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Putin, McMafia and the avenging assassins

March 17, 2018

The timing was perfect.

My wife and I watched the first six episodes of McMafia, the BBC’s flagship series about the Russian mafia, before we set off for a month in South-East Asia. By the time we got back, the denouement was waiting for us.

Then, as we got to Episode 8, when the tit-for-tat assassinations intensified, came the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury. How fiction intersects with reality remains to be seen, but as the McMafia narrative played out, the involvement of government officials in the web of intrigue added an extra element of spice.

So first, a few thoughts on the fiction.

The makers of McMafia clearly had a taste for travel. The series lists some very sexy locations – Britain, Croatia, Russia, Israel, Istanbul and India. I guess there weren’t many people queuing up for the gig, though poor old James Norton had to go everywhere except Mumbai. Tough life.

The actors were terrific, and despite the received wisdom, I include Norton. It must be hard to play the relatively inert centrepiece around which all the crazier characters revolve. He does cold-eyed well. Having said that, he will never play James Bond, for the simple reason that he runs like an ostrich.

As for the others, there were some fine performances, notably David Strathairn as the Russian-Israeli ship owner, Aleksey Serebryakov as Dimitri Godman, the exiled head of the Godman family, and Merab Ninidze, who played Dimitri’s arch-enemy in Moscow.

Norton’s character, Dimitri’s son Alex, plays a role similar to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Like Michael, Alex is making a life outside the family business, trying to build a career in the legitimate world – in Alex’s case as a merchant banker. But just as Michael’s family loyalty sucks him into the gangster world, so does Alex’s, to the horror – in both cases – of their respective partners who have no connection with organised crime.

Looking at the series in retrospect, the plot was well-crafted, and came to a suitably apocalyptic conclusion. Mischa Glenny, on whose book it’s based, is a serious historian and journalist. One suspects that he knows what he’s writing about. The portrayal of Russia as a hub of criminality around which various gangster franchises revolve rings true.

Here in Britain – at least until recently – we have happily hosted oligarchs whose fortunes are of dubious provenance, mostly arising out of the wild west of Yeltsin’s Russia. We ask a few questions about their wealth but don’t get too many answers, so we leave it at that, because we like the fact that they spend their money in our country.

So the presence Britain of the fictional Godmans, a family whose paterfamilias created a fortune out of nothing, and then fled Russia because he made too many enemies, is entirely believable.

An interesting facet of the story is the involvement of the Russian government, or rather of elements thereof. We know from the outset that Vadim Kuliakov, the Godmans’ nemesis, is aided and abetted by an FSB agent, Ilya, whose shadowy presence as Vadim’s advisor and protector pervades the series.

But it’s only towards the end that Ilya’s fragile place in the FSB hierarchy become clear. And as other officials become involved in Alex Godman’s business dealings, the government looks less like a monolith, and more like a seething mass of rival factions. Something to note when considering the Salisbury attack.

In fact, by the end of the series “the government” looks rather like the Greek pantheon. Rival gods, whose presence is everywhere in the perception of the protagonists, but whose motivation is thoroughly human, who pull strings and occasionally intervene to dramatic effect, and certainly not in concert with each other.

Which leads one to wonder how closely this maps on to the real picture. Is Putin a Russian Zeus, presiding over a squabbling family of gods who acknowledge his supremacy but frequently act in their own interests without the knowledge of the ultimate Godfather?

Or is Russia’s president the all-seeing, all-knowing string-puller in whose domain nothing happens without his specific approval?

In McMafia, the first picture emerges. Putin’s name is never mentioned, and the gods only seem to intervene when the mortals get out of hand. But you definitely get the impression that there are several competing deities at play.

Back in the real world, Putin has consolidated his power by eliminating his rivals, so you could argue that there’s no room for an Apollo, a Hera or an Aphrodite strong enough to go freelance. Which leads to the British government’s conclusion that the Salisbury attack was Putin’s work. Either that, or the action of some real-life Mafia godfather. But no godfather who wishes to remain so would contemplate an act that might compromise the position of the capo di tutti capi.

Does Hitler’s Germany offer any clues? A regime presided over by a seemingly all-powerful leader, yet riddled with rivalries between ministers, each determined to carry out the Fuhrer’s “will” and each with their own interpretation thereof. What some historians claim was Hitler’s deliberate policy of maintaining deniability has enabled his apologists to assert that he was unaware in detail of Himmler’s implementation of the Holocaust. Others maintain that evidence of his direct involvement will have once existed but was destroyed in the final conflagration.

Laurence Rees, in his recent history of the Holocaust, argues that there was no master plan awaiting the right moment to be put in effect, but that the whole thing developed over time – ideology buffeted by economic and military circumstances. In other words, the Nazis improvised the Final Solution as they went along.

How might these arguments map on to Putin’s role – or lack of a role – in the Salisbury attack?

Putin is no Hitler. But one wonders whether his reputation as a master strategist isn’t overplayed. We have often overestimated the competence of Russia’s leaders in the past, as we did before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Equally, the idea that he is merely an opportunist who takes advantage of weakness where he sees it in order to further his Russia First agenda probably doesn’t do him justice. The reality perhaps lies somewhere in-between.

If he was behind the poisoning of the Skripals, Putin would most likely see the execution of the hit as a screw-up. I would have thought that the kind of assassination that best suits his purposes is one which leaves people guessing about the perpetrator, but causes them to assume that it was him because of the Russian state’s traditional expertise in murdering those that displease it. In Ancient Greece, an earthquake would have indicated Zeus’s displeasure. In 2018, the death of a Russian traitor can only have been Putin’s revenge in the eyes of the fearful.

So you would have expected that the action against the Skripals would result in their deaths, and would probably not cause damage to forty other people in the process. A nice clean hit, in other words. Deniable, but sufficient to put fear in the hearts of would-be traitors. Instead, it was a botched job.

As for the theory that the Russian mafia somehow got hold of a deadly nerve agent, you have to ask why they would bother to use it when a more conventional method of killing might suffice, especially on sitting ducks like the Skripals. Mafiosi use bullets and bombs. States tend to use more bizarre techniques. Not just the Russians, by the way. Consider the CIA-inspired assassination attempts on Castro, which included an exploding cigar and an attempt to infect his diving suit with tuberculosis.

What now? We puff up like angry roosters. We bluster. We expel a few diplomats. The Russians retaliate, and a few months or years later things settle down, just as they did after Litvinenko’s murder. Fine. We have to do these things to demonstrate that we matter, even if we’re weaker and more isolated than at any time in living memory.

Should we make it harder for Russians to visit and settle in Britain? Perhaps, but not yet. Aside from the ultimate deterrent lurking in our submarines, about the only real power we still possess is soft.

For all our flaws, Britain is still a country ordinary Russians love to visit. Here they see an alternative to Putin’s Russia. A country that is diverse and culturally vibrant. Where secret policemen are not waiting on street corners ready to pounce on those who step out of line. Where an element of free speech is still tolerated. And where everyday corruption is still limited.

So you could argue that every Russian who visits us has the opportunity to enjoy experiences not available in their homeland.  And some will return home asking why they have to live in a police state. Just as the coming of satellite TV and eventually the internet alerted citizens of repressive countries in the Middle East to pleasures unavailable to them at home, and caused them to put pressure on their leaders to grant them greater social freedom, is it inconceivable that prolonged exposure to the west is changing Russia’s cultural DNA?

Maybe, maybe not. But in this sense, every western country in which liberal democratic values still prevail and where Russians are free to visit and live is a threat to Putin. Which is one reason why he seeks to disrupt our democratic institutions, and also the reason why, as one of his retaliatory measures against the expulsion of his “diplomats” he has closed down the British Council, one of the primary instruments of British soft power.

Soft power is no defence against tanks, nukes, cyberweapons and avenging assassins. But in the long run, it’s perhaps as good as any method of ensuring that Putin’s legacy is eroded, and that he will be succeeded by a leadership that represents a people who don’t regard us as a traditional enemy.

We will not change Putin. But he will not live forever. And at some stage he might well make a fatal mistake which will discredit him in the eyes of his people. Surely our most effective counter until then is to seduce his people.

From → Film, Politics, UK

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