Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, drives around Moscow in a car equipped with flashing lights and a siren. You know, like an ambulance, a police cruiser or the limousine of a high government official accompanied by armed outriders.
This has drawn the attention of some intrepid, nay suicidal, journalists who at a press conference dared question Rosneft’s spokesman about the nature of Mr Sechin’s entitlement to such automotive privileges.
What followed is sufficiently instructive to tell you all you need to know about Putin’s Russia. Everything else can be confidently inferred.
Rosneft is the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, which no doubt makes Sechin’s job quite big. However, one wouldn’t think it’s big enough to turn its holder into the country’s second most powerful individual.
Yet in Russia it’s not the job that makes a man powerful but proximity to the throne, currently occupied by you-know-whom. And no one is closer to Putin than Igor Sechin, not even Donald Trump.
The two graduates of Leningrad University have been good friends for 30 years, since the glory days of the KGB First Chief Directorate, for which Sechin worked under diplomatic cover in Mozambique.
When he returned to Petersburg in 1999, he embarked on a stratospheric career as Putin’s flunky, following the good colonel from job to job and from city to city. He was Putin’s chief of staff in Petersburg, then second-in-command in several government offices led by Putin, then head of the prime minister’s (Putin’s) secretariat, then deputy chief of President Putin’s administration.
Then, as a temporary downturn in his career, Sechin did a stint as deputy prime minister under Medvedev. But his most important and present job came Sechin’s way in 2004 when, according to the American global intelligence company Stratfor, he became “the FSB’s hand in Russia’s energy sector.”
In that capacity Sechin led two raids on Yukos, which led to its head Khodorkovsky going to prison for 10 years and Sechin’s Rosneft plundering his assets, thereby growing to its present size.
Whereas in the West political power usually follows economic success, in Russia the sequence is reversed. Thus Sechin owes his economic prowess to having hitched his wagon to Russia’s political star, Putin. Rosneft is his bonus for loyalty; his growing political power is its ineluctable consequence.
Sechin became a major geopolitical player, for example securing deliveries of armaments and nuclear technology to Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Especially relevant to his political influence in today’s world is the $500-billion joint offshore venture that Rosneft formed in 2012 with Exxon, at that time led by Rex Tillerson, Trump’s appointee for Secretary of State.
Tillerson married Sechin in the nick of time: two years later the US government sanctioned Sechin in response to Russian aggression against the Ukraine. The sanctions include a travel ban to the US, freezing of all Sechin’s US assets and a ban on business transactions between US citizens and Sechin.
How the US Congress will view Tillerson’s appointment and its potential conflict of interest is anybody’s guess, but it’s not my subject here. Suffice it to say that Sechin is justifiably regarded as Putin’s unofficial second-in-command in Russia and a persona non grata in the West.
Now I’ve mentioned these two geographical entities in the same sentence, let’s allow our imagination to run free. Imagine an influential American oilman, say Tillerson as he recently was, abusing his position by claiming privileges to which he isn’t legally entitled.
Let’s further imagine that his PR spokesman is queried about such abuses at a press conference. What would be the spokesman’s reaction? I can’t see anything beyond abject grovelling, claims of some misunderstanding and promises to correct the situation immediately.
It can’t be otherwise: in the West the Fourth Estate is a power to be reckoned with. When the press casts aspersion on a public figure’s probity with ample justification, he’d better try to talk his way out of trouble in a most woebegone way. For trouble is what he’s in even if the president is his personal friend.
No president will be able to save the culprit’s career if he’s guilty as charged: the press in the West is immune to the vertical pressure exerted by government (though not to the horizontal pressure exerted by social trends, these days predominantly political correctness).
If you accept that this is a test of a relatively free society, observe how gloriously Mikhail Leontiev, Sechin’s VP for public relations fails the test.
He responded to the perfectly natural and polite question in the language a cultured Russian of 100 years ago wouldn’t have used even when chastising a domestic servant: “Please, go f*** yourself” (note the polite use of the magic word), “What the f***?” “Stop picking up s***.”
Say no more. He who has any analytical aptitude will use this little incident to reconstruct the big picture of Putin’s Russia – one truer to life than that painted by either ignorant or disingenuous apologists (Peter Hitchens, ring your office).