Opinion
Subscriber Only

Fintan O’Toole: If the West is to defeat Putin, it must rapidly dePutinise itself

West enthusiastically enabled Russia’s mafia, but it was leading inexorably toward murder

Russian propaganda claims that the country's great cause is the "denazification" of Ukraine. This is a lie – if we are really forced to use comparisons to the Nazis, there is little doubt about which side in this war they fit into more neatly.

What is much more relevant, however, is the dePutinisation of the western democracies. Vladimir Putin has held up a mirror to the democratic world. It shows a face with uncomfortable resemblances to his own.

The first thing we can now see with absolute clarity is that democracy cannot long co-exist with the facilitation of a vast kleptocracy. Corruption on the scale that Putin has generated is not just a moral issue. It is an existential threat. But it is also a peril that the West has summoned to itself. This is a story, not of subtle infiltration, but of open invitation.

For decades now, western countries – Ireland very much included – have done more than turn a blind eye to the rise of Russia's kleptocrats. They have actively and enthusiastically enabled it.

There is as much financial wealth held by rich Russians abroad as is held by the entire Russian population in Russia itself

You can't understand the Putin regime unless you absorb an astonishing fact: there is as much financial wealth held by rich Russians abroad – in Britain, Switzerland, Cyprus, and other European democracies, including Ireland – as is held by the entire Russian population in Russia itself.

In financial terms, therefore, there are two equal-sized Russias. There is a huge physical country of 145 million people. And there is a shadow Russia, populated by perhaps 20,000 very rich people, and located in the West.

This remarkable phenomenon was created by the confluence of three factors.

One is the grotesque inequality of post-Soviet Russia, with money hoovered upwards to this tiny elite. In the western democracies, billionaires account for about five to 15 per cent of national income – itself a deplorable statistic. In Russia, the comparable figure is, depending on estimates, between 25 and 40 per cent.

Bent system

Second, this elite has to protect its money from the consequences of its own corruption. It does not trust the bent system it has itself created.

It knows very well that the rhetoric it spouts about patriotic love for Holy Mother Russia is emetic gibberish. It is well aware that the same arbitrary rules it has exploited can be turned against anyone who earns Putin’s disfavour.

It knows, too, that the very things it purports to despise about the decadent West – especially the rule of law, political stability and guarantees of the rights of property – are very useful. Hence its assiduous construction within European democracies of that great paradox: a legal shelter for stolen goods.

Thirdly, those democracies had to play along. They had to be willing – in return for fat fees for lawyers and accountants, lavish gifts to the right people and political contributions to the right parties – to process the stolen billions into mansions, yachts, football clubs, bad but expensive art and special-purpose financial vehicles.

The less patriotic the elite is in reality, the more hysterically and aggressively nationalistic it has to become

The crucial truth in all of this is that, for this system to maintain itself, Russia could not be a democracy. The reason is simple enough: no democracy would ever allow so much of its national income and national wealth, derived from the carbon stores and metals that lie beneath its soil, to be exported on such a scale.

If the Russian people were actually able to make their own decisions through free elections, a free media and an independent rule of law, they certainly would not tolerate the diversion of their public resources to create a shadow Russia in western Europe.

Hence, the West’s great hypocrisy. In principle, it wanted Russia to be a democracy. In practice, it very actively helped to create and sustain the conditions in which such a democracy was completely impossible.

But if Russia could not be a democracy, there was only one other thing it could be: an increasingly fascistic dictatorship. The formula for keeping control in the hands of a tiny, self-serving minority is well-known: use internal violence to suppress dissidents and external violence to rally the rest of the population around “the defence of the nation”.

The less patriotic the elite is in reality, the more hysterically and aggressively nationalistic it has to become. The hole where any true commitment to Us – the common good of the people – should be, has to be filled with endless war against Them.

Rivers of money

While it was happening, the facilitation of kleptocracy looked, in the West, rather like fun. Mighty rivers of money washed through the financial services centres and stock exchanges, and some of it lapped gently onto the shores of ultra-respectable accountancy, real estate and law firms.

The children of oligarchs threw the best parties. Russian demand inflated the price of property assets in London, New York, Paris, Monaco, Malta and elsewhere – which was very good news for developers, speculators and the owners of high-end houses and apartments.

We see now that our economies and our politics were becoming more and more Putinised

But it was all leading inexorably towards murder. When you are dealing with a mafia, what washes around in the end is not just money, but blood.

Kleptocracy necessitates autocracy, and autocracy can only be maintained by violence. Making a killing by servicing the shadow Russia ceases to be a metaphor and becomes all too gruesomely literal.

And, over time, the host begins to look more and more like the parasite. The democracies were slowly being reshaped in the image of the kleptocracy they ingested. We use the word “oligarchs” as if we had none of our own. We wake up to the scandalous ways in which the Russian versions have used our system of shell companies and tax havens, only to remember that that system was constructed primarily for the use of the home-grown variety.

We see now that our economies and our politics were becoming more and more Putinised. The gross inequality of the Russian mafia state was not just an aberration – it was the way the West was heading.

Hysterical nationalism

Meanwhile, the politics of “managed democracy” were taking hold in much of Europe and in the US. Hysterical nationalism, sneering at the very idea that there might be such a thing as a fact, hatred directed at scapegoats, floods of disinformation, shameless lying, the revelling in a chaos that only the supposed strongman could save us from, the open suppression of the vote – all of this was being imported from Russia along with the gas, the oil and the billionaires’ treasure chests.

If the West is to defeat Putin, it must rapidly dePutinise itself. It has to make financial transactions and property ownership fully transparent. It has to clamp down on all tax havens. It has to stop social media companies making billions from disinformation – and not just the Russian variety.

It has to finally understand that if there is to be such a thing as a “democratic world”, it has to take more seriously the business of being democratic – which means being equal, open, and accountable not just to law but to justice.

Otherwise, the bitterest of ironies would be that Putin may destroy himself by his own viciousness, yet leave behind a West that bears the permanent traces of his malevolent influence.