God rot great men. Vladimir Putin, by any reasonable historical measurement, is a great man. He rose from the ruins of the Soviet system and the scale of his ambition to rewrite world power politics is still not fully appreciated by Westerners.
If he succeeds, as he may well, all of Europe will be changed. First the devouring of eastern Ukrainian statelets; next, Kyiv; and beyond that, look to the Balkans, the Baltics and much more. Yes, the risks are huge. This may well involve, as Boris Johnson put it, the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
But the prize! Countries and cultures we have learned to treat as near neighbours – the Baltics, Poland, Romania as well as Ukraine – would eventually be tugged into the choke of Muscovite authoritarianism. Westerners still can’t quite believe this because the scale of Putin’s ambition is beyond our cautious, sceptical, postmodern understanding. Putin is a Napoleonic figure, a giant from our pasts.
So, God rot him. Like the Corsican, he’d reshape his world using, for fuel, the blood of decent folk going about ordinary lives. On television we’ve seen them, talking and laughing in their familiar anoraks and bobble-hats, pushing prams, lugging shopping or with children balanced on their shoulders. For them, Putin has prepared a world of grief, disappointment and loneliness; he is a great man.
After our meeting, eight years ago in Sochi, it isn’t the ice-blue stare that I most remember. It is the way bureaucrats preparing for his arrival started to twist their mouths, frown and shake, a good 20 minutes before his helicopter landed. They seemed deeply scared, as if some local god was arriving. He recently publicly humiliated his head of foreign intelligence, who is in a similar state.
Even for those of us lucky enough to live beyond his immediate reach, Putin’s influence will be unavoidable. We will do things and think about things we would not otherwise have done. We will take in new refugees, fund and vote for more horrible weapons systems. As economic warfare ricochets in both directions, our online world, and its economy, will become fragile. There may be no post-Covid recovery.
Putin’s vision is not absurd. Long before Soviet times, Tsarist Russia thought of itself as a political force straddling Asia and Europe, a socially reactionary superpower with a mighty army. During the 19th and much of the 20th century, in the arts, in the quality of its writing, architecture, music and theatre, Russia had the pre-eminent European culture, even as it struggled to be taken seriously. Putin taps into deep Russia – witness his restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church to the centre of public life. He is serious about a great reshaping.
In a long, rambling speech on 21 February he insisted Ukrainian statehood was a fiction. Remember, then, his words to the Russian parliament in 2005: “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century… As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
Catastrophe. Genuine tragedy. These are the phrases of a man who will not be easy to deflect. And when Putin complains that the West has reneged on promises not to push Nato to Russia’s borders after the Soviet collapse, he is not, after all, wrong.
He complains of being fooled, lied to, belittled. Again, not entirely wrong. But none of this – not the long history, nor the behaviour of arrogant Westerners in the 1990s – justifies the appalling project he seems to be embarking upon.
That’s a “great man” for you. In the West we now believe in a different leadership model – the gentler, more cautious, rule-bound suits of the European Union and indeed Nato. Some of us are now led by women, with liberal and environmental agendas. European political culture has become, with some obvious exceptions, risk-averse and apologetic. Inevitably, we find it hard to understand Vladimir Putin.
An obvious exception is Boris Johnson, another leader with a touch of the “great man” obsession. Reading biographies of him, it isn’t the dysfunctional upbringing or the various deceits and misdemeanours that strike me so much as his long-standing admiration for the heroes of classical Greece and Rome. That’s worrying. Great men break the rules made for little people. What answer would Julius Caesar have given to Sue Gray? Or Pericles to the Metropolitan Police? The Conservative Party, still half-hypnotised by its leader, may not fully understand the trap it is now in. Even as Johnson promises to stem the flow of corrupt Russian money into London, it turns out that Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of one of Putin’s former ministers, has been giving his government secret advice.
In an excellent scoop, the Sunday Times has revealed the Tory “advisory board” of multimillionaire donors clustered around the government’s top team, telling ministers to wind down the pandemic and lobbying against higher taxes.
But the network of influential Russians digging deep into British public life goes far beyond Tory advisory boards. A study of Home Office data by the New Statesman shows that, since 2008, nearly a fifth of the “golden visas”, which allow the super-rich to buy their way to Britain, went to Russians.
In a recent debate on the use of aggressive “lawfare” to silence journalists, the Conservative MP David Davis cited both Roman Abramovich and the Russia-connected Mohamed Amersi – who also sits on the secret Tory advisory body of big donors. (By the way, the Home Secretary Priti Patel’s announcement on 17 February about ending golden visas gives the lie to the claim that back-bench MPs no longer matter, and that ministers don’t listen to what happens in the Commons.)
New Statesman readers know the Ukraine crisis may, in the short term, preserve Johnson’s leadership. He speaks of his pride in democracy. But modern democracies are based on laws, rules, norms and the separation of powers; they are a bad architectural fit for would-be great men. The pandemic exposed a side of the Prime Minister’s character that the country didn’t like. But will uprooting Kremlin-connected money from the Conservative establishment be, for him, any easier a task than dealing with the Covid crisis?
Johnson now says that he is going to “open up the matryoshka dolls of Russian-owned companies…” as part of a clean-up of “Londongrad”. It is, as we’d expect of him, a compelling image. But given the way power and money works in today’s London, can we trust him to deliver?
London’s political centre is now, inescapably, a Johnson property. His character, his instincts, touch everything. Conservative MPs must now decide what they think about this. Many are scared to act to remove him as leader, which is unsurprising. Even democratic politics is an earthy, sweaty, animalistic affair (there’s one for the English teachers). Johnson is not like Putin, of course, except in seeing himself as the “big dog” for whom all lesser, scurrying creatures must make way.
Thanks to Putin, those backbenchers backing away, looking for any excuse to do nothing, now have another excellent excuse. But they, and the ministers deluding themselves that they will not be personally affected by what’s been happening in No 10, will one day have to go to the country as Johnsonites, not as conventional Tories. That’s what big dog politics does.
Meanwhile, the opening tranche of UK sanctions announced by Johnson have been seen as pathetically inadequate. Keir Starmer has been restrained but suggested a much tougher approach. Around Westminster, there has been bafflement at the choice of just five industrial banks and three individuals to be sanctioned. There should have been no surprise; London has looked weak for a long time. If Johnson is serious about defending Western norms, decency and the rule of law, he will have to do much better than this.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls