Investigative reporter and former Financial times journalist Catherine Belton dug deeper. His revolutionary book, The people of Putin: how the KGB brought back Russia and then the West, offers a much more terrifying version. Putin was a senior liaison with the Stasi, the East German secret police, she suggests. And Dresden was a key base for KGB operations, including deadly ones, in which Putin would have played a direct role.
In the course of its struggle against capitalism, the Politburo has funded radical terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. He supported the Red Army faction, the far-left outfit that led a series of deadly attacks in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. Belton finds a former member who remembers his secret trip to East Berlin. From there, he was taken to Dresden for meetings with Comrade Putin and another KGB officer.
The KGB gave the West Germans arms and money. And he recommended possible targets. One could be Alfred Herrhausen, the head of Deutsche Bank, who exploded in 1989 with a sophisticated bomb on the way to work, weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moscow’s goal was to disrupt and “wreak havoc in the West,” said the ex-terrorist in Belton, a mission that Putin would aggressively pursue in the Kremlin as prime minister and president.
The story is one of several breathtaking revelations. Belton gives a frightening account of Putin’s rise to power and his personal corruption. Previous books have been written on the same theme, including the remarkable Karen Dawisha Putin’s kleptocracy. But Belton offers the most detailed and compelling version to date, based on dozens of interviews with oligarchs and Kremlin insiders, as well as with former KGB agents and Swiss and Russian bankers.
The KGB has widely used slush funds and shell companies to finance Western Communist parties. Belton suggests that Putin uses a similar model of money laundering. In the 1990s, he got a job with the mayor of Saint Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. Putin worked hand in hand with organized criminals who controlled the city’s port and oil refinery. He has accepted bribes and siphoned money from oil-for-food projects, the book says.
Once he succeeded Boris Yeltsin, this corrupt model was rolled out nationwide. Putin expelled leaders of the Yeltsin era, replacing them with KGB friends. The new president had one goal: to restore Russia as an imperial power. Putin and his allies believed that the return of a strong state and their personal wealth were linked. They saw themselves as “anointed guardians,” Belton argues, empowered to take over key sectors of the economy and make money.
Exiled oligarch said Putin ordered Roman Abramovich to buy Chelsea to raise Russia’s profile among ordinary Britons
In a remarkable chapter, Belton names individuals who would be the financiers of Putin. One of them is Jean Goutchkov, the grandson of a white Russian aristocrat and former HSBC executive in Geneva. Another is Gennady Timchenko, an oil trader who would act as a “guardian” of Putin’s wealth. (Timchenko denies this.) Guchkov is part of a well-developed international network that helped Moscow in the Soviet era and is now correcting Putin, she writes.
Collectively, Putin and his team from St. Petersburg run the state along with criminal clans, said Belton. There is a common cash pot called obschak. It can be used for personal projects, such as the lavish $ 1 billion palace built for the president by the Black Sea. A whistle-blower tells Belton that insiders working on the secret villa referred to Putin using nicknames, including “Michael Ivanovich”, a police chief of a Soviet comedy, “the daddy” and “the number one.” At other times, they pointed at the ceiling.
The people of Putin tells how these same slush funds can be deployed for political purposes. They can be national: faking an election, for example, or influencing events abroad. Similar to his mission to Dresden, Putin spent considerable resources to overthrow Western democracies. He bought leading politicians and funded far-right parties that divide across Europe. In Belton’s clear eyes, Russia is using capitalism as a weapon to “take revenge” on the hated West.
Nowhere is this more evident than in London. The British political and professional class has been particularly greedy, says Belton. Peers have secured jobs on the boards of Moscow state-owned companies, while the London Stock Exchange has helped buy out these same dubious companies. (New York, on the other hand, has stricter rules.) The Kremlin barons bought Kensington. Significant amounts of Russian emigrants flocked to Boris Johnson’s conservative party, including before the last election.
Belton’s analysis is relentless and compelling. There are moments of gobsmacking. According to Sergei Pugachev, a government insider in oligarch exile, Putin personally led Roman Abramovich in 2003 to buy the Chelsea Football Club. The goal was to raise the profile of Russia, among the elite and ordinary British, says Pugachev. The acquisition was part of a larger infiltration of the west by Moscow, via dirty money. “It felt like a virus was injected,” writes Belton.
Meanwhile, the defining episodes of the Putin era are presented in a new light. In 2002, armed Chechen fighters seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, taking nearly 900 people hostage. It’s Igor Sechin, Putin’s doorman and lieutenant, who made the fateful decision to use deadly chemical gas to knock out terrorists, an insider reveals. At least 115 hostages have died. Sechin is also said to have ordered a judge to sentence Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch imprisoned in 2005 for fraud.
This is a superb book. Its only flaw is a heavy dependence on well placed anonymous sources. Talking publicly about the Kremlin’s corruption is dangerous, as shown by the fate of Alexander Litvinenko in polonium. However, the lack of names can be frustrating. Belton writes about a Russian who “slipped through the cracks” to become “close friends of Johnson” when the future Prime Minister was mayor of London. Alas, she does not identify him.
There are admirable formal talks with key figures in the Putin court, including a KGB officer who became Minister of Railways Vladimir Yakunin. Yakunin and other secret service figures rejoice in the evolution of the world: Brexit, Donald Trump and the decline of the liberal order. This has been possible, says Belton, because of the West’s desire to put business above morality. Putin thinks that anyone can be bought and so far he is right.
Luke Harding Ghost State: Murder, Chaos, and Russia’s Reconstruction of the West to be released by Guardian Faber in June
• Putin’s people: how the KGB took over Russia and then took the West by Catherine Belton is published by William Collins (£ 25)