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The Wrong Way to Treat President Putin

Roger Scruton, England
With characteristic blindness to its real situation the European Union has responded to the seizure of Crimea by imposing ‘sanctions’ on the Russian hierarchy. The mafia bosses who surround and depend upon President Putin are no longer to be allowed to travel to their villas in Tuscany or to draw on their extensive European bank accounts. Heart-broken mistresses in luxury hotels will go unvisited for months on end, unless they invite one of the Eurocrats from the restaurant downstairs. Mansions in Mayfair will remain shuttered until the stucco begins to crumble, and struggling football teams and race-horses will look in vain for a purchaser. That this will make the faintest difference to Russia’s expansionist foreign policy is an illusion of staggering naivety. More important, however, is the deep ignorance of history that this measure reveals.

Gorbachev and Putin: same interests
to save and expand Communism

For let us look back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the time of the wily Mr Gorbachev. Why was it that, all of a sudden and with no real forewarning, the Soviet elite relinquished the reins of power and quietly backed away from government? The answer is simple: because it was in their interest to do so. Thanks to President Reagan’s strategy and the North Atlantic Alliance, it had become apparent that it would not be possible to seize the assets that lay to the West of the Soviet Empire by force. But it had also become apparent that force was no longer necessary. Over a period of seventy years the Soviet Union had built up a system of espionage and underground banking that essentially conferred on the KGB elite more or less complete freedom of movement on the continent of Europe and a secure system of private finance. Already in 1989 the high ranking officers who took the leading decisions owned property in the West and had transferred their share of the assets stolen over decades from the Russian people to their Swiss bank accounts.

They then perceived that the process could be completed at no extra cost. By privatising the Soviet economy to themselves, and adopting a mask of democratic government, the elite backed out of Communism into the world of the glitterati. They were now free citizens of the world, able to travel, to own property, to draw on their stolen billions and play with their own private football teams. How stupid they had been all those years, to go along with the legacy of communist paranoia, and to believe that their role as alpha-males depended on threatening, invading, subverting and tormenting, when the whole thing could be achieved by being nice!

So, what happened? With a few leads from Gorbachev the KGB got the message. Privatise your own little bit of the Soviet economy, and if necessary imprison your competitors for tax evasion. Draw a life-long salary from your share of the stolen assets. Secure your mansion in London, your account in Switzerland and your yacht in the Mediterranean, and pose as a businessman, with interests in gas and oil. Pursue a career of social climbing and erotic adventure in the West, and leave the old monotowns of Russia to crumble to dust.

Gerhard Schroeder

Gerhard Schroeder, ex-chancellor of Germany, accepted to direct Gazprom, and became an ally of Putin

Of course it was an unseemly spectacle, though not so unseemly that the German elite were repelled by it. On the contrary, by inviting Gerhard Schroeder onto the board of Gazprom Putin made the German social democrats part of the game. All across Europe the KGB elite has been able to call upon favours received, and to buy its way into a society already rotten with underhand dealing. And the result, disgusting though it undeniably is, does not compare unfavourably with the previous situation, in which the same elite retained power by oppressing the Russian people, imprisoning Eastern Europe and stirring violent conflict all across the world.

So, what will be the effect of the proposed sanctions? Note that they target individuals, not the Russian State. They are expressly designed to imprison the Russian oligarchs once again in the country that they ruined, and from which they escaped with flatulent sighs of relief a quarter of a century ago. That would be a viable strategy if the European Union had the military means to contain the oligarchs behind the Russian border. That was the strategy of President Reagan, which was abandoned by Obama when he decided not to proceed with the missile defence system that had been proposed for Eastern Europe, and which in any case has never had the whole-hearted endorsement of either France or Germany.

So, we are back where we started: a powerful menagerie of snarling alpha-males, confined behind bars that will give way at the first determined shake of them. And it is only a matter of time before the shaking will begin. Peace between Russia and the West was secured when the self-interest of the Russian oligarchs required it. But it is no longer so clear that peace is in their interest: and to assume that they will respect the interests of anyone else is to show an amazing disregard for their recent history.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted March 14, 2013

Roger Scruton first published this article in
Forbes, on March 22, 2014.

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