Eight questions with Philip Short, the author of a new Putin biography, on the Russian president’s early years—and what Bill Browder got wrong
Jim Kelly – Air Mail – 23 July
Philip Short has made a name for himself as a first-rate biographer of complicated leaders such as Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, but his best work yet may be his most recent book, titled simply Putin. Having worked in Moscow for many years for the BBC, Short is ideally qualified not just to explore the life of Vladimir Putin but to place him in the context of his times and Russian history. No reader will come away from the book without a deeper and more subtle understanding of what the reign of Putin means for the world now and for years to come. And the West, especially the United States, has good reason to worry. Short lives with his family in the South of France.
JIM KELLY: You begin your book with a detailed dissection of the bombings and attempted bombings that shook Russia in 1999, which the government blamed on terrorists but many still believe were engineered by Boris Yeltsin’s preferred successor, Vladimir Putin, as a way of frightening the population and consolidating power. You strongly doubt this, and rather than get into your reasons why, can you explain why so many are so adamant in suspecting Putin?
PHILIP SHORT: Russian intellectuals have learnt over the centuries to expect the worst from their government, and their default reaction is to believe the authorities are lying. Americans, it should be said, have rather similar attitudes—look at how many people in the U.S. suspect that the powers-that-be are hiding the truth about the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. In both Russia and America, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” find a ready market.
So, from the moment the explosions in Moscow started in the late summer of 1999, opposition Russian newspapers started dropping heavy hints that they were false-flag operations and the government must have a hand in them. Then, a couple of weeks later, FSB agents were caught red-handed apparently trying to plant explosives in an apartment building in Ryazan, a provincial city south of Moscow, at which point the liberal Russian press said with one voice, “Look, we told you so—those bastards in the security services are doing this!”
The story was plausible, and the authorities produced very weak denials, and then made everything worse by sealing all the relevant documents for 75 years, which convinced everyone that they were hiding the truth. In fact, what they were trying to hide was their utter incompetence in the face of a murderous terrorist campaign. But that’s not how it came across.
So, not surprisingly, many Russians and many people in the West—though more in the U.S. than in Western Europe—convinced themselves that Putin had ordered the explosions to create a climate of fear in which Russians would turn to him as a strong leader to save them. When you dig deeper, you find that actually none of this stands up. What are widely accepted as “facts” turn out to be untrue. The chronology doesn’t fit. Salient elements have been ignored. It’s a classic case of two and two making five—which, by the way, is a rather persistent problem in the way we in the West view Russia.
J.K.: In 2001, George W. Bush met Putin for the first time and infamously said, “I was able to get a sense of his soul” and found him “very straightforward and trustworthy.” I daresay Putin has stopped showing his soul to Western leaders, but what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding Westerners have of Putin today?
P.S.: We oversimplify. We caricature. We like to see everything in black-and-white. [Former U.S. ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul, one of Putin’s harshest critics, has said that the U.S. press view of Russia is “cartoonized.” That’s not to say that there isn’t an awful lot that’s black in Putin’s Russia—there is. But he’s not the deranged dictator that the Western media and Western politicians often make him out to be.
From a Russian standpoint, a lot of what Putin is doing makes sense, but we don’t see that because we are not very good at putting ourselves in others’ shoes to try to understand how they see things. Many Russians—not just Putin—believe that the U.S., through NATO, has been slowly and deliberately moving the dividing lines in Europe—the old Iron Curtain—closer and closer to Russia’s border. When we in the West say, “Oh, but we don’t pose any threat to you,” that doesn’t cut much ice in Moscow. For the past 22 years or more, Russia and the U.S. have been talking past each other, because each refuses to see where the other is coming from.
J.K.: In that vein, what do Western analysts get right about Putin and his motives?
P.S.: They are correct when they say that what is taking place in Ukraine is an existential struggle both for the West and for Russia, and indirectly for China, too. Ukraine is the terrain on which this is being played out, but the core struggle is between Russia and America. Either NATO will be shown to be a paper tiger—a military alliance whose power, when push comes to shove, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be—or it will prove capable of inflicting a strategic defeat on Russia.
[U.S. Secretary of Defense] Lloyd Austin was not wrong in saying that America’s goal should be a strategic failure for Russia. [National-security adviser to President Biden] Jake Sullivan and [Deputy Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman have said much the same. But achieving that will be difficult, because to “defeat” Putin, Ukraine will have to push the Russians at least back to their pre-invasion positions in the Donbas. It’s hard to see that happening. Anything less—even if it’s only Russian control of the Donbas and a strip of the Black Sea coast—Putin can legitimately claim as a victory. To the extent that Russia is a proxy for China, fighting a U.S. proxy in the shape of Ukraine, that will be a victory for China, too.
J.K.: As a child, Putin was quite the handful, to put it mildly, and nearly got sent to reform school when he was 12 years old. Perhaps the least of his faults was his tardiness, which led his father to give him a wristwatch at a very young age, a gift that as you point out had zero effect, and to this day Putin is notoriously unpunctual. But on other fronts, obviously, Putin changed. What happened that made Putin turn so disciplined and ambitious?
P.S.: Do you really think Putin has changed? He was certainly a young tearaway as a child, but many of the character traits which were already visible then are still very much in evidence: a relentless determination to win, no matter what the cost; an ability to dissimulate and to hide his game; self-discipline and iron self-control. Even as a child, Putin would never give up—when thwarted, he doubled down. The ambition was always there. It showed in judo, where he became a national and potential European champion; it showed in his determination to go to law school (“about as likely as going to Mars,” as he said later). All through his political career, when he decides to do something, he gives it everything he’s got, regardless of the collateral damage. He may change his tactics but not the strategic goal, which is why the struggle with America will not end soon.
J.K.: Putin’s disdain for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is well known, but you suggest that helped lead some to overstate the impact Moscow might have had in helping Trump win, an allegation that dogged his administration all four years. What is your sense of the personal chemistry between Trump and Putin, and do you think Putin would welcome another Trump term?
P.S.: Putin ran rings round Donald Trump when he was president. The problem for Putin was that Trump failed to deliver what Putin wanted. At one level, he was seen in Moscow as a useful idiot—he exacerbated the dysfunctionality of American politics. He didn’t cause it—it started long before he came to power—but he certainly made it worse. Putin welcomed all that. On the other hand, relations between Russia and America got worse and worse while Trump was in power, and Putin certainly did not appreciate Trump’s unpredictability.
So I suspect he is torn about Trump returning. If he comes back, he will weaken NATO and muddy the waters in innumerable ways. But would Trump have the political strength to turn around U.S. relations with Russia? Very doubtful. On balance, Putin would probably welcome his return, but it would be with serious reservations. The Kremlin appears to have hoped that Biden’s election in 2020 would mean that the U.S. would be ready to start serious talks about Russia’s concerns about Ukraine and NATO enlargement, but Putin soon realized that that was not how the Biden administration saw things—and that disconnect has led us to where we are now.
J.K.: In his interview with AIR MAIL, Bill Browder estimates that Putin is worth $200 billion and derives his wealth from the oligarchs. As he put it, “The Russian government is a criminal enterprise and Putin is the mafia boss. When the oligarchs are asked to commit crimes on behalf of Putin, they always agree.” Your reaction?
P.S.: People like to pluck figures out of the air. Why $200 billion? What’s the evidence for that rather than $40 billion, as Stanislav Belkovsky claims? There is none. Nobody knows how much personal wealth Putin has or doesn’t have. Michael Morell, who was twice acting head of the C.I.A., told me he never saw any evidence that Putin had substantial personal wealth. I’d rather believe Morell than Mr. Browder and his friends who fantasize about imagined billions. As Morell says, “What’s he going to do with it?” Putin has access to anything he wants—palaces, yachts, you name it. Why does he need money? In Russia, money can be taken away at the drop of a hat. What counts is power. With power, you have everything.
As for Russia being a criminal enterprise and Putin the head of a mafia state, that shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Russian polity. Russia is deeply corrupt, the rule of law is a fiction, protection of private property is a joke, and basic democratic freedoms are being squeezed out of existence. But it is not a mafia state. It is a patrimonial state, where Putin—like the czars before him—gives the new nobility the ability to make huge fortunes from inflated government contracts, and they in turn give him unstinting political support.
The same happens lower down the scale at every level of society. The word “oligarch” is a misnomer. There were oligarchs in Russia in the 1990s in the sense of powerful business tycoons who played a direct political role. There are no longer. Under Putin, there are business magnates who cultivate close links with the Kremlin but who have no influence whatever on political decision-making and whom Putin views as totally dispensable. I’m not clear what “crimes” Browder thinks these nonexistent “oligarchs” are supposed to commit on Putin’s behalf—the Kremlin uses the security services for tasks of that kind. The business magnates keep their heads down and just try to survive.
J.K.: The tabloid press, noted for its medical expertise, has Putin suffering from a variety of ailments and several times has had him on the brink of death. Is there any reliable reading on his health?
P.S.: Wishful thinking, I’m afraid. I’ve watched him on a daily basis for nearly 10 years. Yes, he’s older, he’s put on weight, he works out less. But there’s no evidence whatever that he is ill. A sick man does not put himself through the kind of punishing schedule of official events that Putin does every day. He’ll be around for another 10 to 15 years, whether as president or in some other capacity.
J.K.: You do a remarkable job of helping us understand Putin’s view of Russian history and his belief in the decline of the West as a moral force. So much of what he has done in the past few years, including the invasion of Ukraine, flows from Putin’s worldview, and most of the world now views Russia very differently than just six months ago. Do you think Putin, after more than 20 years in power, has so convinced his people of his worldview that a successor would have no choice but to follow his course?
P.S.: The invasion of Ukraine has been a wake-up call for the West, and Putin intended it as such. It was a ruthless, brutal, bloody, unconscionable way to try to force the U.S. to recognize that it cannot continue to ignore, as Putin sees it, Moscow’s concerns. None of that justifies the horrors being perpetrated, but it explains Putin’s rationale.
However, I would put your question differently. It’s not that Putin’s worldview has influenced the Russian people. Rather, it reflects what many Russians believe, namely that the West is determined to bring Russia to its knees. That’s been a theme through much of Russian history. The two sides had a chance to chart a different course after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the opportunity was missed. Whoever succeeds Putin will no doubt bring changes—which may lead either to a hardening or a softening of the confrontation—but the underlying thrust of Russian policy is set for the foreseeable future. Russia and China are determined to end what they see as America’s global hegemony. That drama will play out over decades to come.”
Putin, by Philip Short, will be published on July 26 by Henry Holt
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL