Disliking Putin and his regime is good; understanding it is even better. In today’s article Bill Browder scores the highest marks for the former but only so-so ones for the latter.
Having first milked the devil for all it was worth, Browder is now on the side of the angels. Ever since he was kicked out of Russia in 2005, one step behind the millions he had made there, Browder has since been one of the most vociferous opponents of Putin in the West.
Back in Russia he had established a successful investment fund, capitalising on a close working relationship, not to say friendship, with Putin.
Browder may have used his family history to ingratiate himself to Russia’s KGB government. For his grandfather Earl was one of the founders of the American Communist Party and, more to the point, a career KGB (or NKVD) agent codenamed ‘Helmsman’.
That kind of lineage must have appealed to Putin, and Browder was allowed to operate in Moscow. But then a falling out occurred, and I’d rather not speculate why. Browder’s version is that he courageously fought against corruption and for shareholders’ rights, thereby enraging Putin.
I can’t offer any facts contradicting that story but, being by nature an incredulous sort, I suspect some of the reasons were less heroic. One way or another, Browder left with his money and his life intact, which is more than can be said for his legal counsel Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and tortured to death in prison.
Credit where it’s due, since then Browder has put his boundless energy to good use. He has campaigned tirelessly throughout his native America and adopted Britain for sanctions against the Russians, especially those directly involved in the Magnitsky case.
His efforts are most welcome – better late than never. Though he wouldn’t admit to this, Browder probably blames himself for Magnitsky’s death, and such feelings are commendable. But feelings, however praiseworthy, do not analysts make, and this is the role in which Browder casts himself in today’s article.
His conclusions are uncompromising and absolutely correct: there are only two possible outcomes to the ongoing war, and a give-and-take peace treaty isn’t one of them. Either the Ukraine wins or Russia does, and the latter possibility may well set up a cataclysmic scenario.
Hence the West must do all it can to give the Ukraine the tools to finish the job, although Browder has nagging, and justified, doubts about the West’s ability to sustain such exertion in perpetuity.
Yet the background to the story Browder sees in his mind’s eye is both shallow and platitudinous. The Russia he imagines had every prerequisite for success, and was only pushed back into squalor and violence by Putin and his fellow kleptofascists. This is a variation on the traditional theme of great-people-bad-tsar that has been played ad nauseum both by the Russians and their Western friends for centuries.
This is Browder’s take: “Russia shouldn’t have ended up this way. When Vladimir Putin was first elected, Russia had the support of the Western world, an educated population with a higher literacy rate than that of the United States, enormous natural resources, a fully built industrial base, and a rich cultural history.
“If Russia had been properly governed, it might now have a modern and large economy on a par with those of Germany or Japan. Instead, Russia’s economy has been hollowed out and is equivalent in size to the state of New York’s.
“This is because Putin and about 1,000 cronies have stolen at least $1 trillion from the Russian state over a 22-year period.”
The most essential quality an analyst can have is the ability to ask the next question, to plunge the spade another inch beneath the surface. In this case, the next question is: why? Why has that richly endowed population tolerated a government like that for 20-odd years? In fact, why did the people elect it in the first place?
I don’t wish to ascribe ulterior motives to Browder, but I do detect an element of self-vindication there.
Browder established his fund in 1996, during the Yeltsyn years, when Putin had just moved from Petersburg to Moscow to a relatively lowly post. At that time his future presidency wasn’t even a twinkle in Yeltsyn’s eye, but Russia had already been stolen blind.
The ruling elite formed by a confluence of KGB and Mafioso types was already in place, and Russia’s national resources were already being converted into foreign estates, palaces, yachts and offshore accounts. Arguments about the size of different pie slices were routinely settled with bullets, and Chicago c. 1925 had nothing on Moscow c. 1995.
Hence for all their literacy and the wealth of the whole Periodic Table under their feet, the Russians didn’t have a hope in hell. They lacked the one indispensable precondition for civilised government and prosperous economy: the rule of law or indeed a history of it.
This is the condicio sine qua non trumping all other conditions, including literacy and natural wealth. In its absence, free enterprise becomes gangsterism, democracy becomes anarchy, and people become feral, with nary a trace of civilisation among them.
Such was the pre-Putin Russia in which Browder landed, but I can understand his urge to ascribe all the subsequent troubles to Putin. Otherwise he’d have to own up to either not having understood Russia properly or else seen its plainly visible and monumental corruption as an opportunity.
In the first case, questions could be asked about his intelligence. In the second, about his morality.
Having been abused and impoverished by Yeltsyn’s parody of Western-style governance, the Russians yearned for what they knew and loved: a strong hand on the tiller – and to hell with democracy along with other Western perversions. And if Russia’s history had taught them anything, it was that the hand on the tiller must prove its strength by bashing in heads.
Putin, in whose person the streams of KGB and organised crime converged, gave them what they wanted, which Browder confirms:
“Shortly after taking power in Russia, he carpet-bombed the Chechen capital Grozny, killing 50,000 civilians. After that, his approval ratings shot through the roof. In 2008, he invaded Georgia.
“Again, his approval ratings sky-rocketed. In 2014, following a rigged election and Putin’s widely perceived illegitimate return to the Russian presidency, he illegally annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.
“Again, his approval ratings shot up.”
How come? Why, for example, do the ratings of American presidents tend to go down whenever the country embarks on a foreign foray, and Putin’s ratings go up each time? Whose fault is it? Just Putin’s?
In the early 19th century, having spent some 15 years as Sardinian ambassador to Russia, Joseph de Maistre offered a Gallic shrug: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
Russia certainly does, which was already plain in 1996 and was getting plainer throughout Browder’s activities there. Did he realise that? Did he care? These are the questions for his priest (or therapist) to pose and for him to answer.
For us it’s important to understand that the current troubles didn’t start with Putin. They didn’t even start with Yeltsyn, Gorbachev or for that matter Lenin. All those problems can only be understood in the context of the country’s entire history and its formative effect on the national character.
Starting from afar, in 1755 Italy had 35 universities, most of them with a long academic pedigree. How many did Russia have at the time? Well, in round numbers one, University of Moscow, founded in that very year.
Russia thus had to compress her entire intellectual history within a couple of centuries, not the millennia it had taken the West. Meantime, the Russians had to sustain themselves with cultural and intellectual hand-me-downs from the West, and borrowed clothes seldom fit well.
From the early 18th century, the tsars tried to plug the most obvious holes by importing hordes of foreign warriors, engineers, scientists and administrators. That eventually turned Russia into a great military power, while at the same time earning her such soubriquets as “the gendarme of Europe” and “the prison of nations”.
Nowhere in Europe was the chasm separating the rulers from the ruled as wide as in Russia. The two groups even spoke different languages, with the rulers preferring French or German, and sometimes even unable to express themselves in Russian.
The people were kept in bondage, poverty and ignorance. They kept their heads down most of the time, only occasionally rising in what Pushkin described as a “Russian revolt, senseless and merciless”.
The rulers tried to channel that destructive energy into an endless succession of foreign wars. When the Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839, he gasped: “This country is always on a war footing. It knows no peace.”
If Disraeli thought England was two nations, then Russia was that a thousand times over. The people’s moans were muffled by the rattle of the drums and the whining of the bugles. Eventually all those sounds formed a unity in the national psyche.
The Russians fixed in their minds a model of perfect rulers, and it was high on savage brutality, tyrannical autocracy and martial glory. That’s why bloodthirsty tsars like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, especially the latter, have always been seen as harsh but fair rulers.
Others, such as ‘False’ Dmitry, Peter III, Paul I, Alexander II and Nicholas II, were somewhat influenced by Western liberalism and Christian morality. They believed in giving hoi polloi some breathing space, while softening the inhuman treatment traditionally meted out by other tsars. This broke the familiar pattern, and the would-be liberators were – respectively – ripped to pieces, strangled, torn in half by a bomb and riddled with bullets (together with his whole family).
In the same vein, Stalin, who outdid all his predecessors in savagery, is still seen in Russia as a successful administrator who only had to murder millions of Russians out of necessity. In the words of the left-wing historian Isaac Deutscher (quoted from memory), “Stalin found Russia with the wooden plough and left her with the atom bomb.”
A state deriving its legitimacy from the brawn based on high-yield weapons has to act accordingly or risk losing the loyalty of the people. They in turn have to be sufficiently primed to accept guns as a satisfactory replacement for butter.
This is a constant process – when you ride a tiger, the most dangerous thing is to stop. Hence Browder correctly observes that Putin can’t survive an unsatisfactory end to his bandit raid. His physical, not just political, survival is at stake. Yet Browder’s apparent belief that Putin is the root of all Russian evil is definitely wrong, and possibly disingenuous.
This is neither just academic criticism nor an ad hominem. For clear understanding of truth is essential to forming correct policy. And the view of simon-pure Russians led astray by bad governments is so far from the truth as to be politically detrimental and strategically compromising.
Had Western chancers, waving the banner of the peace dividend, not rushed into Russia with their billions in subsidies, loans and technologies to wean the post-communist monster to its current kleptofascist maturity, we wouldn’t have today’s mayhem.
Said chancers thought (or pretended) they were legitimate businessmen and consultants. In fact they were a combination of a Mafia consigliere and a possibly unwitting KGB operative. The chickens they hatched have now come to roost, covered in blood.
It’s good to see Browder touting the good fight. However, when linked to a false interpretation of the situation, I’m not sure his efforts will do more good than harm.