Most books on modern Russia tend to isolate Russia’s re-emergence as a significant power in Europe from the West. Its rise is often attributed to Putin’s bellicosity in dealing with the West, buffeted by the rising oil prices and Russia’s wealth of natural resources. However, Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West is a deep dive into the corruption of the system behind Putin. It is a self-assured description of how the officers of the KGB implemented a system, beginning in the dying days of the Soviet Union, to ensure that the hold on power is never left to chance. But it is also a damning indictment of the West’s blindness to the risks of accepting what was obviously dirty money and the foolishness in suggesting that were the organisations peddling this cash exposed to Western ways of doing things, then they would see the error of their ways. The Western financial systems were not unwitting victims of disinformation and cleverly concocted schemes; rather, they were complicit actors in the fleecing of the Russian people and the consolidation of Putin’s power.
During Andropov’s premiership, the KGB realised that the Soviet Union was beginning to lag far behind the West in terms of economic prosperity and capacity and that the system in the Soviet Union could not compete with the West for much longer. The inefficiencies of a planned system and compulsory employment could not hope to compete with the efficiencies demanded and the innovation encouraged by the capitalist system in the West. The KGB had always had access to ‘black’ money to finance its operations in the West and to ensure their networks were maintained. They began to funnel ever greater amounts out of the Soviet Union for slush funds and to ensure permanent access to the financial networks of the West.
It is no secret that many of the Russian billionaires who earned their wealth in the 1990s did so through shady, secretive schemes and that many have done so since through their connections with the people at the centre of Putin’s Kremlin. We also know that those who refused to play ball such as Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Berezovsky to name just a few, were relieved of their possessions through the shameful use of the courts in barely masked power grabs by the Kremlin and its allies. While it may be hard to feel sorry for people whose own wealth was generated in what many view today as theft on a mass scale, it opens up questions about what other billionaires from Russia do in order to prevent that happening to them.
The research that went into this book is phenomenal. There are countless interviews listed over a number of years as well as reports and articles written by journalists and investigators during the Putin years. What I took most from this book and that I think others will too, is not the names of the Russian billionaires involved or the numerous schemes that the KGB have used to funnel money out of Russia, but the appalling lack of judgement and due diligence on the part of Western financiers who have allowed this flow of illicit finance into the stock markets and property markets. The furore that has been caused by the publication of this book has also once again exposed the complicity of London’s courts in Russian score settling. Author Belton is facing numerous lawsuits from some of the oligarchs listed in the book – Roman Abramovich is not only suing the publishing house Harper Collins but also Belton herself; Mikhail Fridman, owner of Russia’s largest non-state bank, Pyotr Aven, Fridman’s business partner, and Shalva Chigirinsky are also suing. London-based lawyers are representing them. The UK Government continually promises to counter Russia’s disinformation campaigns as well as rid and clean the London markets of their corrupting financial influence. As these court cases show, the UK Government is failing miserably.
Investigative journalists are vital for upholding democracy but too many are being impeded in their work by SLAPPs – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Those with money, and therefore power, are using the courts to harass the media and civil society, to silence journalists and activists who are drawing attention to the abuses of power that are happening on a huge scale across the world. Of course, there should be laws to protect innocent people from libel and from illegal intrusions. However, investigations that are in the public interest and which are carefully carried out so as to ensure that information is accurate and corroborated must be given the respect and protection that it deserves. SLAPPs are a cynical use of the legal system to protect the malign interests of the few whose money makes them believe they are untouchable. Our courts are renowned around the world for their long-standing dedication to fair trials for all, regardless of one’s background or finances. This reputation is being sullied and the UK Government are doing little to stop that happening.
In July of last year, the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament released their ‘Russia Report’, an investigation into the security threat that Russia poses to the UK and the weaknesses of the UK in resisting this threat. It was noted that Russia views any loss for the West as a win for Russia – foreign policy as a zero-sum game. One of the report’s recommendations was to develop a new statutory framework to tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite, and the ‘enablers’ who support this activity. It is there in black and white in a UK Government report. The financial dealings of the Russian elite are considered a threat to the security of the UK – Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’. There are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene and accepted because of their wealth
It is clear from this book that changes in the markets need to be made. Audits should be demanded for companies operating in the UK, and the company only accepted if they are transparent and show adherence to Western laws. UK courts must be above reproach and should be protected against being used as pawns in a cynical game to protect the wealth and interests of those corrupting our system. Putin believes that he can behave as he likes because the West can be bought. The West must demonstrate that this is wrong; that the West will forego the millions and billions that are stolen from the Russian people and used to prop up the Kremlin’s authoritarian regime. The West must demonstrate that they will stand by the principles of transparency so vital to maintaining our democracies.
 Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West, Harper Collins, 2020. p.15, 64
 Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West, Harper Collins, 2020. p., p.488
Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Russia, https://isc.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/20200721_HC632_CCS001_CCS1019402408-001_ISC_Russia_Report_Web_Accessible.pdf p.1
 Ibid, p.22
Sophia Rigby is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College, London. Her research is focusing on realist-constructivist theories of international relations and how it relates to Russian foreign policy in Europe. She holds a BA in Modern Languages and a Masters focusing on Russia and Eastern Europe. Since graduating, she has been working in political strategies and communications.