Vladimir Putin is neither sick nor mad – he's the ruthless gangster

DOMINIC LAWSON: Vladimir Putin is neither sick nor mad – he’s the ruthless gangster he has always been

When we make a terrible misjudgment about someone , it is natural to make excuses for ourselves.

We decide ‘something changed’ in the person we thought we knew, when, in fact, we just didn’t understand them in the first place.

This, sadly, characterises much of the Western political establishment’s assessment of the recent actions of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Last week, for example, the former British ambassador in Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton, wrote, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an article entitled, ‘This isn’t the Vladimir Putin that I once knew’. Whereas the correct analysis is that Brenton didn’t really know Putin at all.

 We decide ‘something changed’ in the person we thought we knew, when, in fact, we just didn’t understand them in the first place. This, sadly, characterises much of the Western political establishment’s assessment of the recent actions of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, writes Dominic Lawson

Brenton is still a go-to analyst for the British media, popping up regularly on TV items about ‘what is really going on in Russia’.

But in the light of recent events, and his continued role as an ‘expert’ on Moscow — after all, he was our ambassador there and has held academic posts contingent on his vital insights — it is worth looking at an interview he gave to The Moscow Times in 2015.

This was a year after President Putin’s special forces annexed the strategically vital Ukrainian territory of Crimea (now the staging post for his troops to enter the rest of Ukraine from the south).

Cataclysmic

But Brenton told The Moscow Times (an independent newspaper, not a Kremlin mouthpiece): ‘One of the really depressing phenomena that the Ukrainian crisis has brought forward has been all these Cold War warriors coming out of their cupboards.

‘The story is that the bear is on the prowl again; they want to grab eastern Ukraine, which of course they don’t; they want to grab [the southern Ukrainian port city] Mariupol, which of course they never did.’

Tell that to the inhabitants of Mariupol, now being laid waste by Putin’s army.

 Last week, for example, the former British ambassador in Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton (pictured), wrote, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine , an article entitled, ‘This isn’t the Vladimir Putin that I once knew’. Whereas the correct analysis is that Brenton didn’t really know Putin at all

An insight into the reason for this cataclysmic misjudgment is Brenton’s repeated use of the word ‘they’ to describe the Russian government.

That presupposed it was some sort of collective leadership. It has not been anything like that for some years, as should have been obvious.

Putin is an absolute ruler — which is very much in the Russian tradition. Hence the old joke (sort of) that Russia is ‘an autocracy tempered by assassination’.

I do not have anything remotely approaching Brenton’s experience (my only journalistic work in Moscow related to covering the world chess championship there in 1985), but I knew enough to be able to write in 2006: ‘Mr Putin has been welcomed as a friend by both George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Both men, I suspect, feel he is a colleague in every respect.’

I went on to warn: ‘This is a great illusion. Government in Russia, like most of Russian business, is dominated by gangsterism.’ 

And that is why, in 2016, I wrote that the British Government’s attempts to suppress the publication of the report into the murder by Russian agents of Alexander Litvinenko (a British citizen), because they didn’t want to damage relations with the gangster in the Kremlin, was ‘on the spectrum between distasteful and disgusting’.

The British Government’s desire to let the cleansing waters of diplomacy wash away the fact that Putin’s killers had created what amounted to a nuclear incident in London (the murder weapon had been a lethally radioactive isotope from a Russian state-owned nuclear power station) only encouraged the poisoner in the Kremlin to go further on this path.

As he did, in 2018, when two FSB assassins travelled to Salisbury in an attempt to murder the Russian military defector Sergei Skripal (also a British citizen). The weapon this time was not nuclear but chemical, in the form of novichok — a lethal substance which Russia claimed, in accordance with the relevant arms reduction treaty, it no longer even possessed.

It killed, instead, Dawn Sturgess, who was given the discarded perfume bottle which the assassins had used to contain the novichok.

And that is why, in 2016, I wrote that the British Government’s attempts to suppress the publication of the report into the murder by Russian agents of Alexander Litvinenko, (a British citizen), because they didn’t want to damage relations with the gangster in the Kremlin, was ‘on the spectrum between distasteful and disgusting’

Heinous

Afterwards, Dean Haydon, the senior national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism policing, told a press conference: ‘The amount of novichok in that bottle was quite significant, and could have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people.’

Frankly, if Putin was prepared to risk the death of thousands of Salisbury residents with a chemical warfare product, why should anyone suppose that the invasion of Ukraine — a state which he has long described as properly Russia’s — showed that he had only now ‘changed’?

He was never the cautious ‘chess player’ of allegedly Russian stereotype: the assault on Ukraine is merely the latest — and most heinous — of a succession of murderous gambles.

To be fair to the governments in Washington and London, they repeatedly warned — despite all of Putin’s denials in pointless negotiations with the likes of President Macron of France and the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — that Russian troops were going to mount a full-scale invasion (or what this former KGB officer insists on calling ‘a special operation’). They had the intelligence, and published it.

 A week before the troops massing on the border were sent in — but later than the date indicated by London and Washington — Sir John Sawers (pictured) told Ben Judah in an interview for the Atlantic Council: ‘The idea that Putin was actually going to invade the whole of Ukraine … I never thought that was a realistic prospect’

But even then, the man who was for five years head of our own intelligence service, MI6, publicly said that this was not the sort of thing that Putin would do.

A week before the troops massing on the border were sent in — but later than the date indicated by London and Washington — Sir John Sawers told Ben Judah in an interview for the Atlantic Council: ‘The idea that Putin was actually going to invade the whole of Ukraine … I never thought that was a realistic prospect.’

Why not, Sir John? On second thoughts, don’t bother to answer: it’s bound to be some version of ‘This is not the Putin I knew’. In that context, it is equally predicable that many of those embarrassed experts are now asserting that Putin has only done this because he has ‘gone mad’, or ‘is sick’.

Thus, last month, the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, declared: ‘I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with Putin.

‘He has always been a killer, but his problem now is different and significant. It would be a mistake to assume this Putin would react the same way he would have five years ago.’

Thus, last month, the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (pictured), of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, declared: ‘I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with Putin

Worthless

Well, Senator Rubio will have had access to U.S. intelligence reports; but for what it is worth, a highly experienced friend of mine from that sphere of government work told me last week: ‘All this talk of Putin having gone insane is worthless speculation, at best.

‘This is the same Putin as ever, and from his point of view what he is doing now is absolutely consistent with his beliefs and what he sees as in Russia’s interests.’

As for Putin being ill: does he look frail, or even confused? I don’t think so.

Perhaps, in the colloquial sense, the most we can say is that power has gone to his head (but he is not deluded in believing that, even now, he retains the support of the majority of Russians).

As for Putin being ill: does he look frail, or even confused? I don’t think so

It is also true that he has more control within the domestic political system than at any time: there are no longer the checks, both in strategy and tactics, that there might have been previously.

But what that means is that he is more able to be ‘himself’. We are seeing Vladimir Putin as he really is, and always was, undiluted by constraint.

Russians — some of them — understand this better than anyone.

After Putin began his unspeakably cruel and bloody assault on independent Ukraine and its people, the Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin wrote: ‘For Putin, life itself has always been a special operation.

‘From the black order of the KGB, he learned not only contempt for ‘normal people’, but also [its] main principle: not a single word of truth…

‘With this war, Putin has crossed a line. The mask is off.’

So many ‘experts’ in the West saw only the mask, and confused it with reality. A period of silence on their part would now be most welcome.

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