Before we can begin to understand what is happening in Ukraine, we must first understand Vladimir Putin’s view of truth and lies. Putin, as a former KGB Colonel, was brought up in a system where lies are not mistakes or just lies. Lies are a control strategy. The idea is to tell so many versions of the “facts” that no one really knows where the truth ends and the lie begins.
German writer Hannah Arendt said this is the key to understanding all totalitarian mindsets. It does not matter whether we are talking about Nazism, Soviet Communism or now Putinism. Ideologically they may be different, but in reality, Arendt argued, they are all based on so many lies that most citizens are confused or discouraged by the blizzard of stories they hear. If you can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction, you’re easy to control. In Putin’s case, his government lied about the polonium poisoning murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, they lied about the attempted murders of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018, lied about the slaughter of the Malaysian MH17 airliner in 2014, lied about Russia’s cyber-attacks on Georgia in 2008 and on Estonia in 2007. Now they’re lying – obviously – about their invasion of Ukraine.
The second thing we need to understand is that Vladimir Putin said a big truth about Ukraine, which is that it is something close to his heart. Ukraine is, obviously, a big and big nation close to Russia geographically, but also culturally and linguistically. Many Russians feel this. But that is precisely why Putin and his Kremlin courtiers are so alarmed that their close neighbors in Ukraine could powerfully thrive as a democracy with ambitions to join the European Union and NATO, and ultimately offer the Ukrainian people a life. better than what is possible in Russia itself.
With Putin, it’s always a good idea to follow the money, like I did for my podcast series The big theft. Russia has a lot of money. It’s just that it’s in very few hands, and many of those hands are tainted with corruption. Russia is a country of 150 million generally talented and hardworking people who span 11 time zones to the Pacific. Russia is endowed with enormous natural and human resources, creative people who have given us historically extraordinary music, novels and art. But the catch is that today’s Russia is better known for its oligarchs than for its poets, playwrights, chess grandmasters and ballet dancers. It is also in many ways economically very underdeveloped.
In Soviet times, it was once memorably described as Upper Volta with rockets – a developing global economy but with a formidable arsenal of weapons. Today’s Russian military is certainly formidable, but the Russian economy is not based on the genius of the Russian people, but on the carbon-intensive extractive industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, oil, gas and wood.
Many Russians are poor and live in a country whose economy is one-tenth the size of the United States. California’s GDP, at $2.448 billion, is almost double Russia’s at $1.3 trillion. Last year, ahead of elections to the Russian Parliament (Duma), Putin was accused of trying to bribe the electorate when he announced that “a pension increase of 1,000 rubles (13, $50) is not enough. I propose to additionally pay pensioners this year a one-time payment of 10,000 rubles ($135). Male life expectancy in Russia is 73 years. In Britain it is 81.
But for Russia, there is good economic news. By causing a crisis by invading Ukraine, the price of oil and gas will inevitably increase, so Russia’s GDP will increase. The bad news for most Russians is that they won’t see much of it. That’s because Russia’s real wealth is being siphoned off by the Kremlin’s kleptocrats and their friendly “business” associates. These are the people who invest heavily in real estate in London, New York and Miami and whose activities have been targeted by the American businessman Bill Browder (now resident in the United Kingdom).
Browder once had significant financial interests in Russia, but ended up falling foul of Putin and his corrupt system. Browder was then successful in getting the Magnitsky Act passed in the US Congress to begin reducing dirty money flowing out of Moscow and into Western banks. The deed is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a man employed by Browder to investigate the corruption of Russian officials. For his anti-corruption activities, Sergei Magnitsky was allowed to die in a Russian prison in 2009 after being beaten and tortured. Other countries have followed the lead of the United States and Browder in advancing versions of the Magnitsky Act. But it’s not enough. Browder and many others who suffered at the hands of Putin argue that the way – the only way beyond military action – to harm Putin, Putin and Putin’s cronies, is to get them out of their multi-million dollar yachts in the Mediterranean and out of their multi-million dollar apartments in London and elsewhere.
In that old Watergate adage, we should continue to follow the money. And we also need to make sure that none of this buys political access and influence in the UK or any democracy that really cares to be a democracy. The front line in this conflict may be in Ukraine, but it is also in the City of London, and with those banks, accountants, lawyers and other facilitators who profit from the kleptocrats in the Kremlin.
Gavin Esler is the presenter of The big flight podcast series.
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