In his former life, of course, Vladimir Putin was a top KGB agent. My previous research into the history of the British secret services taught me that you can never trust an ex-spook, of any country. Their work involves – it’s almost a part of their job description – amorality, deceit, conspiracy and a tendency to paranoia. Many of them – probably most – must carry all this into any employment they take up afterwards.
This could well be one of the reasons why Putin has turned out as he has; together of course with his Soviet and Russian roots. (Hasn’t Russia always been autocratic?) A spook can never change his spots. (Or only very rarely. Can anyone name an ex-spy who has become a genuine democrat?) He or she – but usually a he – has to be something of a ‘conspiracy theorist’. Putin claims that NATO and the EU have been plotting for years against Mother Russia; which may well be so (I certainly wouldn’t rule it out), but it’s the centrality of this way of thinking in his case that makes him dangerous. The KGB probably taught him that everything – life itself, and certainly relations between nations – is a ‘conspiracy’, or at the very least ‘realpolitik’, which can only be countered, therefore, by more effective and consequently amoral plots from his side. It really is like chess. Or like – I suspect – Dominic Cummings’s way of thinking about politics. And of course it fits in well with the amoralism that was such an obvious feature of Trumpism (Trump is a great admirer of Putin, by the way; as was Nigel Farage); and of Dishonest Boris’s ethic at the present day. So they’re all playing the same game; and maybe to the same rough end (hence Boris’s Russian money); albeit with different stakes.
Whether his KGB-honed skills will see Putin through this appalling war that appears to be his responsibility almost alone, none of us can tell yet. Of course the Ukrainians can’t be presented as innocent victims in every respect. Some of us remember their reputation during World War II, which gives some credence to Putin’s ‘Nazi’ gibes. And all European countries – not least Britain – are affected by far-Right extremism just now. But the invasion of a self-governing nation by a bigger neighbour has to be justified on better grounds than this. And certainly when the bigger nation is as illiberal and imperialistic as Putin’s Russia.
Of course I’m shocked and angered by current events, and deeply sorry for the poor Ukrainians. On a far more trivial and selfish level, however, I also worry about what it all means for my new book, now in the press. Obviously the text was finished before all this came up. Ukraine could affect some of my arguments: about the importance of the development of ‘late-stage’ capitalism, for example; and the agency of individuals (like Putin) in history. I think I might be able to weave these two things into my general thesis, but I’m not certain: I clearly have some thinking to do, after which they might turn out not to fit. But in any event it would have been nice to have had some time to take them on board properly, before the book comes out; which the ex-KGB man’s criminal action has deprived me of. OK, that can weigh nothing in the balance against the plight of Russia’s neighbours, and even, possibly, of the Russians themselves. They don’t all seem to be on Putin’s side. Hopefully.