Survive and Thrive
But there's another side to the coin, and to understand Putin, it needs to be noticed. Though so many of Russia's 1990s-era oligarchs came to a bad end, others managed not only to survive but to thrive in the new Russia.
Alisher Usmanov could serve as a model for an acceptable player in the country Putin wants: amass wealth from natural resources and deploy that wealth for the build-out of a modern Russia. Despite not being a native (he's from Uzbekistan), despite being a Muslim in a country hostile to Muslims, and despite having done jail time in his homeland (for charges later dismissed), Usmanov has become the country's richest oligarch, with a fortune exceeding $18 billion. He made the money in metals and now has interests in telecommunications and media. He owns a stake in British soccer team FC Arsenal, was an early backer of Facebook, and profited nicely from a $100 million position in Apple.
Mikhail Friedman is another oligarch with whom Putin has no problems. This in spite of Friedman being a Jew who is active in Jewish organizations in Russia and Europe.
More important to Putin than ethnicity is that Friedman honors Russia through membership in numerous public-service bodies, including the board of directors of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the National Council on Corporate Governance. He also helps promote the national literary award, "Big Book," and is a member of the board of the Center for Support of Native Literature, which encourages cultural programs, promotes the ideals of humanism and respect for the values of Russian culture, and supports creative writing in Russia. Forbes assesses Friedman's fortune at $17.6 billion, making him the country's second-richest man (or third, if tales of Putin's own net worth are true).
Roman Abramovich, the exiled Berezovsky's associate at Sibneft, is another example of how to succeed. He has become a two-digit billionaire and remains in Putin's good graces, probably because he doesn't have his former partner's penchant for political criticism, contributes generously to the president's party, and invests in important infrastructure projects in the country. It likely didn't hurt that, as court documents show, he handed out billions of dollars in bribes for political favors and protection fees in the course of obtaining a big share of Russia's oil and aluminum assets.
Be wary of U.S. media's portrayal of Putin as a one-dimensional ogre. True, he can be as ruthless as he needs to be. But he's no Stalin, who saw an enemy's face at every window. Putin is practical. He knows he needs the cooperation of other powerful and able people to realize his vision. He doesn't care who you are if you can help him and agree to play by his rules. There's no evidence he's personally misogynistic, homophobic, or anti-Semitic (though he exploits Russian homophobia when it suits his purpose). His motto could be written this way: "Align with me and I will hold nothing against you; oppose me and you will surely lose."
Putin has a singular vision for Russia, and it includes only one man at the top: Putin. For him to securely hold that spot, many of the oligarchs had to go—along with hostile journalists and political opponents, of course. But the oligarchs were the easy part. They were widely resented. Much of their wealth derived from seemingly underhanded deals, even though they generally operated within the legal and economic mores of the time. Some were simply thugs. Ordinary citizens could rationalize that they got what was coming to them.
While the wealth of the surviving oligarchs may have been ill gotten, Putin has no interest in pushing them to right their past wrongs. He's not in the justice business. His vendettas against Khodorkovsky and others took Russia away from respect for property rights and closer to being a country where, if a powerful man wants something, he just has to reach out and take it. And that suits Putin.
The oligarchs want to be rich. Putin is distinguishable from them only in that he has a grand vision for Russia. In every other way, he is one of them and can comfortably coexist with them—as long as everyone understands who runs the club.
Vision and Principle
Putin's treatment of the oligarchs arose from his grand vision for Russia. In the chapters that follow, we'll see how that vision guides his actions in all matters. Here are the man's 10 principles.
1. Russia must be secure against attack and intimidation.
2. The country with the greatest material ability for intimidating or attacking Russia is the United States.
3. For the sake of security, countries bordering Russia must serve as buffers against the West; that is, they cannot be aligned with the United States.
4. Russia should be prosperous—for the sake of prosperity itself, as a necessary element in achieving security, and for Putin's personal political survival.
5. Development of natural resources, especially energy, is Russia's clearest path to prosperity.
6. In addition to paying the bills for security (chiefly military expenditures), energy exports support Russia's security by drawing customer countries into quasi-dependence, disposing them to defer to Russia in international matters. Quasi-dependence is especially desirable in countries that border Russia or are near it.
7. Russian dominance in energy-related industries—refining, processing, shipping—reinforces quasi-dependence, at least for some countries. It gives Russia the power to withhold a needed service from a target country or from the target country's other suppliers of oil, gas, or uranium.
8. Speedy development of energy resources requires outside capital and technology, so foreign partners are welcome. But because energy production is part of a strategy for security, energy industries must be under the control of the Russian government.
9. Russia's position as an energy exporter implies that disruption of energy production anywhere outside of Russia works to Russia's advantage. In particular, turmoil in the Middle East is always to Russia's advantage or can be turned to it.
10. Because the United States is the country with the greatest ability to intimidate or attack Russia, anything that weakens the United States leaves Russia more secure. On that principle, Russia should subvert the dollar's position as the world's reserve currency, and for that purpose should subvert the petrodollar system.
It's a plan that has already produced results. Putin is a man of remarkable intelligence, determination, and ruthlessness. In the eyes of many Russians, that last quality is not a fault but a virtue. While our media paint him as a cold-blooded dictator, Russians see him as a man's man who restored their country's pride, economy, and position after a humiliating period they'd rather forget. If getting it done required trampling the rights of a few citizens and knocking heads among the country's new capitalist class, well, nothing's free.
We'll see where else these principles lead.