“You’d think the Tsar was back!” So a colleague covering the G8 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 it was the first time that Russia, admitted as a full member of the club of “great powers” in 1997, hosted the summit.
Putin wore his usual dismissive grin as the man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo.
To show that Russia is back, Putin chose Konstantinovsky Palace as the venue for the G8 summit. The elegant castle had been started in 1714 by Peter the Great as a Russian response to the Palace of Versailles in France.
However, like many of Peter’s other ambitious plans, it was abandoned for decades to be completed decades later as the residence of 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 Palais Poutine.
At the time of the summit, journalists covering the event believed that Putin’s choice of venue signaled his desire to fulfill Boris Yeltsin’s ambition to make Russia a full member of the so-called “Western” family of capitalist nations. modern.
With the Soviet “nightmare” over, Putin seemed to invite the West to help him build the new Russia he wanted, just as French and Italian architects had helped build successive versions of the Konstantinovsky Palace.
For years, it seemed Western leaders were more than prepared to help Putin achieve what Yeltsin was supposed to have dreamed of.
US President George W Bush had treated Putin as a special guest, saying 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 pouring into London banks on behalf of Putin-linked “oligarchs”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had finalized a long-standing plan to make Russia the federal republic’s biggest energy source.
French President Jacques Chirac has said yes to Putin’s request for the construction of a giant Russian Orthodox church in Paris. He also abandoned an old agreement with Algeria to make France dependent on Russia for 20% of its natural gas needs.
Western powers have offered other tokens of friendship to Putin, including visa waivers, the lifting of investment restrictions in Russia and special arrangements for the transfer of technology. Western media admired Putin’s “strong leadership” and “vision.”
While there were early signs that Putin might not be the altar boy Western leaders thought, they didn’t start seeing him as a potential enemy until his invasion of Ukraine. in 2022.
A few months after the Saint Petersburg Love Festival, Putin’s agents used radioactive isotopes to kill Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and asylum seeker in London.
On a broader picture, Putin has begun blocking NATO plans to gain a presence in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Moscow helped overthrow pro-Western rule in Kyrgyzstan, acquired military bases in Armenia and Tajikistan, and struck a $4 billion deal to supply weapons 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 United States responded by sending a warship on a brief tour of the Black Sea.
Looking back, it seems Putin hatched a careful plan to test the limit of Western powers’ tolerance as he moved from one misdeed to the next.
He waged an exceptionally brutal war in Chechnya to crush a rebellion that Yeltsin had failed to tame. There was virtually no Western reaction.
In 2010, Putin’s agents murdered his most prominent critic, Anna Politkovskaya, on October 7, which coincided with Putin’s birthday.
In 2012, Putin began involving himself in the Syrian civil war alongside President Bashar al-Assad backed by Tehran. After testing the waters, Putin also presented himself as a big player in Libya hoping to get some of it when and if it was broken to pieces.
In 2015, it was the turn of Boris Nemtsov, considered by Western powers as a potential rival of Putin, to be assassinated in front of the Kremlin.
In 2018, Russian agents carried out a poison attack in the English town of Salisbury and killed Yulia, daughter of Sergei Skripal, a former KGB agent.
Meanwhile, French resident Emmanuel Macron had welcomed Putin to a lavish banquet at the Palace of Versailles and hailed the “historic friendship” between France and Russia.
Whenever Putin has misbehaved, Western powers have responded with bland statements, the expulsion of a few diplomats and expressions of sympathy for Alexei Navalny, one of Tsar Vladimir’s most colorful critics. Meanwhile, Putin has built a base of political support in the West by funding several left and right parties.
Putin first took over chunks of Ukraine Donetsk and Lugansk and, once convinced no one would stop him, followed and annexed the entire Crimean peninsula in 2014. He also gained 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”, i.e. Western powers.
It’s hard to know what’s going through Putin’s head. But his favorite “philosopher”, Alexander Dugin, dismissed the leaders of Western democracies as a bunch of lily-livered thinkers interested in nothing but money and show-off.
Dugin’s view was partly confirmed by Russia’s success in hiring top Western politicians with huge salaries for bogus jobs. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and at least 12 other prime ministers and ministers from Austria, Finland and Italy were among the first to jump into the Russian sauce. One of them, who is not named, told us that he did not regret working for Putin. “Did Voltaire not work for Empress Catherine the Great? he joked.
Western money, technology and, above all, greed have helped Putin become, in the words of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, a threat to world peace.
For two decades, Western powers have pumped billions into revitalizing 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 was not the beautiful Galatea he had imagined but “the creature” that Dr. Frankenstein produced.