Parallel lines do converge

Who’s next?

Mr Euclid, meet Mr Lobachevsky? No, not quite. It’s Mr Stalin, meet Mr Putin.

Only a blind man would miss the unmistakable convergence between Stalin’s and Putin’s policies. One could mention any number of things: ideology of expansionism, militarisation of the economy, draconian prison terms for even the mildest dissent, suppression of even the slightest hints at free speech, hatred of the West, messianism, bans on books, indoctrination replacing education, propaganda replacing information, the leader’s will replacing government.

Mutatis mutandis, of course. Different times, different situation, different scale. That’s why the parallel lines haven’t yet merged into one all along their length. But they do touch at several points, and one such is the on-going purge of Russia’s top brass.

The pattern was set in 1937-1938 when Stalin had tens of thousands of officers arrested. Thousands of them, including three of the first five marshals, were executed.

Historians still argue about the reasons for the purge and its consequences. Some accept the official version of the purge having preempted a generals’ plot. Others insist it was merely a show of Stalin’s paranoia. Some claim the purge was provoked by fake documents concocted by the Nazis. Others insist it was merely an extension of the feud between Stalin and Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and godfather to most of its commanders.

Some say the purge weakened the Red Army, rendering it unable to resist the original Nazi thrust. Others, including the wonderful Victor Suvorov, argue that the purge weeded out the dross, actually making the army stronger.

As you can see, even hindsight doesn’t necessarily clarify Russian events. In the absence of it we can only guess why Putin has decided to start this assault on his top brass. But an assault is definitely under way.

It started on 23 April, when Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov was arrested and charged with bribery and corruption. Since then Lieutenant-General Yuri Kuznetsov, head of personnel at the defence ministry, and Major-General Ivan Popov, former commander of Russia’s 58th army, have also been arrested on the same charge.

Following them into prison the other day was Lieutenant-General Vadim Shamarin, deputy chief of the General Staff. He too has a bribery charge to answer. And Defence Minister Shoigu has been moved sideways, although not yet put in prison.

These are the most visible cases, but there are others as well. Also under arrest is Vladimir Verteltsky, head of procurement at the Defence Ministry. And numerous generals have been sacked, such as Lieutenant-General Alkhmedov, commander of the 20th army.

Now, if the officers were really nabbed for what they are accused of, I can save Russian jurisprudence the cost of trials. All the defendants are guilty as charged – just compare their relatively modest incomes with their opulent lifestyle. Military salaries don’t really stretch to yachts, Mediterranean villas and suitcases full of dollars under the bed.

However, the same charge can be levelled against any member of the Russian civilian or military elite, including Putin himself and every one of his ministers. Bribery and pilfering are the lifeblood of Russia: that’s how the country lives, that’s how things get done at every level – or not, as the case so often is.

Therefore, when several top military leaders are arrested within a month, bribery has to be the pretext, not the reason. And the reason must be serious enough for Putin to order the purge in the middle of a war, an action that can easily dent morale even further.

One doesn’t have to go too far out on a limb trying to figure out what caused the purge. It’s the war against the Ukraine that was supposed to be won within days, weeks at the outside. Two years and three months later blood continues to gush, but victory is nowhere in sight.

This was bound to create a double problem: Putin’s unhappiness with the army and the army’s unhappiness with Putin or at least his entourage.

The first is more momentous and febrile because Russia’s military strength is Putin’s only leverage in his confrontation with the West. The other lever, energy exports, has been broken by Western sanctions – not because the Russians couldn’t find ways to circumvent them, but because the West showed it could comfortably survive without Russian oil. That removed the firing pin from the blackmail weapon.

Now the army supposedly built to take on the combined strength of NATO has shown itself unable to take care of a grossly outmanned and outgunned Ukraine. And Putin’s plans are even more ambitious than Stalin’s.

Like his role model, Putin has Europe, especially its eastern half, in his sights. But Stalin had no immediate designs on Africa, whereas today’s Russia deploys a large military contingent, the African Corps, in Burkina-Faso. Its officers don’t bother to conceal that they plan to see action in Libya, Mali, Central African Republic and Niger.

Another parallel is crying out to be drawn, this one with Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

In general, Putin’s regime has many features in common with Hitler’s, not just Stalin’s. The accent on blood-and-soil nationalism, with the Russians portrayed as racially superior to the West, smacks of the Nazis’ secular mysticism. Also Putin’s ideological archaism is more NSDAP than CPSU. Stalin was out to communise Europe in the name of Marx; Putin wants to Russify it in the name of God.

And now all those best-laid plans lie in ruins all over Eastern Ukraine. Hence Putin’s frustration and hence also his urgent need for scapegoats. He himself is of course above blame, so it has to be assigned elsewhere.

That’s where the ubiquitous corruption of the Russian officials comes in handy. They all live not only high on the hog but also on borrowed time. Attached to each one in the FSB annals is a fat kompromat dossier documenting every bribe, every incident of pilfering or misappropriation, every offshore account in Western banks.

That effectively turns them into hostages. At any moment, Putin could pick up any file at random and send his dogs out to fetch. And any subsequent trial would meet the most rigorous standards of Western legality: there would be heaps of incontrovertible evidence to send every defendant down for life.

Yet the army also has every reason to be unhappy with the Kremlin. Their feelings were vociferously vented by the late Yevgeni Prigozhin, who openly attacked the Defence Ministry for his shortages of ordnance and other supplies, including food and proper clothing. He even went so far as to fume about the “arsehole grandpa in the Kremlin”. Prigozhin didn’t name that senescent anus, but then he didn’t have to.

In the end, his Wagner Group openly mutinied and marched on Moscow. It took some trickery on the part of Putin’s stooge Lukashenko to persuade Prigozhin to stop the march when Moscow was already within swearing distance. Guaranteed personal immunity, Prigozhin then inadvertently exploded a hand grenade aboard a plane, or so goes the official version.

It would take unfounded guesswork to predict how far the convergence will go. Stalin’s purge of the army was accompanied by a similar cull of the Party and followed by a world war. This scenario is possible these days too, but there exist numerous other possibilities as well, few of them especially promising for either Russia or the world.

One possibility that doesn’t seem likely is an out-and-out mutiny of the Russian army or its high command. However, I can be pleasantly surprised.

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