We like people for something; we love in spite of everything. Love transcends, sometimes contradicts, reason, and it’s impervious to facts.
Thus no evidence of Putin’s beastliness will extinguish the flicker of love in the hearts of his Western fans, all those Liddles and Hitchenses, not to mention Merkel and Macron. However, when expressing such feelings in writing, professional integrity demands that affection be explained and justified.
This is becoming harder by the day. If extolling Putin’s kleptofascism only betokened ignorance, stupidity or immorality in the past, these days such encomiums may well rate a visit from men in white coats. Realising this, our Putin lovers keep shtum, and one has to praise their prudence. They know that valour isn’t the only thing discretion is the better part of.
But those of us who love not Putin but truth find plenty of nourishment in the news. For example, a Russian cyber attack on US infrastructure has just been detected, and it far surpasses the scale of any previous such crimes.
The Americans only tumbled after the assault had lasted nine months, with the hackers penetrating the security of the Pentagon, FBI, Treasury, State Department and nuclear security agencies. The full scale of the information stolen and security compromised will never be known, but apparently the Russians could paralyse some vital functions at will, not just spy on them.
Having thus proved that the new-fangled electronic aspect of their hybrid warfare is ticking along nicely, the Russians also flexed their muscles in the more conventional arm. A squadron of 10 warships entered British waters the other day, bringing back fond memories of the Cold War and, one hopes, encouraging self-analysis on the part of the Royal Navy.
And then of course there is the amply documented report by the British investigative website Bellingcat, showing that an FSB murder squad had been trailing Navalny since 2017, before finally managing to poison him with novichok last August.
This subject came up the other day, during Vlad Putin’s press conference. Since the intrepid leader hasn’t left his bunker since Covid struck, the event was conducted by video link – unlike Western leaders, such as Trump, Johnson and Macron, Putin isn’t going to risk his precious health by indulging in face to face contacts.
Speaking from his underground haven, Vlad swore the Russians had nothing to do with the attempt on Navalny’s life. No, he didn’t bother to deny that the FSB had been tracking Navalny. After all, what do you expect, considering that this vermin is in the pay of US intelligence, as is everyone who disagrees with Vlad?
But the purpose of such tracking was strictly surveillance, not assassination. We would have had nothing to gain and much to lose from whacking him, said the peerless leader. That argument from expedience didn’t feature any moral aspect whatsoever, leaving the listeners in no doubt that, if Vlad indeed had something to gain, any annoying pest would be pushing up daisies.
Then came the incontrovertible proof of Putin’s innocence in this sordid affair. “Had we wanted to kill him,” said the KGB colonel, “we would have finished the job.” When I read that statement, I wiped my brow in relief. There was that exhaustive proof, more than sufficient to convince Liddle-Hitchens.
Alas, the rest of us can’t overcome some scepticism. For Vlad’s explanation presupposes that the KGB/FSB always acts with the kind of efficiency that’s beyond all other Russian institutions. When my alma mater whacks somebody, Vlad was effectively saying, he stays whacked.
That wasn’t true even in the golden days of the Cheka-GPU-NKVD-MGB-KGB (I left a couple of nomenclatures out). To name just one case, Trotsky survived numerous assassination attempts before Mercader’s ice axe caught up with him. One such attempt was led by the Mexican artist Siqueiros, who, along with the Chilean poet Neruda, was one of the bright lights in the NKVD’s Latin American network.
The Ukrainian nationalist leader Bandera also had escaped several attempts on his life before a KGB agent discharged a cyanide pistol into his face in Munich. And poisonings were often botched as well. For example, the Soviet defector Nikolai Khokhlov was poisoned with thallium in 1957, but lived to tell the tale, just.
Those were the times when KGB spies and assassins were selected mostly on the basis of their operational expertise. This is no longer the case: now that the KGB/FSB runs the country dictatorially, selection criteria are almost exclusively based on loyalty, ideally proximity, to the throne.
Today’s heirs to Dzerjinsky mostly specialise in protection rackets, extortion and suppression of dissent, reflecting Putin’s own raison d’être. That sinister organisation has always been evil and criminal, but these days such fine qualities are channelled into different conduits.
Several prominent dissidents, Politkovskaya, Bykov (a dissident only intermittently) and Kara-Murza were poisoned unsuccessfully, the latter twice. Politkovskaya was then dispatched by the common-or-garden bullet, but the other two are still kicking.
All such facts, and many more, are in the public domain. Putin knows this, and he is smart enough to realise that his ‘explanation’ had to come across as nothing but a cynical cop-out. Yet Vlad, drunk on his power, seems to be saying to the nay-sayers among us: “So what are you going to do about this?”
Nothing, really, other than pointing out that every word out of the mouth of Putin or any of his henchmen is a barefaced lie. Characteristically, this time even Liddle-Hitchens haven’t regaled us with their usual mantra of “Where’s your proof?” For once they are being smart.