving those objectives.
He would use, however faulty, sincerely arrived-at geo-strategic analysis. He would exploit the ethno-nationalist, imperialist psychosis to drum up support for any war he decided to wage. And would rejoice in any victory achieved.
He would neither focus on his personal wealth nor, with the structures and institutions he had built, on survival.
Such a ‘strong man’ is what most people, including most western politicians, have thought they have been facing in Putin.
To be clear, that doesn’t include Gerhard Schröder, the former German Chancellor, who described Putin as an “absolutely pure democrat”. Nor many British and other European and American politicians who have been similarly deluded.
Actually, what we have always been facing is a mafia boss posing as a head of state.
He needs to steal, to accumulate vast wealth.
He needs the vast wealth in order to have the means to secure his survival. And to satisfy his material desires.
He needs to repress and kill, to protect his power and guarantee his survival.
He needs to take over others’ territory to expand his theft and increase his wealth.
Not just because he’s greedy (he is) but because his survival depends on it.
The more repression, murder and theft he carries out, the more the threats to him multiply.
You might think Russia is big enough; why invade anywhere else?
To keep Putin’s system going a large part of GDP needs to be reinvested. Not to create a proper economy. Just to have one which keeps laying enough golden eggs to be stolen by this one man and his gang.
As Putin’s needs increase, so must his take.
It becomes unsustainable.
But, as already discussed, building a decent, strong economy is difficult and has negative side effects (potential revolt against kleptocracy being one).
Invasion of a resource-rich neighbour looks easy by comparison.
Massacring its people and ruining much of its productive capacity is a rational strategy. To a Putin.
The people, whom he anyway regards as sub-human, just get in the way.
The assets – thinking specifically of Ukraine – are worth multiple thousands of billions of US Dollars.
Putin only needs a fraction. And, in any case, it’s almost as good, from his perverted perspective, to have denied the resources to others (‘the West’, for example), as to have gained any for himself.
What he doesn’t take can be blown up, burnt, poisoned, killed. It’s simpler than looking after and developing them.
And he can make a huge profit on the next invasion. The available assets for plunder increase sharply the further west you go.
That is, of course, if those facing him allow him to invade.
Their ability to stop him rests on their economic and military strength and their ability to cripple his military machine.
And, of course, their willingness to do so.
Which necessarily, though not solely, depends on their understanding of what and whom they’re facing.
Who are ‘they’? That would be you. And your political representatives.
So what on earth was Lars Klingbeil, that leading German politician, on about when he appeared on the 3 April 2022 edition of a political discussion show on national TV?
Klingbeil was confronted with the need to impact Putin’s ability to finance his war and power structure. The proposal was rapidly to throttle earnings from Putin’s hydrocarbon exports, by immediately ceasing to import them.
Other than the personal sanctions (no one disputed they should be imposed) an accusation levelled by other guests was that current sanctions were hitting the Russian economy and ordinary people, but not the war machine.
Set the merits of these claims to one side. Klingbeil’s response was painfully revealing.
“But that’s just it” he said. “Our current sanctions are hitting the Russian economy. That’s hurting Putin. He wants a prosperous Russia, not a basket case”. (I may have paraphrased slightly).
It’s hard even to start to unpick the multiple failures of understanding in Klingbeil’s assessment. Fortunately, through your dedicated study of this article so far, you’re already there.
Klingbeil thinks we’re facing a ‘strong man’. One with whom some kind of ‘deal’ must inevitably be done. And can be done.
Klingbeil personifies a Russian disaster in the German foreign policy of the last few decades. But not just Germany. Many, if not most, European countries have participated in it, in their own ways. That includes the United Kingdom. And, outside Europe, the USA – even ignoring the obvious, extreme excesses of Donald Trump.
Deal, or No Deal?
You can do a deal – with great distaste and care, certainly – with the ‘strong man’ described earlier.
He’s an authoritarian. He might try external aggression. It’s always a danger of which to be acutely aware. But in the end the state, its prosperity and well-being (in his skewed view, no doubt) matters most to him.
You can’t do a deal with a Putin.
The escalatory dynamic of theft, and its gruesome, genocidal accompaniments in the real world of unreconstructed Russian ethno-nationalist, imperialist psychosis, is relentless. The theft – or the attempt, at least – will happen when it both can and must. Or, as may end up being the case now, when Putin miscalculates.
No geopolitical ‘understanding’, no deal, between, for example, Russia and NATO, carries meaning – for a Putin; except as an opportunity to gather strength for his next move.
Invasion and plunder – aka theft – of former Soviet republics? Tick.
The former Warsaw Pact countries? Tick.
Even though that includes part of Germany? Tick.
Finland, as part of the former Russian Empire? Tick.
Believe it. Or not.
It’s mind boggling. Almost impossible to believe. And yet, within living memory Hitler pursued the same approach, devastating Europe in the process.
So, truth be told, did Putin’s hero, Stalin, in alliance with Hitler before, massively assisted by the USA and the Allies, having to fight him.
It’s terrifying, but it really isn’t surprising, that Putin is our new Hitler.
Let’s help Lars Klingbeil, Chancellor Scholz, and many others, including your favourite (or otherwise) leaders, where you are, with a recap of the basics.
- Putin steals. It’s absolutely fundamental and existential for him. Wealth. Survival. It’s all you need to know.
- But, for more advanced understanding, let’s expand that …
- Repression, murder, propaganda and invasion are the tools he uses to facilitate his theft.
- He won’t stop. Unless he is stopped.
- None of us will be safe. Unless he’s stopped. Which means not just him, but his whole gang. And their collaborators. Within and outside Russia.
- There is no ‘deal’. And, if you haven’t realised it yet, do it now: Putin wants you dead or subjugated.
- Everything else is sorry delusion. Don’t be distracted by the deluded view because it’s from a ‘realist’ with high academic honours, or from a journalist you used to admire. Or a politician who holds, or used to, high office. Or someone you feel ideologically close to. Least of all, from any official or semi-official Russian source. Or, as a well-known radio host might say (I never would), your Auntie Doris’ Facebook page.
That’s it. You can pretend Putin isn’t what he is. That things matter to him which either don’t at all, or are of minor relevance to his actual motivation and actions. To do so is extraordinarily dangerous. So, please don’t.
Time isn’t on our side.
Nor is our fear of World War III.
The war will soon be upon us, if we don’t stop it. Fear of it cannot be allowed to prevent us stopping it.
Because we CAN stop it: in Ukraine.