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Fintan O’Toole: Putin miscalculated the loyalty of his cheerleaders in the West

In not realising that there were limits even to their stupidity, he has revealed his own

Let’s go back just five years and stand in awe at the breathtaking triumph of Vladimir Putin in the West. In 2017, the man who has now made a catastrophically stupid mistake looked like a strategic genius. He had helped to push both of his adversaries, the United States and the European Union, close to collapse.

By then, Putin had clarified for himself what he wanted to achieve. He had given up on restoring a balance of power in the world by making Russia genuinely stronger. His mafia state could neither reform itself nor diversify its economy away from the production of primary commodities that enriches its tiny elite of oligarchs.

Consider how the West must have looked when viewed from Moscow in 2017: friends in high places everywhere

A kleptocracy is vampiric – it lives by sucking the blood from the state it controls. A polity in this permanent state of anaemia cannot grow.

But there are two ways to make a relationship with your rivals more equal. You can improve your own position – or you can make that of your opponents worse. Putin was hopeless at the first, but dizzyingly good at the second.

What he was so good at was juggling brute force at home and in his neighbourhood with the more subtle manipulation of the greedy, the naive and the power-hungry cynics in the western democracies.

By 2017, the voracity of his appetite for mass murder was luridly obvious. He had invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, seized parts of eastern Ukraine, supported an attempted coup in Montenegro, and unleashed his bombers to atrocious effect on Syrian cities.

And yet, he was also at that time immensely influential within the western democracies. His proxies, patsies, business partners, clients and useful idiots were in or close to power across the US and the EU.

Consider how the West must have looked when viewed from Moscow in 2017: friends in high places everywhere.

In the Oval Office, there was the sycophantic Donald Trump, whose own party leader in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, believed him (as he privately admitted in 2016) to be on Putin’s payroll.

Whether or not that was literally true, Trump’s property empire was undeniably a front for the laundering of money by Russian oligarchs. Putin’s operatives had worked hard to get Trump elected, not least by hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign and releasing damaging emails.

In 2017, the entire US diplomatic machine was in the hands of Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had received the Order of Friendship from Putin for doing a huge deal, as chief executive of ExxonMobil, with the Russian state oil company Rosneft.

The US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was even closer to Putin. Ross had been vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, a favourite haven for the oligarchs. His colleagues there included Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, an ex-KGB comrade of Putin’s, and Viktor Vekselberg, a member of the Russian president’s inner circle.

Even more astonishingly, Ross kept hidden his part ownership of Navigator Holdings, a firm that shipped natural gas for the Russian energy giant Sibur. The owners of Sibur included Putin’s son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and close friend Gennady Timchenko. This gave Ross a direct financial interest in weakening sanctions against Russia.

Britain, meanwhile, had voted to leave the EU, a body that Putin wants to destroy. The successful campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who was extremely close to the oligarch Evgeny Lebedev (now, thanks to Johnson, Lord Lebedev).

The single most consequential figure in British politics, Nigel Farage, had named Putin as the world leader he most admired “as an operator” and featured regularly on the Russian propaganda channel RT, predicting the imminent demise of the EU.

The Conservative Party was (and still is) deeply corrupted by Russian money. The Labour Party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose highly influential communications director, Seumas Milne, had written in his Guardian column that “Putin’s absorption of Crimea and support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is clearly defensive”. (Absorption and rebellion being euphemisms for annexation and invasion.)

In France, Marine Le Pen was running for the presidency – and if she had won, the continued existence of the EU would have been in serious doubt. Her campaign was partly funded by a loan of €9 million from a Russian bank with links to the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, Le Pen said that if elected “I would envisage lifting the sanctions [on Russia] quite quickly.”

In Italy, the far-right leader Matteo Salvini was an unabashed Putin fanboy who wore T-shirts with his idol’s face on the front and insisted that, unlike Le Pen, “I esteem him for free, not for money.”

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, openly boasted of his friendship and alliance with Putin. (His loyalty would be demonstrated even during the Covid pandemic, when he insisted that his health service use Russian rather than western vaccines.)

Putin's sudden destruction of his western support base is every bit as spectacular as his creation of it in the first place

This vast nexus of support allowed the Russian dictator to think, with good reason, that he could go on to even greater success. He could achieve what even Josef Stalin could not: Russify the West. Putin was very close to remaking the democratic world in his own image. Misery loves company, and he was spawning clones of his own miserably impoverished worldview who could take power in most of the West.

After this high point five years ago, things turned against Putin. Le Pen lost to Emmanuel Macron. Brexit, rather than triggering the implosion of the EU, solidified it. Trump lost to Joe Biden.

Yet Putin still had ample evidence that he could continue to corrode the West from the inside. He still had a vast store of political assets in Europe and the US.

So why has he thrown those assets away? Revulsion at his atrocities in Ukraine has cut the ground from under his western allies. In one move, he has squandered the riches he had accumulated in arguably the greatest political coup of all time.

Trump, Orbán, Salvini, Le Pen – all have been compelled to condemn the invasion. Johnson has been forced, albeit belatedly and with obvious reluctance, to move against the oligarchs whose presence in London he did so much, as mayor, to encourage.

Putin’s sudden destruction of his western support base is thus every bit as spectacular as his creation of it in the first place. He seems to have assumed that his fans in Europe and the US would remain loyal. Perhaps because he himself feels immune to public opinion, he thought his cheerleaders in more open societies could be equally indifferent.

Their slavish servility proved, paradoxically, to be his undoing. Putin had such deep contempt for his own western admirers that he thought they would continue to worship and defend him regardless of anything he did. He reckoned that since they had already ignored or justified so much depravity on his part, there was nothing they would not support.

In not realising that there were limits even to their stupidity, Vladimir Putin has revealed his own.