Who poisoned Roman Abramovich?

Russia is now 33 days into a war it expected would last 72 hours. Given the relative failure of the invasion, it is surprising anyone in the Russian security establishment has much time to spare for side projects. Yet, yesterday’s news that the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was poisoned during informal peace negotiations with the Ukrainians would suggest otherwise. While details are murky, according to the investigative journalism collective Bellingcat, billionaire Abramovich was engaged in shadow negotiations in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, earlier this month when he and his two Ukrainian interlocutors fell ill. The men later received medical treatment in Istanbul. Since the story broke, there has been a

Will Iron Felix scare Moscow’s protesters?

While in the West, the debate seems to be about which statue to topple next, in Russia it’s rather different. Felix Dzerzhinsky – ‘Iron Felix,’ founder of the Bolshevik secret police – looks like he may be coming home, thirty years after his statue was pulled down from its place in front of the KGB’s Lubyanka headquarters. Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat turned revolutionary, was charged by Lenin in 1917 to form what was then called the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage – rather more concisely known as the Cheka after the Russian initials for ‘extraordinary commission’ – and lead it into the coming civil war. This would

How have the Russian oligarchs got away with swaggering around London for so long?

A decade ago I commissioned an article about Vladimir Putin’s business cronies. Among other lines of enquiry, it sought to finger ‘a coterie of wealthy and politically influential industrialists, many believed to be former or current secret service officials’ who allegedly had shareholdings in Russian companies which, if we or anyone else had been able to prove that they were controlled by the president, might have evidenced a personal Putin fortune of tens of billions. Sensibly, The Spectator’s lawyer would not let me publish — but the US Treasury has now done its own version of the job by imposing sanctions on seven oligarchs and 17 senior Russian officials who are

There’s still no smoking gun in the Trump-Russia story

Political scandals sometimes throw up deliciously eccentric minor characters. Trump-Russia — a scandal or merely a crisis, according to taste — now has one: Rob Goldstone. He is described as a British former tabloid journalist, a music promoter, former Miss Universe pageant judge, and friend of the Trumps. Facebook videos reveal a short, tubby man with a northern accent and voice that seems a couple of octaves too high for his bulk. Twitter photos show him in a black shirt with a shiny gold tie; or holding velvet loafers up to his double chin, the word ‘Sex!’ embroidered on the toecaps; or wearing a gold baseball hat bearing the legend

Putin’s Syria problem

For Vladimir Putin, Syria has been the gift that kept on giving. His 2015 military intervention propelled Russia back to the top diplomatic tables of the world — a startling comeback for a country that had spent two decades languishing in poverty and contempt on the margins of the world’s councils. At home, the war took over as a booster of Putin’s prestige just as the euphoria over the annexation of Crimea was being eroded by economic bad news caused by low oil prices and sanctions. In the Middle East, Russia was able to show both friends and enemies that it was once again able to project power every bit as

Licence to kill | 12 January 2017

As I read the last chapter of this book, news broke that the Russian ambassador to Ankara, Andrey Karlov, had been shot multiple times at close range by an off-duty Turkish police officer. Despite shocking live footage of the incident, it was unclear immediately whether this was political assassination or terrorist attack, or who was ultimately behind it. The assassin was quickly ‘neutralised’. Speaking from the Kremlin, Putin praised the slain ambassador, ordered security at Russian embassies to be stepped up, and said he wanted to know who had ‘directed’ the gunman’s hand. This is the crucial question. Not who the killer was, but for whom he was acting and

Diary – 29 September 2016

Monday night’s US presidential debate should convince a majority of American voters that Hillary Clinton is their only credible choice for the White House. Yet it may well fail to do so, in the new era of ‘post-truth politics’. The historian Sir Michael Howard suggests that on both sides of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a retreat from reason, an attempt to reverse the onset of the 18th-century Age of the Enlightenment, which banished superstition and religious faith as a basis for reaching conclusions. The progress of Donald Trump supports his thesis. I have just spent a fortnight in southern California, researching a book on the Vietnam war, and saw

Russia’s puritan revolution

Last weekend a group of young activists turned out on a Moscow street to protest against western decadence. They were a hard-faced bunch, standing defiantly in military poses and wearing uniforms bearing the logo ‘Officers of Russia: Executive Youth Wing’ as they blocked access to an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges that featured images of nude adolescents. ‘We are here to protect people from paedo-philic influences,’ one Officer of Russia told journalists — while another protester sprayed the offending photographs with urine. At the same time, Russia’s state–controlled airwaves filled with senators, priests and government officials denouncing the wickedness of the exhibition (which shut down immediately after the protests)

Putin and the polygamists

Homosexuality may not be tolerated in today’s Russia, nor political dissent. Polygamy, though, is a different matter. Ever since news broke this summer of a 57-year-old police chief in Chechnya bullying a 17-year-old local girl into becoming his second wife, Russian nationalists and Islamic leaders alike have been lining up to call for a man’s right to take more than one wife. Most vocal has been Ramzan Kadyrov, the flamboyant 38-year-old president of Chechnya (part of the Russian Federation), who advocates polygamy as part of ‘traditional Muslim culture’. Veteran ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhironovsky has long held that polygamy is the solution for ‘Russia’s 10 million unmarried women’. And even Senator

How Putin turned Russian politics into reality TV

‘We all know there will be no real politics.’ A prominent Russian TV presenter is speaking off the record at a production meeting in 2001. ‘But we still have to give our viewers the sense that something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. Politics has got to feel … like a movie!’ When Peter Pomerantsev, a Brit of Russian descent, sat in on this meeting he had recently graduated and moved to Moscow to work as a TV producer. A decade in Russian television has now provided him with the material for his chilling first book. Nothing is True… is more than an evocative travelogue or an insight

The Kremlin thinks Russell Brand is good news. Does that not worry him?

An interesting story in today’s papers: ‘Russia’s last politically independent TV station will be forced to close at the end of this month after the state-owned company that transmits its signal said it would be taken off the air.’ This comes at the same time, as our cover story last week showed, as Putin’s propaganda station in London – Russia Today – has increased its operations and profile within the UK. Unlike the Kremlin, I am generally in favour of as diverse a media as possible. The problem with Russia Today is that it seems to have fooled an astonishingly diverse number of silly people into thinking that what they

Russia Today is Putin’s weapon of mass deception. Will it work in Britain?

Anyone making the journey to Westminster by public transport will be confronted by a series of posters warning them about the state of British media. The word ‘redacted’ is in large letters, and readers are advised to look up a website for ‘the ad we can’t show you here’. If you do, you see a picture of Tony Blair advocating war. ‘This is what happens when there is no second opinion,’ the webpage says, advising people to ‘question more’. This is how Russia Today, the Kremlin’s fast-growing English language broadcaster, is selling itself: as the challenger to an out-of-touch establishment. At a time when there’s a widespread distrust of political

Leviathan: the anti-Putin film the Russians tried to ban that’s tipped for an Oscar

The funny thing about a film like Leviathan, which many expected to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year (it didn’t), is that suddenly an awful lot of people become experts in things they knew nothing about before reading the press notes. Some people may be familiar with the Bible’s Book of Job, of course, and with Leviathan, the sea monster used to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God. Several may even have read Thomas Hobbes’s tome of the same name about conceding power to the state. A few may genuinely be well-versed in both. A big pat on the back to them. They read a

Regardless of the impact on our economy, Putin must be stopped

Walking around London this lunchtime with my family, my stomach tightened as it struck me that we may conceivably now be sliding towards a war with Russia. A war with consequences that could end up destroying everything we value. Not physical assets – they can be replaced – but those we love and hold dear. The poverty of the West’s response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is breathtaking. Sanctions are announced, then re-announced, in the hope that perhaps the crisis on our borders may just resolve itself, with Putin deciding he has tweaked our tail enough. Such an outcome, however desirable, is pie in the sky. Let’s be clear that

After the horrific tragedy of MH17, Europe must wake up to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin

How many more civilian planes need to be shot down over European airspace before Europe’s leaders get serious about the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia? As the smoke clears from Thursday’s horrific downing of a Malaysian Airlines jet traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, many will try to deflect blame from landing squarely where it should: on Russian President Vladimir Putin. ‘Airliner tragedy in Ukraine shows US & EU erred by not pushing to keep Ukr[aine] as neutral buffer state, not potential EU/NATO member,’ tweeted Stephen Walt, a prominent voice of the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy and a leading apologist for the Russian government. RT, Moscow’s 24-hour propaganda

The conflict in Crimea will be the downfall of Putin

Earlier this year, Owen Matthews discussed in the Spectator how the conflict in Crimea will be the making of Ukraine and the end of Vladimir Putin: David Cameron says that Russia’s annexation of Crimea ‘will not be recognised’. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk promises that ‘we will take our territory back’. They are both misguided. Let Crimea go: it will be the making of Ukraine and the end of Vladimir Putin. Without Crimea, there will never again be a pro-Moscow government in Kiev. Ukraine will have a chance to become a governable country — a strongly pro-European one with a Russian minority of around 15 per cent. Putin will have gained

Vladimir Putin knows what he stands for. Do we?

Possibly because his oratory is no match for his much-displayed pectoral muscles, the speeches of Vladimir Putin are seldom reported at length in the West. But as a means of understanding the manoeuvres in eastern Ukraine this week, there is no better starting point than the speech he made to the Duma when the Russian parliament annexed Crimea. Lest anyone thinks his words have been enriched by an over-imaginative reporter, the translation is provided by the Kremlin itself. Speaking of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, he asserted, ‘Russia realised that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered… Millions of people went to bed in one country

Crimean notebook: ‘They’ll have to break all my bones to make me a Russian citizen’

Vladimir Putin still swears that there are no Russian troops in Crimea, so their mission is to say as little as possible as they invade this holiday region in their unmarked uniforms and vehicles. It is remarkable how soon you get used to shouting questions at these heavily armed special forces soldiers while they pretend not to be Russians. They tend not to take the bait: the most you’ll get out of them is a curt ‘Nyet’. I wandered up to an officer who seemed to be in charge of seizing a Ukrainian naval base in the old Tartar capital of Bakhchisaray. He wore all black, his face hidden by

Vladimir Putin’s new plan for world domination

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Anne Applebaum and Matthew Parris discuss how far we should let Putin go”] Listen [/audioplayer]It’s been a generation or so since Russians were in the business of shaping the destiny of the world, and most of us have forgotten how good they used to be at it. For much of the last century Moscow fuelled — and often won — the West’s ideological and culture wars. In the 1930s, brilliant operatives like Willi Muenzenberg convinced ‘useful idiots’ to join anti-fascist organisations that were in reality fronts for the Soviet-backed Communist International. Even in the twilight years of the Soviet Union the KGB was highly successful at orchestrating nuclear

Secrets of the Kremlin

A building bearing testimony to the power of eternal Russia; a timeless symbol of the Russian state; a monument to Russian sovereignty. To the modern eye, the Kremlin fortress seems as if it had always been there, as if it had never changed and never will. All of which is utter nonsense, as Catherine Merridale’s fascinating history reveals: the story of this famous compound is not one of continuity, but of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Every reincarnation of the Russian state over the centuries — and there have been many — has been accompanied by a corresponding reincarnation of the Kremlin. Its history is thus a metaphorical history of Russia,