The Russia connectionRussia’s Kleptocracy Is a Tool for Undermining the West

By Lynn Berry

Published 29 June 2020

The West misread Russian corruption, such as the money laundering revealed by the case against the Bank of New York and the release of the Panama Papers. The money was seen only as stolen cash, not as a vast slush fund to be used to buy influence and threaten the West. Belton’s book could not be more timely: She offers a treasure trove of details about a network of Russian intelligence operatives, tycoons, and organized crime associates who, beginning in the 1990s, ingratiate themselves with an indebted, not-yet-a-politician Trump. With U.S. banks cracking down on money laundering, they put their cash into real estate and paid Trump handsomely for the privilege of using his name. The Obama administration was slow to grasp the Russia’s interference intents and capabilities, but within the administration, Vice President Joe Biden was one of the most vocal in warning of the Kremlin’s ability to direct loyal oligarchs to carry out strategic operations and its use of corruption to undermine democratic governments. Trump and Biden will face each other in November.

A review of Catherine Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2020)

Investigative journalist Catherine Belton set out to trace the takeover of the Russian economy by Vladimir Putin’s friends from the KGB, but as her reporting stretched through the years, she uncovered something more sinister. 

In her insightful book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West,” Belton argues the kleptocracy of the Putin era was not just about lining pockets: The billions of dollars at the disposal of Putin’s friends “were to be actively used to undermine and corrupt the institutions and democracies of the West.” Among these efforts, she details Russian backing of Donald Trump’s commercial interests back to the 1990s to try to exploit the developer’s vanity and financial vulnerability long before his rise to the presidency. Belton laments that the West, complacent after the end of the Cold War and eager for a share of Russia’s wealth, was slow to grasp the nature of the corruption and the depth of the country’s transformation as Putin established full control.

The Committee for State Security may have vanished along with the Soviet Union, but its operatives lived on. By exploring their reach and following the money, Belton provides a framework for understanding the rise of Putin, the evolution of his regime and what she calls the reactivation of the KGB playbook to sow division and discord in the West. But it is the details unearthed by her interviews with an extensive collection of insiders that make her arguments so convincing and the book such a gripping read.