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How Putin Took Over Russia

‘Putin’s People’ details the Russian autocrat and ex-KGB spook’s rise to power and efforts to reverse the outcome of the Cold War.
August 23, 2020
How Putin Took Over Russia
MOSCOW - NOVEMBER 2: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a joint press conference after Russian-Danish talks with Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen November 2, 2009 in Moscow, Russia. Putin and Rasmussen in part discussed global warming policy ahead of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. (Photo by Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)

Putin’s People
How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West
by Catherine Belton
FSG, 624 pp., $35

A striking thing about the history of modern Russia is how littered it is with the corpses of democrats and friends of open society. This ominous feature asserted itself early in the era that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In November 1998, Galina Starovoitova, St. Petersburg’s “leading democrat” and a persistent thorn in the flank of Russia’s corrupt ruling class, was murdered outside of her apartment. She would be among the first victims of a burgeoning tyranny, but far from the last. Within a few years, the list would swell to include Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Denis Voronenkov, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries.

Catherine Belton’s absorbing new book Putin’s People is an insightful primer on this morbid subject. It is a tale of how a clutch of cynical agents bent on self-enrichment and the restoration of Russian amour propre initiated a scheme of state capture that would simultaneously advance both of these grandiose objectives. Belton, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, detects in today’s Russian elite the same will to power that once marked the old Communist commissars, but without the pious Soviet insistence to be working for the betterment of the proletariat.

In time, the vicious mafia tactics employed by select KGB veterans against Russian civil society brought off what Belton calls “a creeping coup by the security men.” A cunning and ambitious figure named Vladimir Putin was foremost among them. It was less than four months after Putin had become head of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, that Starovoitova was murdered, and foul play by high-ranking officials was widely suspected though never proved—another disturbing omen of the emerging Russia where state-directed crimes were seldom punished. On December 31, 1999, this former lieutenant colonel of the KGB became president of Russia, a position he still holds uncontested.

The backstory to the restoration of KGB rule in Russia makes for engrossing reading, and Belton tells it with an eye for pregnant details. Less than a decade before Starovoitova’s murder, in December 1989, Putin was stationed in Dresden after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As agitated crowds gathered outside the headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, their KGB partners—the Soviet masters whom the Stasi referred to as “the friends”—were holed up inside their villa, burning papers. “We destroyed everything,” recalled Putin. “All our communications, our lists of contacts and our agents’ networks. . . . We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”

Once the crowd turned in the direction of the KGB villa, Putin called the Soviet military command in Dresden to request reinforcements, to no avail. “I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared,” Putin told an interviewer years later. “It was clear the union was ailing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure—a paralysis of power.”

This episode gave Putin a shock of recognition. The Soviet imperium no longer had the means to suppress political revolutions behind the Iron Curtain as it had done so easily in the past. Within two years, a jubilant crowd in Moscow toppled the statue of “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, the fearsome founder of the Soviet secret police, in front of the KGB headquarters. Their chants were unmistakable: “Down with the KGB!” and “Svo-bo-da!” the Russian word for freedom. The iron fist of Soviet totalitarianism had cracked, and Soviet republics raced to declare independence. This unraveling of the “evil empire” would rank, in Putin’s eyes, as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century—a peculiar choice since it was not a century without a surplus of contenders for that title, not excluding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Democracy would have its day in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s, but it was not a pretty one and did not last long. A formerly mighty empire had crumbled, leaving terrible pangs of national depression and loss of respect for Russia on the world stage. While President Boris Yeltsin earnestly nurtured democratic institutions amid acute economic distress, a class of oligarchs aligned with him ran riot. If ever it was true that “behind every great fortune is a great crime,” it was true of these kleptocrats who bought and looted former state enterprises with abandon. By the time they were through, they had plucked the carcass of the old state clean. Throughout this fleeting and inglorious interregnum, the average Russian had been treated to a spectacle of government corruption, ostentatious plunder, and even pitched street battles between gangsters in Moscow.

Nostalgia was the most palpable emotion in Yeltsin’s Russia, less for l’ancien régime than for the stability and strength of a functioning state. The freewheeling nouveau riche needed to secure their ill-gotten gains amid social chaos and collapse, and the masses desired a leader untainted by the corruption and financial ruin associated with the Yeltsin administration. In Vladimir Putin, both conditions were fulfilled. As Belton relates, the oligarchs believed they had found a shadowy but unscrupulous figure who “they could control.” It was a mammoth gamble for an elite, and a nation, desperate for a savior.

So it came to be that less than eight years after Russian crowds cheered the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Putin was in command of the Russian state, where he methodically proceeded to dismantle every democratic institution in the country—separate branches of government, fair elections, independent judiciary, free media and other associations of civil society. Oligarchs were brought to heel and the disobliging ones were jailed or forced into exile.

In 2003, when Putin decided to move against Mikhail Khodorkovsky with specious legal charges of fraud and tax evasion, the tycoon was the richest citizen of the Russian Federation. In an instant, Russia’s elite was put on notice: pretenses to the contrary notwithstanding, there was no level of wealth that could buy immunity from the ex-KGB officers who ruled the new Russia. “Nobody is untouchable,” as Karinna Moskalenko, Russia’s most distinguished human-rights lawyer, once put it. This new dispensation prompted massive capital flight, but not before making the ruling elite unimaginably rich by way of offshore accounts, shell companies, and hidden “black cash” funds.

Belton writes that “by 2012 more than 50 percent of Russia’s [gross domestic product] was under the direct control of the state and businessmen closely linked the Putin.” Belton calls the takeover and subordination of Russia’s political, economic and legal systems by Putin and other KGB old hands “hybrid KGB capitalism.” In point of fact, this fusion of private and public capital more closely resembles crony corporatism.

By 2009, Putin had consolidated all levers of government power, and the country’s budding democratic reforms had stalled and then reversed. Most troubling of all, in the new Russia, the press was brutally punished for reporting the ways the “security men” were eroding market freedoms and constructing a mafia state. Before long, it was clear to shrewd observers that Putin and his KGB entourage were monopolizing power not only in order to fill their own pockets. They were also determined to use state coffers, buoyed by the proceeds from soaring energy prices, to contest prevailing liberal norms in an expanding sphere of influence.

Without exaggerating the scale of influence Russia wields in the West, Belton gives an intriguing account of the reactivated “KGB playbook” from the Cold War when the Soviet Union deployed “active measures” to sow division and discord between and within NATO nations. Today, the impact of Russian meddling is arguably greater since the cause of democracy finds itself in deep trouble, with extremist candidates of illiberal parties (some of whom are heads of state) seeking to undermine the concept of universal human rights and overturn the American-led world order. Surveys of public opinion even show a frightening degree of moral relativism between the free and unfree world, and between democratic and authoritarian forms of government.

All this has not been Putin’s doing, but his methods—including sponsorship of parties that oppose the European Union and NATO, from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to the British Brexit campaign, from Italy’s Northern League to the Ron Paul Institute in the United States—have exploited and stoked public confusion about the purpose of both American power and liberal principles. In addition to the feeble state of Western societies, Belton argues that what has made recent Russian influence operations so much more effective than their previous Soviet counterparts is that they “are funded by a much deeper well of cash.”

A word about the nature of this regime’s guiding principles is in order. The Bolshevik one-party state of the Soviet Union had privileged the working class (at least those who professed, loudly and consistently, belief in the party). But in stark contrast, Russia’s contemporary ruling party (“United Russia”) is guided less by ideology than by identity. It demands unblinking loyalty to the ruler and his grisly entourage, and its attitude is formed by his own particular mixture of national egoism and private plunder. The innumerable victims of the new order are proof of the stringent standards for silence expected in this one-party state. Boris Nemtsov, formerly the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor, Alexei Navalny, who has been unjustly imprisoned and subjected to repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals” was, as this was going to press, in a poison-induced coma.

Putin was never mistaken for being a political idealist, and certainly not a true-believing Marxist pursuing the “ultimate triumph of justice for the proletariat,” as Masha Gessen suggests in her superb biography “The Man Without a Face.” As a zealous nationalist, though, Putin’s allegiance had always been to the Russian state, and the organization that defended it with unsleeping devotion: the KGB. To this way of thinking, the eternal enemy will always be the liberal great powers and the liberal political movements they seek to foster and defend, including in Russia, which explains why Putin is so desperate to denounce and discredit democratic institutions at home and abroad.

Belton argues convincingly that the hinge event in Putin’s strategic thinking took place in 2005, when a Western-oriented president, Viktor Yushchenko, came to power in Ukraine after a popular uprising. Putin fingered the CIA for this obnoxious revolution. “It was the worst nightmare of Putin’s KGB men that, inspired by events in neighboring countries, Russian oppositionists funded by the West would seek to topple Putin’s regime too,” Belton writes. “This was the dark paranoia that colored and drove many of the actions they were to take from then on.” It should not escape readers’ notice that this episode—pro-democracy protesters overthrowing a venal and autocratic regime—bears a strong resemblance to the one years before in Dresden that had mortally wounded Putin’s confidence in the Soviet model.

Putin’s People gathers a wealth of previously undisclosed material from interviews with a bevy of former KGB operatives, Kremlin officials, and bankers in suggestive locales from Switzerland to Cyprus. What emerges is a devastating portrait of the deep and broad alliance between the FSB and organized crime in modern Russia. It establishes beyond reasonable doubt the future Russian president’s malice aforethought in setting up this mafia regime that has spawned unprecedented corruption and ferocious state violence against not only Russia’s neighbors but its internal critics and rivals.

Belton’s concluding chapter, “The Network and Donald Trump,” will garner much attention from the American president’s critics ahead of this November’s election, and not just from the hawks. Even at this late date, Trump’s shady contacts with alleged associates of the Russian mob have been poorly excavated, though not from any want of journalistic effort. Trump’s intense devotion to keeping his financial records opaque—enabled by his servile Republican allies in Congress—has kept this improper connection in the dark. From cash transfers through his real estate developments, however, Trump has clearly been tied to the nexus of Russian intelligence services and organized crime for three decades.

In the 1990s, a spate of bad investments made Trump desperate for capital. While the vast majority of banks shunned the future president, who had already defaulted on considerable payments, Deutsche Bank, which Belton says had “a special relationship with Putin’s Kremlin,” became “Trump’s lender of last resort.” This was not a trivial matter. In a single 2011 transaction, DB provided Trump more than $300 million.

The precise nature of this relationship is still not known, though the smell emanating from the evidence as we know it is unmistakably fetid. And the charitable reading of Trump’s behavior doesn’t have the ring of near-truth that such a grave case demands. Over many years, Trump has showered Putin and his government with unalloyed praise. Entirely exculpating Putin, he has asserted that the Russian despot’s hands are no more dirty than those of American leaders. As president, Trump has only continued this deplorable habit. Against the consensus view of his own intelligence agencies, he has credited Putin’s denials of meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Trump has also inadvertently disclosed at least one high-level U.S. secret to the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office. But even more damningly, he has subverted America’s precious alliances and eroded American prestige—longstanding objectives of the Kremlin. What’s more, the sight of an American president in thrall—and most probably in hock—to a malevolent foreign authoritarian has led to growing admiration for authoritarianism as well as diminished commitment to national security in the once-stalwart Republican Party.

Although Trump’s corruption and perfidy enabled Putin’s people, his predecessors in the Oval Office were also guilty of grave misjudgments. Around the time Putin was first learning his way around the Kremlin, the Bush administration greeted the new Russian leader with cautious optimism, at times cringingly so. Perhaps this naive policy was more forgivable in the early days of Putin’s reign, before he had abolished key institutions of Russian democracy, but the policy of accommodation continued long after it became clear that Russia was devolving into a dictatorship out to restore its great power status at the expense of its neighbors.

The Obama administration, for its part, treated Putin’s Russia as a place that could be safely ignored, dismissing it as a mere “regional power.” This was doubly wrong. In the first place, it was an odd claim of a uniquely Eurasian power that straddles two vast continents that provided the setting of the bloodiest havoc wrecked in the course of the twentieth century. Russia’s “near abroad” is a profoundly consequential space since Europe stands as a vital pillar of the liberal order. Its sovereignty and security, to say nothing of its democratic character—all of which have come under vigorous challenge by Putin—is crucial to the fate of liberal civilization.

For those who’ve forgotten, Russia has attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea, becoming the first state to claim sovereign foreign territory by force since Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. It has also molested Moldova and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, while lately defending the fraudulent elections and blatant vote rigging of Europe’s last dictatorship in Belarus.

The conceit that Russia is a regional concern is wrong for another reason, evident to all those who have taken the measure of the enormous scope of Russian foreign policy. Putin has flexed Russian muscle well beyond the European landmass, projecting power into the Caucasus and Central Asia, and also (for the first time since Kissingerian diplomacy expelled the Soviets in the 1970s) the Levant. Russia has invaded the Republic of Georgia and shored up the odious Assad dynasty in Syria. This muscular interventionism has earned Russia many high-minded critics, but it has also accrued immense credit toward its claim as a great power.

Putin’s objective of overturning the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and expanding the Russian sphere of influence reflects the calculations of an aspiring great power, if not a superpower. Just as Russian might shouldn’t be exaggerated, neither should its weakness. In terms of what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power”—its combined economic, military, and diplomatic strength—Russia ranks behind only the United States and China as the mightiest power on earth. And it was this surge in power that, as so often before in the history of empires, has been attended by a new conception of national interest. Russia is no longer the insular and contented nation that it appeared to be in the 1990s. Despite its energy-driven rise and geopolitical prominence, and perhaps because of that rise to prominence, Russia appears to be increasingly dissatisfied. Its restless pursuit of regional dominance has coincided with a growing intolerance for interference from other great powers.

Russian greatness remains weighed down by its squalid domestic situation, however. As recently as 2018, almost a third of medical facilities in Russia lacked running water, 40 percent lacked central heating, and more than half lacked hot water. The state that once formed the basis of the now-defunct “second world” is bidding for regional hegemony, but from the economic position of an almost third-world country. With a smaller economy than Italy or even Canada but whose military spending dwarfs most other countries, Russia isn’t far from meeting Dean Acheson’s description of its impoverished Soviet predecessor: “Upper Volta with ICBMs.” A formidable nuclear arsenal—and well-financed intelligence networks to extend Russian influence abroad.

In 2016, Russia’s clandestine influence operations saw their greatest harvest yet when they helped elect a feeble and pliant American president who regarded America’s traditional friends as veritable foes and its legitimate foes as his actual or potential partners. Little wonder that at the Helsinki summit of the two leaders, Putin freely admitted that he had wished to see Trump elected.

Russia’s malign influence will undoubtedly intrude again in this autumn’s presidential campaign, but in all likelihood it will fail to preserve its client president in office. At which point, the incoming Biden administration could take an important first step toward cleaning up the geopolitical mess bequeathed to it by working to disclose the true extent of Putin’s debauched wealth. With any luck, this and other measures to roll back the Kremlin’s prestige might speed the day when Putin faces another Dresden moment, with the main difference being that this time the vulnerable regime would be his own.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.