In July 2018 after a two-hour private meeting, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a joint press conference wrapping up a “deeply…
That press conference and that moment could, perhaps, be the crowning achievement for the returning intelligence officers of the KGB. It brought full circle the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the oligarchs, departure of Yeltsin, sidelining/exile/assassination of reformers, and the installation of a former KGB intelligence officer as president. Indeed, at the time, it was only the latest in a series of endeavors, which saw Russia reclaiming, at least internationally, what it viewed as its rightful place on the international stage, correcting“the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Unpacking and understanding Russia is both an art and a science. It is a fascinating country throughout its history, but the post-Soviet period in particular is deeply interesting. The majority of the accounts of this period tend to focus on the outward-facing aspects of Russia and the Putin presidency—attempting to divine his thinking and his intentions as part of an updated Kremlinology.
Few of these accounts go behind the curtain as it were to understand how Putin arrived as the apex predator of Russian politics and the bête noir of the West. To a degree this could have been understandable—the carefully curated mythos surrounding Putin, the absence of independent journalism within Russia, and the all too convenient shorthand of clichés prevented most deep dives.
A STAGGERING FEAT OF REPORTING
While that could have been an easy excuse, with the arrival of Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Took on the West the excuse is no longer valid. Belton’s new book is a staggering achievement of reporting. She goes behind the façade and looks at Putin and his power structure from the inside out, revealing in detail the relationships, the networks, and the connections between and amongst the intelligence cadre that gave rise to Putin and now surrounds him, controlling all elements of Russian state institutions.
The level of depth she reaches, and the analysis of the details which are, by design, entirely opaque transactions and financial arrangements, is simply incredible. Belton follows the money. She unravels the complex financial relationships but marries these up with insider accounts from nearly every part of the Russian ecosystem—from intelligence officers to bankers, politicians to prosecutors, and the oligarchs themselves. That she can do this and make it a thrilling read at the same time is nothing short of astonishing. After reading this, one can only hope that Netflix or Amazon will option it as a documentary or series—a process made all the easier by Belton’s fluid writing.
What is most fascinating in reading Putin’s People is the extent to which those who encounter Putin seem to forget that he is an intelligence officer by training. Even those within Russian politics seem to ignore this fact and accept him at face value. In so doing they underestimate him, believing that he reflects their interests or their values, that he is on their side and is their friend. It is a cold kind of charisma but the kind that makes intelligence officers of any uniform success. It is the art of manipulation that leverages money, ideology, conscience, and ego.
PUTIN’S RISE TO POWER
For many in the West, Putin is and always has been, an apparent mastermind, orchestrating Russia’s rise, and dissent and confusion in the west. It seems now that his rise to power was foreordained, that he was in command and control of his destiny. Twenty years removed from his appointment and in light of all that has happened—within Russia and internationally by Moscow’s hand—and is happening today, it easy to see him as an Ian Fleming villain.
Far from being an accidental president, his rise was very much directed by the security apparatuses, of which he was a part, in the closing days of the Yeltsin presidency, and ultimately accepted by Yeltsin and those surrounding him (the “Family”). They accepted him as Yeltsin’s successor largely on the belief that the “Family” could control him, that he would ensure that their interests and legacy were protected and, perhaps most importantly, that they would not be prosecuted. They feared a Communist resurgence and prison more than anything else, and they believed that this former KGB officer stationed in the backwaters of Dresden would ensure their protection from both.
In Belton’s account, we see a different Putin, one who saw himself early on as nothing more than a hired manager, but someone who grew into the tsar sitting astride the Russian state and economy, the master of his domain in meticulous and fascinating detail. Belton describes a Putin uncertain in the early days in office, frozen in the face of the Kursk crisis and unsure of what to do, perhaps overwhelmed.
In one anecdote relayed by an insider, early in his presidency, Putin experienced marital troubles with his wife Lyudmila, returning home after working to sit and watch bland television in a bathrobe, his work leading to her excessive drinking. Certainly, an image one would not associate with Putin, and one that is unlikely to sit alongside Putin shirtless while fishing, flying a jet, piloting a submarine, or tranquilizing a tiger, or any of the other manufactured “man of action” imagery that the Kremlin likes to produce.
Yet, the hired manager quickly grew into a confident authoritarian leader, cannily wielding the institutions of the state for his ends and those of the siloviki.
PUTIN’S EARLY DAYS
But before his ascendance to the presidency, Putin started his career as an intelligence officer in Dresden. Belton covers Putin’s time there in fascinating detail. While there is a great deal of speculation as to what Putin did while in the KGB, and no small amount of obfuscation on the part of the Kremlin, Belton details an officer who was far more active than initially presented.
Dresden was seen as an intelligence backwater and not one the West put much stock or assets against. It was for this very reason that many of the particularly covert relationships occurred there, including KGB connections with the Baader–Meinhof Gang and others. It is speculated that Putin operated alongside these groups and in close connection with the East German Stasi.
Putin ostensibly left the KGB to join the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg, but it is unlikely he formally resigned—much like the mafia, once one is part of the KGB family, they can never really leave. His rise from this post to the presidency was meteoric, rapidly climbing in three years to Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department, deputy chief of the Presidential Staff, first deputy chief of the Presidential Staff for Russia’s regions, and ultimately the head of the FSB. All the while, his rise was encouraged and guided by the intelligence cadre.
THE COLLAPSE AND THE RISE
While the collapse of the Soviet Union may have come as a shock to the West, it certainly was not a surprise for those within the system and, ironically, those tasked with defending it and defeating the “Main Enemy”. Those deployed abroad, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw the inefficiencies of the Soviet system and could see most clearly its internal sclerosis, well before anyone in the West.
The KGB and its associated security apparatuses saw the writing on the wall, as Belton recounts, and sought to ensure the survival of its networks and influence by expropriating as much party and state money as possible, as quickly as possible. By leveraging existing smuggling and espionage networks designed to bring in foreign technology, the KGB sought to expropriate Party and state assets for future use.
In this pre- and immediate post-Communist Party world, the vaunted siloviki transitioned to protecting their assets and their power. They leveraged their smuggling and money laundering networks, in partnership with Russian organized crime, to great effect. For the west in the heady euphoria at the end of the Cold War, Russian organized crime remained just that, a criminal or law enforcement problem. In reality, the lines between organized crime and intelligence blurred, becoming a hybrid issue that required more attention.
Ironically, in seeking to preserve their assets and power, the siloviki created the seedbed for the growth of the first generation of the oligarchs, the new Russian robber barons. While the KGB and siloviki initially maintained control or certainly leverage over the owners and managers of these companies, funds, and industries, the new class of oligarchs soon strained at the security apparatuses’ leash. The oligarchs rapidly accumulated wealth, charting their own western-oriented, liberal path—liberal, of course, in a Russian context.
The oligarchs took advantage of the chaos of post-Communist Russia; they ran roughshod across the economy accumulating unparalleled wealth and concentrating state assets in fewer and fewer hands, all, ironically, with the acquiescence of the state. The heady days were not to last. As the century drew to a close and out of fear of the return of the Communists and potential prosecution, the siloviki advanced Putin, who unexpectedly became the heir apparent to Yeltsin, receiving his endorsement.
With Putin in office, the siloviki were back in power and quickly reclaimed the levers of power from the oligarchs. Putin and the security and intelligence men around him twisted the courts to their advantage, appropriated state assets not for the state but their benefit, and worked to roll back the halting liberal progress made to date. Independent media in Russia was all but crushed, law enforcement was applied for the sole benefit of those in power, and state institutions served the interests of the siloviki.
The apotheosis of this reclamation of power came in the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the siloviki’s seizure of Yukos. Belton describes Khodorkovsky’s rise to become the richest man in Russia, and one of the wealthiest in the world, and his rapid decline once he crossed Putin. In what will almost certainly be recreated as a scene in the Netflix version of this book, Khodorkovsky confronts Putin in a televised meeting about corruption, alleging that government officials were accepting bribes.
Khodorkovsky’s biggest mistake was, perhaps, becoming political and believing that Russia had transformed into a system more western than it was—in reality, no one crossed the tsar. He was arrested, tried, stripped of his assets, and sent to a modern gulag. His prosecution and imprisonment sent the clearest signal to the other oligarchs and Russian society—the tsar was not to be challenged and everything ran through the Kremlin.
RUSSIA AND THE WEST—BACK TO THE FUTURE
The unifying thread amongst the siloviki and those in its orbit is the desire to restore Russia to its imperial greatness. Belton recounts the story of the descendant of a White Russian émigré in Paris whose family fled from the Bolsheviks supporting Putin’s efforts across Europe. We see oligarchs working under the direction of Putin to extend Russia’s influence across the continent and into the United States.
For example, Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea Football Club in the United Kingdom, reportedly took ownership of the club under the direction of Putin as part of an effort to gain influence through sport. Abramovich was also dispatched to New York to become close with the socialites and elites, to include some within the Trump family orbit. The line between private citizens and the state no longer exists—wealth and assets exist for the state.
The schemes that enriched Putin and those around him also created a massive, untraceable, and unaccountable war chest to be used at Putin’s discretion and for the interest of the Russian state. This money found its way into accounts across Europe, bankrolling and backing parties across the political spectrum that benefited Russia’s interest of disunity amongst the European Union, NATO, and its allied countries. From the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign to the rise of far-right parties in Greece, Italy, Hungary, and more, this “black cash” was used to influence politics toward Putin’s ends.
As Belton notes, the West was complicit in this corruption. In the pursuit of easy profits, large commissions, and a slice of the Russian-driven boom—particularly in London—many looked the other way or failed to look at all from where the money originated and who the ultimate beneficiary of all this largess was.
The black cash manifested itself in dark arts, the darkest of which was the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014—the first such territorial theft since the end of World War Two. Putin deployed the “little green men”—Russian soldiers without insignia—along with “volunteers” to create the appearance of an autonomous uprising, but which introduced just enough doubt to prevent any real intervention or response. All of this was funded through the mechanisms created by Putin and the intelligence cadre that surrounded him.
This slush fund resided in the hands of nominally private Russians, but really, they were account holders or pass-throughs. They sat on untold amounts of wealth expropriated from the state that was used for both personal benefit and gain, but also the advancements of Russia’s interests abroad. No transaction could take place without bending the knee to Putin and ensuring he and his received a fair portion.
WASHINGTON’S MUDDLED MOSCOW POLICY
Reading this book, one can’t help but recall the debates around Russia, Putin, and Dmitry Medvedev (chosen as president for being precisely zero threat to Putin’s return) over the last 20 years. From President Bush getting a sense of Putin’s soul to Obama’s attempt at a reset (or overcharge, if you translate it incorrectly), to today’s confused policy towards Moscow. It seems as though any time over the last two decades someone within the policy community raised the alarm about Russia, they were shouted down as “cold warriors” or dinosaurs, out of touch with reality.
Hadn’t Medvedev and Obama dined at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia, surely relations between the two countries had matured. The Intelligence Community specialists who warned of Russian espionage were criticized as out of touch or simply ignored. It was the lone voices in the wilderness of American politics that seemed to raise their hands and warn that the bear hadn’t changed and would not change its colors. From the late Senator John McCain to then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, those that warned of Russia’s rise were merely out of touch.
Today we find ourselves with a very confused Russia policy. Anything to do with Russia is instantly politicized in a domestic context. The White House is loath to do anything on Russia and Congress, particularly the Democrats, use Moscow as a stick with which to beat the president. Neither policy is productive nor appropriate.
Washington handed Russia the greatest victory and most successful active measures campaign result for which it could have hoped. American unity of response and action on Russian revanchism is shattered, the policy process is hamstrung by a confused administration, and the American public is squabbling over what is truth (to say nothing of a portion of the population admiring and supportive of Putin as a strongman leader).
Making policy toward Russia requires an intimate understanding of Russia from the inside, the true inside, the court of Putin. Belton is perhaps the best guide to understanding how Putin came to the presidency and how those surrounding him operate. Washington policymakers would be well served by reading this book.