Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

How the West Built a Russian Enemy

“One would think the Tsar is back!” This is how a colleague covering the G 8 summit in Saint Petersburg in July 2006 commented after a visit by President Vladimir Putin to the facilities provided for journalists covering the “historic event.” Historic because this was the first time that Russia, admitted as a full member of the club of “great powers” in 1997, was hosting the summit.

Putin wore his usual disdainful grin like the man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo.

To show that Russia is back, Putin had chosen the Konstantinovsky Palace as the venue for the G8 summit. The elegant chateau had been started in 1714 by Peter The Great as a Russian answer to the Versailles Palace in France.

However, like many of Peter’s other ambitious plans, it was abandoned for decades to be completed decades later as a residence for Duke Konstantin. But it was under Putin that the semi-derelict structure was revived as an architectural gem to reflect Russia’s status as a great power. No wonder the place is now called the Putin Palace.

At the time of the summit journalists covering the event believed that Putin’s choice of the venue indicated his desire to realize Boris Yeltsin’s ambition to make Russia a full member of the so-called “Western” family of modern capitalist nations.

With the Soviet “nightmare” over, Putin seemed to invite the West to help build the new Russia he wanted just as French and Italian architects had helped build the successive versions of the Konstantinovsky Palace.
For years it seemed that Western leaders were more than prepared to help Putin achieve what Yeltsin was supposed to have dreamed.

US president George W Bush had treated Putin as a special guest, asserting that he could “trust” the Russian leader.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair had ordered officials not to look too closely at the flood of Russian money flowing into London’s banks in the name of “oligarchs” linked to Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had finalized a long-standing plan to make Russia the largest source of energy for the federal republic.

French President Jacques Chirac said yes to Putin’s demand for a giant Russian Orthodox church to be built in Paris. He also scrapped an old deal with Algeria to make France dependent on Russia for 20 percent of its natural gas needs.

The Western powers offered other tokens of friendship to Putin, including visa waivers, lifting restrictions on investments in Russia and special arrangements for the transfer of technology. Western media admired Putin’s “strong leadership” and “vision.”

Although there were early signs that Putin might not be the choirboy that Western leaders thought, they did not begin to see him as a potential enemy until his 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

A few months after the St. Petersburg lovefest, Putin’s agents used radioactive isotopes to kill Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and asylum-seeker in London.

On a broader tableau, Putin started blocking NATO’s plans to gain a presence in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Moscow helped overthrow the pro-West regime in Kyrgyzstan, acquired military bases in Armenia and Tajikistan, and clinched a $4 billion deal to supply arms to Iraq.

At the same time Putin armed secessionists in Moldova and eastern Ukraine and, in August 2008, invaded Georgia to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The US reacted by sending a warship on a brief tour of the Black Sea.

In hindsight, it seems that Putin had worked out a careful plan to test the Western powers’ limit of tolerance as he went from one mischief to another.

He conducted an exceptionally brutal war in Chechnya to crush a rebellion that Yeltsin had failed to tame. There was hardly any Western reaction.

In 2010, Putin’s agents assassinated his most prominent critic, Anna Politkovskaya on 7 October which coincided with Putin’s birthday anniversary.

In 2012 Putin started getting involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad backed by Tehran. After testing the waters Putin also cast himself as a big player in Libya in the hope of getting a chunk of it when and if it was broken into pieces.

In 2015, it was the turn of Boris Nemtsov, regarded by Western powers as a potential rival to Putin, to be assassinated in front of the Kremlin.

In 2018, Russian agents carried out a poison attack in the English city of Salisbury and killed Yulia, daughter of Sergei Skripal a former KGB agent.

In the meantime, French resident Emmanuel Macron had hosted Putin in a lavish banquet in the Palace of Versailles and hailed “the historic friendship” of France and Russia.

Each time Putin misbehaved, Western powers reacted with bland statements, the expulsion of a few diplomats, and expressions of sympathy for Alexei Navalny, one of Tsar Vladimir’s more colorful critics. Meanwhile, Putin built a political support base in the West by financing several parties of both left and right.

Putin at first seized control of chunks of Ukraine Donetsk and Luhansk and, once convinced that no one would stop him, went along and annexed the whole of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. He also obtained a base in Syria, restoring Russia’s military presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Empire. His next move was to turn the Caspian Sea into a Russian lake, excluding “outsiders”, meaning the Western powers.

It is hard to know what goes on in Putin’s mind. But his favorite “philosopher” Alexander Dugin has dismissed the leaders of Western democracies as a bunch of lily-livered pansies interested in nothing but money and show-off.

Dugin’s view has been partly confirmed by Russia’s success in hiring leading Western politicians with huge salaries for bogus jobs. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and at least 12 other premiers and ministers from Austria, Finland and Italy were among the first to jump on the Russian gravy train. One of them, let him remain un-named, told us that he didn’t regret working for Putin. “Didn't Voltaire work for Empress Catherine the Great?” he quipped.

Western money, technology and, above all, greed helped Putin become in the words of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, a threat to world peace.

For two decades Western powers injected billions to revitalize Russia’s moribund economy, making Russia the world’s second-largest oil producer and helping Putin build a $600 billion war chest before launching his “Special Operations” last February.

The West played Pygmalion but Putin didn’t turn out to be the beautiful Galatea it had imagined but “the creature” that Dr. Frankenstein produced.