‘Russia has been hijacked’

Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People, on how the security services took over Russia

‘Russia has been hijacked’

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, 29 February 2024. Photo: DMITRY ASTAKHOV / SPUTNIK / GOVERNMENT PRESS SERVICE POOL

Catherine Belton knows more about Vladimir Putin than most. Having learned Russian while studying modern languages at Durham University in the UK, she found herself fascinated by the “end of empire” she witnessed as the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the subsequent Soviet collapse. It was only natural that her curiosity would lead her to the Russian capital, where she began covering the day-to-day goings-on in the Kremlin for the now-defunct Moscow Tribune in the late 1990s — just as a young Putin was beginning to make his mark in Russian politics.

Over the next two decades, Belton would work for The Moscow Times, and then as a Moscow correspondent for Businessweek and the Financial Times, tracing the trajectory of the country as it emerged from the economic turmoil of the Yeltsin era.

Photo provided by Catherine Belton

Photo provided by Catherine Belton

By the time Belton’s acclaimed book, Putin’s People, was published in 2020, Russia had become a very different place. And by the time she made its Russian translation available for free earlier in March, the country had undergone yet another transformation. But, in Belton’s account, the signs of what was to come had been there from the start.

During Putin’s first term in office, when she began research for what was originally intended to be a study of the politically motivated arrest, trial and subsequent imprisonment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Belton started noticing trends that would come to define Putin’s rule. Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky had made a fatal error that set him apart from other oligarchs of the time: he had used his vast fortune to fund opposition parties who dared challenge Putin, who at the time was promoting an image of himself as a “reluctant” president who needed to consolidate his authority. Khodorkovsky was the first of many to discover what has since become an axiom of Putin’s rule: opposition will not be tolerated.

The “demonstrative takedown” of Khodorkovsky, as Belton calls it, marked a “turning point that changed the entire way Russia was run”. It had brought a secret service mindset to the fore of Russian politics, ready to use dirty tactics to cow would-be opponents into submission. It was at that point that the focus of Belton’s future book shifted from the Khodorkovsky case to the wider machinations of the Kremlin and the former KGB men who occupied it.

“I was trying to explain why the Putin system operates the way that it does, and it became more and more clear to me that they were using old KGB methods”,

Belton says, referring to the time Putin spent as a Soviet intelligence officer in East Germany in the late 1980s — an experience that, as her book explains in impressive detail, served as “a blueprint for everything that was to come later”. By the time of the Khodorkovsky affair, Putin was apparently enlisting former KGB colleagues to manage slush funds to help him “control the political process within Russia”, happy to facilitate their personal enrichment in exchange for their loyalty to him.

That didn’t seem to faze Russia’s Western partners too much, though. “Foreign oil companies were lining up for a piece of the pie, and they wanted to do business with the Kremlin because they knew they were going to be on the winning side” in the Khodorkovsky case, Belton says. This sent Putin a message that he would later exploit:

the West “didn’t care about morals or scruples or laws as long as they were making money”.

He realised he could use that to his advantage.

While the very public case against Khodorkovsky was a clear warning to anyone with political ambitions in Russia to toe the line, for Belton, two earlier moments exposed an even darker cynicism that would later underpin Putin’s rule.

First came the 1999 bombings of four apartment blocks in three Russian cities. Officially the work of Chechen terrorists, the bombings killed over 300 people, with Putin, who was prime minister at the time and already being lined up to replace the ailing Boris Yeltsin, being praised for his decisive response.

Three years later came the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, in which 850 people were taken hostage — again, officially by Chechen militants — while watching a musical. A botched rescue operation led to 132 hostages being killed by poisonous gas pumped into the theatre by the Russian secret services.

Remembering victims of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis outside the Dubrovka Theatre, 26 October 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

Remembering victims of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis outside the Dubrovka Theatre, 26 October 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

According to information given to Belton by high-up former Kremlin insiders, both the bombings and the theatre siege were false flag operations, orchestrated by a clandestine circle of security services operatives to bolster Putin’s political standing, with the ongoing war against separatists in Chechnya providing a convenient pretext.

These events, Belton says, highlight Putin and his associates’ “cynicism against their own people” and willingness to sacrifice the lives of their own citizens for political gain.

It was only a matter of time before that cynicism, initially limited to domestic policy, would rear its head beyond Russia’s borders, too.

The point of no return came in 2014, as Belton’s research into the Kremlin’s powerbrokers was nearing its conclusion. Russia annexed Crimea, then launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, giving Putin’s KGB-style subterfuge and bully tactics global significance.

“You suddenly got the sense that Russia was trying to expand its role on the world stage — not through creating a vibrant, competitive economy, but by trying to undermine and disrupt democracies and fielding its own candidates in elections”, Belton says.

In the leadup to the annexation of Crimea, she argues, Putin had been progressively emboldened by the West, as foreign investors continued to turn a blind eye to increasing post-Khodorkovsky crackdowns on dissent within Russia as long as they were getting access to the country’s natural resources.

Yet as a “very reciprocal person”, Putin had simultaneously become increasingly resentful of what he considered the West’s rebuttals of his overtures since the very start of his presidency, says Belton. The realisation came that he could use the West’s greed to enrich Russia — or at least his own inner circle — while at the same time exploiting perceived weakness in Western societies to further his geopolitical ambitions.

Those ambitions did not come from nowhere. As a “KGB officer whose career was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a great sense of humiliation”, Belton says, “Putin had always wanted to restore Russia’s role on the world stage. Unfortunately, he chose the way of either undermining and disrupting other democracies or, as in Ukraine, directly invading”.

That desire to restore Russia’s former status appeared to take on a new dimension during Putin’s extreme isolation through the Covid pandemic, Belton suggests. Seemingly gripped by paranoia about the virus, he remained cooped up in his residence long after life in Russia had returned to normal, meeting even with his closest allies only via video conference or after they had undergone a mandatory two-week quarantine.

Belton cites the view of many analysts that Putin spent this time “poring over the history books” convincing himself that Ukraine was “part of Russian civilisation”, with those who had access to him only fuelling his paranoia and further distorting his worldview.

This period of isolation and Putin’s resulting delusion, she says, represents one of the “great tragedies of history”.

Putin’s People was always destined to make an impact. Upon its 2020 publication, it was met with both huge critical acclaim and a litany of lawsuits from some of Russia’s most prominent oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, all of whom claimed they had been defamed by Belton. Even state oil giant Rosneft, headed by long-time Putin confidant Igor Sechin, threatened Belton with legal action.

While the claims against Belton and her publisher were all eventually settled out of court, Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 gave Belton’s book an added significance. Its dissection of the Putin regime’s brutal modus operandi laid bare the mechanisms that had eventually led to full-scale war — and with the death of Alexey Navalny in February only serving as further evidence of Putin’s tyrannical cruelty, Belton says she felt an obligation to make the book freely available to Russian readers.

“Russians should know how their country has been hijacked by this ruthless clan of KGB men in all the exact detail”, as well as the “depths of cynical ruthlessness” to which the book’s “so-called ‘heroes’” have sunk, she says.

In the initial stages of the full-scale invasion, Russia’s failure to take Kyiv followed by Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv and Kherson briefly caused Putin’s reputation to “plummet” among members of that clan, for whom he was suddenly “no longer a guarantor of stability”. Two years on, though, the picture is very different: Western failure to adequately support Ukraine has allowed Putin to recover from early setbacks. Now, “the elites aren’t likely to turn against him because they think he’s winning, that they’re winning and that they can use this war as a way of redrawing global trade”.

It may be this renewed confidence and sense that he is “winning” that prompted Putin to order the killing of Alexey Navalny, though Belton stresses Navalny’s death may equally have been “a mistake or an overreach” brought on by the same cynicism and disregard for human life that she documents in Putin’s People. In any case, with the West in “disarray”, Putin feels he is untouchable: “He’s been allowed to act with impunity. So why not remove what he would see by now as a minor irritation?”

Crowds of mourners turn out for Alexey Navalny‘s funeral in Moscow, 1 March 2024. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA-EFE

Crowds of mourners turn out for Alexey Navalny‘s funeral in Moscow, 1 March 2024. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA-EFE

Yet Belton feels that Navalny’s death, whether the result of assassination or wilful neglect, may yet cause problems for Putin. While Navalny had posed little tangible threat to Putin’s authority since his imprisonment in 2021, his death provoked an outpouring of grief and defiance unprecedented for an increasingly totalitarian Russia.

“All the power, the entire might of the security state is with Putin and against these people”, Belton says of those who came out to pay their respects to Navalny in recent weeks. And yet, she says, “it feels like the start of something”. 

At the very least, Navalny’s supporters — many of whom now see his widow Yulia as the new figurehead of the Russian opposition — have the chance to “ruin the picture and rain on Putin’s parade” starting with the Noon Against Putin protests planned for this weekend’s presidential elections.

For Belton, it was a “great honour” when Navalny quoted from her book in his investigation into Putin’s billion-dollar Black Sea palace. Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov also added his endorsement last week upon the book’s release for free in Russian. Belton says she was struck by the response to Volkov’s endorsement — in particular, from Russians expressing their surprise that there are still some foreigners who see Russia as more than the bloodthirsty regime in power.

“Your country is a country that’s been seized by a KGB elite that’s fused with the mafia. And it’s a very particular KGB elite — a ruthless one from St. Petersburg, the very harshest clan”, she says. Yet, despite Russia being held hostage by this clan for almost 25 years, Belton is adamant she continues to believe in the country. “This is a country that can be different”, Belton says, adding that Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Putin.

Putin's People by Catherine Belton is freely available for download in Russian here.

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