Thu. Jul 7th, 2022


This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Putin and his entourage

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. The war in Ukraine runs on. This week has much discussion of peace talks and some suggestion that Russia is scaling back its war aims, maybe giving up on its hopes of conquering Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. But there’s also a great deal of scepticism and confusion about what Moscow is really up to. And that’s because so much of what happens is down to one man, Vladimir Putin. It’s the position of the Russian president that’s the focus of this week’s podcast. I’m joined by Catherine Belton, the author of the definitive study Putin’s People, which in recent weeks has been top of the bestseller lists in the UK, Germany and elsewhere. So what does Putin do now and how secure is his grip on power?

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When he gave a speech in Warsaw last week, Joe Biden was pretty clear about his views on Vladimir Putin.

Joe Biden
Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refused to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness. We will have a different future, a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities. For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.

Gideon Rachman
The US president’s aides were swift to say that America is not calling for regime change in Russia. But there’s no doubt that there’s much speculation in the west about the possibility of a palace coup aimed at Putin. If that were to happen, a great deal would depend on the attitude and organisation of the Russian elite, the spies, generals and oligarchs who formed Putin’s inner circle over the years. There are certainly some peculiar-sounding developments. Roman Abramovich, an oligarch famous for owning Chelsea Football Club who’s been sanctioned by Britain because of his close connections to Putin, has now popped up as somebody playing a role in peace talks with Ukraine. There have even been stories that he was poisoned during talks.

News report
Hours after these Russian and Ukrainian delegates met, three of them, including Mr Abramovich, suffered searing pain in the eyes, dimness of vision, and inflamed reddened skin. Later that night in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, according to the investigative website Bellingcat, all three were suffering from the symptoms of intentional poisoning with a chemical agent.

Gideon Rachman
To try to make sense of these developments in Putin’s inner circle, I turn to Catherine Belton. I started by asking her what she thinks Putin’s people, the group described in her book, will be making of the war in Ukraine.

Catherine Belton
I think there’s probably a very small, very small group around Putin who have helped push him into this decision. There’s Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Security Council, who is one of the few members of the Security Council, of that famous meeting more than four weeks ago. Now, where they were deciding to recognise the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, he was one of the few officials there who looked confident. He was always telling Putin what to think. He would say, America has designated Russia and China as the enemy. It’s our task to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it’s clear that he had a role in shaping and colouring Putin’s view of the world. And it seems many of the other officials who spoke that day were much less sure of themselves and uncertain about where things were going. I’ve been told by some that many of his most senior ministers were unaware that there was going to be a full-scale invasion until hours before the announcement, that everyone had been preparing essentially for just a limited recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. This is what the economic bloc had been expecting. They’ve been preparing for sanctions of some kind. Perhaps the sanctions on the state banks, which the US have been talking about prior to the war and perhaps a partial tightening of the Swift. They’ve been running stress tests for this. But no one had expected, one, the full-scale war and the full-scale response from the US. So I think most of Putin’s people have been left in shock. Everyone thought that Putin would continue to act, as he has done in the past, where he maintains a degree of deniability and is sort of pushing the envelope, but only so far as he can go before he attracts the type of response that he has done in this case.

Gideon Rachman
So before we get on to what drove Putin himself, I mean, you mentioned Patrushev as this key figure, who is he and how far do Putin and he go back?

Catherine Belton
So Nikolai Patrushev is one of Putin’s closest allies from the security services from St Petersburg. He and Putin worked together in the Leningrad KGB in the 80s and late 70s even. He’s a bit older than Putin. He’s a year older than Putin, and he moved to Moscow much faster than Putin did. He moved to Moscow in ‘94 from St Petersburg, and he rose very rapidly through the ranks of the FSB, the KGB successor agency. And in fact, he held more senior posts than Putin did until Putin was appointed the FSB director. And he’s always held a particular sway over Putin. He’s been seen by some former allies as his chief ideologue of trying to restore Russia’s might on the world stage and sort of using capitalism as a tool to undermine democracies in the west to get back at rivals. He’s this hard-drinking, hard-talking security man who very, very much sees the world through a cold war lens.

Gideon Rachman
The other person who there’s been a lot of focus on recently, partly because he hasn’t been seen so much, is the head of the armed forces, Shoigu. Is he one of the people you think, even as head of the armed forces, may have been slightly uneasy with what was going on?

Catherine Belton
Well, he’s looked pretty uneasy when Putin called him and Valery Gerasimov, his chief of staff, in for the meeting where he spoke about the need to move to nuclear readiness. Both of them looked very uneasy indeed. I think Shoigu, he’s a yes man. He does what he’s told. I’m sure he likes telling Putin what he wants to hear, at least he has done in the past. I’m not sure he’s particularly enjoying the experience right now.

Gideon Rachman
And then again, the people who really got hammered by the west because they have the money and the assets overseas were the oligarchs who again, as you describe in your book, were crucial to Putin’s rise. Do you think there is now a rift between Putin and key oligarchs? I mean, some of them, like Deripaska, seem to have more or less come out against the war, and then there’s the figure of Roman Abramovich.

Catherine Belton
Yes, I mean, it’s clear that all these men, especially those who made their money in the Yeltsin era prior to Putin coming to power, have been extremely upset and shocked at the turn of events. I mean Putin was there essentially as the guarantor of stability, and everyone did very nicely out of the system as it existed. They were able to create enormous wealth for themselves as long as they stayed on the right side of the Kremlin and did favours for Putin every now and then and carried out this much strategic task. But then Putin just uprooted that and destroyed an entire system which have been built over 30 years. Everything was destroyed overnight, and these oligarchs are going through an existential crisis. I mean, all their networks abroad are being undermined. No one can do business with them any more. They can’t even speak to some of their former allies, and they spent millions burnishing their reputation in the west none the least to save for the damage to their businesses. So, I mean, of course, it’s terrible for them, but they are starting to speak out against the war, but in probably quite guarded terms. None of them are renouncing their Russian citizenship yet. We’ve only seen Anatoly Chubais, the Yeltsin-era privatisation tsar, formally step down from his post and leave Russia. The rest is still sort of clinging on. And they are speaking out against the war in very, very muted terms. No one is directly attacking Putin because again, they still fear the consequences of what Putin might do to them. As one economist told me, they fear Putin more than they do Liz Truss, the UK foreign minister. So I mean, yes, it does have a massive impact on them, but I think they are at a loss how to respond because they might have helped bring Putin to power more than 20 years ago, but during that time, Putin has accumulated so much more power that the oligarchs are now no longer oligarchs. They don’t dictate anything to the Kremlin. The boot is on the other foot. And it’s not like they can look into Putin’s office and tell him to do anything because he’s just not going to listen to them. And indeed, many of them just don’t have access nowadays. And even some of Putin’s closest allies from the security services have to isolate for two weeks before they get to see him.

Gideon Rachman
So does that suggest to you that sanctioning the oligarchs may not be that effective as a tactic?

Catherine Belton
No, it’s, I think it’s probably really effective. First of all, on the Russian economy, the most effective sanctions are, of course, the banking sanctions, the sanctions against the state banks, against the central bank, which has really severely undermined the central bank’s ability to prop up the economy and the rouble. This is having an enormous impact on the ability of Russian enterprises to import western components. This is going to have a huge knock-on effect and this takes time, but it’s really devastating for the economy. But for the Russian oligarchs it’s a huge blow to them. It’s a huge blow to their personal prestige. It’s a huge blow, in fact, to the influence networks that they have built up across the west over the last three decades. One thing that we’ve learnt that has been important for the Kremlin is to have instruments of soft power to influence western opinion. And when some of the frontline in these operations, such as the so-called oligarchs, have been personally targeted, this creates a systemic risk for Putin in that, you know, if he stays the guarantor of stability, he’s there sort of to help promote Russia’s standing in the world, which is what his role has always been, all that’s been undermined. And that means that systemically he will face a backlash, although it’s unlikely to come from somebody like Deripaska or an individual oligarch that will come from within the system, from people who see themselves as guardians of the Russian state.

Gideon Rachman
So let me ask you about one specific oligarch who’s in the news as we speak: Roman Abramovich. You’ve obviously had some trouble with him, you know, your long court cases. But what do you make of his role both in the peace talks and this strange story that he was actually poisoned during the talks?

Catherine Belton
Yeah, I think it’s obviously an interesting effect of the sanctions that Abramovich has been so desperate to try and promote himself as a player in the peace talks, but actually also play some role in the peace talks, whether it be large or small. President Zelensky, when he was speaking with Russian journalists over the weekend, downplayed any role for Abramovich. He said that he’d been part of the talks as part of a subgroup in talks. At the very beginning, he was very anxious to downplay any role for him, and yet we still have all over the pages of the UK press about how he’s been flying back and forth between Kyiv, Lviv and Turkey, have undertaken all these talks to bring peace. And clearly he’s desperate to be seen to be playing a role. And also for these oligarchs, perhaps the only way to get sanctions lifted is to help bring an end to the war. But quite how they do that is now the matter. I mean, I’m sure Abramovich is playing some kind of role in trying to facilitate the talks. We just don’t know enough yet. And the strange story about his poisoning, you know, that’s very disturbing, but I guess we have to ask, why did we only find out about it at the same time as large features about his role in the talks were coming out in the UK Times, for instance? So I guess we have to see because at the moment, officials from the Ukrainian side, they’ve been downplaying too the reports about the poisoning, whether or not the chief negotiator from the Ukrainian side dismissed it as speculation. Rustem Umerov, who is the other Ukrainian official who is part of the delegation, is also supposedly poisoned. He said that information should be verified first. So I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about that story.

Gideon Rachman
And more generally, I mean, the oligarchs and their fortunes, you know, they’re subject to these sanctions. A lot of their money is overseas, but I assume they still have plenty of access to ready cash. It’s not that they really are deprived of the ability to live as they used to.

Catherine Belton
Well, we’ve seen Mikhail Fridman of Alfa Group give interviews, you know, where he’s complained about how he’s now has to live off an allowance while he’s in the UK. I think he told Bloomberg it was £2,500 for a month, which particularly for an oligarch, is not very much money at all. So, you know, he doesn’t have access to his bank accounts here. I’m sure they found workarounds. I think Petr Aven told the Financial Times that his wife had been sent to withdraw cash from ATMs shortly before the sanctions were handed down. So it would have a stash of some cash, but obviously life is very difficult for them, and these sanctions are really hard.

Gideon Rachman
Now let’s get to the Putin himself. I mean, you said that a lot of the people around him were surprised. And I must say that, you know, myself, I found it very strange. And I was at the Munich security forum just before the war, and the, some Anglo-American intelligence people were very convinced that war was going to happen and telling everybody publicly. And yet, a lot of the people who come from Moscow, whether they were diplomats and, one or two Russians had made it there, were still saying, no, no, the war’s not going to happen based on what you were saying, what they felt they knew about Putin. So do you think, has Putin changed? Or was it always there and we just failed to see it, or they failed to see it?

Catherine Belton
Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s the gazillion dollar question. I think many of these officials probably didn’t want to see it. And, you know, they, actually, they hadn’t been told. It was a typical, special operation, at least in Putin’s mind, that there were no leaks ahead of time unless you’re US intelligence, of course, which seemed to have a, have some special interception powers for communications, or whether they had somebody very high ranking who was leaking to them, we, we don’t know. But it seems within Putin’s broader circle, within the Foreign Ministry, within the Kremlin himself, and certainly, some of his own ambassadors certainly didn’t seem to know about the invasion plans. I was told that Putin always has plans for several different scenarios and makes the decision for which one at the last moment. If that’s the case, then we don’t know what was the trigger that made him go for the full-force war and why it’s unfolded the way it has. But unfortunately, he did decide to go for this full-scale invasion. Dmitry Peskov, his spokesperson, has tried to explain it away by saying Putin had to, that the Ukrainian army had built up this force on the border with Donetsk over a hundred thousand troops. And that was also going to cause mayhem if Russia didn’t respond in some way. But these sound like excuses, of course, for a war. We just don’t know what the calculus is. And it seems, obviously many people have spoken about this, that the longer Putin has been in power, the more isolated he’s become. So I mean, if in 2014 it was the standard Putin behaviour when he annexed Crimea, that he did so by sending in military men, which he denied had anything to do with Russian troops until there had been a vote on Crimea joining Russia, and it was all a fait accompli. And only then did he admit that actually, yes, they were my men. And even then, in 2014 too he also had 150,000 troops building up at the border with Ukraine. Many then feared an invasion, but in those days, the likes of Roman Abramovich, I was told, and others were able to dissuade Putin from taking such a radical step because they warned him that the response of the west would be sharp, and they warned him that he wouldn’t have support among the Ukrainian population. Now he doesn’t have such feedback loops. It seems he only listens to a few officials, and he’s been consumed with his own role in history and ever more consumed with this idea that the west is out to undermine and topple his regime.

Gideon Rachman
And he does seem — I mean, just looking from the outside — to be increasingly paranoid in his behaviour. I mean, one of the classic images of this, which will, I’m sure will live in history, is the long table, his unwillingness to let people close to him, even his own aides.

Catherine Belton
Yes, I think that’s obviously a result of the pandemic. You know, he’s been isolated for a long time. But it’s also a result of the length of time he’s spent in power and all their nefarious acts he’s committed along the way to accumulating so much power of course. Now he realises that he would have many enemies and so much to lose were there to be any attempt for toppling him. So I think, yeah, that type of atmosphere breeds intense paranoia.

Gideon Rachman
And of course, it’s almost stated western policy, Biden came pretty close to saying it just a couple of days ago, that Putin must go. And I guess the hope is that all this pressure on Putin’s people will lead to some sort of palace coup. How possible do you think that is, or do you think his security and the system he’s set up more broadly will protect him from that?

Catherine Belton
I think it’s possible entirely in the midterm just because of everything that he’s done to undermine Russia’s stature in the world. There is a contingent of more progressive members of the security services, the foreign policy establishment, Foreign Intelligence Service, who are deeply wounded by this undermining of Russia’s entire role in the world stage that it is now internationally recognised as a pariah. I don’t think that they will let this stand. And the destruction of the Russian economy, it’s deeply destructive for everyone involved so I think he will face a systemic backlash at some point. But how and when that will happen is another question.

Gideon Rachman
OK, and let me just finish by asking about your own situation and by congratulating you because your book, Putin’s People, which you worked on for many years and is a great book, is now top of the bestseller lists in several countries. But to get it to that stage, you have to go through a kind of legal hell. And I know that because of that experience, you’re now quite influential in this effort to change the libel laws or to at least make it harder for the likes of Putin’s people and others around the world to suppress investigative journalism. So can you tell us what happened to you and what’s going on there to try to make sure that investigative journalism is a little easier in future.

Catherine Belton
Yes, one of the silver linings of all the cases that were lined up against me and the book and the publisher is that they were seen as being so egregious that it brought the attention of lawmakers and others to this problem of lawfare. So Roman Abramovich was the first to announce he was filing suit for defamation against me and my publisher, HarperCollins, at the end of March last year. That was nearly a year after the book had been published, just before the statute of limitations had run out. He was swiftly followed by Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven of Alfa Group, who out of the blue made a complaint about some very small lines in the book that had been widely reported on before. Then we received a letter of complaint too from other shows. One of, those that never made it to a full-blown lawsuit. We also later heard that Rosneft, the Kremlin oil champion, had also filed suit at the end of March. It filed a black suit just to be in time for the statute of limitations, and we have no idea what it was complaining about. And then Chalva Tchigirinski, another Russian billionaire, also filed suit on April the 7th, which we argued was beyond the statute of limitations so eventually we didn’t have to deal with that. So this is, this huge number of cases, and I didn’t know whether the publisher was going to be able to fight all of them simultaneously. I didn’t know whether the publisher was going to be forced to withdraw Putin’s People, but it didn’t. They were amazing. They put up a really strong fight. We were able to reach an agreement with Fridman and Aven quite quickly on basically amending two or three small lines in the book, which made no difference to the narrative. The fact was it was too expensive to fight so many cases at once so we agreed to agree and make some very minor changes. And with Rosneft and Abramovich, we continue to fight. Rosneft eventually sent a letter detailing its complaints at the end of May, and these complaints seem really preposterous. It was almost a relief because the hand of the Kremlin was clear. We sent a strong rebuttal, but nevertheless it pressed on. So we got to the preliminary hearing stage with both Rosneft and Abramovich. It was a meaning hearing, and at that meaning hearing the judge threw out three of Rosneft’s four claims, saying they weren’t defamatory of the company. And the fourth one, it said they’d have real difficulty demonstrating serious harm so Rosneft ended up withdrawing. Abramovich’s most exaggerated claims, in which he said that the book stated he had a corrupt relationship with Vladimir Putin, and that he’d been making payments into Kremlin slush funds, the judge agreed with us that the book had not said that. But what she said the book did say was that he was under Putin’s control, and this was going to be something that was going to be much harder for Abramovich to dispute. Given everything we know and all the reporting in the book about how the Kremlin operates. And so we received soon afterwards a settlement offer from Abramovich, his lawyers, in which all the claims he’d attacked in the book could basically remain there. But we agreed to slightly soften the language and add two denials that were already there to sort of give him a chance to expound more on why what we said was not correct. So it was quite a satisfactory outcome in the end. But that was after fighting a draining legal campaign for nearly a year, which cost the publisher £1.5mn. Had we decided to continue to fight Abramovich on the public interest grounds, it was going to cost another £2.5mn to fight it in the UK. He’d also doubled the pressure by filing the exact same claim in Australia, even though he had no business interest there at all. So that meant another 2.5mn minimum for the publisher in fighting that claim too so it made a lot more sense to agree with him. But it really highlighted the weaknesses of the existing libel system in the UK because even though in 2013, there was a wide-ranging libel reform which allowed for much better protections for journalists to allow them a public interest defence, the fact is the system is still stacked in favour of deep-pocketed litigants from the start because, you know, they can drag out proceedings. Defending a case on public interest grounds can take years and cost millions of pounds. So for any publisher really trying to face down to, to claim very often it’s just not worth it because they’ll go bankrupt trying to defend what they’ve written. So many media organisations have just been censoring themselves at the slightest whiff of a legal letter. So the efforts of some of these Russian billionaires and other kleptocrats from other countries have really been stifling a lot of reporting in the UK. And probably the silver lining from my cases is that, you know, there was such an over-reach that it really highlighted some of the tactics and the weaknesses of the existing UK libel system. Thankfully, the UK government seems keen to do something about that. Hopefully, there will be a push to allow better protections under the public interest defence. Some lawyers are saying that it would make sense to have an amendment to the existing law in which cases against public interest reporting can be dismissed at an earlier, much earlier stage that claimants might be given greater right to reply as in the settlement case with Abramovich, but before the costs are allowed to mount to the degree that they did in my cases.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me. Please join us again next week.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.



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