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Making Sense of Vladimir Putin

A new biography debunks many of the Western conspiracy theories about the Russian leader.

Acting Russian President and Presidentia
Vladimir Putin adresses the press at a polling station in Moscow, 26 March 2000. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin, by Philip Short, (Henry Holt & Co.: July 2022), 864 pages.

Veteran biographer Philip Short opened his magisterial 2014 volume on Francois Mitterrand with a bizarre story that he painstakingly proved to be almost certainly true. In his new biography of Vladimir Putin, Short opens with an equally bizarre story that he proves is almost surely false. 

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The story about Mitterrand is that he faked an assassination attempt, hiring gunmen to shoot at him pretending to be right-wing Algerian terrorists. An accomplice gave up the ruse when apprehended by police.

The story about Putin is far more consequential. It claims that the terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities in the fall of 1999, which killed over 300 Russian citizens in their sleep, were actually a false flag operation by the FSB in order to justify military intervention in Chechnya and boost Vladimir Putin’s political fortunes ahead of the 2000 presidential election. 

The false flag theory always strained common sense. The supposed reward—a popularity boost, justification for an already quite well justified war—was not remotely proportional to the monstrosity of the crime. There was nothing inherently implausible about the official explanation, that it was terrorists from Chechnya or Dagestan, for whom the murder of innocents had long been a weapon.

Short gives the prosecution its due, sorting through page after page of evidence on the type of explosive used and the timeline of events. He nonetheless concludes that the false flag story is “almost certainly false.” He talks to the CIA Moscow station chief at the time and the former head of MI6, both of whom came to the same conclusion. MI6 had “a lot of penetration” in Russia during that period, the former MI6 chief says. It is impossible that an operation of that size could have been pulled off without Western intelligence getting wind of it.

So why can one even today still read the claim that Putin was complicit in the apartment bombings repeated in reputable publications like the Atlantic? The answer reveals an underappreciated aspect of our current confrontation. 

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Lies about Putin proliferate in the Western press. Short’s book refutes at least half a dozen conspiracy theories, all of which (as his footnotes demonstrate) circulate not just on the fringes but among mainstream journalists: that Putin was an illegitimate child from the Urals who was secretly adopted; that he ordered the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and others. 

The assassinations are a particularly important part of the Putin persona that has been crafted in the Western press. They are presumably the basis for President Joe Biden calling Putin “a killer” in March 2021, a gaffe that deeply insulted the Russians for no tangible benefit. The street in front of the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., today bears the name “Boris Nemtsov Plaza,” thanks to an act of Congress and the D.C. City Council, implying that Putin’s government was responsible for Nemtsov’s death.

The problem is that none of these murders can be credibly linked to Putin, according to Short. Politkovskaya was murdered by Chechens, who needed no encouragement. Putin “had no conceivable reason for wanting Nemtsov killed.” He was past his prime and no longer a threat. The only assassination for which Short blames Putin is that of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who continued dabbling in the murky world of spycraft from London and may therefore have been regarded by Putin as fair game.

In fact, one of the things Litvinenko did in London was actively and volubly promote the false flag theory of the apartment bombings, in press interviews and in a book called Blowing Up Russia. He did not do this on his own steam. He was underwritten by oligarch Boris Berezovsky—and he was not the only one. During his London exile, Berezovsky subsidized many writers and some of Britain’s best public relations experts to tarnish Putin’s image abroad. This was not just a personal grudge. If Putin were ever pressured out of office and Berezovsky could get back at the trough in Russia, his P.R. investment would more than pay for itself.

So that is where many of these wild rumors had their origin: in a dead oligarch’s checkbook. The bigger question is why these myths continue to circulate unrefuted.

One cannot blame American readers for taking wild stories about Putin at face value. The average American doesn’t know much about Russia, and for all they know things like assassination and bombings are normal over there. (Indeed, I once asked a Frenchman about Mitterrand’s fake assassination attempt and he replied, “Yes, it is true, but you must understand that French politics are different.”)

The people who bear responsibility are our Russia experts. It is their job to separate fact from fiction for laymen. In the case of Putin, they have abdicated that duty. There are many books about Putin for sale in America, and it is noteworthy that some of the most hysterical—alleging that he is a habitual murderer or part of a decades-long KGB plot—are by the authors with the best credentials.

Short’s book is the best biography of Putin currently available. His view is evenhanded, and even on balance unfavorable to his subject. At one point he states that doves like Jack Matlock and Stephen Cohen “often went overboard trying to explain Putin’s actions and ended up discrediting themselves.” For every conspiracy theory that Short debunks, there is a charge against Putin that he finds damning. But simply by offering Putin’s perspective in his own terms, as a counterpoint to the Western interpretation, Short puts himself ahead of the competition.

The proliferation of false stories about Putin harms America by giving the public an erroneous view of an important geopolitical player. But that is not its only harm. Dialogue between two parties depends on each side assuming that the other is at some level rational, capable of thinking logically and assessing facts and interests. When outlandish tales are tolerated in influential quarters in spite of contrary evidence, then the side that is being lied about has reason to doubt that that criterion for dialogue has been met.

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