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Vladimir Putin Holds Up a Dark Mirror to Boris Johnson

Though the British Government and the Kremlin appear to be in conflict, Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu trace the underlying currents of oligarchy that unite them.

A statute of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy

Vladimir Putin Holds Up a Dark Mirror to Boris Johnson

Though the British Government and the Kremlin appear to be in conflict, Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu trace the underlying currents of oligarchy that unite them

Whether the apparent withdrawal of the biggest concentration of military forces since the Cold War by Russia is permanent or not; or whether Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts some other proxy or cyber attack to destabilise encircled Ukraine, the events of the past six months have made his long-term goals clear. 

Ever since the Maidan Revolution of 2014, when Ukrainians ejected the bloody kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovich and his pro-Russian oligarchs in favour of the values of the European Union, the Kremlin has seen the pro-democracy ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet republics as a major threat to its oligarchic power – and sought by various covert and ingenious means to subvert both the EU and the transatlantic alliance of NATO. 

In this new clear light, the Kremlin’s financial support for far-right Eurosceptic parties in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands made complete sense strategically. So too, the weaponisation of refugees in 2015-16 during Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, which figured so prominently in the rise of the anti-immigrant right in Europe.

And, of course, the transparent interference of Kremlin media outlets, and the more covert influence operations of its online troll farms and hack attacks during the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, are all part of the same plan. 

Putin has been trolling the EU and NATO ever since he invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula. His long-term strategic goal has been to reassert Russian priorities on former Soviet republics. 

The difference six years on is that, with no placatory and compromised Trump in the White House, both the US and the EU have been on the front foot, countering the Kremlin’s ‘alternative measures’ and information warfare with their own signalling devices – reinforcing NATO defences in the Baltic states, withdrawing embassy staff from Ukraine, cancelling flights, and releasing early intelligence assessments about the disposition of Russian forces and potential ‘false flag’ pretexts for Russian intervention.

Two can play the ‘hybrid warfare’ game, and – at least at the time of writing – this has forestalled the devastation of what Putin called his “military technical” solution: the carnage of war. 

We have not only laundered at least half the stolen assets of Russian oligarchs, we have also begun to import their values

If Putin has stepped back, it will be up to historians to determine what the turning point was. Was it his inability to drive a diplomatic wedge between France, Germany and the US? Was it the rapid armament of the Ukrainian forces with anti-tank weapons? Or was it the threat of stern economic and financial sanctions on Russia, with a particular focus on the wealth of a small number of Kremlin-connected billionaires?

Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: post-Brexit Britain has been increasingly irrelevant, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss shouting loudly from the touchlines, but not being players on the field. 

The UK is now punching well below its weight – especially given that London is the global haven for the wealth exfiltrated from the Russian people by its ruling elite, and the Conservative Party is heavily indebted to Soviet-born oligarchs for millions of pounds in donations.

Johnson’s reluctance to deal with Russian money flooding into London and into this own party’s coffers is more than just greed or opportunism: it’s an affinity, unwitting or not, of conviction and instinct – because Vladimir Putin’s billionaire-based oligarchy holds up a dark mirror to the same tendencies within the British state.

In a major intervention this month, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major exposed the dangers of British exceptionalism, with its ‘mother of Parliaments’ and democracy defined by reverence to the rule of law.

Vested interests wielding influence through party funding and the reality that there is one rule for Johnson’s Government and another for everyone else are both “politically deadly”, he said. “Our democracy is a fragile structure. It is not an impenetrable fortress. It can fall, if no one challenges what is wrong or fights for what is right.”

For a number of years, Yale professor and acclaimed historian Timothy Snyder has warned the West against complacency that its democratic nature is an inevitability. He has drawn particular attention to the post-USSR path of Putin’s Russia – an oligarchy, in which a small, elite group hold political power, with the interests of the state geared towards their personal enrichment.

The line between democracies with some oligarchical features turning into oligarchies with some democratic features is a fine one indeed, according to Snyder. That we here in Britain are now treading that line – and losing our balance as we teeter on the edge – can be witnessed under Johnson’s regime.

In recent years – and certainly accelerated under its current leader – the Conservative Party has moved away from its traditional funding base of small and medium business and become dominated by the super-rich. This shift – evident through Johnson’s lavish lifestyle alone, in which luxury foreign holidays and gold wallpaper rolls are paid for by those with the wealth to spare – is a key factor making Britain’s democracy vulnerable. Its exposure under Johnson must urgently trigger a wider debate about the power of money in democracy, and in whose interests our state is being run.

From the scandal of PPE contracts, ‘pork barrel’ funding for Tory constituencies, honours for friends, public appointments to cronies, and an utter lack of scrutiny over the executive through the exploitation of Britain’s ‘good chaps’ mode of Government, the Conservatives have repeatedly held the country’s democracy in contempt – with the Thatcherite small state giving way to Johnsonian state capture.

As the cost of living crisis now swirls in headlines, the underlying inequality that has been key to Britain’s Conservative economics has elicited little comment. While the living standards of almost all groups in society get materially worse, those of a narrow group of the already wealthy are protected.

Neither Johnson nor his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have addressed the core malfunction in the hard Brexit economy: it doesn’t work for most British people. That their only flagship policy to address inequalities – ‘levelling up’ – is a vague but over-ambitious plan with little in the way of investment to back it up, lends itself to the conclusion that there is nothing beyond empty promises and PR spin to improve people’s lives. 

And so, instead of levelling up, Johnson has led a race to the bottom based on supposed cultural concerns.

This politics of othering and demonisation is targeted not just at asylum seekers and refugees, but British citizens with dual heritage, those wanting to exercise their peaceful right to protest, disabled people on benefits, or those calling for a more honest appraisal of our imperial past and its impact on inequalities today. For Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden – addressing the right-wing US think tank, the Heritage Foundation, this month – it is the “painful woke psychodrama” which is sapping the confidence of the UK and America.

Such attacks on civil liberties in the name of freedom are found in the playbook regularly used by the likes of Viktor Orbán, who has openly described his approach in Hungary as “illiberal democracy”. This week, the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU could deprive member states of funds when they fail to meet democratic standards, such as the rule of law.

But what has happened in Hungary is only an echo of what happened in Russia. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago created a laboratory for some of the more extreme ‘shock doctrine’ experiments in Thatcherite privatisation, as state-owned assets were snapped up by smart would-be oligarchs in a massive distribution away from the many to the few.

This was often via the City of London or post-colonial British overseas territories and their opaque tax havens. A decade later, Putin (a former KGB officer) either tamed or destroyed those oligarchs to create a mafia state, with himself as the boss of all bosses – capo di tutti capi – with extensive tentacles across the offshore remnants of the British Empire. 

Though Britain itself is some distance from Kremlin kleptocracy and suppression of dissent, it seems now to be travelling, under Johnson’s leadership, down the same road of unfreedom and elite rule. We have not only laundered at least half the stolen assets of Russian oligarchs, we have also begun to import their values.

We are close to the moment when, rather than being a democracy with some oligarchic features, Britain becomes an oligarchy with some democratic features. 

Snyder’s warning about Western complacency was not an abstract one. When democracies allow their societies to become grossly unequal and the state serves only the interests of a few, these are fractures ripe for exploitation and domination – by populists at home and dictators abroad. Though in the globalised world of offshore finance and dark money, it’s hard to tell where they really reside…

This article is published as the editorial of the February 2022 print edition of Byline Times

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