Vladimir Putin: risk-taker who is gambling his country’s future

The Conversation

In the early 1990s, when he was deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin was known to a member of the city’s legislature, Viktor Talanov. A psychologist by profession, Talanov prepared a study of Putin in which he concluded that one of his subject’s fundamental psychological characteristics was a very high tolerance of risk.

As Russia’s leader, Putin has consistently demonstrated this characteristic, while western countries have consistently failed to realise its significance and respond appropriately. Their failure to impose heavy sanctions on Russia until its invasion of Ukraine last month encouraged Putin to believe that his aggression would meet with little resistance.

Since taking power in 2000, Putin has established an authoritarian regime by repression and illegality. Elections turned into a sham as opposition parties and candidates were prevented from standing and the results were falsified. The fabricated votes of non-existent voters were awarded to Putin and his party. The independence of the mass media was ended.

The oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were driven into exile because their media empires had influence over public opinion and were critical of Putin. Their television channels, Gusinsky’s NTV and Berezovsky’s ORT, had helped Boris Yeltsin to win the presidential election of 1996.

Gusinsky’s Media-Most media group was taken over by Gazprom, the state-owned gas company. Berezovsky was forced to sell his shareholding in ORT to Roman Abramovich. ORT has since also become widely seen as a propaganda organ. The third independent television station, TV-6, was forced into liquidation. Consequently, all the national television channels were in Putin’s hands or under his sway.

In 2003, Putin turned on Yukos, the largest oil company in Russia, and its chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky’s sins were that he financed parties other than Putin’s in Russia’s parliamentary elections and was critical of the regime’s corruption.

Putin’s regime prosecuted Khodorkovsky on trumped-up charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, confiscated his company and transferred most of it to a state-owned oil company, Rosneft. Khodorkovsky spent more than ten years in prison.

Putin was so vicious that he had Khodorkovsky prosecuted on further charges in 2010, when he was still in prison. The charges were so patently false that the chairman of the Moscow Bar Association called them a “disgrace to justice”.

Aleksandr Litvinenko, the former security service officer whom Putin had himself fired and who had fled to Britain in 2000, was murdered with a radioactive poison, polonium, in London in 2006. The British tribunal which investigated his murder concluded that Putin had ordered it. Berezovsky died in mysterious circumstances in Ascot in 2013, perhaps by suicide, perhaps strangled by an assassin.

Since about the same time, neighbouring states have accused Russia of attacking them and their people. An attempt was made in September 2004 to kill Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-western candidate for the Ukrainian presidency, using the poison dioxin.

In April 2007, hackers directed by the Kremlin launched a massive cyber-attack on the websites of banks and public institutions in Estonia. The Estonian government was so alarmed that Nato had to consider whether such a cyber-attack triggered Article 5 of the Nato treaty.

In 2008 Putin waged an illegal war – his troops invaded Georgia and occupied its territory. Putin later recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Turning point

From 2008 to 2012, Putin served as prime minister rather than president because the Russian constitution limited the president to two four-year terms. Instead, his political ally Dmitri Medvedev served a term as president before allowing Putin to run again for the top job.

On his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin commenced a war on the west which he has steadily escalated. Nihilistic propaganda, computer hacking and the public disclosure of e-mails, cyber-attacks, murder and covert deployment of agents of influence have all taken place in western countries since 2012.

To the west’s disgrace, the sanctions which began to be imposed on the Putin regime from 2012 resulted from the initiative of a private person – not that of any state. Hermitage Capital, the venture capital firm run by the British-American investor Bill Browder, was driven out of Russia in 2005 because Browder challenged the corrupt management of Gazprom, a company which Putin and his mafia exploit to enrich themselves.

Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a massive fraud perpetrated by government officials but was himself arrested for the fraud. He died in prison after being severely beaten and denied necessary medical treatment. Browder persuaded the US Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which imposed asset freezes and travel bans on the Russian officials involved in the lawyer’s murder.

In 2014, Putin started the war in Ukraine by annexing the Crimea and providing military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine seeking to break the country up. Finally, western states, led by the US, took action. Following the example of the Magnitsky sanctions, they imposed asset freezes, credit bans and travel bans on key figures in Putin’s regime and their corporate vehicles.

Asset freezes and denials of credit targeted in particular those sectors of the Russian economy which Putin and his circle have most exploited to enrich themselves. These include banking, oil and gas, mining, metals, engineering and weapons manufacture. While the sanctions affected Russia’s economic growth, the country’s economy adjusted to them. Such mild sanctions were not going to deter Putin from engaging in aggression in the future.

Outrages continued. Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s most dangerous political opponent and a prominent critic of the war in Ukraine, was murdered near the Kremlin in February 2015. His murder was blamed on Chechens but they were probably working for Putin because no one else had any incentive to kill Nemtsov.

Taking on the west

Putin now sought systematically to weaken western countries and discredit democracy by interfering in the politics of those states.

According to the report presented to the US Congress in March 2019 by special counsel Robert S Mueller, Russia interfered in the US presidential election of 2016 in two ways. First, a “troll farm” called the Internet Research Agency conducted a campaign on social media designed to favour Donald Trump and inflame social and political conflict in the US. Meanwhile, two groups of cyber hackers hacked into communications networks of the Democratic Party, stole a huge number of e-mails and documents and made them public.

According to the report on Russian influence operations in the UK published in July 2020 by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, Britain’s openness to Russian oligarchs and their money has enabled Russia’s intelligence agencies and organised crime to infiltrate British politics, finance and business and establish a large network of witting and unwitting agents.

These agents are used to launder illicitly obtained money. They are also involved in Russia’s aggressive and risky influence operations.

During the referendum campaign over Scottish independence in 2014, Russian troll farms and bots, backed by overt propaganda organs such as RT and Sputnik, were active on social media in support of the “Yes” camp. Two years later, the same covert and overt disinformers are suspected to have supported the Leave camp in the referendum campaign over the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

Russian hackers broke into the computers and stole the e-mails of the main political parties in Germany and France. They hacked into the computers of Emmanuel Macron’s party, “La République en Marche”, during the French presidential election of 2017. German, French and British politicians issued warnings about Russian cyber-espionage, but took no firmer action.

In March 2018, an attempt was made to murder a Russian intelligence officer living in exile in Britain, Sergei Skripal, with a nerve gas called Novichok. Skripal survived the poisoning, but the assassins killed a British woman called Dawn Sturgess by mistake. British authorities identified two Russian nationals, who used the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as the suspected killers and alleged that they were officers of the Russian military intelligence service.

Eight days later, another critic of Putin, Nikolai Glushkov, died in suspicious circumstances in London. The death of Glushkov, a friend of Boris Berezovsky, had been made to look like a suicide, but the coroner ruled that the victim had been strangled because there was evidence of third-party involvement. Twenty-nine countries responded to the attempt on Skripal’s life by expelling 153 Russian intelligence officers, but they took no further action.

On February 24 this year, Russia invaded Ukraine. Appalled, western states responded by imposing severe sanctions on Russia and Putin’s oligarchs, including freezing the Central Bank’s foreign reserves, excluding Russia from the SWIFT financial information system and ending normal trade relations with Russia and its companies. Oligarchs’ assets have been frozen, Russia has been expelled from the Council of Europe and western states have declared their intention to end their imports of Russian oil and gas.

These sanctions should have been imposed in 2014 at the latest, when Putin started the war in Ukraine and seized the Crimea. Putin’s immediate response to them was to increase international tension still further by putting Russia’s nuclear forces on special alert. The sanctions should remain in force until Putin is removed from power. His dangerously aggressive and risky rule must be ended.

The Conversation

Paul Maddrell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.