The Russian government is going on a PR campaign to save the reputation of their government and primarily their leader, Vladimir Putin, who has come under fire in the media these past few weeks for his administration’s alleged corruption. The western media is portraying these new charges of corruption as unsurprising considering that such accusations have been reoccurring for years and because of the generally negative perception the West has of Putin as a corrupt pseudo-dictator.
According to Bloomberg View’s overtly sarcastic article title that is near the top of the google news feed: “Shocker: U.S. Knows About Corruption in Russia”. Russia on the other hand has been reacting to the accusations with purported shock (“US Shocks Russia by Calling Putin Corrupt” – Times of Oman), and a whole lot of indignation (“Russia slams White House over Putin Corruption Claim” – Daily Times).
Putin has been routinely accused of illegally amassing an enormous fortune for himself and, what the West denotes as, his “cronies” – a 2013 news.com.au article notes that there have been rumors floating around “Moscow high society” that Putin secretly holds large financial stakes in both the Russian oil company, Surgutneftegaz, and Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, that “could now be worth between $60-70 billion, putting him in contention with Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world with a $72 billion fortune.”
Beyond financial corruption, Putin’s government has also been accused of carrying out other questionable acts such as state sponsored assassinations. In particular, the assassination of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in the UK in 2006 and claimed that Putin had probably sanctioned his murder – an accusation that, according to the BBC, has been reaffirmed by a UK public inquiry.
Though such allegations have been commonplace since Putin’s ascent to power in 2000, this is the first time that a prominent world power has openly acknowledged and affirmed such claims. This all came to a head when Adam Szubin, US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, said in an interview with BBC Panorama, that, “We’ve seen him enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalizing those who he doesn’t view as friends using state assets. Whether that’s Russia’s energy wealth, whether it’s other state contracts, he directs those to whom he believes will serve him and excludes those who don’t. To me, that is a picture of corruption.”
Szubin has claimed that Putin’s alleged annual income of $110,000 is not reflective of his actual wealth and that Putin “has long time training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth.”
The Kremlin has always denied such allegations. When asked in 2008 about his purported secret fortune, Putin claimed, “It’s simply rubbish. They just picked all of it out of someone’s nose and smeared it across their little papers.” For the most part, the Russian media has been portraying this recent wave of accusations as a desperate personal attack against Putin to further tarnish his reputation and as stemming from the west’s geo-political opposition to Russia. Russia Today claims that, “the West has kicked off 2016 with a level of vilification against Putin that is so detached from reality that it actually serves to highlight the misdeeds of the accusers, desperate as they are to keep their regime-change operations going strong, as well as a wobbly anti-Russia alliance, complete with a NATO build-up on Russia’s border.”
According to The Guardian, this accusation has greatly damaged the US-Russian relationship as “Ties between Moscow and Washington have plunged to their lowest point since the cold war over Russia’s meddling in Ukraine.” Perhaps this problem is a little more nuanced than it seems though.
In an article by The Washington Post article, Russian journalist Anton Orekh suggests that this conflict over Putin’s alleged corruption may simply stem from the cultural differences between the west and Russia. Orekh suggests that what may seem like corruption “from an American-European point of view” may not from a Russian perspective. Orekh claims that “Corruption is some kind of imported word,” and that many Russians see Putin’s alleged “cronyism” as a “manifestation of friendship and a kindly responsiveness to the needs of those around him.” This article also suggests that Putin doesn’t have to amass a fortune in so much as he has unlimited access to the wealth of the Russia itself so long as he leads Russia.
This idea that the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the west may be rooted in cultural misunderstandings (or irreconcilable cultural differences) is not new. The Russian philosopher and sociologist. Aleksandr Dugin has been making similar claims to Orekh for years. Dugin, who is considered a neo-fascist by many western commentators and intellectuals, is a right-wing intellectual, Russian ultranationalist, and member of Putin’s “inner circle”. He is considered the leading intellectual of the “Putin era” of Russian politics and believes that the west routinely misunderstands Russia.
Dugin claims that the West always tries to understand Russia and anticipate its goals and actions as if it is another European nation – but this is not the case. The general thesis is that Russia has always been a strange cultural anomaly and shares many more traits with its Asian neighbors than the west realizes – this includes the propensity to stand behind a strong centralized leader (whether this is an Imperial Czar or Communist Dictator or a Vladimir Putin) and a strong adherence to principle and tradition over comfort and economic wellbeing. Dugin claims that by better understanding the cultural ground of Russia, the seemingly “nonsensical” geopolitical actions and responses of the nation come to make more sense.
Just look at the strange response Russians had to the draconian sanctions put on them in response to their nation’s annexation of Crimea. These sanctions, which made day-to-day life very difficult for many Russians and served to greatly damage their once strong economic growth, were expected to induce anger amongst the general populace towards their government. Instead, Putin’s approval ratings shot to an all-time high of 89% according to an article in The Guardian – an approval rating that many western leaders couldn’t even dream of. This heavy emphasis on solidarity and nationalism over and against economic productivity is arguably something that is not to be found in the West – at least not to the degree found in Russia.
The remaining question is, even if these geopolitical disagreements stem from cultural differences and this is acknowledged to be the case, what does this mean? For those opposed to the Russian government, in terms of domestic and foreign policy, it is a much more comforting narrative to think of the Russian populace as being duped by a bunch of self-serving oligarchs who are only interested in their own financial success.
If this is not the case, and the Kremlin is reflective of the actual will of the Russian people (purported “corruption” and all) then how are such geopolitical or possibly “moral” disputes to be settled? It seems that the cultural dialogue between Russia and the West is needed more than ever and hopefully, many of these differences will be more reconcilable than they may presently seem.
Assistant External News Editor