In the years that it took the journalist Catherine Belton to research and write “Putin’s People,” her voluminous yet elegant account of money and power in the Kremlin, a number of her interview subjects tried various tactics to undermine her work. One of them, “a close Putin ally” apparently alarmed by her questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s activities as a K.G.B. agent in Dresden in the 1980s, emphatically insisted that any rumored links between the K.G.B. and terrorist organizations had never been proved: “And you should not try to do so!” he warned.
Another source, defending Putin’s tenure as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, took a cooler approach. Asked about a local politician named Marina Salye who found evidence of corruption in the so-called oil-for-food scheme that Putin oversaw in the early ’90s, he didn’t bother to deny her findings; he just rejected the very idea that her findings mattered. “This all happened,” he smugly acknowledged. “But this is absolutely normal trading operations. How can you explain this to a menopausal woman like that?”
Belton suggests that this is the kind of two-pronged strategy the Kremlin has used to pursue its interests at home and abroad: Deploy threats, disinformation and violence to prevent damaging secrets from getting out, or resort to a chilling cynicism that derides everything as meaningless anyway.
The dauntless Belton, currently an investigative reporter for Reuters who previously served as the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, allowed neither approach to deter her, talking to figures with disparate interests on all sides, tracking down documents, following the money. The result is a meticulously assembled portrait of Putin’s circle, and of the emergence of what she calls “K.G.B. capitalism” — a form of ruthless wealth accumulation designed to serve the interests of a Russian state that she calls “relentless in its reach.”
As central as Putin is to the narrative, he mostly appears as a shadowy figure — not particularly creative or charismatic, but cannily able, like the K.G.B. agent he once was, to mirror people’s expectations back to them. The people who facilitated Putin’s rise didn’t do so for particularly idealistic reasons. An ailing Boris Yeltsin and the oligarchs who thrived in the chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union were looking for someone who would preserve their wealth and protect them from corruption charges. Putin presented himself as someone who would honor the bargain, but then replaced any Yeltsin-era players who dared to challenge his tightening grip on power with loyalists he could call his own.
“Putin’s People” tells the story of a number of figures who eventually ran afoul of the president’s regime. Media moguls like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were stripped of their empires and fled the country. Belton says the real turning point was the 2004 trial that sent Mikhail Khodorkovsky — at one point Russia’s richest man, with a controlling stake in the oil producer Yukos — to a Siberian prison camp for 10 years. Putin has since presided over the country and its resources like a czar, Belton writes, bolstered by a cadre of friendly oligarchs and secret service agents. Russia’s legal system was turned into a weapon and a fig leaf.
Putin allowed and even encouraged the oligarchs to accrue vast personal fortunes, but they were also expected to siphon some money from their business ventures into the obschak, a collective kitty whose slush funds, Belton says, have been useful in projecting the image of a powerful Russia on the world stage. The Kremlin’s abiding definition of power was cramped and zero-sum; the resources were plowed into undermining other countries on the relative cheap, by funding troll farms, election meddling and extremist movements.
It was an old K.G.B. model adapted for the new era, with Putin pursuing a nationalist agenda that embraced the country’s pre-revolutionary imperial past. Putin’s people had even figured out a way to turn London’s High Court into a tool for their own interests, freezing the assets of rival oligarchs while British lawyers took fat fees from both sides.
As much as the West has been a target for the Kremlin’s “active measures,” Belton argues that the West has also been complacent and even complicit. The complacency has taken the form of a blithe belief in the power of globalization and liberal democracy, a persistent faith that once Russia opened itself up to international capital and ideas, it would never look back.
But more mercenary motives were at play, too. Western business interests recognized how much profit could be made off of Russian oil behemoths and the giant sums of money sloshing around. (Unsurprisingly, Deutsche Bank — an institution at the center of many scandals — has occupied a crucial role.) Even when Putin was the beneficiary of such arrangements, he was contemptuous of them; his ability to use Western companies to Russia’s advantage only confirmed his long-held view “that anyone in the West could be bought.”
“Putin’s People” ends with a chapter on Donald Trump, and what Belton calls the “network of Russian intelligence operatives, tycoons and organized-crime associates” that has encircled him since the early ’90s. The fact that Trump was frequently overwhelmed by debt provided an opportunity to those who had the cash he desperately needed. Belton documents how the network used high-end real estate deals to launder money while evading stricter banking regulations after 9/11. She’s agnostic on whether Trump was a witting accomplice who was aware of how he was being used. As one former executive from the Trump Organization put it, “Donald doesn’t do due diligence.”
But Belton does. And while the president may not read much — neglecting even those intelligence briefings about Russian bounty payments to Taliban militants — there are presumably any number of people in the White House and his party who do.
Still, to read this book is to wonder whether a cynicism has embedded itself so deeply into the Anglo-American political classes that even the incriminating information it documents won’t make an actionable difference. A person familiar with Russia’s billionaires told Belton that once corrosion sets in, it’s devilishly hard to reverse: “They always have three or four different stories, and then it all just gets lost in the noise.”