I’ve translated this slightly abridged article by the German journalist Boris Reitschuster as a rare example of a Westerner who actually knows and understands Russia, where he was a correspondent for many years.
After the Navalny poisoning, ridiculous theories and rumours began to spread in Germany. One gets the impression that everyone has become an expert on Russia overnight. Yet many statements one encounters only testify to mass ignorance.
“The poisoning only harms Putin” is something one hears over and over again here in Germany. This shows a complete lack of understanding of both the balance of power in Russia and Putin’s personality. Alas, we apply our Western standards to the conditions prevalent in the world’s biggest territory. However, those conditions are incomparable to ours.
If Putin were indeed harmed by the well-known murders of his opponents, then, by Western standards, he’d hardly be able to retain his post afterwards. This logical inference lays bare the fallacy of such views.
In reality, it’s exactly the other way around: Russian rulers, not only during Putin’s tenure but, with a few exceptions, over centuries, have always relied on domination and violence. Their underlings knew: whoever rebels against them will be in trouble. Fear is the highest principle of Russian government.
We in the West find it hard to imagine that Putin’s KGB colleagues and other supporters glorify, or at least respect, him for eliminating his enemies. The Kremlin boss comes across as a ‘strong leader’, a ‘piranha’ punishing its opponents.
All this is part of a PR spectacle that also includes photographs and videos showing Putin with a bared torso, as a tiger tamer or a Kalashnikov wielder. We find this risible because this ritual show of strength is alien to us. For Putin, however, it’s par for the course.
What amazes me about the poisoning of Navalny, whom I know personally and view rather critically, is the number of people and especially my colleagues who have suddenly become experts on Russia, capable of offering their ‘competent’ assessment of the event. I, for example, would be extremely cautious about commenting on the events in the US, Turkey or other countries about which I know next to nothing.
These ‘experts’ know no Russian, aren’t familiar with the Russian media and usually have never even been to Russia, except perhaps for a short visit. They make up for this deficit of knowledge with loud voices and strong ‘convictions’. This leads to glaring errors of judgement.
Why did this murder attempt happen at this time? ask Putin’s acolytes. Because Putin always talks about fearing street demonstration more than he ever has since his stay in Dresden.
That’s what’s happening in Belarus, where hundreds of thousands have come out into the streets, hugely affecting Russia herself. And in the Far East, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people have been demonstrating for weeks under the slogans of “Putin is a thief” or “Imprison Putin”. Coronavirus has crushed Russia’s economy. People sometimes have no money even for food. The situation is dire. Dissatisfaction is increasing steeply. Putin’s ratings are at an all-time low. At the same time Navalny spends every day uncovering the corruption and steady enrichment of the Putin elite.
How naïve do my colleagues have to be to deny a motive here? How badly do they want to pervert the facts?
Putin’s supporters claim reproachfully that the presumption of innocence should apply to him. That’s nonsense. This legal principle applies only to criminals, not politicians. Opponents to Putin have been murdered for 20 years, and it’s beyond my scope here to enumerate all the victims, many of whom I knew personally.
Boris Nemtsov told me a few months before his murder: “He’ll kill me, and I even know why”. That murder happened because he had said publicly that Putin was “buggered”. In Russian, that’s the worst insult, which no Mafioso can countenance. Responding to a question about Nemtsov’s murder, Putin later said: “He went beyond personal, but that doesn’t mean he had to be executed.” Not a single word of regret or empathy was uttered.
Any more questions? The murder of opponents has for over 100 years been the hallmark of the KGB, whence Putin comes. And this is a tradition he proudly acknowledges and regularly hails. Just imagine a German politician extolling the Gestapo and admitting to affection for it!
Stalin once said: “No man, no problem”. After the attempted murder of the defector Skripal, Putin declared that traitors must be liquidated. The evidence in the Skripal case is so transparent that it’s simply astounding that many still deny a conspiracy. Also astounding is that the West didn’t respond to that and other such crimes with serious and telling sanctions against Putin. The evidence of the polonium murder of Litvinenko can be traced back all the way to Moscow, because the radioactive poison left traces everywhere, even in Hamburg. So Germans were in danger too.
More than 3,000 people came in contact with the radioactive substance in London. That’s state terrorism. Litvinenko was poisoned shortly before he was to testify before Spanish judges trying the Petersburg-Tambov Mafia that has close links to Putin. The British government wanted to cover up that murder altogether – business comes first. Superrich Russians are a huge economic factor in London. The Stock Exchange there depends on Russian money. This shows up the absurdity of those who aver that the West simply wants to trip Putin up. It’s the other way around: the West and many here want Russian business and billions.
Litvinenko’s widow had to sue the British government, for there was no other way to make it continue the investigation. The British judge ruled that the murder had been ordered by the Kremlin. The evidence was more than clear. The message to Putin: you can continue to get away with your dirty work without fear of consequences.
By the way, Litvinenko’s murderer now sits in the Russian parliament and Putin awarded him one of Russia’s highest decorations. That happened shortly after the Nemtsov murder. It was proved that his murderers had links to the president of Chechnya, Kadyrov. Tellingly, Putin rewarded that murder with medals too. And after this, some people still insist on the presumption of Putin’s innocence.
Litvinenko’s murderer stated in parliament that Navalny could have been poisoned with novichok only in Germany, in the Berlin Charité clinic. Hence the attack on Navalny is a foreign provocation.
I can’t say definitively that Putin personally ordered the Navalny murder, though I could say a lot about Putin’s cherished ‘vertical of power’. But I can indeed say definitively that Putin bears a total political responsibility for everything happening in Russia.
Because it was he who created a political system under which murderers get parliamentary seats and medals. Political murders in Russia are neither prosecuted nor even investigated. The opponents are dehumanised and described as ‘fascists’. It was under that system that Navalny wasn’t allowed to go abroad immediately after the poisoning. And his wife wasn’t even allowed to see him. It was under that system that an attempt was made to prevent the emergency landing at Omsk of the plane carrying the dying Navalny.
The attempted murder of Navalny is unlikely to have consequences. After all, the 2019 murder of a Kremlin opponent in Tiergarten, a few minutes’ walk from the Chancellery, resulted in the expulsion of several Russian diplomats. That’s it. There was only one danger in store for Putin: he could have died laughing.
It’ll be more of the same this time. One of Merkel’s great successes is that she pretends to be Putin’s opponent, whereas in fact she’s his closest ally. They are alike, which is no wonder: they were both reared in professional communist organisations. Merkel has created the impression that our media are critical of Putin, whereas in fact it’s the opposite. Just think: who’s attacked more in the press, Putin or Trump?
Yet consider the differences between them: has Trump attacked his country’s neighbours? Killed political opponents? Imprisoned them? Was it Trump’s soldiers who, like Putin’s in the Ukraine, shot down a civilian airliner, killing almost 300 people? Or was it Russia that was held responsible for that crime by an international board of inquiry? However, in spite of these critical differences, Putin is much more popular here than Trump. I wonder why.
Many Germans are so disappointed with the media that they keep their eyes closed. Because they don’t know Russian they don’t realise that, rather than castigating Putin, our media are letting him off the hook.
I’ve experienced that myself, when I was deemed too critical of Putin for Focus magazine and even for our talk shows. Their policy was clear: one was allowed to criticise Russia’s deficit of democracy. However, Putin’s attempts to foment conflicts and his links with the Mafia are taboo. I know many colleagues from big papers who aren’t allowed to write about Putin because they are too critical.
When things aren’t going well for Putin, he can always rely on Merkel: it was she who prevented the Ukraine and Georgia from joining Nato. That cut the supply of arms to the Ukraine after Putin’s invasion. Merkel is pushing through Putin’s most important project: the Nord Stream II pipeline. It was she who cautioned against help for Belarus and pre-empted any sanctions. When it comes to Merkel, her words and deeds – and not only in relation to Russia – are diametrically opposite. I know this from politicians also trained in communist organisations. Westerners who have no such experience are usually incapable of understanding this. Merkel is Putin’s favourite woman – mainly because she hides this so cunningly.