By: Benjamin Weingarten
Recently we brought you Professor Karen Dawisha’s warning about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s growing paranoia, and the fact that in order to survive, he will likely be forced to increase repression.
Below we share seven of the most staggering, insightful and at times terrifying takeaways from our interview with the author of the absolutely essential “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?,” in which Dawisha explains the West’s failures to understand Russia, how Putin rose to power, his worldview, the tactics, strategies and extremes to which he will go to undermine the West while increasing his power and enriching his friends, and much much more.
You can also click here to skip down to the full interview.
1. Bush and Obama were both wrong on Putin, and now he poses a grave danger to our financial system
“They are building…an authoritarian regime, which is self-serving, which is based on loyalty to Putin, silence about how the system works, and massive predation and corruption. And there are winners in the system — the group around Putin, and there are losers in the system — and that’s everybody else…[T]his was their plan from the very beginning…
[W]e are wrong in the West to see the Putin regime as a regime that stumbled into, or got pushed into an authoritarian corner…This was their policy from the very beginning, and in the meantime we were either looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul under George Bush, or involved in a ‘reset’ under President Obama. Both policies had the wrong assumptions at their heart. We didn’t see this regime as a regime which is seeking not only to re-establish an authoritarian Soviet style state, but also establish a state in which the top people are themselves massively corrupt, and are in bed with criminal elements. And those criminal elements are undermining our own system. It’s a very huge danger to Western financial systems not to recognize what’s going on in Russia.”
2. Cyber-terror is an important part of Putin’s arsenal — he brought Estonia to its knees simply because of their placement of a statue
“As one example that’s been well-researched, in Estonia, a country which is now part of NATO, several years ago, the Estonian government took a decision to re-locate — this is all they did — to re-locate a statue that commemorated and valorized the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. In response, the kremlin took down the Estonian internet, and the entire Estonian banking system. This is in response to the move of one single statue.”
3. How did Putin rise above the other competitors for power in Russia?
“My view is that the most senior people in the KGB, when they saw the beginning of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe…really hit the panic button, and became concerned that Gorbachev — who was regarded by them as an enemy — Gorbachev would do the stupid thing which was to create a multi-party system, and to separate the Communist Party from the state — make them compete in a free and fair election against other parties, and eliminate their ability to use state funds.
Title: Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?
Author: Karen Dawisha
Purchase this book
So they started to move money out of the country, but they also started to identify people who could be part of the next generation of leaders.
In my view, Putin wasn’t the only one who was identified. They placed people who were coming back from Eastern Europe, who had been in Poland, who had been in East Germany, who had been in Hungary, but especially in East Germany, because they regarded them as quite advanced in…subterfuge, running of money, running of agents and so forth.
Remember, in the late ’80s, East Germany became a home for international terrorists. Carlos ‘The Jackal’ was based at one point in East Germany, Baader-Meinhof, the ‘Red Brigade’ and all of that. So they had a particular skill set.
And when they came back to the Soviet Union, this is now beginning two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were placed as advisors, strategically, to democrats…And they tried to put these people up against, and in the service of open democrats who could then be controlled secretly.
So when you look at other leading democrats, they all had these guys [like Putin] who suddenly appeared in their entourage, so that there was a potential for more than Putin to succeed, but Putin is the one who really proved himself.
I mean he’s not just a dolt who obeys orders — he was part of a plan, but he had his own individual skills and capabilities, and he’s shown that in power.”
4. “One of history’s great false flag operations” — when Putin’s FSB allegedly planned to bomb their own citizens
“In my opinion, I reached the conclusion in the book…I call it one of history’s great false flag operations. And to make that statement, it’s kind of chilling to even imagine that the security services of any country no matter how horrible the regime would set up bombs in the apartment buildings, that went off while totally innocent civilians were sleeping. And this is what happened beginning in late August. Putin had just been named prime minister. He had been head of the FSB — very critical. So he was in a position to have ordered these things…we don’t have his signature on a piece of paper, but he was in a position to order these things. And thousands were injured and three hundred totally innocent civilians were killed.
Now, then…the country being in a state of total panic with people on the lookout — I would say citizen patrols everywhere — then, two separate, independent civilians saw something happening outside their own apartment building in Ryazan, one of whom was a veteran. And they saw a car with three people inside that was taking sacks into their building in the middle of the night. They investigated and called the bomb squad. The bomb squad arrived, found a bomb with a timer due to go off at dawn. They then called the local FSB, and the police, who evacuated the whole building, sealed off the area, and put out an all points bulletin for three people in a white car. They had the license plates and everything.
And a vigilant, or we could say snoopy telephone operator at the local telephone exchange intercepted…a call…to FSB headquarters in Moscow, from someone saying that they were unable to complete the task successfully, and they are now being hunted. And they were told to split up and get out of the area. So they had this call. These three people were detained by the local police, upon which they showed their FSB IDs, and were released, and they were never charged.
…And then on top of that, there was a television program in early 2000, this is when Putin was already acting president, but he was not yet inaugurated…and there was still…independent television in Russia, and residents of Ryazan from this building stuck by their story, and they had bomb disposal people from Ryazan, the local FSB stuck by their story. But within months, this whole story was hushed up. The FSB said that this was a civil defense exercise, and that they were testing people’s readiness. But you know no civil defense exercise would be announced without the cooperation of the local security services, so this explanation simply does not hold water in my opinion.
…And the reason is that in my view that they were trying to sow panic and then in that circumstance to create an image of Putin as somebody who is resolute, who will do whatever is necessary to protect Russia from the people who are attacking it, and in that case they blamed the Chechens, and they created the groundwork for the second Chechen War, which was started, by Putin, soon afterwards.”
5. How Russia manipulates the U.S. for its own ends
“It is vitally critical for the U.S. government to be very hard-nosed in analyzing what kind of crises Russia wants, and what kind of crises Russia benefits from.
So we have one of the people closest to Putin who is ex-KGB himself, Sergei Ivanov, who’s currently head of the presidential administration, had been minister of defense, saying that he provided to the United States — that they provided to the United States, the coordinates for Al-Qaeda training grounds in Afghanistan. It is clearly in, it was clearly in the interest of Russia to have the United States bogged down in Afghanistan — and while they’re there, to kill off as many Chechen fighters who were volunteering, or Central Asian fighters who were volunteering for Al-Qaeda as possible.
I think it’s very similar today with ISIS.
There are many many central Asian and Chechen fighters who fled out of Southern Russia — the Caucasus — and out of Central Asian regimes, into Syria and Iraq, and it’s very convenient for Russia to have us bombing them. We’re doing their dirty work. And, at the same time we are turning international terrorism against the United States, when many of those folks had been primarily against Russia.”
6. The “kill list”: too many people to kill “even for them“
“Zolotov had run the tribute system for Putin in St. Petersburg. He was the head of a private security agency. He had KGB background…Putin took him to Moscow and made him his personal bodyguard. So he [Zolotov] arrived in New York in summer of 2000 to set up security with someone else for Putin’s first UN trip. And as part of that trip, he met with a guy who was the rezident, head of the KGB station in New York, obviously an extremely important position. And what Zolotov didn’t know is that this guy had already been turned, and would in December defect to the United States.
He wrote a book with a long-time security analyst Pete Earley, and in that book he told the story that they went out to dinner in Brighton Beach [Brooklyn], and so there were two people from the residency in New York, and two from Moscow…and Zolotov told them that they had planned to kill the…then-head of the presidential administration to [Boris] Yeltsin — this is when Putin was prime minister and rising up to being named acting president — but they realized that if they killed [Alexander] Voloshin, they would have to kill others. And they said, they realized that the list was too long, that there were too many to kill, even for them.
So here you have somebody…Zolotov…he was in charge of the hit list…That this person was head of Putin’s personal presidential bodyguard for 14 years, and he now has been moved to be the deputy minister of interior, in charge of all of Russia’s internal security forces. So whenever there are these mobilization[s] of security forces, Zolotov, somebody who is personally very very loyal to Putin — or at least Putin hopes — is in charge of putting down of riots.”
7. Putin leaves the law for his opponents, and to his friends, he gives everything
“This is the way I think Putin operates, and operated even in St. Petersburg. Putin is not formally speaking Mafia…he was never “made,” using this American phrase. What he did was to make illegal activity legal, which is a far more useful thing. So he…because he was…in charge of all the registrations of foreigners coming into Russia, into St. Petersburg, and all of the export licenses going abroad, you didn’t have to run the risk of illegally exporting if Putin would sign the documents for you. He could open the border going and coming for money for goods for raw materials for establishment of manufacturing facilities, for it all. And he’s done that now on a massive scale in Russia as a whole.
So his signature is what makes things legal. It’s not the law.
And so his friends get no-bid contracts for the Olympics. They can make $50-60 billion off of all these illicit contracts for roads that down get built, for buildings that don’t get built, for bridges to Crimea that are not emerging. So he’s able to give people the ability to operate without impunity, and that is his contribution.
The moment that you engage in any kind of anti-Kremlin activity, then suddenly everything you’ve done will be subject to true legal scrutiny, and you’ll be thrown in prison — you’ll have to run from the country.
So he leaves the law for his opponents. And for his friends, he gives them complete ability to make money with impunity.”
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