I’ve always been a bit bemused by the enormous, and more often than not malevolent, influence attributed to Vladimir Putin and Russia. The controversy about Russian influence on the 2016 UK EU membership referendum, and then on the outcome of the US election the same year, seemed a bit overblown. How could bots and social media and gross disinformation, misinformation, outright lies, call it what you will, influence people so much? Hadn’t the targets of all this – the voters in democratic countries – been educated in critical thinking, assessing evidence, engaging with plural view points? How could something as crude as a propaganda campaign via Twitter and Facebook penetrate things so much and fool so many people?
Nor could I really understand why Russia supposedly invested so much in this when its own economy was pretty small (eleventh in the world according to https://www.investopedia.com/insights/worlds-top-economies/, but barely 5 per cent of the US number, and 9 per cent of China’s), and consistently being hit by sanctions because of its claimed adventures abroad – the string of mysterious murders for instance, ending with the Salisbury poisonings in 2018. Didn’t it have better things to do with its money? Why didn’t it just do what China did and pump up its economic might? Had it learned nothing from the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when most analysis put a good part of that down to over-commitments to military spend over other more productive areas of growth supporting activity.
What I lacked was (drumroll) a narrative framework to make sense of this weird behaviour. It couldn’t all be because of Putin. His demonization in the West seemed way too straightforward. Surely it was about something he represented. But what? Reading FT journalist and long-time Russia watcher Catherine Belton’s compelling `Putin’s People’ (William Collins, London, 2020) has finally enlightened me. I am sorry for being so slow. For her, it’s very complex, but in the end also very straightforward. If China today is a political party masquerading as a country, then Russia is like a mafia group pretending to be a nation. It has used its weakness as its strength, deploying reckless moves like it has nothing to lose because, in essence, it does have nothing to lose. Putin, as she explains with clinical detail, is symbolic of a group of KGB operatives who may never have bought into Marxism Leninism while the USSR was around, but certainly drank the addictive drug of uber-nationalism. For them the Yeltsin era was a dark night of the soul. Putin, in power since 2000, was the corrective, restoring to influence around him a bunch of shadowy figures (they are listed in the book) who can now legitimise their continuation of the dark arts as governors rather than undercover agents. They might never be as strong as the West was, and still (just about) is. But they can certainly do their best to make it as weak as them. That seems to be the logic of their strategy.
Government as KGB-operator sort of accounts for the investment in psychological operations, and the patient way in which Russia, through business people, and sleeper agents, has slowly spread a network across Europe, the US and the wider world. Its greatest assets have been in two areas – naïve conviction in Washington and elsewhere early on that Western liberal values would prevail in a country that is culturally and historically so deeply linked to Europe; and the enormous, unaccountable amounts of money from gas and energy that have allowed the Russian network that Belton so admirably describes to reach deep into banking, commercial, and finally political networks outside the country. The UK, dismayingly, figures large here – London operating as a major centre for Russian money, and for flows of wealth that have managed to gush into the pockets of a wide range of people. It would be pointless to try to precis Belton’s account of this – that occurs in the eleventh chapter, `Londongrad’, from page 344. But while we hear some British politicians, particularly in the currently ruling Conservative Party, rail against the malign influence of China, in fact this is small beer compared to the largesse that Moscow business people managed to deploy over the previous decade and a half – much of it to members of their own Party! Maybe what we are seeing is a case of once bitten, twice shy – but boy, were we bitten – and by people who ended up literally getting away with murder.
Which bring me to the case of China. So are Xi and Putin different? Should we look at the Russian psychological warfare games and their many successes over the last few years and see that as a template for what China intends to do? The bad news is that China has figured in the very justifiable paranoia of British, American and European political elites now, with the expectation that it will be a new Russia. The claims about it buying influence and seeking political networks has spread in Australia, the UK, and will almost certainly intensify. Already, over COVID19 the phrase `Chinese disinformation’ is starting to gain traction. But before getting too excited by this, let’s dwell on the good news. China is clearly, for cultural and other reasons, nowhere near as good as the Russians at this. We know that because we are already aware of its attempts. Russia was already deep inside us before we had an inkling what was happening. China is barely coming up the road towards us and we are already howling in warning! The brute fact is that if the Russian political system with its psychological mendacity and intelligence had the money China does now, we would be sunk. It would be the same if China with its vast resources had the same kind of ability to read and get under the skin of Western governments and elites the way Russia has. At the moment, we have to thank our lucky stars that the one that is good at reading the West and disrupting it is limited by its small economy, and the one with the massive economy is too culturally and political different, and inexperienced, to do the dark work particularly well. At least till now!
This is no praise for Russia. As Belton makes clear, it is holding a tiger by the tail, almost parasitical on a Europe/US world it dislikes but defines itself against. With China, things are very different. Xi is not like Putin, and now with Belton’s book I know why. He was not from an intelligence background. Wisely, the Communist Party of China has been led largely by professional cadres in recent years. The intelligences services serve them – they never become their masters. Ditto the military. Spies becoming leaders is rarely a good look, even when they say they’ve retired! And while the KGB faction has clearly annexed the whole business and state machinery in Russia, in China the Party has annexed everything – with a far broader, more complex and more penetrating hold over society. Xi has constructed loyalty to the nation through the Party. Despite all the guff about Xi factions, and various other groupings, the Party faction is the one that matters – and it is a powerful one, because, by default, everyone is a member of it! Different context, and a different meaning I know, but in Russia, if you work for the KGB network you win, and if not, you lose. In China, Party member or not, if you stand by the Party even outside of it it’s always win win!