In recent times one of the world leaders who has done the most damage is Vladimir Putin. For over 20 years he has consistently fostered a version of authoritarian robber-baron capitalism that has treated the environment as a consumable and elections as an exercise in cynical manipulation.
Putin’s efforts to undermine democracy
There is strong evidence of money flowing from shadowy sources inside Putin’s Russia to help finance the emergence of the Trump campaign. From Putin’s point of view that must have been money well spent because it has weakened democracy in the United States beyond recognition.
There is also strong evidence that most of the £8mn that Aaron Banks appears to have spent on the Brexit campaign came via offshore accounts that are not exactly a model of transparency. That degree of largesse may not have entirely been from the goodness of his heart and the extent of his deep conviction that the UK needed independence from the EU. If the money came from Putin, it would have been a small investment for a big impact of dividing opponents.
At home in Russia, Putin’s manipulation of elections has been more direct and more ruthless. Elections are held but the web of officials who depend on Putin for their appointment understands all too well which parties are to be allowed to stand. Just as the secret service operatives understand which opponents it would be helpful to murder as brutally and as openly as possible in order to intimidate others into staying silent or falling in line.
State sanctioned murder vs state sanctioned reward for climate destruction
Alexei Navalny has been in jail for almost a year for the crime of allowing himself to be poisoned with Novichok and being fortunate enough to survive. Fake fraud charges were trumped up. Boris Nemtsov was killed on a bridge in Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya was killed for writing independent critical journalism.
These state sanctioned murders are coupled with state sanctioned rewards for those who profit from the plunder of natural resources from Russia. Oil, gold and timber are highly profitable commodities. The profits from them don’t come from being exceptionally talented and farsighted or from hard work building up a business. They come from being allocated licences to exploit.
A small elite in Russia has become exceptionally wealthy as result of being rewarded with very profitable franchises for falling in line with the plan of the ruler. In doing so they have polluted some of the most astonishing natural wonders of the world such as Lake Baikal. As we speak, inefficient oil and gas wells are leaking methane and polluting land and rivers whilst methane gas bubbles blast their way out of the Siberian permafrost. The boreal forest that stretches the full length of the giant country is being stripped away for short-term profit at the risk of the future rainfall of much of northern Eurasia and further dramatic warming of the global climate.
Instead of taking measures to control the environmental damage, the ruling clique put a great deal of effort into denying there is any big problem for a very long time and then made weak and unreliable promises about action by 2060. Putin’s regime has been much more interested in laundering all the money it has made than in dealing with the environmental disasters it has helped to unleash. Most of that laundering happens in the City of London where industry lobbyists and very wealthy Russians have openly pumped significant amounts of funding into Conservative Party coffers.
War in Ukraine was a step too far
All of which was going nicely according to Putin’s plan until he made the one mistake that dictators always end up making. He overreached. The invasion of Ukraine was a serious miscalculation that could only have been made by a man who become convinced by his own propaganda and had no one around him who dared to tell the truth.
The whole invasion strategy can only have been based on a conviction that the Ukrainian people were itching to come back inside the warm embrace of Mother Russia. In truth a lot of very brave people proved willing to fight hard and die hard rather than submit to the crushing weight of rule by Putin and his associates.
By comparison, Russian men have been a lot less willing to die in a bad war. They have been fleeing the country in their hundreds of thousands in order to avoid the draft. Clearly there is a lot less support for the war inside Russia than Putin wants to believe. Many very brave Russian people have gone to jail and been beaten inside an inch of their lives after speaking out against his brutal war. The regime has had to resort to scouring the jails to find cannon fodder and yet is still losing territory.
Putin’s nuclear threat
In a country where there was an easy route to a change of power, Putin’s position at home would by now be incredibly vulnerable. The extent of the media control he exercises makes positive regime change massively more difficult and that control also makes it impossible to judge from outside how long he can continue to damage his own country before he is unseated.
The risks of an uprising are ones that Putin himself takes very seriously. He knows his history of Russian revolutions and knows what happened after Russia’s defeats against Japan in 1905, Germany in 1917 and the Soviet Union’s failure to subdue Afghanistan. He dare not face defeat in war.
Which is why it is so scary that Putin has briefed his ambassadors and diplomats to start talking about the risk of Ukrainians using dirty bombs containing radioactive Uranium. That risk is of course nil. There is no one in the Ukrainian leadership who has the remotest thing to gain from making any part of the country they are seeking to defend unliveable.
Yet there is unfortunately a very direct interest that Putin might have in dropping a dirty bomb. If he can’t have Kherson as part of Russia, then why not make it uninhabitable for anyone else? Particularly if he can over burden Ukraine’s medical services with slowly dying soldiers who would otherwise have been inflicting defeat on the empire of the invader.
Putin has a long track record of accusing others of what he intends to do himself. The world is therefore in a very dangerous situation. Will a desperate failing dictator take a lot of others with him as he goes down fighting in the dirtiest way possible?
When you are dealing with Vladimir Putin no one should underestimate what he is capable of. He has been the main bulwark of reaction for two decades and he might just be desperate enough to do something even more horrible.