Thursday, February 2

Catherine Belton, investigative journalist: “Putin would not have gotten anywhere without his network of allies”



In ‘Putin’s Men’ (Ed. Peninsula), Catherine Belton –investigative correspondent for Reuters– tells the story of the system created by Vladimir Putin: the coming to power of the entourage of the Russian leader in the former KGB and how it mutated to get rich It is the story of the hasty transfer of power between Yeltsin and Putin, and how it allowed the emergence of a state ruled by KGB security agents that had always lurked in the background during the 1990s, but emerged to monopolize power and which has ended up endangering the West. His interest in Russia began long ago. A native of Ormskirk (England), she finished school at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall: «she was completely obsessed with reading news-». In December 1991, she made her first trip to Moscow with the disintegrating Soviet Union. Since then, she has been working in Russia “in one way or another” (she was a correspondent between 2007 and 2013 for ‘Financial Times’ in Moscow). He speaks German and Russian perfectly, and in 2012 he began to write what would become a masterpiece of investigative journalism: “I managed to weave a wide network of contacts among the richest men in the country and I thought that the world should understand that the KGB was still a hidden power in the shadows. After the dissolution of the USSR, the institutions remained intact and the personal networks did not disappear. They simply needed a person who could reunite them again in the future. But the KGB continued to move behind the scenes.” Putin, the KGB and organized crime The most revealing moment of the investigation came almost at the beginning. In 1992, during his time as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin was at the helm of the controversial ‘Oil for Food’ deals. The licenses for the export of basic products fell into the hands of companies friendly to the KGB, which, in exchange, had to import oil. The port of St. Petersburg played a decisive role, becoming ground zero for an alliance between the KGB and organized crime. “A very early example of Putin’s kleptocracy, that he was helping his friends line their pockets thanks to smuggling and illegal trade schemes.” At the same time, what is known in Russian criminal jargon as an ‘obschak’, a common money fund or a B box, was created. Russia had just assumed all the debts of the USSR and was bankrupt. All official overseas bank accounts had been frozen, “so they needed these underground schemes to keep money flowing so the city could continue to deal with payments, and especially those from KGB-connected companies.” ». The relationships that were forged then, through a sophisticated network of exchanges and export agreements, became the model for future management in Putin’s Russia: “The group that took control was part of the union between the organized crime men and the KGB. And Putin was at its center. Related News standard No Mark Galeotti: “Putin doubted until the last minute whether to invade Ukraine” Patricia Romero Revuelta The British writer, a great expert on Russia, dissects in this interview the edges of the Kremlin chief’s personality The Russian leader does not trust many people, so to access their inner circle “you have to have shared a past in the KGB.” It is as easy to reach the top, to be untouchable, as it is to become a victim of the Kremlin’s tentacles, which reach “quite far.” If in the 1990s the oligarchs had a say in the Yeltsin government, when Putin came to power in 2000 things changed radically: “In the first place, he questioned and threatened the billionaire owners of state television channels, eliminating thus a very powerful political tool that could be used against him». The Kremlin dictated decisions to both the judicial system and law enforcement. “They were really scared. So, they not only agreed to be loyal to him, but also to finance his strategic projects. They even offered to do favors for him,” explains Belton. Putin’s Inner Circle Interfering in American elections, campaigning for extremist politicians in Europe, the war in Ukraine… Putin’s Russia has waged a campaign to expand his influence and undermine Western institutions. For Belton, “it is very difficult to understand who makes the decisions, who has orchestrated all this. They leave no trace. Everything is through hints, signs and hints ». The author speaks of the Kremlin as a kind of entity with its own personality: «The one who makes the decisions is Putin. But sometimes the people in his circle, the association, devise a plan so that Putin is almost forced to make the decision they want, as happened with the invasion of Ukraine». “The group that ended up taking control was part of the union between the men of organized crime and the KGB. And Vladimir Putin was at its center, wanting to run the city’s economy for his own benefit» On August 9, 1999, Putin becomes the new prime minister of Russia and just a year later, he is inaugurated president for the first time . Neither his rise within the Kremlin nor his assault on the presidency had anything to do with chance. “The inner circle and the oligarchs believed that he was a temporary figure and they thought that he could keep it in check.” But it was not like that. To what extent did the KGB help him to be where he is? “It would have been impossible to get where he got without the KGB. Of course, he was clever and discreet like a chameleon. He convinced the Yelstin family that he was one of them, he was very good at predicting what they wanted to hear. Although he would not have gotten anywhere without that network of allies to lean on ». Chechnya and the rise of Putin September 1999. A wave of bombings destroys several apartment buildings in different Russian cities and causes more than 200 deaths. The Russian government blames the Chechens, while they attribute the attacks to the Russian secret services. Were Putin’s men capable of killing his own people in a cynical attempt to put him in the presidency? It is an enigma that many have raised, but that no one has been able to answer. “I have never believed that Putin or the FSB were involved in these attacks,” clarifies the English. Still, the Kremlin deployed a calculated image campaign that elevated Putin to the presidency above the humiliation, chaos and, above all, the downfall of the Boris Yeltsin years. «Thanks to the 1999 attacks, the Kremlin deployed a calculated image campaign that elevated Putin to the presidency above the chaos, humiliation and collapse of the Yeltsin years» Regarding the unsustainability of the current Russian system: « L History is destined to repeat itself. If the USSR collapsed and if the perestroika reforms began in the run-up to the collapse, it was because there was no progressive faction that could compete militarily or economically with the West under such economic isolation. The Russia of 2022 is returning to that state. The economic recession is only going to get worse and we will suffer the impact of the embargoes imposed by the EU and the US.” Although all is not lost, since “there is a large part of the Russian elite that does not agree with the invasion of Ukraine. There is going to be a reaction against Putin because they know that Russia is doomed if it does not integrate into the global economy. So, they will try to replace Putin. The how and when is a big question. I just know that progressives, the young generation, will step up at some point.”


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