Putin – the most dangerous man in the world

Ruthless: Russia’s president has imprisoned scores of anti-government demonstrators. © Reuters

Can Putin be stopped? The ruthless Russian president is guilty of outrageous criminal conduct both at home and overseas. And, today, his Kremlin power base looks more secure than ever.

The journalists fell on the report like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Published yesterday, after a long delay, its subject was Russian interference in British politics.

The UK parliamentary committee was damning in its verdict on the British government’s failure to confront the issue – and so was the verdict on Vladimir Putin’s government: “An immediate and urgent threat to national security.”

Russia’s relationship with the West has always been difficult. During the Cold War, its nuclear brinkmanship reached terrifying proportions, while its spies worked ceaselessly to undermine America and its allies.

But then came the collapse of communism, and the emergence of what appeared to be democracy in Russia. Some believed that the country might be welcomed back into the family of nations, observing the conventions of civilised discourse.

Instead, under Putin, many argue that it has taken a giant step backwards.

They say its democracy has proved a sham, with Putin manipulating the rules to keep himself in power and, finally, establishing himself as a virtual president for life. Political opponents have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges or met with violent deaths. Meanwhile, Putin and his key supporters have amassed huge personal fortunes.

Putin’s behaviour overseas has been just as shameless. In Britain, the former spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal were targeted by Russian agents using deadly poisons which also put the public in extreme peril.

Russian troops and their proxies have annexed Crimea and attacked Georgia and Ukraine, with a passenger plane full of civilians among their victims. In Syria, Putin has supported the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad, who slaughters innocent people with barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

Tensions have increased so much in recent months that theUN Secretary General António Guterres has warned of a “full-blown military escalation” between Russia and the West.

Putin has also revelled in cyber attacks and spreading false information. The GRU is believed to have masterminded a barrage of fake social-media posts designed to help Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential election.

Russia may also have interfered in Britain’s Brexit referendum and 2019 general election. Boris Johnson’s government declared that it had found no evidence of this – but according to yesterday’s report, it never bothered to look.

Bill Browder, a determined opponent of Putin, welcomes the report’s emphasis on another tactic – corruption. Putin, he believes, has gained influence in Britain via London-based oligarchs who have used their money to win over politicians. He describes Russia as a “Mafia state running a Mafia operation”.

But money, Browder believes, is also the main weakness of Putin and his allies. Browder is behind the Magnitsky Act, which – unlike the generally ineffective economic sanctions against Russia – targets individuals, denying them access to their overseas assets.

Can Putin be stopped?

Putin the boot in

Some say no. Russia is a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council, it has gas reserves on which western Europe is heavily reliant, and Putin does not care what anyone thinks of him. So, as the invasion of Crimea showed, nothing can be done to bring his rogue state to heel. And since he has crushed his opponents within Russia, there is no prospect of him being replaced as leader.

Others argue that Moscow is fond of sabre-rattling, but history shows that it often backs down when faced by unified opposition. Putin and his cronies are motivated by money as much as power, and there are many ways sanctions can hurt them. Russia’s economy is relatively weak: the USA’s is 10 times larger. And with green energy coming to the fore, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas will fall.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in a strong country with a wicked leader or a weak country with a virtuous one?
  2. Should Russia be expelled from the United Nations?

Activities

  1. Putin loves to be photographed taking part in sports like hunting and deep-sea diving. Do a collage of him playing hopscotch.
  2. Before he became a politician, Putin was a KGB agent in East Germany. On two sides of a piece of paper, write a story about meeting him then.

Some People Say...

“Artificial intelligence is the future […]. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

Vladmir Putin, Russian politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most agree that the US’s recent foreign policy has played into Putin’s hands. Its reluctance to engage in another overseas war left the door open for Putin to befriend President Assad and greatly increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East; Egypt too has gravitated towards Russia. By supporting the Kurds’ bid for independence, the US pushed Turkey into Putin’s arms. In Afghanistan, Trump allowed Putin to get away with offering the Taliban a bounty for attacking US forces.
What do we not know?
Whether Putin has a coherent plan for furthering Russia’s interests. Some experts believe that he is basically an opportunist who likes to make trouble for his enemies whenever he gets a chance. According to the Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov, “When you are trained by the KGB, it means you see the world in terms of threats […]; you do not have strategy, you rely on tactics. Because you don’t know what the next threat might be, you only respond.”

Word Watch

Brinkmanship
Trying to achieve an advantageous outcome by pushing dangerous events to the brink of active conflict.
President for life
Putin has just made an amendment to Russia’s constitution, removing the limit on the number of times he can serve as president.
Trumped-up
Invented as an excuse or a false accusation.
Amassed
Gathered together or accumulated (a large amount or number of material or things) over a period of time.
Alexander Litvinenko
Litvinenko died in 2006 after being exposed to a radioactive substance called polonium, apparently hidden in a teapot.
Sergei Skripal
A victim of the Salisbury poisonings, along with his daughter Yulia. Both became dangerously ill, but survived. Police identified their would-be killers as two members of Russian military intelligence, Anatoliy Vladimirovich and Alexander Mishkin.
Proxies
People authorised to act for someone else.
Annexed
Forcibly acquired another state’s territory, which is generally considered illegal.
Passenger plane
A Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 298 people was shot down over Ukraine in 2014. Dutch investigators concluded that Russian-backed rebels were responsible.
GRU
Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the equivalent of Britain’s MI6.
Bill Browder
US financier who invested very successfully in Russia, but fell foul of the government after exposing corruption in state-owned companies.
Oligarchs
People who are part of a small group holding power in a state. Aristotle coined the term “oligarch”. Like aristocracy, oligarchy means rule by the few, as contrasted with democracy, which is rule by the people. Oligarchs aren’t exclusive to Russia.
Magnitsky Act
Named after Browder’s tax adviser Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison, apparently after being beaten and denied medical attention. The act has become law in Britain and the US.
UN Security Council
The council is concerned with military affairs and has five permanent members: Russia, the US, the UK, France, and China. Any of these can veto a proposed resolution; Russia has done this far more frequently than the others.
Sabre-rattling
The display or threat of military force.
Cronies
Close friends or supporters. The term derives from a slang name for university.

Subjects

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