by Thomas C. Theiner
Ever wondered why many Western business managers, journalists, politicians, or pundits defend Putin’s aggressive and oppressive policies? Ever wondered why so few Russians in Russia and abroad speak out against Putin’s oppressive policies? If you haven’t wondered yet, that is because as a Westerner you cannot fathom in the slightest the Putin system of oppression, coercion, and corruption.
Some of Putin’s apologists might genuinely believe that Russia is not interfering in Ukraine, hasn’t invaded Crimea and isn’t a racist, fascist dictatorship ruled by a kleptomaniac dwarf. Other Russia defenders hate the West and per “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” have thrown their lot in with Putin. Both of these groups are in the Kremlin’s view “useful idiots”, as it has to neither pay nor coerce them, as they incessantly repeat all the harebrained nonsense emanating from the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. However, the largest group of Kremlin defenders are people either bribed or threatened to do so.
Bribe and threaten – yes, these are classic espionage elements and Putin’s regime uses them masterfully to give itself a secret army of apologists. Unlike well known sellouts like e.g. Gerhard Schröder, who gets at least 250,000€ a year to shill for Putin, the hidden army of Putin claqueurs gets its pay through myriads of semi-legal, illegal, and outright criminal schemes. Let me present some:
1. How to corrupt scholars, journalists or pundits: the most common way is to pay them for writing brochures, strategy papers or analysis and pay them outrageously high sums. But paying i.e. 150,000$ to a journalist for writing a page long article for a Russian corporate brochure would discredit him as a “neutral voice” and raise suspicions with his tax authorities back home; therefore, Russia has developed ways to hide the money flow. While a little token sum is paid officially, the rest is either deposited in an offshore account owned by an offshore shell company with the journalist having access to the money via a debit card issued to the shell company, or the remaining money is used to knock down prices for things the journalist wishes to buy: “Always wanted to have a holiday home in Spain? Well, aren’t you lucky that this homeless Spanish man just bought your dream home, exquisitely renovated it and now wants to sell it to you for an incredible low price!”
Everyone who agrees to such a deal commits tax fraud and thus gives Russia extra leverage which they won’t use unless someone suddenly wishes to become honest. After all it is much easier to bribe people than to threaten them. How pervasive is such corruption? In the countries of the former Soviet Union and Germany – endemic!
2. How to corrupt politicians and parties: this is even easier than corrupting the press. To corrupt parties just donate, if donations by foreigners are illegal, either funnel money to Russians who have bought citizenship, or prod business people with business in Russia to donate and influence the parties in Russia’s interest. If a Russian refuses, be sure to remind him that he still has relatives in Russia, who would certainly love to have trumped up charges thrown at them; if a business person refuses, be sure to remind him that his choice is between no inspections for year or daily inspections by Russian authorities of his business for a year. But business people working in Russia never need a reminder, they know the game: do as the authorities want and in return overcharge the Russian state audaciously, for the authorities will approve, pay and then come back to get their share.
This is the way that Russia finances and buys itself all kinds of parties in Europe, be it small opposition parties, secessionist movements, or government parties. Some of them know where the money comes from, many suspect where it comes from, but just don’t have the urge to check. As for politicians, those are equally easily bribed. As with journalists, salaries for lectures and conferences are a proven way after a politician has left office, while during their time in office promises of a lucrative job as a member of the board at a Russian state corporation, or head of a Russian sponsored annual conference can do wonders for reinvigorating a sudden urge to lobby for and defend Russia’s interests, as proven by Germany’s political elite rushing to hug Putin in St. Petersburg, while German officers are tortured in a dungeon by Russian military intelligence operatives.
For rather intransigent politicians, Russia falls back on the soft power of influencing their better halves by either giving her a seat cum representation allowance on the board of a Russian controlled charity, or by suggesting that she creates her own charity to which Russian controlled businesses will generously contribute. If you wonder how pervasive this form of Kremlin corruption is, just look at all the charities in London with politicians’ wives involved and then grab a list of who these charities donors are.
3. How to corrupt managers and corporations: this group is easily corrupted, as greed is their basic instinct; however, managers and corporations are also most threatened by Russian coercion. This gives Russia two levers to get managers to sing Putin’s praises even under the most idiotic and embarrassing circumstances. The rules in Putin’s Reich are very simple: either you praise and defend the regime, its policies, and leader, and are in turn allowed to do business in Russia without the threat of daily harassing inspections, customs delays, power outages, death threats to your employees, freezing of your accounts, revoking of your visa, refusal to return VAT, frivolous lawsuits in remote places, etc. etc. (believe me, the arsenal of destructive measures is infinite!), or you don’t toe the line and you will find your business tormented until you cave in or, if you are stubborn, until your business is bankrupted or simply stolen from you with a mix of mafia intimidation and fake court rulings under government orders.
In short, managers and corporations are corrupted by the possibility to earn absurd amounts of money in Russia, and kept in line by the constant threat that they could be treated like a Russian business if they stop panegyrizing Putin.
4. How to corrupt nations: Even with journalists, pundits, scholars, politicians, and major corporations under his thumb, Putin still strives to corrupt entire nations by providing them with cheap gas, cheap nuclear power plants, cheap weapons, or whatever else those nations are stupid enough to buy from him. Putin isn’t a businessman interested in profits, Putin is a dictator who is more than willing to sell at a loss to gain a long-term hold over nations: be it Egypt by selling it weapons that will be in service for two decades, or Hungary by selling it nuclear power stations that will give Russia complete control over Hungary’s energy industry, or Italy by selling it cheap gas to keep its economy barely out of recession. Nations eagerly stumble into Putin’s trap and tie their fate to his will, until one day they wake and realize that they are actually beholden to his whims.
Western journalists, politicians, and societies have no idea how massively their nations have already been corrupted by Putin’s decade long drive to corrupt and ultimately control enough European nations to blunt a unified response to his regime. There are countries in the EU today which are basically just local branches of the FSB. Even Germany, the continent’s strongest economy, is corrupted by Russian money on all levels of government, society, press, and business. Some people might think that all this isn’t so bad and there is no threat to their nation’s freedom, prosperity, and sovereignty. No, it is an essential threat to each and every nation in Europe!
Ukraine is one of the nations most thoroughly infiltrated and corrupted by Russia. First, its press and business, then its politics, followed by its government, were corrupted in a concentrated Russian campaign. From government the corruption spread to the security services and the armed forces, and now the country disintegrates.
Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldova are Putin’s next targets for destabilization and annexation, while Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Italy remain the prime targets for his drive to sap the will to stand up for human rights, international law and the people of Eastern Europe. It is no coincidence that Spain and the UK have reinvigorated secession movements, led by Putin admirers. It is no coincidence that Italy and France see a resurgence of anti-EU parties, led by Putin admirers, and that Germany is swamped with experts, pundits, journalists, managers, and politicians that keep repeating Kremlin mantras. As long as the uncorrupted press refrains from taking a look behind the scenes to uncover what oils this well-smeared Russia-supporting machine, this evil will spread within the Europe Union like a cancer and sooner than we can imagine it will kill the European Union, which is what Putin wants.
Thomas Theiner is a writer and production manager. He has previously lived in Kyiv for 5 years and worked at a subsidiary of Ukraine’s biggest film company.