Thursday, April 2, 2020


In the 6 December 2019 TLS, Owen Matthews reviews a stack of books about Vladimir Putin. He is unimpressed by those that attribute to Putin any ideology or long-range plan and prefers those that see him as reacting to events and responding to opportunities:
Putin, Mark Galeotti points out, is not a chess player; he is a judoka. Chess is a contest with rules and transparency; everyone starts with the same pieces. But Putin doesn't want to limit his options like that. His skill lies in turning his opponent's strength against him at just the right time. "In this respect, in politics as in judo, Putin is an opportunist," Galeotti writes. "He has a sense of what constitutes a win, but no predetermined path towards it. He relies on quickly seizing any advantage he sees, rather on a careful strategy."

This rings profoundly true. There is no Putin core, no ideology of Putinism – just ideologies and strategies to be used and discarded as the moment dictates. Putin is a "gut-level patriot who believes that Russia should be considered as a great power not because of its military strength, its economy or for another specific index, but because it's Russia." Beyond that everything is a tool to be used in the game of staying in power and increasing the country's prestige. Orthodoxy, nationalist philosophy, military intervention in Syria, the festering, low-level war in Donbas – all these policies can be switched on or off as expediency dictates. The result is that "many apparent short-term successes prove to be long-term liabilities, having been neither thought through beforehand nor followed through afterwards." But so far, Galeotti writes, Putin has managed to bluff Russia's poor hand into two decades of surprising wins.
I especially liked this comment on corruption, reviewing a book by opposition politician Gregory Yavlinsky:
Yavlinsky makes a similar argument. Corruption is at once the bond that unites the elite like a criminal clan and, perversely, a took of social control. The Kremlin is not bothered by corruption because, he writes, "it works to their advantage. Government compels a society to be its accomplice in crime, as everyone gets involved in it". And when everyone is guilty – from parents who bribe university admissions tutors to Putin cronies who trade billions in oil wealth through their Swiss offshore companies – the selective application of the law becomes an arbitrary tool of power. This allows Putin and his allies to keep the elite in a "state of uncertainty and fear . . . by suddenly paying to or, to the contrary, turning away from evidence."

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Putin is an ex-KGB spook with direct ties to organized crime. Unsurprisingly, he runs his government like a cross between a spy agency and the Vory (Russian mafia).

He's been doing this same song and dance for decades, always being an opportunist, always changing his stance to suit whatever need he has at a given moment.

He came to power partly on promises of wiping out organized crime, then spent the next two decades effectively totally ignoring them. Every few years he makes some new symbolic gesture, delivers some new declaration, starts some new sweeping initiative designed to give the appearence of cracking down hard on crime and corruption, and once all the flash and spectacle wears off and people forget about things, nothing ever meaningfully changes. He throws a bunch of low level nobodies into jail, he stitches up a few mid or high level rivals who got on his bad side, and then he and his underworld allies call it a day and laugh all the way to the bank, patting themselves on the back for another splendid performance.

Here in America we sometimes talk about Security Theatre, but in Russia they practice Government Theatre. It's a criminal oligarchy with access to a modern military, a state intelligence agency, nationalized media, and more. It's the sort of impossibly rigged situation that mafiosos could once only dream about.